Baking Traditional Bread: reviewing 100 Best Jewish Recipes by Jewish cook book legend6 min read
In Jewish culture, cooking is survival. Not survival meaning sustenance, but as a means for preserving tradition and a way of life for a group of people that has never occupied more than two percent of the world’s population. While Jewish diet and gastronomy has changed over time, the laws remain firm. There are prohibitions on shellfish, pork, carrier, and birds of prey. Only fish with fins and scales, beasts that chew the cud and have cloven hooves, and birds that have been slaughtered according to the Law can be consumed. Most non-Jews are aware of the rules surrounding dairy and meat. It’s these traditions that unite Jews past and present.
Our diaspora is ever-changing and constantly adapting to the cultures of the countries where Jews live. “Jewish food is no stranger to innovation – how else could it have survived as a recognizable cuisine through so many vicissitudes of fortune?” asks legendary cookbook author Evelyn Rose.
As a Jew, learning and growing through the aptly named ‘vicissitude of fortune’, I love seeking out new Jewish cookbooks to enhance Shabbat dinners and to bring out on holidays. Last year, I reviewed The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig and within the pages were Georgian, British, and North African recipes that have become part of Jewish culture. This year, I’m excited to review 100 Best Jewish Recipes by Evelyn and Judi Rose and share some of the Eastern European and Yiddish traditions that are proudly represented on its pages.
Defining Jewish food
Evelyn Rose (1925-2003) was the author of the highly-acclaimed The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook and considered a world authority on Jewish food. She was the food editor of the Jewish Chronicle for over three decades. In this book, her daughter Judi selects some of her most beloved recipes. Over one thousand recipes were printed in The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook and Judi does the difficult task of only selecting one hundred.
The beautiful cover and updated photographs of the same beloved recipes make this a cookbook worth purchasing and trying out.
Soup of the day
Evelyn defines Jewish food as food that Jews eat. I immediately think about food of the holidays, but truthfully, anything that a Jew eats regularly should be considered Jewish cuisine, if we use Evelyn’s terms. This concept certainly comes to mind as I thumb through the recipe for Haimische Winter Soup, comfort food for nineteenth-century Russian and Polish peasants. It was considered the main dish of the day, as its hearty broth is protein-rich with legumes and cereals. Haimische uses split peas, red lentils, pearl barley, navy beans, and in a celebration of wealth that only contemporary Jews can know – the occasional beef shank.
Mothers Milchike Soup is also a recipe that comes to mind as food that Jews eat. Milchike was made to celebrate summer in the villages of the Pale of Settlement. Milchike uses onion, potatoes, carrots, and milk to form the frothy medium for health and wealth. This soup is typically accompanied by a tiny knaidlach, or matzo ball, made with butter instead of chicken fat. With an assortment of some of springtime’s best vegetables, I’m instantly transported to the bliss that is the first days of summer in Russia.
First bread experiment: Rye
Soup aside, another daily food for Jews is bread. I picked two bread recipes to try out from 100 Best Jewish Recipes – rye bread and challah.
“‘There is nothing new under the sun,’ and of no spree is this aphorism from Ecclesiastes more true than the world of food and cooking. My own knowledge of only the sum of that accumulated by hundreds of generations of Jewish women who have cooked before me”, author Evelyn Rose bids the reader farewell on the last page. While I don’t have a family recipe for either bread, I was eager to learn from the expertise of the women that inspired Evelyn’s recipe.
Evelyn’s rye is supposed to be simpler than most, and the result – a light, moist, delicious loaf. Her recipe makes three breads in one, which is my favorite way to cook. I love having leftovers and saving part of the recipe to cook another time. I also love making embellishments to each of the loaves and I learn more and more. For example, the recipe cites topping the bread with caraway seeds but I’d love to do an egg wash or garlic water wash on the next two.
The rye bread required yeast, brown sugar, rye float, salt, caraway seeds, and beer. I used a local Pilsner beer, though such a light beer is difficult to find in my native Vermont. The recipe is somewhat difficult to follow and not the simple recipe I was hoping for. The first paragraph tells you to mix yeast, brown sugar, both flours, salt, and seeds together, adding beer and water at the end.
However, the second paragraph states a variation of the same thing. I didn’t read the second paragraph before beginning and probably ruined my dough from the start. The second paragraph tells you to add beer to the yeast mixture, and flour and seeds at the end. This is practically the opposite order of the previous steps!
That was confusing and I wish it had been condensed into one chronological paragraph instead of two contradicting paragraphs. Regardless, my rye bread came out… not fine, but came out. After a day of proofing, 25 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, it looked as it should but it was not the best texture. My bread was heavy, as beer was added much later instead of the first step.
Second bread experiment: Challah
Having created a semi-edible rye bread, you’d think I have learned from the first recipe. Nope. In the recipe for challah, a similar barrier exists. The first two paragraphs say to mix yeast and then “the rest of the ingredients.” This is where I really could have used a list of the “rest of the ingredients”. I added salt, flour, honey, and oil. But somehow forgot the egg, as it was last on the list. I didn’t realize this until the second day after I had proofed my dough.
I’ve never heard of an egg-less challah but I managed to make probably my family’s first vegan challah ever. After a day of proofing, and 25 minutes at 400 degrees, my challah was… hard as a rock. I could have used it to prop up my Torah for some dinnertime reading. It was beautiful, but not my best work by any means.
Disasters aside, this cookbook is part of a necessary anthology in documenting Jewish culture. While the directions could probably use some revision or at least a few testers before going into print, I appreciate this book for what it is and hope that every Jewish mom is fortunate enough to have a small library of Jewish cookbooks. Perhaps there are better guides for preparing rye and challah – until then, I’m still on the lookout for the perfect cookbook.
Book details: Rose, Evelyn & Rose, Judi. 100 Best Jewish Recipes, 2015. Interlink Publishing. It is available to buy here.