Yom Kippur stirs my strongest Jewish food memory – it’s strange, but true. Since I was in the single digits I can remember walking to Ne’ila services with my mother and father, carrying a bag filled with two essential components of our holiday inside. One was a three-pound sack of apples, the then ubiquitous McIntosh variety. The other was six or so tiny butter sandwiches on my mother’s anise bread.
The bread was a high, oblong loaf shining from egg glaze and redolent of liquorice, which I despised as a child. On our walk, I would watch the plastic sack of break-fast food thumping against my father’s trousered leg, a reminder that holy space of Yom Kippur was about to close over us and leave us to our good intentions and the rest of the year. I couldn’t understand why they liked it so much, that sweet, seeded bread. (Now, of course, I know better.)
When we got to synagogue, one of my parents would stow the bag under a pile of coats, ostensibly to keep from bothering others who couldn’t even look at food so far into the fast, but also to keep me from repeating my generosity of one year, when I gave out our sandwiches to a bunch of teenagers whom I wanted to like me. After the final service we’d walk home, chewing, still feeling elevated by the specialness of the evening until we’d shed our fancy clothes and sat down to bagels for dinner all together.
Every year I tried the bread. Every year I rejected it and my family would pronounce, “more for us!” with a shrug. Yet when I got to college my freshman year, I could still taste that strong anise flavor all the way from Wisconsin. It was September, my nose told me – the time for the particular smell of that bread in my life. In a sense, nostalgia changed my taste buds for ever. I called up my mother and begged her to send a loaf. She did, and I sat on the grass outside the Madison Hillel after Ne’ila, pulling off hunks of it with my friends. We even had apples bought from the farmers market days before – way better than the old supermarket Macs.
Now that I’m a venerable twenty-five, I’ve inherited some traditions and also changed some, in a daughter’s way. I haven’t touched the anise bread, which to my adult tongue is unbeatable as it is. The apples I’ve messed with a little. I go to a pick-your-own apple orchard every year now, and bring back a bushel of Macouns, Libertys and Cortlands to make apple butter from. A fruit butter is different from a jam or jelly in that it’s made with whole fruits cooked to a thick paste and then strained or milled until they reach a satiny consistency. My apple butter goes on top of my cow butter which goes on top of my anise bread. All three go with me to services, carefully concealed, to carry me through sweetly into the new years of my adulthood.
The recipe for the anise bread can be found in Edda Servi Machlin’s wonderful cookbook, “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, Vol. 1” which has been a go-to at dinner time in my house for as long as I can remember. It is both a cook book and a memoir, and is an entertaining read as well as a wonderful resource. My mother calls the recipe, which Machlin names “Il Bollo,” a “very easy yeast bread.” Click on the link for that recipe. The apple butter recipe is my variation on the classic Joy of Cooking fruit butter, but with a lot more kick to it, and is below:
Wash eight to ten apples, remove stems and quarter. Don’t worry about skin, cores or aesthetics, as you’ll mill these apples later.
Add the apples to a large pot and cook them slowly on medium heat in a liquid solution of: 1 cup water
1 cup apple cider
1 1/4 cups cider vinegar
If I have no cider, I use half and half water and cider vinegar.
While the fruit is cooking, put another large pot of water on to boil. In this pot, sterilize half a dozen pint-sized mason jars by boiling them for at least fifteen minutes. I use recycled ones from sauerkraut, salsa, peanut butter, mayo, etc., which sometimes come in jars with mouths that fit mason/ball jar seals and bands. Bands can be reused but seals must be bought new. Don’t empty out the water from your jar sterilizing, you’ll need it to seal the full jars later.
When the fruit is thoroughly boiled, force it through a fine strainer (for this task I’ve used everything from a potato masher and a sieve to a hand-cranked food mill, which is a lot easier on the arms and the kitchen floor.)
Now comes the fun part:
To each cup of pulp that you’re left with after milling, add: 1/3 of a cup of sugar (this is really to taste, I often use less)
4 teaspoons cinnamon aprx. 8 to 10 whole cloves, or 1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon whole all spice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated lemon/orange zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Optional: 1 teaspoon dried orange peel/dried rose hips, which look lovely floating in the finished jars
Cook the butter over low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. Then turn the heat up and cook while stirring frequently until the butter sheets from the spoon. Pour into sterilized jars. I add one cinnamon stick to each jar to keep the flavor developing over the months, and seal. Place the filled, tightly closed jars back in your boiling water bath and process them for fifteen minutes at a hard boil. Pull them out to cool (canning tongs are a great help, though not a necessity, in this) and enjoy them for months to come.