September 21, 2010
Celebrate Sukkot with splendid autumn desserts
While most people equate Sukkot with autumn vegetables, I picture the holiday as a tea party. Among Jews who build sukkahs, the evening meal is the most popular time to gather inside these modern-day harvest huts.
Because temperatures often dip at night, I much prefer spending afternoon hours inside a sukkah with a favorite book. As sunlight dapples its pages, I enjoy nibbling cookies and sipping a cup of tea.
Held at the end of the growing season, Sukkot began in ancient Israel as a harvest festival. Just before the crops were gathered, Jews erected huts adjacent to the edges of their fields and lived inside them for a week. In Hebrew, one of these dwellings was called a sukkah, and sukkot evolved into the plural form of this word. Today, the holiday is observed for eight days.
Even in a world where food is gathered in supermarkets, many Jews still build sukkahs in their backyards or attach them to one side of their homes. Sometimes they share a communal sukkah constructed at their synagogues.
A contemporary sukkah is a quickly assembled shed made from wood or other materials. It has a lattice-work roof that supports greenery. This allows sunshine and moonlight to filter inside. Its walls are lined with dangling fall fruits and vegetables whose counterparts are cooked into recipes consumed during the holiday.
While people no longer live inside their sukkahs, it is customary, weather permitting, to eat as many meals as possible inside the huts.
Since the gap between lunch and dinner falls during the best part of an autumn day, I suggest throwing a Sunday afternoon tea party during Sukkot. It’s a convenient time for those who attend school or go to work. In many parts of the country, the temperature is likely to be more cooperative than at night.
My favorite part of social gatherings revolves around dessert. There’s nothing better than a generous portion of pastry, preferably homemade.
During my childhood, I not only loved sweets, but the gooier and more chocolate-laden the better. Over time I’ve gravitated to desserts typical of Sukkot celebrations — those composed of baked fruits.
Although flaky and delicious, Sukkot desserts usually don’t garner much attention. Perhaps that’s because they often overlap with the pastries that were served two weeks earlier on Rosh Hashanah. Apple cakes, apple pies and apple strudel are popular pastries at both holidays.
Sukkot desserts, however, are a distinct genre in Jewish cuisine. Traditional holiday sweets are made with fall fruits such as pears, plums and late-season berries.
Holiday pastries are studded as well with dried fruits, nuts and seasonal spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. Fruits that are abundant in seeds — notably pomegranates — also are popular in Sukkot baking. Their plentiful seeds symbolize fertility and hopes for a bountiful harvest.
Another group of dessert recipes popular at Sukkot are pastries that call for an etrog, a citrus fruit with a heady lemony scent. Known in English as a citron, an etrog is one of the four species that Jews wave in each of the four directions of the globe during Sukkot.
The other three species are contained in a lulav, which is made of three myrtle twigs, two willow twigs and a palm frond. Together, all four represent God’s dominion over Creation.
Observant Jews often go on a quest for the perfect etrog, one with unblemished skin and graceful proportions. In America, etrogs can be difficult to find, unless you scout for them in neighborhoods where observant Jews live or order them in advance from companies such as the Esrog Headquarters at (800) 550-7230.
Because of the etrog’s role in Sukkot ritual, Orthodox and Conservative Jews usually don’t cook with them until after Sukkot ends. While honoring the etrog, many traditional Sukkot pastry recipes call for lemon juice and zest.
As an outdoor hut, the sukkah inspires the most informal baked goods. Lemon bundt cakes, applesauce cakes, apple tortes, plum and raspberry crisps, pear and apple strudels, pumpkin breads, spice cakes, walnut squares and lemon pound cakes are popular Sukkot desserts.
I suggest serving these confections with coffee, tea, milk or club soda. But for a festive flair, I much prefer the garnet hue of mulled pomegranate juice.
What better way to celebrate Sukkot’s agrarian past than with a buffet of seasonal pastries beckoning under an open-air roof?
The following recipes were developed by Linda Morel.
APPLE PIEWITH FILO DOUGH CRUST
For those who are afraid to attempt pie crust dough, this pie’s flaky crust is easy to finesse.
4 baking apples, such as Gala, Pink Lady or Cortland
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 sheets packaged filo dough, defrosted
Peel and core apples, cut into wedges, then cut wedges into thin slices about 1/8 inch thick. Place slices into a large bowl and add the next seven ingredients. With a wooden spoon, gently stir apples until all ingredients are well incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve at room temperature.
In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter.
Grease a 10-inch deep-dish pie pan with a small amount of additional butter; set aside.
To assemble pie:
Place the sheets of defrosted filo dough on a 12-by-16-inch sheet of parchment paper, cover with plastic wrap, then cover the plastic wrap with a clean, damp kitchen towel.
Lift 1 sheet of filo dough and place it on a second 12-by-16-inch piece of parchment paper. Re-cover the stack of filo dough with the plastic wrap and towel each time you remove a sheet of dough.
Using a soft-bristled basting brush, spread some of the melted butter over the surface of the first sheet of filo dough. Using the instructions above, remove another sheet of filo dough and place it over the buttered filo dough. Brush the second sheet with butter. When you’ve piled up and buttered 4 pieces of filo dough, gently lift the pile off the parchment and place it inside the pie pan.
Because the filo dough will extend beyond the edge of the pie pan, drape it evenly on both sides. This first pile of filo dough will not cover the entire bottom of the pan.
Repeat this procedure, brushing with butter each time, until you’ve made a second pile of 4 sheets of filo dough. Lift this pile off the parchment paper and place it at right angles to the first pile of sheets inside the pie pan.
Repeat this procedure until you’ve made a third pile of 4 sheets of filo dough. Lift this pile off the parchment paper and place it on a diagonal to the other 2 piles of filo inside the pie pan. You will have covered the entire surface of the pie pan.
Spoon the apple mixture evenly inside the pie pan. Fold over onto the apples the filo dough that’s draped beyond the pie pan. (The folded dough will not cover the entire surface of the apples.) Brush the folded dough surface generously with melted butter.
Bake in preheated 350 F oven for 50 minutes or until filo dough is lightly browned and apples are cooked through. Cool slightly before slicing. Serve with vanilla ice cream, if desired.
Makes 8 servings.