Spectacular High Holiday Bakes for a Sweet New Year
From a honey-and-spice-laden Bundt to a jaw-dropping apple cake, plus holiday challahs, babkas, cookies, and even savory treats, you’ll find every baked good you need for Rosh Hashanah to Sukkot and beyond. Shanah Tovah!
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Classic Jewish Apple Cake by the author; photograph by Olga Ivanova
Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) show up on many secular calendars as one-day affairs sometime in the fall. But the High Holidays, as they’re often called, really span an almost month-long period. For holiday-observant Jews, it’s a joyful, sometimes roller coaster-intense season of distinct, yet interconnected holidays filled with several feasts, a fast, and even some temporary shelter construction. (Maybe it’s the way Rosh Hashanah coincides with the seasons changing and the start of the school year, or maybe it’s all of the reflection and ritual, but the High Holidays have always felt more like the “real” new year to me than the mid-winter midnight Champagne-toasted changeover.)
The High Holidays start with Rosh Hashanah ...
The Jewish calendar is luni-solar, so the holidays begin in the evening, and continue through nightfall the next day. Rosh Hashanah kicks off with a festive evening meal, followed by another on the second night of the two-day holiday. (Many families also follow the morning synagogue services with celebratory lunches.) Rosh Hashanah celebrates new beginnings, and what will hopefully be a sweet year, so foods like honey and fruit are important menu features. It simultaneously kicks off the Aseret Yemei HaTeshuva (the 10 Days of Repentance), a reflective period meant for repairing past wrongs.
But there's a whole month of festivities ...
Yom Kippur, a somber holiday, is observed with lots of prayer and a 25-hour fast, but it’s bookended by a humble meal and festive break-the-fast menu. Just 5 days later, the week-long Sukkot holiday begins. Jews around the world build sukkot — temporary shelters meant to commemorate our ancestors’ agricultural huts — in which produce-forward meals and snacks are enjoyed whenever possible during the week-long holiday. (Some families even have the tradition to start building their sukkah immediately after the Yom Kippur break-fast!) Sukkot is capped off by yet 2 more Jewish holidays — Shemini Atzeret (“the 8th Day of Assembly”) and Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah,” during which the year-long Torah reading cycle concludes and restarts). Throughout the High Holidays, sweet and symbolic foods are emphasized and connect one observance to the next. Whether you’re planning lots of holiday meals or dipping into a new tradition, we’ve got lots of delicious recipes to help you bake up a sweet new year.
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Jewish High Holidays food FAQs >>
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Jewish High Holidays food FAQs
Learn more about the traditions, symbols, and foods of the Jewish new year
Why are apples and honey eaten on Rosh Hashanah?
For Ashkenazi Jews in particular, apples and honey are iconic on Rosh Hashanah. In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the late, great Jewish food scholar Gil Marks notes that Jews in early medieval France had a custom to eat apples on Rosh Hashanah; the tradition to dip apples in honey was later recorded in German Jewish texts. There are mystical references connecting the Garden of Eden or the divine presence with an apple orchard. On a less ephemeral level, apples and plums ripened in Eastern and Central Europe around Rosh Hashanah, making them a natural fit for holiday menus.
As for honey, Marks notes that since antiquity and around the world, honey — which does not spoil — has symbolized truth and immortality. It’s also associated with the land of Israel (where both date and bee honey were produced). Thanks to its worldwide culinary use, the natural sweetener features prominently in Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Rosh Hashanah recipes.
Are there other symbolic foods for the Jewish New Year?
Yes! The rabbis of the Talmud recorded several foods that were considered auspicious menu additions on Rosh Hashanah. Over time, additional simanim (symbolic foods) were embraced to express the desire for a sweet, safe, positive year. Some of the symbolism is based on wordplay — for example, the Hebrew word for gourd (k’ra) sounds like the words yikara (to announce) and karah (to tear up), so pumpkin or winter squashes are eaten to convey the desire for any bad decrees to be torn up, and our merits announced. Other foods are visual symbols; just as a pomegranate is full of seeds, we want to be full of good deeds. There’s also a tradition to make a special blessing over a seasonal fruit that’s being enjoyed for the first time all year, and pomegranates, which have special status as one of the Seven Species of Israel, are often favored.
Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews incorporate these and other symbolic foods, including beet greens or chard, black eyed peas or fenugreek, leeks, dates, and carrots into a special Rosh Hashanah seder; increasingly Ashkenazi Jews — many of whom grew up with only a Passover seder — are adopting the tradition. A lot of these symbolic foods feature big on Sukkot menus, too, since they’re part of the early fall bounty, and help express continued hopes for a wonderful year.
Why does every bakery suddenly sell round challah?
Throughout the High Holidays, challah loaves, which are usually shaped into long braids, get a makeover. They’re often studded with raisins for added sweetness and wrapped into spirals. The round shape represents the circle of life and the cycle of the year. Some families have a tradition to break the Yom Kippur fast over bagels, which may have arisen out of this symbolism.
Holiday challah recipes
Every week, Jews around the world replace their everyday bread with challah (or other special loaves including dabo or jachnun) in honor of Shabbat. But when the High Holidays roll around, many opt for even fancier spins on the standard recipes.
Apples and Honey Challah
Some folks eat apples and honey with their challah. This recipe adds the holiday icons to it. There’s even a helpful tutorial on shaping a beautiful braided round, plus instructions for a simpler break-away challah.
Sweet Raisin Challah
Raisins are a common sweet enhancement to challah during the High Holidays. This recipe uses a full 5 1/2 pound bag of flour for those who want to do the mitzvah (commandment) of taking challah, or who want to bake several loaves. If you can’t find a 5 1/2 pound bag of flour, use a standard 5 pound bag and 5 cups of water. (You may also want to reduce the salt to 2 or 3 tablespoons.)
Pureed pumpkin (canned works!) and warming fall spices including cinnamon and ginger make this a perfect addition to your Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot table.
Pomegranate Beet Challah
Like pumpkin, beets and pomegranates are symbolic foods meant to usher in a good new year. Here they add gorgeous color and intriguing flavor to this beautifully unconventional challah.
Somewhere between a bread and a cake, babkas are yeast-risen loaves of lightly-sweetened dough magnificently swirled with fillings like chocolate, cinnamon, or dried fruit. The star of post-synagogue kiddush spreads, babka makes a delicious Yom Kippur break-fast dessert or Sukkah snack.
If you’re feeling intimidated by the babka-making process, don’t fret. Tori Avey breaks it all down in this step-by-step photo-illustrated recipe, so you’ll feel like a swirled pastry pro.
Apricot Pistachio Babka
This dairy-free babka swaps the usual fillings for a Sephardi cuisine-inspired mix of tart dried apricots and pistachios. Feel free to omit the pistachios if, like me, you keep a nut-free kitchen.
If you want a quicker, crunchier take on the babka concept, check out these chocolate-filled, crumble topped babka straws. Store-bought puff pastry dough makes easy work of an impressive treat.
Looking for impressive dessert recipes to finish your Jewish holiday menus on a sweet note? Add these stunning cakes to your recipe box.
Classic Jewish Apple Cake
We like to go apple picking before Rosh Hashanah, so we’re amply supplied to make this majestic dairy-free cake throughout the High Holidays. Layered and crowned with a sunburst of apple slices, this recipe is a lower-sugar (but still deliciously sweet) version of my grandmother’s prized recipe.
Gluten-Free Apple Cake
Gluten-free 1:1 flour replacer and crushed gluten-free cookies help simplify the preparation of this Russian sharlotka cake. Recipe developer Ksenia Prints based the apple cake on her grandmother’s recipe, and notes you can use a vegan butter substitute or coconut oil if you need to keep it dairy-free as well.
Persian Upside-Down Cake with Dates and Cardamom
Rosewater and cardamom infuse the batter of this gorgeous cake with distinctly Persian flavors. A rosette of lush Medjool dates tops the dairy-rich cake, which would make the perfect ending to a vegetarian Yom Tov (holiday) meal.
Spiced Honey Cake
I wanted to capture the true flavor of honey in this lofty cake, so I used it as the primary sweetener. Spice notes of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg shine on the day it’s baked, then mellow over the next couple of days for more honey-forward flavor. The batter bakes beautifully in a tube pan or as a Bundt cake.
