Etrog: A Holiday Fruit Filled With Flavor and Female Symbolism
By Aliza Green
Though it sometimes resembles a gargantuan lemon, the etrog (or “esrog,” as it is pronounced by Ashkenazi Jews), used in the rituals of the festival of Sukkot, has an identity all its own. That’s what I learned last year when I set out to know more about this rare and finicky fruit, also known as the citron.
I tracked down America’s only commercial etrog grower, John Kirkpatrick, who raises etrogs on three acres in California. “Farming has taken on a spiritual nature for me,” says Kirkpatrick. Although he is not Jewish, he studied etrog culture in Israel and works with several rabbis who inspect the fruit.
Because only blemish-free fruits may be used ceremonially, only about one in 10 makes the cut, he explains. “We never get enough of the really good fruit every year,” he says. Raising it is still profitable, however, because a single etrog is worth about $25.
Harvest time can be a challenge, because the tree has sharp thorns up to two inches long. “You should see my arms when I pick the fruits,” Kirkpatrick says.
A few days after talking to Kirkpatrick, a 36-pound package arrived at my door full of the five varieties of aromatic etrogs Kirkpatrick grows—more than I ever dreamed of having in my hands at one time. I would be using them in a program I was preparing to do at my synagogue, Or Hadash in Ft. Washington, Pa., about the history and culture of etrogs followed by a tasting of etrog recipes.
I grated some of the yellow zest to release its aromatic essential oils, then cut open the various varieties to compare color, texture, size, shape and juice content. The Temani, brought to Israel by Yemenite Jews, had little to no juice, though its thick white pith was actually sweet, its scent delightful and penetrating. The Braverman, which does particularly well for Kirkpatrick, is distinctively brainlike in form.
With my treasure trove of fruit, I set out to use the etrogs in as many ways as possible. To make liquore di cedro, known in Italy as “limoncello’s noble cousin,” I cut off strips of peel and steeped them in high-proof alcohol—wonderful in the etrogtini cocktails we later served in the sukkah. My teenage students in the Jewish Culture and Cuisine course I teach at Gratz Jewish Community High School made scented pomanders by studding the fruits with cloves in decorative patterns.
Online, I discovered Oh Nuts!, a company in New York City that imports more than a ton of tender, candied etrog slices, complete with seeds, from Israel every year. I ordered a batch and used it for an etrog-scented pound cake and citron cookie rings, a specialty of Pasticceria Pansa in the Amalfi region of Italy, a town famed for its citrons. (Not all citrons are etrogs; only ungrafted varieties are permitted for use on Sukkot.)
Traditionally, the cookies are leavened with baker’s ammonia, which gives them a crackly texture. In my life as a chef, I studied Italian, so I was able to translate a 1766 recipe for citron-scented sponge cake. It’s likely that the cake, pan di spagna (Spanish bread) in Italian, arrived in Italy with Jews fleeing Spanish persecution in the late 15th century. Its flavoring of candied citron and citron blossoms points to a Jewish origin.
Etrog’s Fertility Powers
In Israel, I encountered the renowned “Etrog Man,” Uzi-Eli Chezi, who runs an etrog juice stand at 10 Etrog Street in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. Chezi believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of his product: “I'm a third-generation healer who acts based on the wisdom of the Rambam (Maimonides), who made a drink from the etrog,” he declares. “I have a special etrog drink for pregnant women—it keeps their stomach warm, prevents morning sickness and gives the child a pleasant smell. I gave this drink to an Ethiopian woman when she was pregnant and she ended up having twins, one black and one white, because of it!”
Inspired by Chezi, I squeezed the meager, but potent juice from the fruits, mixed it with olive oil for salad dressing and made a small pitcher of delicious etrog-ade, though I’m definitely beyond child-bearing age!
As I delved further, a librarian friend lent me a rare copy of Samuel Tolkowsky’s landmark book Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits, published in England on the eve of World War II. According to Kirkpatrick, who owns a copy, the books were destroyed when the warehouse where they were stored was bombed by German aircraft. Only books that had already been shipped overseas survived. From Tolkowsky, I learn that Jews in Roman times used citrons to adorn the bridal chamber, its legendary perfume no doubt putting the newlyweds in the mood for love. About 1,500 years later, the great French Renaissance poet Ronsard wrote, “Oranges and citrons are symbols of love.” (In light of this, it’s not surprising that the classic French perfumer Guerlain has been making Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat [citron in French], a citron blossom scent, since 1920.)
