The High Holy Days give us a chance to reconnect with ingredients that are in season in our region and infuse further meaning into our celebrations and everyday life.
New Year’s toasts
More than any other Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah is all about making toasts. The Talmud lists five foods that are considered especially auspicious to eat on the New Year. Jewish communities have added several more, as well as requests to God to imbue traits embedded in the foods’ names and/or appearance for the year ahead, each eaten after a supplication beginning with “Yehi ratzon” (may it be God’s will).
Sounds like a toast to me!
The symbolic five foods – named in Aramaic as kra, rubiya, karti, silka, and tamri – are turned into a variety of dishes, based on the flavors at hand in any given Jewish community. The exact identity of the first four are up for debate to this day. Except for the last one, tamri, which is unequivocally understood as tamar (date) in Hebrew.
While all of these foods deserve to appear on your holiday table, two of them can also appear in your cocktail glasses, along with a few other auspicious ingredients.
Apples and honey
While not mentioned in the Talmud, eating apple slices dipped into honey is perhaps the most widespread of these auspicious food traditions. Originating in medieval France, it spread in popularity throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, with its corresponding “toast” referring to having a good and sweet New Year.
There are many ways to combine apples and honey in your glass, not least because both appear in a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Mead is one of the earliest fermented beverages attested to in recorded history. It is made by fermenting honey and water with optional flavoring herbs and spices. It is often difficult to find in large batches for distribution.
Jullius Distillery in Kibbutz Hanita makes a seasonal run of mead, as well as krupnik, a stronger spirit from Eastern Europe made by combining a neutral alcohol with honey and natural flavorings.
Apples make an appearance in spirits like Calvados, apple brandy from northern France, owing to the high sugar content needed for fermentation and distillation. In recent years, Pelter Winery has started its own distillery, offering apple brandy, as well as a gin made from Pink Lady apples, whose sweetness is welcomed by those who dislike drier gins.
For a take on apples and honey as a beverage, try this crowd-pleasing punch that accommodates both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinkers.
Spiced Cider Punch
- 1 liter 100% fresh apple cider, such as Keshet
- ½-1 liter ginger ale, such as Schweppes or Fever Tree (try to use a sugar-based version)
- ½-1 cup Spiced Honey Syrup ((see recipe below)
- Bourbon (optional)
- Lowball glasses
- Spiced Honey Syrup
- 1 cup honey
- 1 cup water
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 teabag of black or Earl Grey tea
- Large pinch of ground fenugreek
- Large pinch (each) of spices to taste: Black peppercorns, allspice berries, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves
To make the syrup:
Place all the Spiced Honey Syrup ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, and quickly turn off the heat/ Let steep until the syrup comes to room temperature. Strain into a container, cover, and refrigerate until use. Will keep up to one week.
To serve the Cider Punch:
In a large punch bowl, combine cider with ½ cup honey syrup and stir, and then add ½ liter of ginger ale. Taste before adding more ginger ale and syrup as needed. Pour into lowball cups with ice, adding bourbon for those wanting an alcoholic drink, and stir.
Pumpkin and fenugreek
Believe it or not, the much-loved pumpkin spice is auspicious for the New Year!
One of the five foods named in the Talmud, kra is generally associated with squash and pumpkin – in particular by Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, who often turn it into a jam. In Israel, fresh pumpkin is available nearly year round, often sold as chunks from a larger white-skinned variety, and more recently as imported canned puree (due to the increasing demand by American immigrants with Thanksgiving plans and a hankering for pumpkin pie).
Another auspicious food, rubia has one of the most varied interpretations: from beans to fennel and sesame. Yemenite Jews follow Rashi’s interpretation and consider that it refers to fenugreek, an herb that regularly features in their dishes and is known as chilbeh. Combined with its use in folk remedies for improved virility and breastfeeding, this is the herb to use for a prosperous year ahead.
I often roast pumpkin with a variety of spices, including fenugreek, and serve it with a tehina sauce over couscous, but I challenged myself to turn these two auspicious ingredients into a drink that would surpass that other spiced pumpkin drink. Taking advantage of fenugreek’s tendency to taste like maple syrup and congeal, I think I’ve found the drink that proves we’ve been celebrating pumpkin spice season for centuries! Adapted from
Spiced Pumpkin Old Fashioned
Adapted from ACouple Cooks (www.acouplecooks.com)
- 60 ml. or 2 Tbsp. bourbon
- 30 ml. or 1 Tbsp. Spiced Honey Syrup (see recipe above)
- 30 ml. or 1 Tbsp. pumpkin puree
- Aromatic bitters, such as Angostura (optional)
- Ice, both small and large cubes
- Lowball glass
Combine ingredients and several small ice cubes in a cocktail shaker or jar with a lid. Shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Filter through a fine strainer into a lowball glass over a large ice cube.
