Tips for building on tradition and making the holiday meal more seasonal.

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leah koenig cooking with basting brush
Credit: Courtesy of Leah Koenig

As Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the Jewish High Holidays approaches, we're reminded of all of the customs and traditions that come along with it. Eating apples and honey, round challah with raisins, pomegranate, new fruits, brisket, tzimmes—and that's just the food. There's also blowing and hearing the shofar (ram's horn), special prayers, and asking for forgiveness. And while tradition is important, it's also reasonable to want to build on tradition and modernize the customs and make them your own. "I think people often make a mistake with traditional cuisines and particularly with Jewish cuisine, that tradition is paramount and that these traditions have never changed," says Leah Koenig, author of multiple Jewish cookbooks, including Modern Jewish Cooking ($35, barnesandnoble.com) and The Jewish Cookbook ($49, barnesandnoble.com). "I always try to remind people that Jewish food is a living, breathing cuisine that changes all the time."

Koenig also mentions that Jews move to new places all the time, bringing their traditional dishes with them, and then tweaking to account for the local produce and ingredients, and learning new cooking methods along the way. She recommends choosing a few traditional dishes you can't imagine your holiday without, and then feel free to experiment. "Tradition is great, and it's a good way to connect to previous generations and to your family, but I think people can give themselves permission to free themselves from the shackles of having to do things exactly the way their parents or grandparents did them," she adds. "There's no point in making a brisket with soup mix because that's the way your mom made it unless you love it."

She also suggests thinking about what's in season in late summer and early fall, when Rosh Hashanah typically falls. "There's a reason why apples are eat on Rosh Hashanah—yes, it's because of the symbolism but also because apples are in season then," says Koenig. "Take that wisdom and think about what else is in season then, maybe late summer eggplants and tomatoes, or those last amazing plums you can find at the farmers' market."

So, what are some of Koenig's favorite ways to spice up and modernize traditional Jewish High Holiday foods? We chatted with her to find out.

Apples and Honey

Eating apples dipped in honey is a sweet tradition (pun intended) that signifies our wish for a sweet new year. And while it's delicious, there are myriad ways to build on this custom in creative and fun ways. Koenig suggests going apple picking before the holiday for an added element of fun and meaning. "The fruits that you will have are so much more meaningful, and they're probably going to be more delicious, and it's an activity you can do with family or friends," she says.

She also suggests jumping on the popular cheese board trend, and creating a beautiful apple and honey board. "Get a bunch of different types of apples that are different colors and have different types of honey from different flowers, honeycomb, maple syrup, date honey, etcetera, so people can do a mix-and-match or choose-your-own-adventure apples and honey." You can even add cheese or other items—have fun with it! Another idea? Super simple apple tarts in puff pastry, drizzled with honey.

Pomegranate

Eating a pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah has several different meanings relating to its seeds. It's said that a pomegranate has 613 seeds, which is the same amount of mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah. They also symbolize a wish for our year to be filled with as many merits and as much joy as there are seeds in a pomegranate. Although pomegranates are in season around Rosh Hashanah in Israel, in the U.S. they're not really ripe yet—what's more, they're typically very expensive at this time of year. Koenig suggests incorporating pomegranate in other ways.

"You can make a pomegranate molasses chicken, or in my cookbook Modern Jewish Cooking I have pomegranate molasses meatballs that are like sweet and sour meatball but with pomegranate molasses, and they're so delish, and you can you can garnish with fresh arils if you want," says Koenig. "Or for dessert you can make a malabi pudding with a reduced pomegranate syrup on top, instead of the typical raspberry."

Or you can substitute another, more in-season fruit that has a lot of seeds. Koenig recommends fresh figs, which is also a traditional Jewish fruit that, along with pomegranates, is one of the Seven Species mentioned in the Torah that are native to the land of Israel (the other five are wheat, barley, grapes, olives, and dates. "You can drizzle figs with honey, stuff them with goat cheese, make a crostata, or just eat them plain," says Koenig.

Round Raisin Challah

An easy twist on the traditional round raisin challah bread, is to add other seasonal and traditional fruits in addition or instead of the raisins, like apples or figs.

Sephardic Seder

If you're an Ashkenazi Jew, you might not know about the custom that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have for a Rosh Hashanah Seder. It includes special prayers and poems for seven different foods, each of which symbolize different wishes for the new year, many of which are based on puns of the Hebrew names of the item. The items include dates, pomegranate, apple, green beans or black eyes peas, pumpkin or gourd, beets or beet leaves, leeks or scallions, and a sheep head or fish head.

If you've never done a Rosh Hashanah Seder before, consider adding one to your tradition to experience a different side of Jewish customs. You can do the traditional Sephardic version, or Koenig suggests making it your own by coming up with your own versions of puns on other ingredient names in Hebrew or English that translate to your wishes for the new year.

"One of the of exciting things that I see happening in the Jewish world in general is there being some cross-cultural stuff going on where Ashkenazi families are incorporating Sephardic traditions, or vice versa," says Koenig. "I'm all for that like I feel like without losing connection to where these traditions originally come from, it is really nice to say, 'Hey, this cuisine and this culture and this religion is so much broader and more diverse than maybe I knew growing up.' And incorporating the Sephardic Seder is a really good example of that."

Brisket

While this tradition is not related to anything in the Torah or Talmud, eating brisket is an important custom for many Jewish families on Rosh Hashanah. But what if you're vegetarian, pescatarian, or just want a change? Koenig suggests considering a main dish that incorporates some of the other foods mentioned above, like pomegranate chicken or Fesenjan, which is a chicken stew from Iran, made with pomegranate and walnuts and served over rice. "Chraime is a North African fish dish that is served on Rosh Hashanah. It's usually a first course dish but it could certainly be a main dish if you're wanting to do a meat-free Rosh Hashanah," says Koenig. "Another Sephardic-inspired vegetarian dish is the seven vegetable tagine from Morocco, and each of the vegetables (plus chickpeas) is symbolic."

If you do want a brisket, Koenig recommends cooking it low and slow to keep it moist. And instead of your go-to seasoning, she suggests trying red wine and shallots or brown sugar and balsamic vinegar.

Dessert

Traditional High Holiday desserts usually incorporate honey or apples, and the most popular are honey cake or apple cake. But often, traditional honey cake can be overly sweet, dry, and one-note. If you're looking for a twist on an apple cake, Koenig has an excellent apple upside down cake recipe in Modern Jewish Cookbook, which features caramelized the apples on the bottom, although she loves a traditional Eastern European apple cake, which she says is moist and delicious.

"In my book Little Book of Jewish Sweets ($18.95, barnesandnoble.com), I have a recipe for an apple honey cake, because honey cake can get a bit dry and sometimes lacking in the tender crumb situation, so if you add apples to your honey cake batter base, and then construct it like an apple cake, you get the best of both worlds," she says. If you're willing to forgo honey cake altogether, she suggests honey shortbread cookies, honey créme brûlée, or bringing honey into any number of other desserts.

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