Honeycake and challah for the holidays

by Tara Kimura, CBCNews.ca

For many years, I had the good fortune to share honeycake and challah with friends at Rosh Hashanah thanks to a generous colleague who brought in the holiday treats every year. Honeycake is earthy and spicy, stripped of sugary icing, while challah is sunshine-gold, chewy and sweet.

Marcy Goldman, a Montreal-based cookbook author and baker, joins us on Food Bytes for a Q&A about Rosh Hashanah fare. Goldman discusses why the healthy movement has taken over this Jewish holiday, and offers some thoughts about how fresh-baked goods can warm a troubled soul in tough economic times.

Marcy Goldman has written three cookbooks - A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, The Best of BetterBaking.com, and A Passion for Baking.

Q — How will you celebrate the holiday?

MG — Like most people — with family, friends and food. Surprisingly, for someone in food, I do a simple menu - tried and true things, but with something new (just to nudge tradition forward a bit). I also take a walk around a lake near our home — with my three sons — and do tashlik, the ceremony or tradition of tossing bits of paper into the water and letting bygones or whatever 'ails the spirit' go on their way and start a new and fresh year.

Q — Can you talk a bit about the tradition and significance of honey, apples and challah as they pertain to Rosh Hashanah being a holiday marking introspection and spiritual renewal?

MG — The honey is for sweetness and it is as ancient as the bible or older. No one could disagree it makes for delectable, unique baking as well. It is the core ingredient in honeycakes — which I think were German to begin with — and whereas honeycake is symbolic or traditional, I personally was never fond of them (they were often dry and too spicy) until I made my own version. (The Moist Majestic Honey Cake, now free on my site and over at Epicurious).

Apples — I am not sure when and where they became part of the sweetness symbolism. Certainly, being widely available in autumn, and apples are long a part of Euro-Judaic baking in general — apples, with honey — have morphed into our new year's traditions. It helps they are harvested in fall when the holiday occurs.

Challah is, except for passover, always traditional (for the sabbath, births, weddings, bar mivtavhs), but at Rosh Hashanah ... it is round and called a Feigel (bird) ... and roundness is for the continuity of life. It is also sweeter (can feature raisins), again for a new sweet year.

Q — The holiday occurs at the same time as the fall harvest. Given the differences in crops, do different countries celebrate the Rosh Hashanah with different foods?

MG — Probably, but also East European traditions versus Sephardic Jewish traditions can offer distinctly different approaches as per different culture and distillation — in food choices in how to celebrate. … Canada, much like east Europe, does have those apples and honey in fall, so it is not surprising Canadian families of those roots carry on the traditions of their great grandparents who brought those recipes with them.

Q — Have you noticed any changes in how the holiday foods have been prepared over the years? For example, is there a push to use whole wheat for a healthier cake or bread?

MG — Not really. People often say they want 'new,' but at the last minute go with tradition. I do notice lots of gluten-allergy people, and for them, yes — they want gluten-free challah. In regular baking, yes, people are curious about spelt or whole wheat. But at the last minute, for the holidays, they don't want to futz with what works or compromise the great tastes they are used to. I notice people using more sundried strawberries or cherries, cranberries versus raisins.

Q — Last year, there was some suggestion that artisanal honey was becoming popular over clover honey. Have you noticed any growth in this area?

MG - Overall yes, but more so 'overall' in people are aware of artisanal things and the slow food movement. But no, in that if you are kosher, one might prefer kosher honey and I don't yet know of any kosher/artisinal honey producer. There is a kosher maple syrup fellow I once knew in Vermont. But kosher or not, you can go through so much honey at New Year's — people tend to buy a big bucket at their local outdoor markets. For myself, I do prefer artisanal or organic honey but more so for special sourdough bread baking where I want the starter to really be artisanal and flavorful.

Q — You allude in your newsletter to the turbulent economy and suggest this is even more of an incentive to do your own baking. What do you mean by this?

Having been through other recessions and pinched economies, and even 9/11, I notice when things are turbulent (world events or unstable economy), we turn inwards. We return to what comforts and what is tried and true. It is grounding to bake and involve our hands in these efforts. It is a visceral response. I think that it also is nourishing, tastes better, and makes you a hero (wow - she can bake!).

Bread rising and baking or a honey cake cooling — that is timeless and true. It also is accessible — flour is not an extravagance, couple of eggs, etc. and you can bake up paradise versus squandering something or tanking up a Visa bill for something frivolous. I think we return to home and hearth, is all. I felt my newsletter was a way of sharing and giving (the free recipes) and another way to remind people there is not really scarcity around. Baking offers us a largesse of spirit — 'inside'.