Two new Jewish cookbooks offer sure Chanukah hits
Hanukkah starts on Sunday at sunset and I am happy to report that I have found my menus and gifts. Two new Jewish cookbooks helped me get there: “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen” by Faith Kramer and “The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook: 50 Traditional Recipes for Every Occasion” by Beth A. Lee.
“52 Shabbats” (due out December 14) is built around the custom of Shabbat dinner, the Friday night festive meal which is the Jewish way of saying “welcome to the weekend”. The book is unique on many levels.
First, the main focus is one holiday meal – as opposed to all holidays or all meals in a holiday week – but that meal takes place every week. Some people may be content with the same menu every week, but Kramer obviously isn’t.
It embraces not only particular dishes from countries where Jews lived and adapted to the culinary culture, but also particular ingredients from those cuisines. Kramer’s recipes are rooted in classic Jewish preparations and have household names, but his unique twist often turns them completely into something new.
Breast becomes Breast of pomegranate molasses. Pulled pork becomes pulled turkey. Kramer also simplifies tedious traditional preparations and reuses ingredients in unusual ways, such as with stuffed cabbage meatloaf, falafel pizza, and breast fried rice.
Most of the recipes in the book are main dishes, which are organized by season and therefore use seasonal ingredients.
The pomegranate molasses breast is a star for me. It uses an ingredient used in Sephardic and mizrashi cuisines – pomegranate molasses – in the Ashkenazi preparation of the brisket. The result is reminiscent of fesenjan, the Persian-style chicken and pomegranate stew, and you can’t help but pass out enjoying the tender brisket and that tangy sauce, just a little too tangy.
Inspired by the story of a friend of a Mexican American grandmother who made kosher Hanukkah tamales for her Jewish grandchildren, Kramer’s Friday night tamales use Ashkenazi beef tzimmes (a stew of meat and fruit) as a tamale garnish. The masa is made with schmaltz (melted chicken fat) instead of lard (the pork fat in masa harina is what makes tamales off-limits to Jews who adhere to food laws). Z’hug and harissa are suggested instead or with salsa.
Stuffed Cabbage Meatloaf cuts down on hours of futzing to fill and roll cabbage leaves one by one to just minutes of layering and wrapping several cabbage leaves around a large meatloaf like wrapping a roast in puff pastry to make Beef Wellington.
And then there are the Challah donuts with sweet tahini sauce. This brilliant reuse of leftover challah got me hooked on the first bite. A thin crisp and crunchy crust envelops a soft interior, distinctly banana and not too sweet. They’re a bit like a fried banana challah french toast.
I applaud Kramer’s ingenuity. She’s put together a collection of imaginative, familiar but different recipes suitable for a holiday dinner that comes back every week. And the recipes, clearly written and simple, are also suitable for other holidays. Everyone who ate something I made from the book had nothing but good things to say. The tahini mashed potatoes prompted a question from a friend who ate them at my table, “Why didn’t we always put tahini in our mashed potatoes?” “
While “52 Shabbats” focuses primarily on entrees and offers a few desserts for Shabbat dinners, Lee’s “The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook” (published in hardcover Oct. 5) is a collection of traditional Jewish baked goods, both sweet and savory. Many are associated with particular holidays such as Challah, Matzo Farfel Kugel, Hamantaschen and Macarons, others with daily meals, such as Bourekas, Deli-Style No-Knead Rye Bread, and Black-and-White Cookies and Knishes.
Lee has identified 50 iconic Jewish baked goods such as honey cake, rugelach, kugel, and knishes which she says are classics in Jewish baking. While most of the recipes are of Ashkenazi origin (where she originated), Sephardic and mizrachi preparations are also represented.
Rather than giving tradition a twist, Lee snuggles up and just polishes it up a bit. She updated the techniques to include modern methods and tools, especially stand beaters, which are equipped with a dough hook.
There are recipes for breads, pastries (sweet and savory), cookies, cakes and more. The first chapter contains his Bubbe challah recipe, which was part of the inspiration for this book. It produces two magnificent challahs: mellow, mellow and dense.
Other recipes include A Hero’s Chocolate Babka (the genre that Jerry and Elaine missed in the famous “Seinfeld” episode); Ready for Lox Homemade Bagels (the kind of people who make special trips to New York City to shop and lug home by the dozen) and Malawach, a tasty Yemeni flatbread and puff pastry popular in Israel.
There are holiday recipes such as Apple Shortcut and Taiglach for Rosh Hashanah, Chocolate Covered Almond and Coconut Macaroons and Matzo Farfel Kugel for Passover, Hamantaschen for Purim, and Blintz Casserole for Shavuot. And for Hanukkah, in addition to the obligatory Sufganiyot (jelly donuts), there are also Bimuelos (donuts soaked in syrup), olive oil cake (Marble Pound Cake) and olive oil. olive Hamantaschen.
While the recipes for “Essential Jewish Pastry” don’t necessarily innovate in the way of “52 Shabbat,” they are well written and easy to follow. Lee offers advice and encouragement to novice bakers. She tells a story with each recipe and gives credit to the many friends and acquaintances she acquired them from.
Perfect for aspiring Jewish bakers, the book is also a handy collection of “Biggest Hits” for those who enjoy cooking centuries-old meals for Jewish holidays. Lee’s enthusiasm for his subject matter and his friendly, approachable style make him a good read in addition to being informative.
Obviously, I’ll be serving Kramer’s Pomegranate Molasses Breast and Tahini Mashed Potatoes at my Hanukkah table, along with these Challah donuts (did I mention they’re also suitable for Chanukah? ). Lee’s Bimuelos and Marble Pound Cake will probably adorn my table.
As to who will receive these cookbooks as gifts, I am not allowed to reveal at this time.