Tu B’Shvat: The Green Holiday
After cooking and eating, my favorite pastime is gardening. Since celebrating Tu Bishvat, the Festival of Trees, combines all three, it’s one of my favorite holidays.
Some years ago my brother, Tzvi Kahn, told me how much his daughter Renana enjoyed celebrating Tu Bishvat at her school in Jerusalem with a Tu Bishvat “seder”. This custom is becoming popular now in Israel but has its origins in ancient Tzfat. It includes drinking four glasses of wine--or grape juice in some homes--to symbolize the gradual change from winter to summer.
Other holiday customs include eating at least seven fruits, such as figs, dates, raisins or olives as well as almonds and other nuts. Because Tu Bishvat occurs in late winter, when traditionally there wasn't much fresh fruit, it is honored by including dried fruit in meals and desserts. I love to use dried fruit in cakes or pastries as well as in sweet casseroles such as one that combines dried figs, dried apricots, sweet potatoes, orange juice and ginger.
For cakes and sweet kugels I often make use of a popular French technique for using dried fruit. Before adding them to the batter, I soak them first in rum or fruit liqueur. Doing this not only plumps them and makes them tender; it really wakes up their flavor.
Going green seems like a modern trend but it is the traditional theme of Tu Bishvat, which ideally is celebrated by planting trees. My husband, Yakir, and I had an especially wonderful Tu Bishvat a few years ago, as he planted 3 peach trees, 2 persimmon trees and 2 plum trees. To plant one of the peach trees on our rocky hillside, he had to use an iron spear or “concrete breaker” to split the big rocks before removing them. He continued removing rocks until the hole for the tree was almost as deep as I am tall! But we immediately saw the reward. After a few months the peach tree graced our garden with its lovely pink flowers.
Impressed, our neighbor down the hill asked Yakir, “What is your model in planning your garden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?”
“No,” was his immediate reply, “the Garden of Eden!”
Indeed, when we picked the first fruits from our trees, we surely felt as lucky as Adam and Eve.
Happy Tu Bishvat!
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home (Morrow), 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Wiley) and Jewish Cooking For Dummies (Wiley).
TU BISHVAT FRUIT CAKE
Good quality dried fruit and a buttery batter make for a scrumptious fruit cake, which is perfect for the holiday. For this cake, I soak dried figs, apples and raisins in orange liqueur before adding them to the batter.
1/2 cup chopped dark figs (dried)
1/2 cup chopped dried apples
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup orange liqueur or orange juice
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3 large eggs
grated rind 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Put chopped figs, apples and raisins in a container, add orange juice and mix well. Cover tightly and let stand for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8 1/2- x4- 1/2-inch loaf pan, line with parchment paper or waxed paper and grease paper.
Drain fruits, reserving juice. Pat fruits dry with paper towels. Toss fruits with 1/4 cup of flour with your fingers, carefully coating each piece. Sift remaining 1 1/2 cups flour with baking powder.
Cream butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs one by one, beating thoroughly after each addition. Stir in half of flour mixture. Stir in 2 tablespoons orange juice and the grated lemon rind. Stir in remaining flour. Stir in the fruit mixture and pecans. Stir until no trace of flour remains.
Transfer to pan and bake about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in
center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan about 15 minutes. Turn out onto a rack
and cool completely. Wrap cake in foil and keep it at room temperature.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
TU BISHVAT SWEET POTATO AND FRUIT CASSEROLE
This colorful casserole flavored with dried apricots and figs, honey, fresh ginger and orange juice is great for Tu Bishvat or Shabbat. It’s delicious as a partner for roasted or braised meat or poultry. If you like, garnish it with toasted pecans.
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup dried figs, halved
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons honey or brown sugar
2 tablespoons margarine or additional vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
Put apricots and figs in a bowls and pour boiling water over them. Cover and let soak about 20 minutes or until softened.
Preheat oven to 400F. Pour oil into an 8-cup baking dish. Peel sweet potatoes, halve lengthwise and cut in 1/2-inch slices. Put in baking dish, add small pinch of salt and pepper and toss to coat slices with oil. Bake uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes or until barely tender; if pan becomes dry during baking, add 1 or 2 tablespoons hot water.
Drain figs and apricots. Add to sweet potatoes and mix very gently.
Combine honey, margarine, orange juice and ginger in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring, and pour evenly over sweet potato mixture. Bake uncovered, basting twice, for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and stir very gently. Bake, basting occasionally, about 15 more minutes or until most of liquid is absorbed. Serve hot or warm.
Makes 4 servings.
PAREVE CHALLAH PUDDING
Jewish cooks originally designed challah puddings or kugels to use up stale challah but they turned into such popular desserts that many people have to buy extra challah to be sure there is enough left for these treats. This one is flavored with dried cherries, cherry brandy and lemon zest. If you like, substitute golden raisins or chopped good-quality candied citrus peel for the cherries. For soaking the cherries, you can use orange juice or other fruit juice instead of brandy. If you’re making the pudding for a dairy meal, you can substitute butter for the oil.
3/4 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup cherry brandy
8 ounces challah (one half of a 1-pound challah), day-old or stale
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
3 or 4 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted margarine
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a 6-cup baking dish. Combine cherries and kirsch in a jar; cover and let stand about 10 minutes.
Remove crust and cut challah in chunks. Soak it in cold water until softened. Squeeze out excess water. Put challah in a large bowl and mash it with a fork.
Mix 1 tablespoon sugar with walnuts; set aside. Add remaining sugar to challah. Add eggs, lemon juice, lemon rind and oil. Mix well. Add cherries with their kirsch and mix well. Transfer mixture to baking dish. Sprinkle with reserved walnut-sugar mixture. Bake about 50 minutes or until set. Serve hot or warm.
Makes about 6 servings.