The etrog is never identified in the Torah; the Sukkot fruit is simply identified as pri etz hadar, or “fruit of the goodly tree.” “Hadar” also means beauty or splendor, implying that goodness and beauty are inextricably connected. Naturally, Jews disagree as to just what constitutes beauty. For many, the most beautiful etrog has a wider bottom and a narrower top—a familiar shape to women! In the Sephardic community, long, narrow, ridged Moroccan etrogs are the ultimate in beauty.
The shapely etrog has long been a Jewish symbol of feminine beauty and goodness, with special powers attributed to it related to fertility and childbirth. With a little imagination, one can see that its plump, curvy shape echoes that of a woman’s body. “Unlike other fruits, it blossoms and sets fruit throughout the year, making it a symbol of immortality,” David Wiseman of The Esrog Farm told me. It is also unique among fruits because its female organ, or pitom, doesn’t drop off the ripe fruit, the probable reason for its status as a Jewish symbol of fertility.
The Talmud abounds with tales and segulot, or special treasures—actions that will lead to a change in fortune. According to one segulah, “One who eats eggs will have children with big eyes. One who eats fish will have graceful children. One who eats parsley will have beautiful children. One who eats coriander will have stout children. One who eats etrog will have fragrant children.” The etrog’s perfume was so penetrating that “the daughter of King Shapur, whose mother had eaten etrog [while she was pregnant] with her, used to be presented before her father as his principal perfume.”
A midrash suggests the etrog, not the apple, was the forbidden fruit Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. Because the pain of childbirth was Eve’s punishment, it is a tradition for a Jewish woman to bite off the tip of the etrog on Hoshana Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot) or Simchat Torah, then give charity and say a prayer: “Rescue me that I may give birth with ease, and without pain, and that neither I nor my child suffer any harm.” A woman in labor may also bite off the pitom and place it under her pillow to ease the pain; expectant mothers may make etrog jam and eat it on the 15th of Shevat, the New Year for Trees, in hopes of an easy delivery. Russian Jewish women often sent a gift of etrog marmalade to a new mother.
Whether because of its connection to Eve, its feminine shape, its special powers or its tantalizing perfume, for thousands of years, women and the fruit of the beautiful tree have had an intertwined relationship. After exploring etrog lore and sampling these recipes, I have decided to make the fruit a part of my life in years to come.
Etrog Bundt Cake
10 ounces (2 1/2 cups minus 2 tablespoons) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened
3 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
Grated zest of 2 etrogs (3 tablespoons); substitute the grated zest of 2 lemons and 1 lime
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, separated
1/4 cup chopped candied etrog
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated zest of 1 etrog (about 1 tablespoon ); substitute lemon
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons chopped candied etrog, for garnish
Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spray 1 (12-cup) Bundt pan or 2 (6-cup) loaf pans with nonstick coating.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, then add the cream cheese and beat until the mixture is soft and creamy, scraping down the sides once or twice. Beat in the sugar, lemon juice, zest and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the flour mixture and candied etrog peel. Scrape the batter into the pan.
Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake starts to come away from the sides of the pan and a skewer stuck in the center comes out clean. Cool to room temperature.
Make the glaze: In a bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, zest and confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Spoon over the cooled cake and leave to set, about 15 minutes. Decorate the cake with chopped candied etrog rind. Store the cake covered and at room temperature for up to two days, or cover and refrigerate up to 1 week. This cake freezes well, wrapped in foil or freezer paper, up to 3 months.
Yield: 1 large Bundt cake or 2 loaves, 12 to 16 servings
Torta di Savoia: Citron-Scented Sponge Cake
1/2 pound (2 cups minus 2 tablespoons) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) potato starch or cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 large eggs, separated
1 1/3 cups sugar
Grated zest of 1 citron (substitute 1 tablespoon lemon zest plus 1 teaspoon grapefruit zest)
1/4 cup etrog liqueur or limoncello
1/4 pound (3/4 cup) diced candied citron; substitute candied lemon
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 10-inch ring or Bundt pan with nonstick baker’s coating or rub with flour and dust with flour, shaking off the excess.
