The High Holidays are approaching — a time of celebration! Reflection! Brief starvation sandwiched in between two large meals! And much more. Tis the season to gorge ourselves on Judaism — standing for hours in shul, reading responsively, shuckling plaintively, and mouthing along in spiritual ecstasy while mentally strategizing the starting lineup for our fantasy football teams.
Meals — Erev Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur break fast — anchor these holidays. But between locking down tickets, delivering thoughtful apologies, and picking out the perfect pair of white sneakers to debut in synagogue, hosting often seems like too much work. But if you’ve ever eaten Chipotle solo right before Yom Kippur, you know it’s not ideal. We asked six millennial Jewish cooking and entertaining experts for tips, and they came through.
First up: Molly Yeh, the pistachio-loving prophet of the Jewish food-influencer world.
What’s your favorite High Holiday food?
For Rosh Hashanah: Potato challah! I started adding mashed potato to my challah dough and it makes it even fluffier and more tender. I can’t go back now.
For Yom Kippur: Bagels, but I have to make my own since I don’t have many bagel options in town. I have recipes for everything bagels and also potato bagels on my blog that are the chewiest and tastiest! (Editor’s note: We also recommend her everything bagel mac and cheese.)
Any hosting tips for first-time parents? Has having your daughter Bernie changed the way you host?
Take advantage of the fact that brisket and soup taste better the day after they’re made. Don’t feel the need to make everything. Store-bought elements or desserts as simple as perfectly ripe pomegranates or apples with honey (mixed with a little tahini or marzipan?!) are just fine! Bernie makes everything more special and also makes it so that our celebrations are earlier in the day, before her bedtime.
What should a first-time host keep in mind?
Leave enough time for the brisket to braise! And just make sure you have enough challah and wine on hand!
Any tips for those who aspire to host an awesome meal…and Instagram it too?
Always shoot in natural light. Which I realize is difficult when our holidays start at sundown! (Is there a Jewish Instagram joke somewhere in here?)
You can visit Molly Yeh’s blog here, and watch her show “Girl Meets Farm” on Sundays at 11AM EST on the Food Network.
Meet Jake Cohen, who believes in your ability to do more than just roast asparagus on a sheet pan:
Why are you so hyped about Jewish food?
Everyone who cooks, cooks with their heart and soul. A lot of it comes down to — what is my identity and how do I put it in the food I cook? Judaism was something I was starting to explore with my husband. I’m Ashkenazi and he’s an Iraqi Jew. He didn’t know what babka was, or gefilte fish — he had no understanding of Ashkenazi food and I had no understanding of what Mizrahic food was. I decided to put my all into it, and we’re still figuring out our Jewish identity as a couple.
How do you incorporate both in your food?
I put it like this — just like in the queer community we live in a homonormative society in which gay men have to stand up for other sects of the LGBT community, it’s the same with Ashkenazi food. We live in an Ashkenazi society where everyone knows babka and challah, and at the end of the day there are so many Jewish dishes that people have never heard of.
How can I make cooking for a group less stressful?
Prep. Jewish dishes are typically better the next day. So if you’re making a brisket or Persian ghormeh sabzi or kubeh or kugel, knock them out a day or even two days before, keep it in the fridge and then just pull it out and reheat it. Then roast veggies in schmaltz and call it a day.
Okay, but how do you make your food look so damn good?
Properly prepared recipes are going to be beautiful. And when I serve things I love to kind of zhuzh it up. Fresh herbs, chopped pistachios, sliced chilis, citrus zest — these are all things that add that little touch that makes something pretty, but mainly, adds flavor.
You can follow Jake Cohen’s luxurious cheese plates and crispy tahdigs here, and look out for his cookbook “Jew-ish” in Spring 2021.
Welcome to the candy-colored world of Rebekah Lowin, who is reviving the art of elegant entertaining for the Instagram age.
Why do you care if Jewish stuff looks cute? Why should I?
Like everybody, I read the news and I’m disheartened by the growing hate here and around the world. And simultaneously, I happen to work at a lifestyle women’s magazine. For six years, I’ve been writing about Christmas and Easter — and I find it fun cause those things are beautiful and I love my job. But I had this idea — How could I beautify Judaism in the same way that I work every single day to beautify Christian holidays? If, in small ways, we are able to be more proud to be outwardly and publicly Jewish, then we could create a sort of wider collective pride, and it’s possible that we would speak out louder about all Jewish issues and just be stronger and more united overall.
Tablescapes? Place cards? Really?
Those sorts of things feel like they belong to an older generation, probably because they’re tangible, and digital stuff feels like it’s more ours. But I think when you hand-write place cards or take the time to make sure that all the colors on the table match in whatever way you think is beautiful, you’re signaling to your guests that you care about them and you care that they have a good time. Perfect is the enemy of good.
What should I bring to someone else’s dinner?
Check first to see whether they keep kosher. I say stay away from food — a honey bowl is a really great gift for Rosh Hashanah! I think hostess gifts are more than just a polite gesture, especially when someone has put in effort and presumably spent some money for you. They’re almost like your ticket to the event.
