It’s mid-summer when we call Joan Nathan. She says: “Last night, I was lying in bed and thinking about Rosh Hashanah.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The author of 11 cookbooks, Joan is the doyenne of Jewish cooking in America. She’s traced Jewish recipes to their roots in France, Israel, Eastern Europe, across America and beyond.
Joan was thinking about a blue plum tart, made with a muerbeteig crust, flavored with brandy, cinnamon, and lemon zest. “It was always part of our family,” Joan explains. It was the dessert her mother Pearl Nathan, nee Gluck, made for the holiday.
“I really feel family recipes tell who you are,” says Joan. This recipe is no exception. It evolved as it was passed down the generations. While her mother made this recipe, it comes from her German father Ernest Nathan’s side of the family. “My father came to Rhode Island in 1929, the day after the stock market [crashed],” explains Joan. He later brought his parents to the U.S. And it was likely his mother who taught Pearl the recipe, though, Joan explains she may have also seen it in the iconic Settlement Cookbook.
“My mother would watch Julia Child,” explains Joan. It was Julia who inspired her to add jam to the recipe. Since Joan started to make the tart, she’s tweaked it to her taste as well, trimming the amount of sugar and precooking the crust to ensure it stays crisp. And when she’s spending her summers on Martha’s Vineyard, she will at times swap out the plums for peaches or blueberries, or raspberries that grow in her garden.
But, for Rosh Hashanah, only plums will do. Their short season always falls during the holiday. As a child, before the era when summer fruit was available nearly year round, Joan says she liked that the dishes on her family table were seasonal. “They had a symbolism,” she explains.
Another dish that was always served around the high holidays in her mother’s home was herring in cream sauce with sweet red onions that accompanied a drink of rye whiskey on the rocks. “My guess is it was something her mother made,” Joan explains. Like the tart, she has updated it, this time adding dill. But she still serves it as Pearl did to break the Yom Kippur fast. It’s a simple recipe that requires little planning, perfect for a day when no one wants to cook.
As for the plum tarts, Joan is already set for the holiday, explaining: “I have two unbaked [crusts] in my freezer.”