Apples and honey are a Rosh Hashanah tradition. But is there one type of apple that goes best with honey? The New Year begins at sundown on Sept. 29. As the holiday approaches, I began searching for the answer.
I tasted five popular types of apples: Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith. I dipped them in honey, which is the Ashkenazi tradition, and separately in sugar, the Sephardic tradition.
I used clover honey and raw organic cane sugar. The sugar was a pleasant surprise because it added a crunchy texture to the apples, and it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.
Amy Rosen, author of the new cookbook “Kosher Style,” says Granny Smith apples go well with honey because they’re sour.
“Definitely certain apples work better for this than others, just like certain apples work better for baking,” Rosen said about foods that complement each other.
Washington-area Jewish food expert Susan Barocas agrees: “Some of them aren’t good — they’re too soft, or too sweet. My favorites are apples that are sweet-tart.”
Barocas adds that crispiness is important. “For me, it’s the mouth feel all the time. I just don’t like soft apples. But I think if you want to get a little poetic about it, this [Rosh Hashanah] idea of the newness, that somehow a crispy apple feels newer. It feels like the New Year, it feels like a fresh bite.”
Barocas says she’s not a fan of the Delicious apples. Rosen says Red Delicious apples are “hideous” and suggests trying a Cortland or McIntosh apple, which are similar to each other.
“McIntosh are … nice and they’re sweet and they’re small,” Rosen says. “They’re not the classiest apple, but they’re good.”
Barocas says her favorite apples are Jonagold. “They’re exactly the sweet-tart and crispy, and you can pick them locally.”
Some of Rosen’s family’s Rosh Hashanah recipes, which use honey and sugar — a challah topped with brown sugar, and a wildflower honey cake — are included in “Kosher Style.”
But why do Sephardic Jews use sugar on Rosh Hashanah?
Barocas says a lot of it has to do with tradition and availability in a time in Jewish history when harvesting honey was dangerous.
“Before the New World sugar, there were forms of sugar in Europe already, including the plants that could be dried that were sweet,” she tells me. “That would be very accessible. It was not so easy to collect honey before beekeeping came into being.”
Some Sephardic communities use date syrup or sugar water, according to Jewish food writer Sybil Kaplan.
Barocas says Sephardic Jews also use preserved sweets, and she makes her own preserved apples. She also makes a cooked candied apple each year.
Though she doesn’t eat apples with sugar, Barocas says she always puts out that option for her guests at her Rosh Hashanah seder — along with several types of honey (raw unfiltered, Manuka, creamed and sometimes even chocolate). She also puts out date syrup.
Clover is the most widely available and familiar type of honey, according to Rosen. But she says there are other options for more flavor.
“I’d say if you want to vamp it up a little bit, orange blossom and wildflower would be delicious,” she says.
To prevent the apples from turning brown, Rosen suggests tossing the slices in the juice of half a lemon.
Here’s what I found during my taste test, ranked from worst to best.
I love Honeycrisp apples to snack on whole or as slices, but they just did not do well with the honey or sugar. They are much too sweet to be eaten with either —I felt overloaded with syrupy sweetness — though the sugar worked better than the honey because the sugar was not as sweet.
4. Red Delicious
Simply put, Red Delicious apples are not delicious, and I’ve never thought so, but they are a very common and accessible type of apple. This apple had no taste, so it did not complement either the honey or the sugar. I ranked it above the Honeycrisp only because it didn’t make me feel like I was eating pure syrup.
The Gala apple was a perfectly fine, middle-of-the-road apple. It had a neutral taste and worked with the honey and sugar equally well. It’s a safe bet, and if you get this apple, I think everyone in your family will be satisfied.
2. Granny Smith
I thought Granny Smith would be the winner, and it was indeed good with the sweet companions because of its tartness. This is a solid choice to use with honey, and eating this apple with the crunchy sugar made me wish for an apple pie or crumble.
1. Golden Delicious
My particular Golden Delicious was the sourest apple that I taste tested. (I told Rosen this, and she was surprised.) Because of this, it was my favorite with the honey — I ate several slices even after finishing the official taste test. I love getting that twinge of tartness followed by a sea of sweetness.
But maybe the best bet for the Rosh Hashanah spread is just to have many kinds of apples for everyone to enjoy.