Whisk together the flour, starch and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, 5 to 6 minutes. Beat in the citron zest and transfer the batter to a wide, shallow bowl.
In a separate clean and greaseless bowl of a standing mixer, beat the egg whites until they are fluffy, then beat in the remaining sugar and continue beating until firm and glossy, 4 to 5 minutes.
Using a silicone spatula, fold one-third of the egg white mixture gently but thoroughly into the yolk mixture. Sprinkle with some of the flour mixture, sprinkle with limoncello and candied citron, fold in another portion of whites, sprinkle with more flour and repeat.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the cake starts to come away from the sides of the pan and a skewer stuck in the center comes out clean. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Store at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap, for 2 to 3 days, or wrap and freeze up to 3 months.
Yield: One 10-inch Bundt cake, 12 to 16 servings
Biscotti Rococò: Cookie Rings With Candied Citron
3/4 pound (2 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon) unbleached all-purpose flour6 ounces (1 cup) blanched almonds2 teaspoons finely crushed baker’s ammonia*, substitute baking powder1 teaspoon ground cinnamon1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt1 1/4 cups sugar2 ounces (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut up and softenedGrated zest of 1 citron or lemon (1 tablespoon)Grated zest of 1 tangerine or orange (4 teaspoons)1/2 cup sweet Marsala, sherry or Madeira2 eggs, lightly beaten1/4 pound (1 cup) diced candied citron peel1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for the egg washLine two 18- x 13-inch sheet pans (or other large baking pans) with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, half the almonds, the baker’s ammonia, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt, and process until finely ground. Remove from the processor and reserve. In the processor, chop the remaining almonds to a medium-coarse texture.In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the sugar, butter and zests until creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the Marsala, then the eggs (don’t worry if the mixture resembles scrambled eggs). Beat in the candied citron peel and chopped almonds, and then add the flour mixture. Beat only until combined enough for the mixture to form large, moist clumps.Knead lightly by hand just until the mixture forms a ball, then allow the dough to rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes.Preheat the oven to 325°F. Divide the dough into about 48 small balls about the size of a walnut. Roll each ball on a lightly floured work surface into a stick about 1/2 inch wide and 3 inches long. Shape each stick into a ring, overlapping the ends and pressing them together to seal. Transfer the rings to the pans, allowing about 1 inch in between. Brush the rings with the egg wash and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly colored and firm. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Store in a cookie tin or an airtight container for up to 1 week. Yield: 48 cookies*Buy baker’s ammonia, ammonia carbonate, from The Baker’s Catalogue: www.kingarthurflour.com.
Serves 11 1/2 ounces vodka, preferably frozen1/2 ounce Bartenura etrog liqueur or homemade etrog liqueur, preferably frozen1 strip etrog or lemon peelSuperfine sugarIceCombine the vodka and liqueur in a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice cubes and shake vigorously to chill well. If desired, rub the rim of a martini glass with the peel to release its oil, then dip the rim in superfine sugar. Pour the contents of the cocktail shaker into the glass, and serve immediately.
Puncture holes in your etrog using a metal skewer and fill each hole with a whole clove. Once the etrog has dried and hardened, the cloves will remain in place, releasing a wondrous aroma of citrus and spice for Havdalah.
Israeli Candied Etrog
Order soft, juicy candied etrog slices from www.ohnuts.com (888-664-6887). Find etrog liqueur at Sukkah Hill Spirits.
Etrog’s SPIRITUAL CONNECTIONS
See the forthcoming book 9 Spiritual Months: A Treasury of Jewish Insights for Pregnancy, Birth, & Beyond by Michael Chaim Green for more etrog segulot: rabbimichaelgreen.com/books
The Esrog Farm
David Wiseman of Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm offers complete sets of lulavim and esrogim available for shipping anywhere in the USA. www.esrogfarm.com
Aliza Green, the Philadelphia-based cookbook author, journalist and pioneering chef, is the author of many highly successful cookbooks, including Starting with Ingredients: Baking Recipes. Her next book, The Magic of Spice Blends, will be published by Quarry Books in December 2015. To learn more about Aliza Green or to contact her about speaking to your group, go to www.alizagreen.com.