A feast for the Torah

From Ashkenazi kugels to Sephardi burekas, Jews prepare festive meals particular to their cultures.

Blintzes 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Blintzes 311
(photo credit: MCT)
When I was growing up, our Simhat Torah meals resembled those of Shabbat. The main meal of the holiday followed what Zipporah Kreizman, author of Aromas of Shabbat and the Holidays (in Hebrew), described as the usual pattern of festive meals – “a fish for a first course, steaming-hot soup, a meat main course, side dishes and dessert.”
So I found it interesting that some families consider stuffed cabbage an important Simhat Torah specialty. Although my mother did occasionally serve stuffed cabbage on Simhat Torah, we didn’t associate it specifically with the holiday.
“During the daytime feast,” wrote Kreizman, “there is no Hungarian household without stuffed cabbage on the table; delicate, narrow leaves on a rich bed of chopped tart cabbage.”
Kreizman added that on the plate alongside the cabbage there are slices of tongue, beef or rolled stuffed meat.
Some say there is a symbolic reason for serving stuffed cabbage leaves – their shape recalls a Torah scroll.
The Simhat Torah meals I’ve had at synagogues were sometimes prepared by the synagogue’s cook or by a caterer but I like the potluck meals cooked by the families the best. Most of these holiday buffets are what I consider party food. In addition to the popular Israeli spreads and salads like humous, eggplant and tehina and American favorites like egg salad and tuna salad, the other items served vary greatly.
Among the Simhat Torah synagogue foods that stand out the most in my memory are the kugels that were served several years ago at an Ashkenazi shul. There were three kinds – a potato kugel, a savory noodle kugel seasoned with salt and pepper and a sweet noodle kugel. They accompanied roast chicken drumsticks, coleslaw and Israeli salad, which added up to a pleasing lunch to sustain those who prayed and recited from the Torah during much of the day and expended a lot of energy dancing and merrymaking.
At a Yemenite synagogue following a Simhat Torah evening service, I enjoyed a meatless buffet that included potato and cheese burekas and a fresh green salad enhanced with cashews, almonds and a sweet dressing. I prepared a cumin-spiced eggplant and tomato stew and served it over a yellow rice pilaf with chickpeas.
My friend Bruria Hadad made tasty puff pastry roll-ups with a filling of halva, jam and walnuts.
The next year at the same synagogue the Simhat Torah meal was a feast for lovers of traditional Yemenite breads and pastries. There was a fine array – malawah (rich, layered flatbread), jahnun (baked layered scroll-shaped pastries) and a sweet steamed bread called kubaneh, served warm. Yeast-leavened pancakes called lahuh were served with homemade s’hug (hot pepper garlic relish), hilbeh (fenugreek dip) tinted green from fresh coriander and homemade matbuha salad of cooked peppers and tomatoes. For dessert there were crisp apples, sweet grapes and honey cake.
Cabbage for Simhat Torah is not necessarily stuffed. Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Holiday Kitchen, makes it into strudel flavored with caraway seeds. Kreizman recommends blintzes filled with mushrooms or potatoes. She notes that a popular custom is to make preserves from seasonal fruit, including etrog jam, and to use them to enhance baked goods.
Candies also play a part in the holiday celebrations. Some make honey-coated sweets like teiglach or bake pastries with sweets like rahat lokum (Turkish delight) embedded in them – a Romanian custom, according to Gil Marks, author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
At certain synagogues people give the children fresh or candied apples or throw candies at them after they are called up to the Torah.
Apples, nuts and wine are time-honored ingredients that contribute a festive note to the Simhat Torah meals. When used together, whether in a noodle kugel, blintzes, pie or cake, the result is delicious.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.

Sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls with turkey stuffing
For many years my mother made stuffed cabbage the traditional way, with a filling of beef and rice. Because nutrition was important to her, she started using ground turkey in the stuffing more and more often. These cabbage rolls cook in a sauce of chicken broth, sauteed onion and tomato paste, flavored with raisins and lemon juice.
Makes 6 servings.
a 1.4-kg (3-pound) head of cabbage, cored
1⁄2 cup long-grain rice
1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. ground paprika
225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) ground turkey
1⁄4 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. ground black pepper
1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper or paprika
1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon ground paprika
3 cups chicken broth, skimmed of fat
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1⁄3 cup raisins
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp. sugar salt and freshly ground pepper
Carefully remove 15 large outer cabbage leaves by cutting them from core of cabbage. Put leaves in a large pot of boiling water and boil for 5 minutes.
Transfer them carefully to a colander and rinse gently with cold water. Pat dry with a towel.
Coarsely chop remaining cabbage, add to boiling water, and boil for 2 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well.
For stuffing: Boil rice uncovered in a saucepan of 3 cups boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a bowl. In a nonstick skillet heat oil, add onion and cook over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add garlic and paprika and cook, stirring, 1 minute.
Transfer mixture to bowl of rice and let cool. Add turkey, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper.
Knead by hand to blend ingredients thoroughly.
For sauce: Heat oil in a large heavy casserole, add onion and cook over low heat, stirring often, 2 minutes. Add paprika and cook 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Trim thick ribs of each cabbage leaf slightly so leaf can be easily bent. Put 2 tablespoons stuffing on stem end of each leaf and fold stem end over it. Fold sides over stuffing to enclose it.
Beginning at stem end, roll up leaf to a neat package. If any leaves are torn, add a piece of another leaf, and use to make more cabbage rolls. Arrange cabbage rolls tightly, with seam end facing down, side by side in casserole. Chop any remaining leaves and add to casserole.
Add 2 3⁄4 cups broth to casserole.
Mix tomato paste with remaining broth and add to casserole. Bring to a simmer.
Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Add raisins, lemon juice and sugar and simmer for 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When serving, spoon a little sauce over cabbage rolls.
Apple Blintzes with walnuts and wine
Apples cooked with wine and sugar and combined with walnuts make a delicious filling for blintzes.
These blintzes, sprinkled lightly with cinnamon and sugar, are a lovely finale to the holiday dinner.
You can make the filling 1 or 2 days ahead and keep it in a covered container in the refrigerator.
Makes 6 servings.
Apple filling: 900 gr. (2 pounds) apples, sweet or tart 2 to 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine, or 2 to 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil (for sauteing apples) 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup dry or sweet wine, white or red 1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon 6 to 8 Tbsp. sugar, according to sweetness of apples and wine 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup chopped walnuts
12 blintzes3 to 4 Tbsp. butter or margarine (for frying or baking) 2 to 3 Tbsp. finely chopped walnuts (optional, for sprinkling) 1 tsp. cinnamon mixed with 1 tablespoon sugar (for sprinkling)
For filling: Peel and halve apples. Core them and cut them in thin slices. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet or saute pan. Add half the apples and saute over medium-high heat, turning pieces over from time to time, for 2 minutes. Remove to a plate. Heat remaining butter in pan and saute remaining apples.
Combine all apples in the pan. Add wine, cinnamon and 6 tablespoons sugar and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until apples are just tender. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring often, until mixture is thick and most of liquid evaporates. Remove from heat. Taste and add more sugar or cinnamon if necessary; heat, tossing apples gently, just until sugar dissolves.
Stir in chopped walnuts Spoon 2 to 21⁄2 tablespoons filling onto brown side of each blintz along one edge.
Fold over edges of blintz to right and left of filling over so that each covers about half of filling; roll up, beginning at edge with filling.
Blintzes can be baked or fried. To bake them, preheat oven to 220ºC (425ºF).
Arrange blintzes in one layer in a greased shallow baking dish. Dot each blintz with small pieces of butter. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until heated through and lightly browned.
To fry blintzes, heat butter in a skillet, add blintzes open end down, and fry over low heat 3 to 5 minutes on each side; be careful not to let them burn.
Sprinkle blintzes with walnuts and cinnamon-sugar before serving. Serve hot.
Carrot-apple kugel
This colorful, loaf-shaped kugel is adapted from The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook edited by Joan Schwartz Michel. The kugel can be baked in a moderate oven, or can be baked overnight at a very low temperature for Shabbat.
Some cooks use little or no sugar in a kugel like this in order to serve it as a side dish; others sweeten their kugel generously and serve it for dessert. You can taste the mixture before adding the eggs and adjust the sweetness to your taste.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
8 carrots, peeled and grated
3 apples, peeled, cored and grated
1 cup dried cherries
1⁄2 cup pistachio nuts
1 cup matza cake meal or regular matza meal
1⁄2 cup oil 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 tsp. grated orange zest
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger
1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice
2 Tbsp. to 3⁄4 cup sugar, according to sweetness desired
4 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF) to bake the kugel the conventional way, or to 205ºC (400ºF) for the first step before baking it overnight. Grease two 20- x 10-cm. (8- x 4-inch) loaf pans.
Combine carrots, apples, cherries and pistachios in a bowl. Add matza meal, oil, lemon juice, orange zest, cinnamon, salt, ginger, allspice and 2 tablespoons sugar.
Taste, and add more sugar if you like. Add beaten eggs and mix well. Divide mixture evenly between the pans.
Cover tightly with foil.
To bake the kugel conventionally, bake it at 180ºC (350ºF) for 1 to 11⁄2 hours or until firm.
To bake kugel overnight, bake it at 205ºC (400ºF) for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to lowest temperature and bake kugel overnight.