What if I don’t feel Jewish enough to host a holiday?
As long as you set out with genuine respect for the traditions, no one will fault you. The world needs more Judaism, it needs more enthusiasm, and it needs more people getting together over dinner. If you can accomplish all three, you’re doing the world a favor.
Behind the gorgeous produce and perfectly plated ramen of Instagram’s The Chef’s is Adina Schlass, who casually cures her own gravlax.
Why is hosting so important to you?
I’ve always loved to feed my family, even before I was a mom. It’s the Jewish mother in all of us! I’m one of nine children, so coming together on the holidays has always been my favorite part of the year. And food is what brings people together; especially in Jewish culture it underlies every holiday and tradition.
How do you host without losing it?
I’m all about preparation. You will have such an easy time if everything is thought out and prepped beforehand. Like making sure you have a container of chopped herbs to finish off a dish with — your number one best friend is fresh herbs. And prepping everything in advance so you’ll be able to just throw it in the oven so you can be there with your guests.
Is it okay to ask guests to contribute a dish?
I think it creates a really nice ambiance when everyone is invested in the meal, and it also just takes a lot off your plate. So create a WhatsApp group, or something like that, where it becomes a collaboration.
Help us not mess up Yom Kippur break fast?
My number one thing is — nothing time-consuming! You want very easy stuff that you can buy the day before, prep in advance, and then put it out as soon as you get back from synagogue. I always have a fresh pot of soup that I make the day before, because that’s nice and comforting after 24 hours of fasting — and then I just put out whatever I would serve for a Sunday brunch. I usually make a gravlax with some fresh bagels and cut up veggies, just very fresh and wholesome.
Catch Adina’s vibrant platings, gorgeous bouquets, and original kosher recipes on her Instagram, The_Chefs_Wife.
Rabbi Jessica Minnen’s full-time job is helping millennials host Shabbat dinners. Her message to you? “You are enough.”
Why should I host on the holidays if it’s going to be so much work?
Consider this: if hosting on the night of the holiday seems out of reach, I’d love to introduce something called “Shabbat Shuvah” which is the Friday night between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It allows you to have the very first Shabbat of the year with reflection and intention and good friends and good food…and maybe some good wine.
How do I know if I am Jewish enough to host a holiday meal?
I would ask where those questions come from — whatever you know right now, whatever you have at your disposal right now, actually is enough. You are Jewish enough, you have enough space, you have enough resources. You know how to celebrate the New Year. Apply what you love about the secular new year to celebrating the Jewish new year, then layer on the meaning and the ritual that comes with Rosh Hashanah — the idea of reflection and return and trying to encounter our best selves.
Do you have a favorite break fast food?
To be perfectly honest I think that sometimes the fast has outsized importance. I would encourage us to think about other types of fasts, for those of us who either don’t want to or can’t abstain from eating food — maybe a fast from social media or a fast from thinking negatively about other people. I, for one, am nursing a baby and can’t go 25 hours without eating or drinking, so part of what I’m thinking about this year is not “how to make the fast go fast,” but how to nourish my soul, which is what the ritual of fasting is actually about. As an aside though: I’m a bagels and lox girl for break fast.
Vanessa Harper is an almost-rabbi with a unique side-hustle: making hella challah. She thinks you should try it, too.
Oh, almost-rabbi Vanessa! Is it really worth it to make your own challah?
Yes, it really is! Not only does it taste better than most store-bought challot and make your home smell fantastic, I find that the process of making challah by hand is rewarding on a spiritual level as well.
Fine! How do you avoid the curse of dry, dense, rock challah?
If you want fluffy challah, do not rush the rising. (And take a cue from the yeast — we all need rest in order to rise to our fullest potential!) Round challah is great for beginners, because you can just make one big strand and coil it up on itself to make a traditional spiral shape.
What’s your favorite thing to do with leftover challah?
I like to save the ends and leftover bits in a bag in the freezer, and when I accumulate enough, I make bread pudding.
Why have you made challah such a big part of your work?
With apologies to the gluten-averse, challah is often the most anticipated edible centerpiece of the holiday table and has a lot of resonance with Jews of many stripes, which makes it a perfect canvas for sharing Torah, starting a conversation about themes of the holiday, or whatever your goal happens to be. There’s also something beautiful in working with a material that is alive; every challah, every shape, is a co-creation, a collaboration between the inspiration of the text under study, your imagination, the work of your hands, the work of the yeast, and the environment that day.
You can see Harper’s challahs, from Genesis to the final portion of the Torah, on her Instagram, @lechlechallah.
College students, recent graduates, new parents, and anyone who has baked fewer than 36 kugels — go forth! Remember: Molly Yeh says there’s no shame in store-bought, Rebekah Lowin thinks you’re doing the world a favor, Jake Cohen believes Jewish food is good for love, and Rabbi Jessica Minnen thinks you are enough. Chag sameach, and get cooking.