By Linda Morel | JTA
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 for a week. In Hebrew, one of these dwellings was called a sukkah; sukkot, the plural, evolved into the name of the holiday, which is presently observed for seven 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. But over time I’ve gravitated to desserts typical of Sukkot celebrations — those composed of baked fruit.
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. (They can also be ordered in advance each year through any of several Orthodox shuls in Dallas.)
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 PIE WITH FILLO DOUGH CRUST – Dairy
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 tsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. flour
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
Dash of salt
Cut apples into wedges. Peel and core wedges. Cut wedges into thin slices, about 1/8 inch thick. Place slices into a large bowl and add the remaining filling ingredients. With a wooden spoon, gently stir apples until all ingredients are well incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve at room temperature.
2 (12 x 16-inch) pieces of parchment paper
1 (10-inch) deep-dish pie pan
1 soft-bristled basting brush
8 Tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more to grease the pan
12 pieces of fillo dough (use the packaged variety but, if frozen, defrost it first)
Optional accompaniment: vanilla ice cream
In a small saucepan on a low flame, melt 8 Tbsp. of butter. Using the additional butter, coat the pie pan and reserve.
Place the sheets of fillo dough on a piece of parchment paper. Cover them with plastic wrap. Then cover the plastic wrap with a clean, damp kitchen towel.
Lift 1 sheet of fillo dough and place it on the second piece of parchment paper. Cover the pile of fillo dough with the plastic wrap and towel each time you remove a sheet of dough.
Using the basting brush, spread butter over the surface of the first sheet of fillo dough. Using the instructions above, remove another sheet of fillo dough and place it over the buttered fillo dough. Brush the second sheet with butter. When you’ve piled up and buttered 4 pieces of fillo dough, gently lift the pile off the parchment and place it inside the pie pan. Because the fillo dough will extend beyond the edge of the pie pan, drape it evenly on both sides. This first pile of fillo dough will not cover the entire bottom of the pan.
Repeat this brushing with butter procedure until you’ve made a second pile of 4 sheets of fillo 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 brushing with butter procedure until you’ve made a third pile of 4 sheets of fillo dough. Lift this pile off the parchment paper and place it on a diagonal to the other 2 piles of fillo inside the pie pan. You will have covered the entire surface of the pie pan.
Preheat oven to 350°. Spoon the apple mixture evenly inside the pie pan. Fold over the fillo dough that’s draped beyond the pie pan onto the apples. The folded dough will not cover the entire surface of the apples. Brush the folded dough surface generously with melted butter.
Place pie inside oven and bake for 50 minutes, or until fillo dough browns and apples are cooked through. Cool to warm before slicing pie. Serve with vanilla ice cream, if desired. Yield: 8 servings.
PEAR AND PLUM CRISP – Dairy or Parve
This seasonal dessert is a variation on the wildly popular apple crisp.
Nonstick vegetable spray
4 firm but ripe pears, such as Bosc
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
Dash of salt
Coat a 10-inch, deep-dish pie pan with nonstick spray. Cut pears into wedges. Skin and core the wedges.
Cut plums into wedges. Remove the skin and discard the pits. Cut pear and plum wedges into thin slices, about 1/8 inch thick. Place wedges in a large mixing bowl. Add remaining fruit ingredients to the pears and plums. Mix gently with a wooden spoon until well incorporated. Spoon fruit into prepared pie pan.
1/2 c. unsalted butter or margarine at room temperature
1 c. walnuts, chopped
1 c. dark brown sugar
3/4 c. flour
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Optional accompaniment: vanilla ice cream, or coconut or raspberry sorbet
Preheat oven to 350°. Place topping ingredients into a medium-sized bowl. With your hands, mix ingredients together until crumbly. Sprinkle on top of pears and plums.
Place pie pan inside oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until topping browns and fruit is heated through. Cool to warm.
Using a serving spoon, place spoonfuls of Pear and Plum Crisp on dessert plates, keeping topping in place. It’s impossible to cut into even pieces. Serve with ice cream or sorbet, if using. Yield: 8 servings.
QUARTER POUND LEMON CAKES – Dairy or Parve
Original recipes for pound cake called for a pound each of butter, flour and sugar, which is how this pastry acquired its name. This recipe is smaller in scale. An etrog can be used in place of lemon, if desired.
2 aluminum loaf pans (8 x 3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches)
Nonstick vegetable spray
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) sweet butter at room temperature (if using margarine, keep it refrigerated)
1/2 lb. sugar, about 1 c.
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. grated lemon peel, or more, if desired
1/4 tsp. lemon extract
1/2 lb. flour, about 1-1/4 c.
Preheat oven to 350°. Generously coat aluminum pans with nonstick spray.
Place butter (or margarine) in a large mixing bowl and beat it until it turns pale yellow and almost fluffy, about 2 minutes on an electric mixer’s high speed.
Add sugar a little at a time and beat until mixture appears even fluffier. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the lemon juice, lemon peel and lemon extract, mixing until well incorporated.
Mix in the flour a little at a time, scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl a couple of times. Beat until well incorporated.
Pour half of the batter into each prepared pan. Place them inside the oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until tops of cakes are light brown and a tester inserted into the middle of each cake comes out clean. Cool to warm and slice or serve at room temperature. Cake freezes well. Yield: about 10 slices.
MULLED POMEGRANATE JUICE – Parve
Representing an abundant harvest, the seeds of pomegranates are difficult to handle. This recipe is an easy way to incorporate this festive fruit into Sukkot celebrations.
12 c. pomegranate juice (found at most supermarkets)
12 cinnamon sticks
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
4 Tbsp. sugar
Place the ingredients into a medium-sized saucepan. Cover the pan and simmer on a low flame for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove cinnamon sticks with a slotted spoon and place on a plate. Pour mulled juice into teacups, preferably glass to show off the pomegranate’s glorious color. Place a cinnamon stick into each cup and serve immediately.
To serve in a sukkah, carefully pour the mulled juice into 2 thermoses to keep the juice warm. Don’t forget to bring the cinnamon sticks with you. Yield: 12 servings.