Taste Testing ‘Jewish Festival Food’

This is an occasional column in which the writer evaluates a new cookbook by making some of its recipes, sharing the dishes with friends and asking her guests what they think of the results. She recently cooked her way through “Jewish Festival Food: Eating for Special Occasions” (Lorenz Books) by Marlena Spieler.

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When I first saw this book — with its shtetl art on the cover and recipes for the usual suspects such as challah, chopped liver and honey cake — I’m not going to lie: I got a bit antsy. Perhaps I’m becoming jaded after doing this column for over two years (and more importantly, after a lifetime of cooking and eating the Jewish classics), but it was hard to muster any enthusiasm about taste-testing this book, because it didn’t have the sex appeal that so many new cookbooks have these days, with their impressive heft and perfectly styled cover images. In contrast, this book is small and unimpressive looking.

This is the case with the text, too. It’s small, which, when you’re following a recipe and need to find the next instruction at an easy glance, takes more effort than I would like.

I most likely would have overlooked “Jewish Festival Food,” but January is a slow time on the publishing calendar, so with no other Taste Tests scheduled I decided to crack it open.

If you’ve figured out that this is one of those “don’t judge a book by its cover” reviews, you’re correct. Because despite the less-than-sexy exterior, once I looked through it, I found the book to contain more than a few recipes worth trying.

It’s almost as if this book were railing against everything we’ve come to expect from cookbooks in recent years. While there are photos of each dish (and several smaller images showing the steps along the way), there is no information about the author to be found, anywhere. Considering that on Marlena Spieler’s website it says that she has written or contributed to over 70 cookbooks and has won numerous awards, and that her book “Yummy Potato” got her invited to the high Andes of Peru for the 2008 U.N. Year of the Potato Conference (yes, there really was such a thing), it’s strange that there isn’t the slightest mention of who she is or what she’s done. In this era of personality-driven cookbooks it’s both refreshing and strange to receive a book with absolutely no sense of the personality behind it — especially since once I began getting to know her a bit on Facebook (she used to live in San Francisco and we have many friends in common), it became clear that she definitely has one.

Reading through the book, I found I missed the personal voice. After all, so much of this food is about nostalgia and memories of seders past, with family members who are no longer with us, that it seems somehow lacking to be discussing foods like gefilte fish, charoset and chopped liver without any discussion of how Spieler’s grandma used to make them.

But once I got beyond that, I found some great recipes. So let’s get to them, shall we?

The book starts with a comprehensive introduction to all the Jewish festivals and how they are observed, and discusses the traditional foods eaten for each one. There’s nothing really new here, but it’s a good primer for those who may need such a thing.

The chapters are broken down according to the major holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Passover, with two more chapters for “Other Festivals” and “Family Feasts.” It’s worth noting that Sephardi and Mizrachi foods and traditions are found throughout the book.

I decided to cook a mix of more traditional foods and some less so, and enlisted the help of two guests who were each willing to take a recipe. Since we had a vegetarian coming and I wanted to try a chicken dish, perhaps I went overboard in making sure there was enough to eat. (I’m Jewish. Enough said.)

While I didn’t try Spieler’s challah (I have perfected my own recipe) we started with her vegetarian chopped liver and a Libyan spicy pumpkin dip to go with it. I would have done the “liver” by itself, but since my CSA box contained a butternut squash, which Spieler said would work as well as pumpkin in the dip, I thought, why not?

The pumpkin dip was similar to one I made last year from Janna Gur’s “Jewish Soul Food,” but the recipe was different enough. The squash is cooked with onions, garlic and chile, a bit of pureed tomato and numerous spices, with a touch of lemon juice and cilantro to finish. While Gur’s recipe called for harissa and preserved lemon, this one did not. We all loved it as it was, but felt it could be enhanced by the addition of some preserved lemon. Butternut and pumpkin are so often taken in the sweet direction, and this is an excellent way to spice them up. Our friend Emily appreciated that the texture wasn’t mushy, while her boyfriend, Chaim, said the flavor profile reminded him of Indian food.

The vegetarian chopped liver was not that different than a classic recipe in the old Moosewood cookbook, except that this one adds peas to the green beans, walnuts, onions and hard-boiled eggs. Our friend Carle, who made it, was a bit flummoxed to see that it called for three onions, and was afraid they would dominate, but after caramelizing them, the flavor was fine.

While Chaim wasn’t enticed to try the “liver” when he first saw it (it was pale green), he was glad he got over the visuals. Carle’s partner, Adam, pronounced it “light and airy; not dense like chopped liver,” and noted that it would go with anything. (As to whether it actually tastes like the real thing, it does, but is much lighter and without that certain funk that the real one has.)

Next we moved onto a salad course. Emily made a Moroccan vegetable salad with multicolored bell pepper slices, cucumbers, sliced potatoes, black olives, mint and cilantro with a garlic vinaigrette. It was simple but delicious. “I wouldn’t think I’d need a recipe for a salad like this but it’s really good,” Emily said. My husband Paulie thought the olive-potato combination gave the dish a bit of a niçoise feel. We all enjoyed it immensely, agreeing we’d like to make it again.

Next came Lubiya, an Israeli Sephardic soup of black-eyed peas in a spiced tomato broth. While everyone loved it, we agreed that the spicing was very similar to that of the squash dip. (It was my oversight in planning that I didn’t notice this.)

For the main course, I served Doro Wat, an Ethiopian chicken dish, mostly because one can never have too many Shabbat chicken dishes in her repertoire. Also, I had never made Ethiopian food for Shabbat before, and while I could have swapped in cayenne or paprika, I chose to go to the Ethiopian market nearby and get some berbere spice blend and injera, the spongy bread made of teff, to serve with the chicken.

“Long-simmered Ethiopian stews, known as wats, are often made for Shabbat,” Spieler writes in the headnote. Having never been served one myself, I wondered whether she meant that this was the case only in Ethiopian Jewish households.

The stew begins with a base of onions, ginger and garlic. (A recipe for four people calls for six to eight onions, which seemed way too much, so I used much less.) Strained or diced tomatoes are added with a bit of stock and spices, and the chicken is simmered in the liquid until done, when some hard-boiled eggs are added to give it an almost cholent-like feel. I chose to brown the chicken first even if that wasn’t quite traditional, because who likes limp chicken skin? We all loved this dish, especially with the injera to eat it with.

Berbere is one of those spice blends you have to use with caution, and I did, so it had just the right level of heat. Adam appreciated that I didn’t chop the ginger as finely as I could have (both out of laziness and because I just really love ginger) and Emily noticed how well-integrated all the flavors were.

For dessert, I chose to make a Polish apple cake. While it was perfectly fine, the recipe had some issues. Mainly, it said to use a “12- x 15-inch square cake tin (pan).” Obviously, 12 x 15 does not a square make, but trying to follow the spirit of the directions I reached for the only square pan I had, which in retrospect was a huge mistake. It was only 9 x 9, which meant quite a bit of the cake ended up on the oven floor. It also baked rather unevenly: The outside got dry and brown while the inside still needed more time.

The perfectly cooked parts were quickly devoured, with Adam declaring it “the perfect cake to serve at a Hadassah lunch with black Lipton tea.”

Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in Oakland, California, and the author of the blog TheOrganicEpicure.com

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