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Bake Off

From chocolate cake to onion rolls, recent Jewish cookbooks offer a tantalizing range of recipes for Hanukkah treats to complement the latkes

Joan Nathan
December 19, 2011

Whenever my former editor, the venerable and recently retired Judith Jones, looks at a cookbook proposal, she asks herself whether the writer has anything new and worthwhile to contribute to the cookbook canon. For the most part, Jones selected winners: Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden, Lidia Bastianich, Madhur Jaffrey, and others.

Today, when there are so many cookbooks published each year, it’s difficult to know which one will make a long-term impact, especially when, as Child told me, none of them is perfect. Even her iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking had corrections well into the fifth printing.

What about Jewish cookbooks? I’ll narrow my task, by concentrating on Hanukkah baking recipes in the cookbooks I think made a difference in the past year or so.

I adored Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories From the Golden Age of Jewish Baking, by Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg. An obvious labor of love, it is the brainchild of Ginsburg, a retired writer and businessman with a longtime fondness for New York’s Jewish bakeries and the memory of his grandmother’s breads and cookies. In beautiful prose, he tells of the history of Eastern European baked goods and how they crossed the ocean to America. Each chapter teaches so much. Who knew, for instance, that in Lithuania Jews ate almond bagels for Purim, or that a bagel-making machine came into existence in 1962?

Through the website, Ginsburg found Berg, a commercial baker who worked at several bakeries in the Bronx. He provides recipes—though they refer to them in the book as “formulas.” That locution is not the only challenge here. Ginsburg and Berg instruct bakers to use the same doughs for many recipes (babka dough is used for cinnamon rings, Russian coffee cake, and, of course, babka) but the recipe is offered only on one page, which means you are flipping back and forth constantly. Though the recipes are scaled down from huge commercial amounts to something usable for a home cook, instructions use terms that are perhaps unfamiliar. For instance, they tell you to “degas” rather than “punch down” a dough. There are other incongruities. The recipe for onion rolls, for example, suggests three onion toppings to choose from, including dried onions, an ingredient most good home cooks would not use today, when fresh ones are available and taste better.

Despite these reservations, this is a real treat of a cookbook, one that will stay on my shelf and in my kitchen. That said, I recommend you read the whole recipe through a few times before you start cooking to ensure you don’t miss a step.

Another baking book that came out recently is Sarabeth Levine’s Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours. Best-known for her line of jams and her eponymous restaurants in and around Manhattan, Levine is, at heart, a baker. You can see it in her hands and in her work ethic. At public events, she preps her own dough, unlike many of her professional peers, rather than having an assistant do it. When we both appeared at a recent event, Levine arrived four hours early to guarantee that her dough was perfect—even though nobody was going to taste it after her rolls came out of the oven.

Her book is beautiful, and its wonderful recipes highlight her exacting standards. I tried Mrs. Stein’s Chocolate Cake, and I’ve made the marvelous chocolate babka—a recipe inspired by Michael London of Mrs. London’s Bakery and Café in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who learned to make his Jewish baked goods from the best old-time bakers of New York. I am eager to try making Levine’s rugelach, Viennese kugelhopf, and apple cinnamon loaf, all musts for my holiday table at Hanukkah.

Kosher Revolution: New Techniques and Great Recipes for Unlimited Kosher Cooking, by Geila Hocherman and Arthur Boehm, struck me at first as gimmicky, but it proved fascinating. Hocherman and Boehm, both professional chefs, integrate cutting-edge ingredients—balsamic vinegar glaze, coconut milk, crème fraiche, and Parmigiano-Reggiano and Roquefort cheeses, for example, into kosher cooking. I started my tour of this cookbook making the Peshwari challah, a basic dough with cumin, cardamom, and other spices mixed in, rolled out with a filling of pistachio, golden raisin, coconut, coriander, and assorted Indian spices. What would the Cochin Jews of India, who basically use a flat bread for challah, say about this one, made with a sweet Ashkenazic dough?

With careful guidance through step-by-step instructions and intelligent reasoning for the ingredients used, these recipes help home cooks indulge their fancies, traveling gastronomically around the world. This book will help a new generation of kosher cooks reinvent their cooking.

Finally, there is Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, by June Feiss Hersh, a book that tells the stories of Holocaust survivors and shares their recipes. It brought me back to the early years of my marriage, when my mother-in-law, Peshka Gerson, who is cited in the book for her gefilte fish, which I prepare every year, would talk about life in Zamość, Poland, as well as in Siberia, where she and my father-in-law lived during World War II. As I read the stories of Holocaust survivors and their families, I applauded Hersh, who so artfully and lovingly assembled this book as a fund-raising venture for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. And yet no book is perfect. Hersh could have done without the contributions of professionals, including myself. Her own text, with the poignant stories of the many people she interviewed, is enough.

The Recipe

Chocolate Cake

Chocolate Cake

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

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