Drinking before and after Yom Kippur
With all the planning around Yom Kippur, researching what is best to eat before and after fasting, how to avoid the dreaded caffeine withdrawal headache, and so on, we often forget to drink lots of water. However, water alone is not enough to ensure we have both the hydration and the electrolytes needed to stay healthy through the fast.
Enter the Iranian sharbat.
Of all the cultures in the Middle East, Iranian cuisine and those influenced by it claim the most diversity in original drinks. Sharbat is a class of drinks made by mixing dense, flavored syrups with water and ice, and comes in a variety of flavors.
One of the oldest and one of my favorites is sekanjabin. It is sweet and sour, and refreshing due to its use of mint. Sekanjabin can quench the thirst of drinkers and non-drinkers alike.
To make this recipe even more local, combine traditional mint with an indigenous herb that tastes like an intense version of mint, known in Hebrew as zuta levana. While it grows wild on my rooftop and is available in many plant nurseries, you can substitute dried zuta or just use fresh mint – the taste will be no less quenching.
Serve mixed with ice and cold water, and a cucumber garnish for the original non-alcoholic version (also served with grated cucumbers, and dipped into with lettuce leaves). I also love this as the basis of a localized Mint Julep, whose name originates in Iran, bringing this drink full circle to both its roots and contemporary cocktail culture. Adapted from
Adapted from Turmeric & Saffron (turmericsaffron.blogspot.com)
- 1 cup honey
- ¾ cup white or apple cider vinegar
- Handful of fresh mint
- A few branches of fresh or a pinch of dried zuta levana (optional)
- Diagonally sliced cucumbers and extra mint for garnish
- Rosewater (optional)
- Highball glass for the non-alcoholic version
- Highball or silver cup for the alcoholic version
For the sharbat:
Combine honey with 1 cup water in a saucepan and bring to a slow boil for 10-15 minutes, skimming off any foam. Add the vinegar and simmer for another 20-25 minutes, continually skimming off any foam. Add the mint and optional zuta levana, and keep simmering for a total of 30 minutes. Remove from heat, discard herbs, and let come to room temperature before refrigerating.
Add a slice or two of cucumber to the bottom of a highball glass, add 60 ml. or 4 tablespoons of the sharbat, and a few drops of rosewater (optional). Top with ice and cold water, and stir well. Add more sharbat as desired.
To serve with alcohol:
Add a slice of cucumber and a few mint leaves with 60 ml. or 4 tablespoons of the sharbat in a glass or cup, and muddle. Fill the glass with cracked ice, 60 ml. or 4 tablespoons of bourbon or rye. Garnish with additional cucumber and mint.
A note on nostalgia
This is the time of year when nostalgia reigns as supreme as the regal allusions in the High Holy Day services. Such is the case with Manischewitz Concord Grape wine.
Manischewitz has sustained us for generations and still has a place at our tables. Rightfully so, as over the years it has made children eager to join in the ritual, as they hoped for a taste of that sweet and heady cordial. It has also kept briskets moist and sumptuous. The same familiar bottle appearing year after year connects us to those who’ve poured from it before and are no longer with us. It also represents resilience.
Manischewitz was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city important to the history of Jews in America and my own, where my maternal extended family has lived for five generations. Cincinnati was the original frontier town, emboldening its inhabitants to innovate in order to press westward, and as such attracted the more ingenious. Such was the case in 1888, when Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz invented the machine-baked-and-cut matzah, making Passover accessible to thousands of newly immigrated Jews. The same was true of Manischewitz Concord Grape wine, which addressed the need for sacramental wine within the realities of cost and sourcing. Indigenous grape varieties were mixed with sugar to lessen their natural bitter taste, also making the wine more shelf-stable. Having sacramental wine is so intrinsic to Jewish practice that this label has survived modern production techniques and streamlined distribution methods.
With such innovation in our memory, we can look farther afield to Israeli wines, with viniculture returning to its ancient origins (and even indigenous varieties) and other kosher wines from around the world, which can also turn any Kiddush and dish into something as meaningful as our cherished memories.
And, it goes without saying, so too can original and reimagined cocktails from our region.
Originally from Washington, DC, and now residing in Tel Aviv, the writer is a self-taught mixologist and founder of Sheik It Up, an edutainment initiative to promote a better understanding of Israel and the Middle East. He is also the founder of Hayyati, a cross-cultural communications consultancy for small businesses, and the civic initiative The Here & There Club. firstname.lastname@example.org