By the middle of Passover, the only thing I crave is lettuce and cucumber. It is the start of my clean eating time; I’m ready to replenish the house with only foods that are clean and fresh and pure — nothing processed and, for me at least, certainly no meat, chicken, or matza balls. I am happiest in a veggie state of mind right after this holiday.
So, instead of recipes this week, I’m presenting a couple of excellent new foodie books that can fill our minds with great reading and let our tummies have a rest. I guarantee no one ever gained weight from reading a book, unless they make all the recipes in it, which you just might be tempted to do.
I loved these books and I think you will enjoy them also. One has lots of recipes, one has just a few, but both are worth a few hours of your time and I promise you will be inspired and entertained.
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The hottest book to hit the Jewish food book market this spring is The 100 Most Jewish Foods, by Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine. I read this from cover to cover and then made gribenes for the first time in a decade or more. After reading the book, I longed for that special aroma and indescribable flavor of my early childhood in my grandmother’s apartment. I collected the chicken skin with the help of my butcher and added a ton of onions. I rendered and cooked and soon the house was eliciting memories of the tiny white octagonal tiles that made up the floor of her entryway and the smooth marble stairs that led to her apartment — the perfume of rising challot and rendering chicken fat wafting through the air. I will use the chicken fat for my potato kugel for the Sedorim. Why gribenes? Because there are actually two mentions of this long-eschewed delicacy — gribenes and schmaltz!
This book is delicious! It is meant to be read slowly, digested like a big, filling meal. It is purposely designed to bring back those memories of long-gone appetizer stores, delis, and bakeries, meals in Grandma’s kitchens, and foods no longer available.
Another long-forgotten, Jewish food are the chicken eggs — eyerlech, as my grandmother called them — that long ago came with cut-up chickens. Eggs? Not what we know at all. When I was a child, the butcher would bring the cut-up chicken; the feet were in the package and so was a small glass jar of these golden egg yolks. My mother would slip them into the chicken soup, and, once cooked, my brother and I would fight over them.
Somehow, my grandmother always had a large bowl of those cooked golden orbs on the table for Passover. She had to; eleven grandchildren fought over them! She gave them to the youngest or thinnest in the belief that they would make us better eaters or help us grow. As one of the youngest, and certainly the pickiest eater, I often got them and my older cousins would steal them off the plate! Today these are no longer sold, as they cannot be tested for salmonella, but the entry in the book brought back memories.
As the title states, this is a “highly debatable list,” which may be true depending on your age. I can still remember calf’s foot jelly, those eggs in the soup, fish in my grandmother’s bathtub, and homemade challah every week. I am less familiar with Sephardic dishes like shakshuka and adafina and carciofi alla giudia — that’s baby artichokes, Jewish style. Still, it is wonderful to see these dishes from around the world included in this list, which, I am sure, will be the focal point of much debate during the coming months!
The 100 Most Jewish Foods was so much fun that I called a friend and read her some of excerpts. What makes it even better is the recipe that follows each of these iconic foods, so you can replicate each at home.
Are there foods missing? Well, where are the knishes? My brother once alarmed our parents when he announced that he was going to a bar mitzvah with the KKK — kishke, knishes, and kreplach! There was a time when these were served at all such affairs.
Are other foods missing? Probably, but with 100 foods and almost as many recipes, this is a book that will keep a reader busy for a long, long time. And, how can a book that includes Hydrox cookies, black-and-whites, and cheesecake not be fun? There is even the case for making “leftovers” a Jewish food!
Treat yourself to this wonderful, fun book and learn a bit of history, a bit of gastronomy and a whole lot about what makes us all love all those delicious foods that are so much a part of our lives. You may even decide to try some of the iconic foods from the other half of our people, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardic!
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I love making challah. The perfume of yeast in a warm kitchen is homey and welcoming and, yes, brings back my grandmother. I love the physical activity of kneading bread. I sing while I knead, sometimes out loud, or sometimes in a quiet hum depending on my mood. I have laughed as I daydream or remember something funny one of my kids said, and I have cried many times, missing my dad, or a friend, or my dear cousin who died suddenly on the first night of Pesach several years ago.
I used kneading for physical therapy after my shoulder was shattered in a freak accident. I was told to that, someday, I might be able to raise my arm parallel to the ground. Today, I can easily reach my highest shelf and swim long lazy laps in a serviceable crawl. I credit long hours of kneading challot with strengthening the muscles of my arm and shoulder. I can even pick up my toddler grandson, at 32 pounds, with no pain!
So this all brings me to Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs, by Beth Ricanati, MD. This is not a recipe book — though it does have recipes — but a spiritual journey of how making challah regularly brought stability and calm to the life of a super busy mother and doctor.
I loved this book. I began reading it at my desk and soon took it to my den, where I curled up in a recliner, cuddled up with my furry throw, and read until the last page. Once finished, I wanted to start again. I wanted to go and bake challah immediately. I wanted to make challah every week for the rest of my life. That was the impact of this book.
We are all too busy. I watch my daughter juggle an intensely demanding job while mothering an energetic toddler, taking care of a new house, driving a long commute, and awaiting the birth of her next child. I wonder how she does it. I worry for her and her friends who are all in the same position. I watch my friends who are still working long hours, fearful of retirement for many reasons. I watch newly retired friends who have been called into action to babysit or pick up grandchildren after school and more. No snowbird lifestyle for them!
Stress is a major part of our lives these days, and, as Dr. Ricanati states, it is a killer. One Friday, not knowing if she could face another day, she made challah. The act of kneading the dough, the physical pressure and rhythm soothed her. She began to make it every Friday and has continued to do so for ten years.
This is a book that will take you a place of peace rooted in ancient ritual. I know that when I knead the dough, I find that place in my soul that allows me to escape the anxiety-producing moments of life and settle down, as the flour, yeast, and eggs and more become smooth and strong and elastic. I am truly in the moment and I feel the special rhythm as I push the heel of my hand into the soft dough again and again. As I turn it, oiled side up, I relax, knowing the wonderful smell of yeasty dough fills the house with its wonderful smell.
Ricanati writes about everything, from the honey she uses, which comes from a friend who saved a fallen beehive, to using the same bowl, the same utensils and more. Her “sidebars” are interesting and add much to the tone of this introspective book. One of the moments that resonated with me was when she discovered that she was not kneading the dough long enough. As she kneaded the next challah longer, she felt the dough change and take on a new feeling. I understood that immediately. Being present in the process allows you to feel when the dough becomes just right, just the perfect consistency for making a perfect challah.
Read this and take it all in, then make some challah. I hope you will be able to find the peace and tranquility that I find when I make a challah, and about which Ricanati has so beautifully written.