I grew up in a family that never seemed to do anything right. Our approach to Yom Kippur, for example, was mixed: My father and I observed it; my mother and brother did not. Returning from synagogue at the end of the day, Dad and I were starving, so we grabbed a couple of slices of challah and spread chopped liver on top. Without ceremony, we leaned over a kitchen counter inhaling this snack.
Although the experience was a bonding one, by high school I realized that something was wrong with this picture, that something made me feel uncomfortable. Standing on linoleum, I'd pivot on one of my high heels and contemplate what routine other families followed when they came home from synagogue. How and when did they resume eating?
Years later, when I married into a family more cohesive and observant than my own, I expected the white picket fence of break fasts, yet I didn't have a clear idea of what that was.
On the first Yom Kippur after our wedding, my husband, David, and I broke the fast at his sister and brother-in-law's house. Within seconds of our arrival, Scotch and bourbon bottles were cracked open.
"What's happening?" I whispered to David, as his sister quickly put out nuts, crackers and an assortment of hot and cold dips.
"We always break the fast with cocktails."
"Cocktails?" I asked.
David poured club soda into a glass of Jack Daniels and ice.
"It's a custom my father started when we were children, and we've continued it since his death," he said. "He took Yom Kippur very seriously, but once the holiday was over, he liked to have a drink. Can I get you something?"
"On an empty stomach?"
David suggested I try white wine: "If hard liquor is too strong, then have a glass of Chardonnay."
"Okay," I said. "But pass me the cashews first."
Surprisingly, the wine went down smoothly and didn't go to my head. Although this scene is not what I'd imagined as a teenager, there was a lot of warmth among the 10 of us gathered around the coffee table. Before long, we helped my sister-in-law take piping hot noodle kugel from the oven and line platters with vegetables and smoked fish.
Since then, I've noticed that when it comes to the moment the Yom Kippur fast is actually broken, no two families do it in the same way. That is not to say that different families' break fast meals do not share common themes. Among Ashkenazi Jews, bagels and lox rule. And, of course, there's the usual whitefish, sable, herring and sliced tomatoes.
The issue, then, is not the main course, but rather what is the first thing people consume when they arrive home from synagogue? We're talking about the snacking that goes on before dinner is served.
After observing people in action and listening to their stories, I find many families have developed informal rituals, and the mini-meals they consume fall into one of several categories.
Cocktail Hour: My in-laws are not the only family to break the fast with liquid refreshments. As a matter of fact, it was customary among Eastern and Central European Jews to get their digestive juices going again by sipping brandy or schnapps.
An executive at Reuters in Manhattan claims that as soon as her family comes home from services, they pour brandy into snifters. Drinking slowly, they also nibble slices of challah. After that, they do not partake in an elaborate meal, but rather eat bowls of chicken soup.
Snap Back with Sweets: Many synagogues serve honey cake to congregants once Yom Kippur services conclude. At home, some families gather in their living rooms to dip apples in honey. This not only brings the cycle started at Rosh Hashanah full circle, but a bit of sweetness gives people a burst of energy, sorely needed after abstaining from food and drink for 24 hours.
A Brandeis University administrator claims that no matter how hungry her family gets, they wouldn't dream of leaving synagogue until the very end. Because they are a 15-minute drive from home, they eat apples in the car to tide themselves over until dinner.
Starting Over: There are some people who think that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and must not be skipped -- no matter what. For decades, a Stockbridge, Mass., grandmother has brewed a pot of coffee for friends and family returning from synagogue.
"Nothing cures caffeine-withdrawal headaches like steaming hot coffee," she said, explaining how she sets up a mini buffet of orange juice, muffins, danish and challah drizzled with honey. She encourages guests to take some breakfast foods before sitting down to a more substantial meal.
Other families prefer to drink tea with their pastries, perhaps because it is soothing and easier to digest than coffee. While the caffeine content varies depending on the variety of tea and the length of time it is steeped, there is enough stimulant in tea to revive people without the sudden jolt of nerves that can accompany a cup of coffee. For these reasons, it's a gentler way to resume eating and drinking.