Holiday snack cakes
These cakes are a little more casual, but still festive — perfect for Yom Kippur break-fast, snacks in the sukkah, or low-key holiday meals.
Israeli Honey Sesame Cake
Tahini (aka sesame paste) adds richness to this honey-sweetened snack cake. The sesame seeds add crunch and represent abundance in the new year.
For Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, aromatic quinces are showcased in both sweet and savory recipes throughout the High Holidays. There’s a tradition to make a special blessing (Shehechiyanu) over a new fruit during Rosh Hashanah. Thanks to our globalized food supply, it’s harder to find unusual fruits we haven’t enjoyed recently, but thanks to quince’s short season and fleeting availability, it’s a great candidate if you can find it! These muffins are an easy way to try it; use a dairy-free milk substitute to keep them parve (neutral).
Upside Down Plum and Olive Oil Cake
Late summer stone fruits are often featured in Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot treats. This beautiful loaf cake is a lovely way to enjoy lush plums before they’re gone. It’s easy to adapt into a parve cake — just swap the cow’s milk for soy milk or your favorite dairy-free milk substitute.
Pumpkin Spice Cake
This charming dairy-free loaf cake is studded with raisins and walnuts and laced with warming spices. Toasted and slathered with cream cheese, a slice would make an ideal snack for a coffee break in the sukkah.
Let’s face it, cooking for the holidays can be very time consuming. So it’s nice to have a few easy, seasonal cookie recipes to add to the dessert rotation — especially if you’ve got a sukkah and the promise of drop-in guests.
Apple and Honey Cookies
Accented with bits of dried apple and cinnamon, these easy, dairy-free honey cookies are perfect for fall.
Bubbie Ruth’s Mandel Bread
Think of these dunkable cookies as Jewish biscotti. This simple, adaptable recipe can be baked once or twice, depending on how crunchy you’d like them. I associate mandel bread with the Yom Kippur break-fast, though my grandmother (also a Ruth, though this isn’t her recipe!) served it after most big holiday meals, when smaller treats were the most welcome dessert.
Pomegranate Fortune Cookies
Pomegranates’ connection to the High Holidays makes these homemade fortune cookies a cleverly twee addition to your cookie platter. Write your own wishes for a sweet new year to make them extra special. They do contain butter, so if you keep kosher, save them for a dairy meal (or try using non-hydrogenated margarine).
I imagine rugelach as babka’s baby cousin — adorable small bites that are not quite the same, but definitely related, especially on the filling side of the family. Add them to a cookie platter for the Yom Kippur break-fast.
Sweets get a lot of shine during Rosh Hashanah, but savory foods like these can also help usher in a sweet new year
Kuku Sabzi (Persian Herb and Greens Frittata)
This recipe can carry you through the whole High Holidays period. It’s a perfect fit for a Rosh Hashanah Seder because it includes two simanim (symbolic foods) — chard and leeks. (The recipe photo includes barberries, too — you can top the kuku with pomegranate seeds instead, and you’ll have three simanim in one dish!) It’s ideal for Yom Kippur break-fast menus, and would make a lovely Sukkot lunch alongside soup or salad.
This Moroccan Jewish Rosh Hashanah recipe features roasted root vegetables, caramelized onions, and dried fruits baked into a sweet and savory dish that works as a vegetarian main or side dish. Chef Einat Admony shows you how to make it in the recipe’s companion videos. If you’re allergic to nuts (or don’t use them on Rosh Hashanah), feel free to skip them.
In my family, we always break the Yom Kippur fast with bagel brunch fare. If you’re feeling ambitious, why not make your own bagels? The process isn’t hard, but it does require a lot of hands-off rising time. This recipe makes a lot of bagels; if you aren’t entertaining a hungry crowd, you can halve the recipe or freeze any extras.
Roasted Vegetable Galette
This beautiful roasted vegetable galette features butternut squash, beet, and carrot — all simanim — which makes it a fitting recipe for a vegetarian Yom Kippur break-fast or harvest-themed Sukkot meal.
More Jewish recipes for special occasions
Whether you’re looking for all things kugel, or all things rugelach, you’ll want to explore the recipes below.