This year, Gelia Hocherman is keeping it low-key. Marking Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, next Thursday) – would usually entail rather more effort from the author of Kosher Modern. "We're having a smaller celebration than usual," she explains. "There will be around 20 people."
In the Hocherman family, 20 guests passes as modest. As does this year's "low-key" menu: chicken soup with kreplach, a kind of wonton-shaped dumpling; three types of challah bread – classic, chocolate, and pershwari; gefilte fish, a dish of minced fish with spice; a rib roast, puréed parsnips, broccoli soufflé, a ratatouille hash, roast butternut squash, almond crescents, mixed berries, and a selection of cakes (plum, apple and chocolate). Oh – and the traditional apples and honey, intended to symbolise a sweet new year. Usually, Hocherman assures me, there would be rather more than this.
"Feasting is a big part of Jewish culture," she explains. "There are many reasons why, but one aspect is the history of poverty experienced by Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe. The idea of plenty is taken to an extreme; there's a feeling that, if it's a feast, it should be a feast. For Passover, I will have 20 different desserts. It is literally a Viennese table."
Such communality is a defining feature of Jewish cuisine. Homely, hearty, intended to be shared: there is a reason Jewish food is so widely imitated. From the legendary bagel shops of London's Brick Lane, where hungry clubbers congregate to feast on salt beef or hefty slices of cheesecake, to the ubiquitous New York delis doling out pastrami on double-baked rye, Jewish food is beloved of Jews and gentiles alike. So much so that serial restaurateur Russell Norman – he of the hugely popular Polpo and Spuntino, among others – has just announced he is to open a "Jewish deli", Mishkin. With its steaming pots and hefty sandwiches, Jewish food is the culinary equivalent of a nice warm hug.
The other constant, of course, lies in the rules and regulations outlined within Jewish law, or Halakha. For one thing, food should be kosher – quite literally, "fit to eat". "Anything can be 'Jewish food' provided that it complies with the rules of Kosher," explains Denise Phillips, author of New Flavours of the Jewish Table and founder of Denise's Kitchen, a cookery school for modern Jewish food. Kosher rules out eating meat from non-kosher animals (pork or shellfish, for instance), as well as meat from other animals that haven't been slaughtered in a kosher way. Dairy products mustn't be consumed alongside meat, and fish and meat can never be served on the same plate. Likewise the laws of the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, mean that many of the classics are dishes that can be cooked well in advance. "You can't light a fire over the Sabbath," explains Phillips. "So you make things which are often cooked for a long time. You prepare them in advance and then put them in the oven on the day."
Both Phillips and Hocherman pride themselves on using such rules to innovate: Hocherman's book contains recipes for kosher versions of prosciutto (using duck instead of pork), crab cakes (made with surimi crab sticks, made from white fish instead of real crab) and chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce, while Phillips's website demonstrates how to make beef croquettes, crispy noodle salad and lemongrass fishcakes. They make for a surprisingly varied read.
In fact, what we tend to think of as Jewish food – the chopped livers, the bagels, brisket, chicken soup and goulash is, in fact, just one type of Jewish food: that of the Ashkenazi communities, which originated in the German Rhineland and settled in Eastern Europe. With most of the UK's Jewish population originally hailing from the Ashkenazi community, and American-Jewish culture – which gave us the delis and bagel spots that have become so popular – being overwhelmingly Ashkenazi-influenced, it is these dishes that we tend to recognise. "When we have non-Jewish customers, they almost always go for the Ashkenazi classics – the chopped liver and the chicken soup," confirms Kenneth Arfin, of Bevis Marks, a fine-dining kosher restaurant in London's Square Mile. "Though we offer all sorts of food – our chef is even working on a duck cassoulet."
Look a little further, and there is much more to Jewish food than our Eurocentrism suggests. Few cultures could be more diverse – centuries of persecution have seen Jewish communities settle across the globe, from South Africa to Scotland, absorbing local influences as they go. "Jews have lived all over the world," says Hocherman. "Jewish cuisine is influenced by the culture it exists in – what we think of as Jewish food may be Eastern European, but there is the whole Middle Eastern element, too. You won't find brisket on Jewish tables in Morocco."
Phillips agrees. "Jewish food is the original fusion food. In Eastern Europe, it was about making a little go a long way, hence the borscht and chicken soup. But in North Africa, among the Sephardic communities, you see spices, herbs, lemon and turmeric."
It's this tradition that has informed much of the menu at Solly's, a popular kosher restaurant in Golders Green, where punters flock to take advantage of the spicy, garlicky fare on offer. Alongside the schnitzel and the chicken soup, they offer barbecue, schawarma, hummus and falafel. It's food from the childhood of Linda Sade, Solly's manager. "I grew up in Israel, which is a real melting pot," she explains. "Jewish food is homely food. People from all over the world live together, and contribute to the culture."
