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Breaking the Fast: Feeding the Body After Feeding the Soul

‘Everything revolves around bread and death,” the Yiddish proverb tells us, and this is never truer than on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we deny ourselves the one that we may not be condemned to the other. On the day during which we are most aware of our mortality we abstain from those activities that keep us alive: eating and drinking.

The human body functions best when it receives food and drink every four to six hours; much beyond that point, the body will inevitably turn quarrelsome. “When we eat there is an insulin response in the body,” Deena Neuwirth, a registered dietician at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, told the Food Maven. “The insulin helps in the absorption and digestion process. After the insulin has taken the glucose from the food and put it into our cells, the body is satisfied for a while,” she said. Once those glucose levels start to drop, hunger kicks in. Denied food for a full day, just about anybody will experience hunger pangs. Some people will begin to feel lethargic, light-headed or nauseous, will experience headaches (this is especially true for coffee drinkers suddenly deprived of their caffeine) or will even break into a cold sweat. All of these reactions are, Neuwirth said, “signals sent by the body to the brain to indicate that it should start thinking about eating something again.”

When, at the end of a full day, the brain finally accedes to the body’s demands, the best approach is to start with lighter foods. This is precisely what Jews around the world have always done at the close of Yom Kippur. Among Ashkenazi Jews the break-fast is traditionally a dairy meal; in the United States bagels with lox and cream cheese is ubiquitous (the consumption of salted or pickled fish is a practice that dates back to ancient times, stemming from the belief that this will replace salts and minerals lost during the fast). Other dairy dishes such as cheese blintzes or noodle kugel are also very common, as well as light, not overly sweet cakes such as sour cream coffee cake, sponge cake or the honey cake called lekach (truly a seasonal dish, as it is a Rosh Hashana staple).

In Sephardic communities the break-fast may be a dairy meal as well, featuring a variety of sweet and savory pastries (see recipe that follows) and fresh fruit, although it is not uncommon for the meal to include a lean protein such as fish (see recipe that follows) or chicken. Chicken is associated with Yom Kippur by Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews alike, because of the venerable atonement ritual of kapparot, in which a live chicken is twirled around the head three times while reciting prayers requesting that it be sacrificed in one’s stead. Around the world, chicken soup is standard fare for the meal before Yom Kippur, in part because it helps provide the body the fluids it will need for the fast (the soup should not be overly salty or spicy, though, as this will lead to dehydration).

In the Sephardic world the fast may also be broken with chicken soup, the many varieties of which include the creamy egg-and-lemon soup known as avgolemono in Greece and sopa de huevo y limón in Turkey (see recipe below), and across the Mediterranean in Italy, chicken broth enlivened with bits of homemade pasta or turkey meatballs. In Morocco the meal may include any of a wide variety of chicken stews (called tagines, after the conical vessel in which they are cooked), among them the famous tagine of chicken with green olives and preserved lemons. The Moroccan break-fast may also feature chicken couscous or the thick meat, bean and vegetable soup called harira, which is likewise eaten by local Muslims during the month of Ramadan.

“There is no sauce in the world like hunger,” Miguel de Cervantes wrote several centuries ago. That may well be — but still, after a day without it, what you most want is food that would taste delicious even if you weren’t especially hungry. And when a dish is not only delicious but also happens to be among those traditionally eaten at the close of Yom Kippur — when you join yourself with other Jews not just in the fasting, but in the eating as well — it becomes greater still, by satisfying more than one kind of hunger.

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This creamy, delicately flavored and very easily prepared soup is a staple for the Yom Kippur break-fast among the Jews of Greece and Turkey.

Avgolemono (Egg and Lemon Soup)

7 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup uncooked long-grain white rice

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 celery stalks, diced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 eggs

Juice of 2 lemons, or to taste

  1. Place the stock in a soup pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Add the rice, carrots, celery, salt and pepper. Lower heat and gently simmer, covered, until the rice and vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

  2. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until they are light and frothy. Add the lemon juice and stir to combine. While stirring, add about 1/2 cup of the simmering chicken stock to the egg-lemon mixture.

  3. Slowly pour the mixture back into the soup, stirring constantly. Keep stirring over low heat until the soup begins to thicken, about 3 minutes. (Make sure not to boil, or the eggs will curdle.) Taste for seasoning and add more lemon juice or salt as necessary. Serve warm.

Serves 6.

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Among Italian Jews this light, nutritious and very delicious dish is often served to break the fast.

Pesce All’Ebraica (Italian Sweet-and-Sour Fish with Raisins and Pine Nuts)

1/2 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup raisins

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

5 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds red snapper fillets

2 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

  1. In a small dry skillet, toast the pine nuts over low heat, stirring regularly, until lightly golden. Place in a medium bowl.

  2. Add the raisins, vinegar, 4 tablespoons of the oil, the sugar, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Set aside.

  3. Rinse the fish and pat it dry, then season with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fish flesh-side down and cook for 3 minutes. Turn the fish over and add the sweet-and-sour mixture to the pan. Lower heat and simmer, covered, until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer the fish to a large serving platter and pour the sauce over it, then sprinkle with the parsley. Serve warm.

Serves 4.

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This pastry is light, custardy and not overly sweet. (It can be made the day before Yom Kippur and refrigerated until ready to serve.) In Ioannina, the capital of the Greek Romaniote Jews, a piece of galaktoboureko was often used to break the fast, along with a glass of water mixed with ouzo, the anise-flavored liqueur.

Galaktoboureko (Custard-Filled Filo Pastry with Syrup)

For syrup:

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup water

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp. lemon juice

For custard:

1/4 cup fine semolina or farina

4 cups milk

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted

5 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

16 frozen filo sheets, thawed

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

  1. Make the syrup: Combine the sugar, water and cinnamon sticks in a medium saucepan. Cook over a low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Raise the heat to medium and boil until the syrup is thick enough to coat a spoon, another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Remove the cinnamon sticks and stir in the lemon juice. Let cool.

  2. Make the custard: Combine the semolina or farina, milk, vanilla and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold.

  3. Place the eggs, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until thick. Add the semolina mixture and mix until fully combined.

  4. Make the galaktoboureko: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Set out the filo sheets in a stack. (Keep the filo covered with a damp towel when not in use, to keep it from drying out.) Place 2 sheets of filo on the bottom of the dish, cutting away excess filo and brushing each with melted butter. Place 3 sheets of filo halfway in the dish, the other half draped outside it, brushing each with melted butter. (The sheets should all be facing in the same direction.) Place 3 more sheets halfway in the dish, facing a second direction, brushing each of them with butter. Continue the process with 6 more filo sheets so that each side of the dish has 3 half-sheets of filo draped outside it.

  5. Pour the custard into the dish and smooth out the top. Cover the filling with the draped half-sheets of filo, enclosing it like a packet. Brush the top with melted butter. Add 2 more filo sheets on top, cutting away the excess and brushing with melted butter.

  6. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. While the galaktoboureko is still hot, spoon the cooled syrup onto it. Let cool, then slice into squares or diamonds. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 15.

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