Noshers: Although some families do not have an official premeal menu, they have fun nibbling in the kitchen. At no other time are people quite as helpful as when those deli packages of smoked fish are opened. Volunteers often sample a little bit of this and that, while rapidly slicing bagels and piling delicacies on platters.
The aroma of yeasty breads and pungent fish fills the air. Guests and children mill about, slipping a scrap or two into their mouths, waiting. A Manhattan hostess often finds herself yelling: "Stop eating -- there'll be nothing left for dinner."
It's not surprising that people are antsy after forgoing food for 24 hours. In many households, frenzy prevails. If your gatherings could benefit from a calming influence, perhaps this is the year to inaugurate a custom, bridging the gap between the time when your relatives and friends arrive at your home and the moment dinner is served -- one that compliments your family's lifestyle and brings closure to the most meaningful holiday of the year.
Hot Apple Tea
2 cups apple juice
4 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons honey
5 bags of orange pekoe and pekoe black tea, such as Lipton
1/2 of a Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored
In a medium-sized pot, place apple juice, water, cinnamon and honey. Cover and bring to a slow boil, stirring occasionally. Remove pot from flame. Add tea bags and cover pot. Steep for three minutes. Meanwhile, cut apple into very thin slices and place in teacups. (You'll have some apple leftover.) Pour Apple Tea into cups and serve immediately, either before dinner with light pastries or later with dessert. Apple slices will float to the surface and look attractive. Leftovers make great iced tea.
Makes eight cups of tea.
1 cup fresh blueberries
24 paper baking cups
2 muffin tins (12 muffins each)
2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup white sugar, plus 1 teaspoon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup 1 percent milk
2 tablespoons corn oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Rinse blueberries under water. Remove stems. Gently roll around on paper towels to dry. Move to a plate. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of white sugar and roll again, coating evenly. Reserve. Place 24 paper baking cups inside muffin tins. Coat each cup with no-stick spray. Preheat oven to 350F. Sift flour, baking powder, 1/2 cup white sugar, and brown sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add milk, oil, egg, vanilla, lemon juice, and almond extract. Mix well. Add cinnamon and nutmeg, mixing well. Add blueberries and gently mix into batter with a wooden or plastic spoon. Spoon batter into paper baking cups until they are half full. Bake for 15 minutes, or until muffins are firm to the touch and a cake tester or toothpick comes clean. Eat while warm or cool completely for future use. Store in a covered container at room temperature. Recipe can be frozen. Serve with tea either before the break fast dinner or as part of the main course.
Makes 24 muffins.
Hot Artichoke Dip
2 14-ounce cans of artichoke hearts, drained in a colander
1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1/2 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Garlic powder to taste
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Paprika for dusting
Preheat oven to F. One at a time, place each artichoke heart in palm and squeeze excess liquid from them. With fingers, pull bottom part from leaves and separate them. You'll see what looks like hairs attached to the bottom. With fingers, pull off hairs and discard. With fingers, separate artichoke leaves and place them in a large bowl. Add sour cream, mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, and garlic powder. With a spoon, mix well. With no-stick spray, coat either two two-cup ramekins (for hors d'oeuvres) or a four-quart casserole (as a side dish). Spoon artichoke mixture inside and smooth until even with a spoon. Sprinkle sesame seeds and paprika on top. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until casserole bubbles and top lightly browns. Serve immediately.
In ramekins as hors d'oeuvres serves 10-12. In casserole as a side dish, serves six.
Apple Crumb Coffee Cake
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, well-beaten
1 tablespoon sour cream
2 cups flour
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and sliced thin
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup blanched almonds, coarsely ground
6 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350F. Coat a seven-by-11-inch glass baking pan with no-stick spray. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and sour cream, beating well. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium-sized bowl. Pour milk, lemon juice, and vanilla into a pitcher. Add flour mixture alternately with milk mixture, beating well between each addition. Batter will be stiff. Spread batter into prepared baking pan. Cover with sliced apples. Place topping ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Mix them together with your hands until small lumps form and ingredients are well-incorporated. Sprinkle topping over apples. Bake for 30 minutes, or until topping lightly browns and cake tester inserted in center comes clean. Cool to room temperature. Cover loosely with waxed paper and serve the next day.
Makes 18 squares.