Noah Bernamoff is one-half of the team behind Brooklyn’s Mile End Delicatessen — the other half being his wife, Rae. The duo shared with us a Rosh Hashanah menu from their new cookbook, The Mile End Cookbook, putting a creative spin on some of their favorite traditional dishes: roasted chicken, knishes and honey cake.
We chatted with Noah all about his favorite Rosh Hashanah meals as a kid, as well as his best cooking and entertaining tips. Read below to hear what he had to say, and click over to try their celebration-worthy recipes.
What are your favorite Rosh Hashanah traditions?
Eating! This is one of the few Jewish holidays where food is really at the center. Passover is a limited menu, Yom Kippur is nice to break fast, but Rosh Hashanah is a food holiday. My warmest memories were on the two days of Rosh Hashanah, returning from synagogue to my grandmother’s house. She spent weeks preparing for these lunches — I remember loathing being in synagogue, looking at my watch, counting back the number of pages, and my reward was going to Nana’s and having the most epic Jewish food spread known to man.
Apples and honey are critical — they should be on everyone’s Rosh Hashanah radar. We have access to such beautiful honey now, with people making it all over the country.
What did your grandmother make for Rosh Hashanah?
She always had muliple kugels — cauliflower, potato and sweet potato were classics. She always had brisket and roast chicken and salmon, because my aunt and uncle were pescatarians. No one else ate it.
She always had potato knishes. They were the best, with fried onions — absolutely delicious. She always made tsimish, a sweet carrot dish that had prunes in it so it was sweet. She always used to have kasha varnishkes, buckwheat groats with egg noodles, and typically had a simple, healthier side like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Always chicken soup, always chopped liver. For dessert we had honey cake, which to me is the Rosh Hashanah dessert of choice. My grandmother would also make blueberry cake and mandelbrot.
She would seriously cook for over two weeks to prepare these lunches, and she did it all by herself. That was an amazing feat we rarely mentioned. Since she passed away my mom will host a lunch, but she needs everyone to contribute to make it happen. Nana was totally solo.
How do you celebrate now?
Now I go to work! We do so much catering over Jewish holidays, so most of my holidays are spent working to make other people’s holidays memorable.
We like to do a narrow menu, because it’s crazy to do everything. We really stick to the classics — chicken soup, chopped liver, braised brisket or roast chicken and honey cakes. We also make round raisin challah. It’s a tradition that you’re supposed to eat round challah instead of braided, because it’s meant to symbolize the continuity of life. Rosh Hashanah literally means “head of the year,” so round challah symbolizes the connectivity between the years you’re departing and beginning.
Any tips for readers on how to make the meal easier to prepare?
Brisket is better when it has the opportunity to sit around for a few days. If you’re making braised brisket, that’s something you can make in advance and rewarm the day of. Same with chicken soup — you can even freeze it, so we recommend that year-round. Never make a little batch, just pack it away in containers in the freezer and it stays for about 2 to 3 months. That’s great for winter.
Chopped liver — do not make in advance. It’s way better the day of or day before.
Here’s a big tip: let’s not cut the corners on making the food sweet. Rosh Hashanah is about sweet food, as we’re trying to impart a feeling of sweetness to the coming year. Still, let’s stay away from ketchup and sweet and sour sauce. There are naturally sweet fruits out there we can utilize to make different sauces, so we don’t need to rely on processed foods.
Prunes and raisins are my go-to, as well as sweet onions. You can also use raisins in potato or cauliflower kugel. Sweet potato kugel is a great alternative because it turns very sweet when roasted, consistent with tradition. Jewish cooking is not about convenience, it’s about making food for the family that has meaning for everybody. Let’s not run over tradition with tractor filled with ketchup — we can do better than that.
Do you have any creative ways to serve traditional foods, like apples and honey?
We included a recipe in our book in which Brussels sprouts are sauteed with bits of apple and honey. It’s a very obvious marriage, as Brussels sprouts are a fall vegetable, apples are fall fruits and honey is readily available — it makes a ton of sense.
Honey cake can get a garnish of apples on top, roasted apple or caramelized apple with cinnamon. The cake has a base of baking spices, so it takes very well to the richness and sweetness of fall fruits like pears or apples.
I also think apples and brisket could go great together — we recommend prunes in our version, but it would be easy to substitute a tart Granny Smith apple that’s been caramelized in onion at 325 degrees with a honey drizzle. That would be a great addition.
What do you like to drink?
I love to drink, but my family doesn’t share my passion for wine, so my Rosh Hashanah drinks were usually just seltzer. You know, you’re trying to digest.
Most of this food would go great with light reds, which are generally very flexible and could work with fruit and brisket while not overpowering things like kugel and vegetable sides. I’d recommend staying away from sweet wine because the food is going to be sweet — you want the acidic foil.
Cru Beaujolais, Piedmontese Italian reds — those would all be strong selections. Even some more quirky wines from the Loire.
Any traditions for the table, or entertaining traditions?
My tradition is family-style. At the core of the Jewish holidays, for me, is family. I like to entertain family-style anyway, because it’s too much work to try to plate everything, but during the holidays the added element of family is critical to most people’s willingness and motivation to celebrate the holidays.
I also like not necessarily having food on the table where you’re eating. If you really want to go for it there’s probably not going to be enough room. My grandma had a separate table for the food, and we would gather around another table. Everyone is serving each other, so there’s an opportunity for everyone to help each other.
Rosh Hashanah falls really early this year, there may be an opportunity to set up outside. Our Spring Chicken is an interesting opportunity for people to use their grills or smokers as component in preparing the meal, and if the weather’s nice it would be beautiful to sit outside in nature.
What’s the inspiration behind the dish you chose for the Rosh Hashanah feast in The Mile End Cookbook, Spring Chicken?
It’s an amazing chicken recipe, delicious — and it’s so easy. The smoked chicken can easily be replaced by your favorite roast chicken recipe.
How can people adapt it for the fall season?
The high holidays are so early this year that we get to take advantage of so many vegetables. You could roast corn, cut it off the cob and mix with red onion and vinegar to add a sprightly quality. Squash is coming into the market; roasted pattypan, or yellow and green varietals would be great. Escarole sauteed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper would be a great garnish.
Herbs play big part in our Spring Chicken recipe, so go to the market and see what’s beautiful. Chicken can go with anything. Get some great vegetables and aromatic herbs and make it a beautiful, simple family dish.
Your knishes are rolled, different from the traditional round ones — why? Any tips for making and filling them?
On one hand we made them that way because they are more durable. Round ones tend to be soft and are tough to handle in the restaurant kitchen. I like that these are relatively simple — it doesn’t take fancy technique to figure out how to fold them over, while sometimes round ones open up or explode and can be kind of difficult to work with if you’re unfamiliar.
This dough is simple. You can roll it out into long sheets; we use a pasta roller, which makes it really easy to work with. Roll them up, fill them and cut them into pieces, like a cigar. They are interesting and different and a way for people to get creative. We provide a few filling suggestions, but the major takeaway is that all you need is the potato base, and you can make any filling out of it.
What are some of your ideas for using leftovers?
Brisket sandwiches. You can make a French Dip-style sandwich by slicing brisket, laying it on bread, spooning some hot braising liquid over it and dipping the bun. Or, use a baguette or squishier bread, and dip the top of the bun into the braising liquid. And you’ve got yourself a delicious sandwich.
Chicken soup is chicken soup — rewarm it for another meal and another day. Kugel is kugel. It will cool fine and you can rewarm it. And you can always make chicken salad sandwiches.