Happy New Year!

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

No, I am not calendar-challenged; this Friday marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year holiday, which starts with Rosh Hashanah, and ends the following week with Yom Kippur. 

On the lunar-based Jewish calendar this year will be 5770, and yes, I agree, time flies: seems like it was just 5760.

Here’s the “Emily Post”: Yes, by all means wish your Jewish friends a Happy New Year, but do not say, “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is all about fasting to atone for your sins, and mourning those we’ve lost. Stick with, “Happy New Year” and you’re covered.

In spite of the fact that the holiday includes a day of fasting, as with any big holiday there is also a big meal. My baby niece (that’s what I call her in spite of the fact that she is a college graduate) is the event planner. I have been tasked with providing desserts. Baby Niece (or “BN” as she will heretofore be known) assigned me this task as much for my skills in the kitchen as for the fact that we are simpatico when it comes to our choice of which desserts should be served on any given holiday.

The tradition of desserts on this holiday is not a particularly rich one. Traditional Jewish New Year desserts include apples dipped in honey (a symbolic gesture of hope for a sweet new year,) Honey Cake, Sponge Cake, and Taiglach, which could be wonderful, but ends up being soup nuts coated with “honey” (I use that term loosely), and tossed with chopped almonds and a few confused-looking maraschino cherries. This is usually sold in a disposable aluminum pie tin.

Maraschino cherries in a disposable pie tin. Tempting. If you’re a smelter with a sweet tooth.

Jewish food is basically a reflection of the various places we have lived; for some this means a largely Eastern European influence, and for others a largely North African and Southern European influence.

As I am several generations removed from the Eastern European experience, I think it is time to reflect (and celebrate) the rich traditions of the place where I grew up.

Welcome to “Extreme Makeover: Jewish New Year Desserts” edition.

The sponge cake is the first to be shown the door. The role has been recast with Lemon Yogurt cake, a simple recipe from Ina Garten, a/k/a the Barefoot Contessa, which has a fizzy lemon intensity that belies its humble name. (My family and I do not observe kosher laws, so we can have a cake made with yogurt, a dairy product, in the same meal as meat.)

I have a few ideas for the Taiglach, but they’ll need some work in the lab before I can use them, so I’m moving on, for now, to the honey cake, which is joining its sponge cake buddy in blessed retirement.  Perhaps they’ll drop us a note now and then.

BN and my mom have been tempted of late by pumpkin which I think fits the harvest celebration aspect of the New Year beautifully.  But flabby, over spiced pumpkin loaf recipes abound, and frankly, with the homey simplicity of the Lemon Yogurt cake something equally rustic, but slightly more stylish is needed. There’s also the fact that I learned my lesson about over spicing pumpkin several Thanksgivings ago when my mom, between shovelfuls of my Pumpkin Pie paused long enough only to breathe and say, “Delicious! But I can’t taste the pumpkin.”

So, a light hand with the spice. The earthy intensity would come from the use of brown sugar and maple syrup which would sweeten the cake, and reflect my New England background. A few wisps of orange zest would supercharge the pumpkin flavor. With a nod towards the apples and honey tradition, there would need to be apples in the cake, but more fun I thought, if the apples could be sliced and end up on top of the cake. The goal is like the lovechild of a cake and a clafouti.

Then I had second thoughts.  It sounded good, but the lily needed a bit of gilding: the cake still seemed a bit plain, and I like things to have a bit of crunch, which, unless I was clumsy with an eggshell, is not something for which cake is usually known.

Hmmm…my mind lingered for a moment on the almonds and honey in the Taiglach. What if the honey and almonds could somehow be a source of crunch on the cake? This is frequently done using crushed praline, which is simply sugar cooked with nuts, then allowed to harden, and crushed into a powder. Why not do the same thing with honey and almonds?

The story, I’m happy to report, has a happy ending. A trial run revealed the need for a few adjustments: a bit less orange zest here, a slightly greener apple there, and the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour to dry the crumb a bit. But all in all, a wonderful makeover for that tired old honey cake.

The cake, once cooled, was first dusted with confectioner’s sugar, then with the honey praline. The apples were cooked on the bottom of the pan so they would be on top when the cake was turned out of the pan. Combined with the confectioner’s sugar they formed a thin, almost “jammy” layer. The pumpkin cake retained the buttery brightness of the pumpkin and orange zest, but revealed the smoky sweetness of the maple syrup. The praline was the best surprise of all, starting and ending each bite with a toasty, honeyed crackle that said, “Happy New Year!”

And the good news is that the cake is perfect for any occasion during fall and autumn, from a gathering as big as Thanksgiving, to one as intimate as coffee with a chum.

Click here for my recipe, and “L’shana Tova!”

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