This Middle-Eastern cuisine is spicier, more rich in olive oil and garlic than its European cousin. Sade says: "It's about the mixture of hot and sweet. There's a lot of chilli, a lot of paprika, raisins and apricots." Growing up, the dish her family tended to mark the Shabbat with was cholent, a slow-cooked stew of white beans, meat, barley, spices and eggs. Put in the oven on a Friday, it would be left to cook overnight and then enjoyed by Sade's family the following day.
Like Hocherman, Sade is to host 20 guests for Rosh Hashanah. Among the other dishes, there will be plenty from her childhood: lamb with raisins and apricot, chicken with sweet potatoes, traditional honey cake. Sweetness is a recurring theme – like the apples and honey, it symbolises a sweet New Year.
Like communality and the principles of Halakha, symbolism is a big part of the Jewish dining table – particularly when it comes to Rosh Hashanah. "It is like the Chinese New Year in that respect," explains Phillips. "The pomegranate is eaten because of the number of seeds it contains: 613, the number of commandments in the Torah. We have fish because the head represents the head of the New Year and there's the hope that the New Year will be as plentiful as the fish in the sea. Even the carrots are symbolic: they are sliced like coins to indicate good fortune." It's a factor that only adds to the feast's appeal among gentiles – and it may also help secure you an invitation. "The more people you have for Rosh Hashannah, the better," says Sade. "It promises a happy new year."
'Kosher Modern' by Geila Hocherman is published by Kyle Books, £19.99
'New Flavours of the Jewish Table' by Denise Phillips is published by Ebury Press, £13.99
Gelia Hocherman's Classic Challah
2 and a quarter teaspoons active dried yeast
480-565g strong flower, as needed
1 tablespoon plus 70g sugar
1 and a half teaspoons kosher salt
3 medium eggs
120ml rapeseed oil
In a 250ml measuring jug, combine the yeast with 180ml of warm (about 40C) water and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Stir and leave to sit until about 2-3cm of foam has formed, about 10 minutes
Meanwhile, in a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the flat beater attachment, combine the 480g of flour, 70g sugar and salt and stir on a low speed. Make a well in the centre of the mixture.
In a small bowl, combine 2 of the eggs and the oil, mix and pour into the well. Expand the well, then pour in the yeast mixture. Mix briefly on low speed to combine. Remove the flat beater, insert the dough hook, sprinkle the mixture with 35g of flour, and knead on low speed for 1 minute. If the dough is still sticky, add more flour by 35g measures to achieve a soft, unsticky dough. Continue to knead for a total of 5 minutes. Alternatively, to form the dough by hand, put the dry ingredients in a large bowl, make a well in it, fill with the egg and yeast mixtures and, with clean hands, gradually incorporate the dry ingredients in a large bowl, make a well in it, fill with the egg and yeast mixtures and, with clean hands, gradually incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet until thoroughly combined. Add 35g more flour and knead, adding more flour as necessary, until the dough is formed. Transfer the dough to a work surface and knead for 5 minutes.
Oil a medium bowl with rapeseed oil. Form a ball with the dough and place in the bowl. Cover with cling film and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk, 2-3 hours. Knock back the dough, cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
To form the challah, divide half the dough into 4 equal parts. Rolling with even pressure from the middle to the ends, roll the dough into ropes of equal size. Take all 4 ropes and pinch them together at the top. Braid the pieces, then pinch the ends together and tuck them under the braid. Tuck the top also, if needed. Repeat to braid the remaining half dough. Cover the loaves with cling film and allow to rise until tripled in bulk, about 2 hours. When the loaves have risen sufficiently, the dough will not spring back when poked with a finger.
Preheat the oven to 170C, gas mark 3. Place an empty baking sheet on the bottom oven rack. Oil two 21.5 x 11.5cm loaf tins.
In a small bowl, mix the remaining egg with 2 tablespoons of water. Brush the tops of the loaves with the egg glaze, making sure you get it into the crevices. Place the tins in the oven and immediately pour about 240ml of hot water onto the empty sheet to create steam. Close the oven door immediately and bake until the loaves are golden and make a hollow sound when tapped, about 30 mins. Turn into a rack and cool.
Taken from 'Kosher Modern' by Geila Hocherman
Denise Phillips' Honey Apple Cake
340g orange blossom honey
60ml apple juice
1 large orange – zest and juice
4 large eggs
60ml vegetable oil
120ml strong coffee
200g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 apples – peeled and roughly chopped
Grease and line a 25cm round cake tin with baking parchment paper. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4. Whisk together the honey, apple juice, zest and juice of 1 orange, vegetable oil, coffee and eggs.
Place all the dry ingredients; the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and cinnamon in a separate bowl and then gradually add to the wet ingredients. Stir in the chopped apple and raisins.
Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes or until set in the centre. Invert the cake on to a plate and dust with icing sugar.
Taken from www.jewishcookery.com