Those who suffer from claustrophobia but possess a deep and abiding love of Jewish food — especially when it’s being given away in free samples — always have to face the cost-benefit analysis when considering whether to attend Kosherfest. The annual two-day mega food conference held at the Meadowlands Expo each year draws thousands of food-industry professionals and kosher certifiers, and no shortage of mommy bloggers, Instagram celebrities and hungry press representatives with eyes bigger than their stomach (my very own category!).
If, like me, you decide you can continue repressing childhood memories of shopping with your mother at KRM Kollel in Boro Park during the pre-Pesach season to see what’s innovative and exciting in the world of kosher food, you might come up with a list of “best in show” similar to my own, below:
1) POUND CAKES
The best desserts I tasted were the bread pudding and cream cheese, chocolate, and banana pudding pound cakes made from mixes by King’s Choice, a company owned by LaTonya King.
LaTonya was also one of the most engaging business owners I spoke with: It’s not easy to keep smiling and maintain your enthusiasm about your product to passersby — no matter how much you want to engage a distributor or writer — when you’ve been doing it on a nonstop loop for nearly two days. LaTonya graciously shared some background about her company with me, as well as the story of how her longtime packaging company suggested she broaden her customer base by making her products kosher, which, thankfully, she did, just in time for Kosherfest. Moist, rich and delicious, these cakes are only an OU Dairy mix away from an authentic-tasting dessert you can easily pretend you made from scratch.
2) VEGAN SCHWARMA
Vegan schwarma by Jasmine Gourmet tasted so authentic I almost think you could successfully swap it into a Golan Heights laffa and get away with it (and yes, those are the horrified screams of Washington Heights-area carnivores you hear in the background). Gluten-free with no preservatives, the shawarma comes in several flavors like teriyaki and Mexican and was one of the best non-dessert things I ate at Kosherfest this year.
3) CHOCOLATE QUINOA
Two chocolate-enrobed quinoa products were particularly amazing: Toffee Thins by Blissfully Better was one of the best chocolate products I ate, while Israeli company Home Made also had delicious bite-size quinoa chocolate bars, as well as a host of other varieties of chocolates with healthful additions like hazelnuts and dates.
There were a lot of granola products, which made sense given the continuing health-food trend we’ve been seeing at Kosherfest for years. Grandma Emily’s Granola was delicious and low sugar, and my own neighborhood company — Englewood’s Granolachik — is delicious, especially the vanilla coconut variety. Both granolas would pair perfectly for breakfast with the Rise Nitro Cold Brew Coffee, nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee made using filtered water. It was very smooth and packed the perfect caffeinated punch for me to continue making the rounds of eating while dodging errant elbows and overpacked sample bags.
5) PASSOVER-FRIENDLY BEER
Ginger Tipple, a Belgium-based company, gets points for a creative marketing campaign and a truly innovative product: a ginger beer-style drink that tastes just like regular beer, in all its glutinous glory — but this drink is kosher for Passover. And because it’s never too early to start thinking about Pesach (my own mother starts mentally drafting her cleaning schedule in the waning hours of Sukkot), there were other kosher-for-Passover products that drew large crowds, especially the printed matzos from Matzohgram. Why anyone would need printed matzohs is beyond me — to engage little kids in the seder, I suppose? — but it was definitely a standout product, if only because people like me were standing there wondering how the Jewish people have yet to figure out peace in the Middle East but have discovered how to print kosher-for-Passover edible dye on unleavened bread.
I noticed a lot of companies getting creative with nature’s candy. While dried fruit has long been relegated to the “untouchables” table in Passover program tea rooms, I enjoyed the dried ripened jackfruit from iGood. Jackfruit is the hottest thing in the vegetarian world now because, when grilled or sautéed, it tastes surprisingly like meat (cue that horrified screaming again!). As I chewed on that dried jackfruit thoughtfully, it was almost like munching on beef jerky. The Bare Fruit smoothies — vegan and all-natural were delicious — but my favorite fruit creation was the purple yam banana coconut and guava purple yam banana chips by Oh So Healthy. If I hide the company’s name, I bet even my kids would eat them.
7) BLACK CURRANT BARBECUE SAUCE
Mikee Sauces are always good and handy to have in your kitchen for an easy stir-fry dinner, but their latest offerings, Tandoori-style curry simmer sauces, ramp it up a notch. I loved the spinach-curry one I tried. But I was even more taken with homegrown Oregon company, Pure Wild Oregon, which was relegated to a corner with much less foot traffic but which offered original and delicious ketchups and barbecue sauces in flavors like cherry chipotle, black currant and Kentucky bourbon.
8) ICE CREAM
Sprinkles Ice Cream will be offering some new coated ice cream bars in the freezer section, my favorite of which is the Razzle bars — vanilla ice cream coated in milk chocolate and Razzle mix, a topping and mix-in comprised of chocolate, crushed cookies, sprinkles and rice krispies. If you don’t know what Razzle mix is, stop and go to Sprinkles, and order a Razzle sundae. While across the room, Baker’s Choice is now offering Razzle Mix (a New Product winner) — just add peanut or almond butter and pour over ice cream for the easiest dessert ever.
9) DAIRY-FREE HAZELNUT CHOCOLATE SPREAD
Parvella. In case you can’t parse it from the name alone, this is a pareve hazelnut-chocolate spread. Made in Italy and absent of palm oil, Parvella tastes like a higher-quality and more decadent version of Nutella, if possible. It won last year’s Best in Show award at Kosherfest and rightfully remains on most people’s favorites list from this year, too. It’s available in intense hazelnut, hazelnut and vanilla, coffee and smooth orange.
There were no real “new” trends in the world of kosher food that I observed, other than the continuing craze for junk food disguised as health food, more gluten-free options for those on restricted diets, and a wider variety of more pas Yisroel products to mimic what is available in the rest of the kosher world for the more stringent subset of kosher consumers.
Personally, I found the salted caramel frizza (frozen pizza, get it?) from Elegant Desserts a little overhyped.
Not that it wasn’t delicious, but months after Dunkin Donuts came out with Polar Pizza, is ice cream pizza really so innovative and worthy of Best Dessert, especially when it’s basically just ice cream molded into a specific shape?
I think people just get excited about the word pizza, and if you want a genuine pizza product over which to get excited, spend your energy on Gino’s Deep Dish Pizza — in spinach and cheese varieties — which won Best in Show and is not only OU D certified but pas Yisroel AND cholov Yisroel. It’s authentic Chicago-style deep dish pizza, and, while they weren’t offering any samples by the time I got to Kosherfest late in the second day, I got a coupon for a free pie, went straight to the supermarket to purchase it and tried it that night — and it’s real, and it’s spectacular.
Tova Ross is a communications professional and freelance writer. She has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Tablet Magazine and the Forward. She currently works as the Director of Communications at a private day school and lives in New Jersey with her family.