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Jewish Cooking

Level: Basic

• Jewish cooking adapts foods from countries where Jews have lived
• Jewish dietary laws sometimes influence the recipes
• Some Jewish foods are associated with specific holidays

Jewish cooking is a unique synthesis of cooking styles from the many places that Jews have lived throughout the centuries. Jewish cooking shows the influence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish, German and Eastern European styles of cooking, all influenced by the unique dietary constraints of kashrut and other Jewish laws.

Many of the foods that we think of as Jewish are not unique to Jewish culture. Stuffed cabbage, a traditional Jewish dish, is common in Eastern Europe. Blintzes and knishes are familiar to all Germans, not just Jewish ones. Falafel and hummus, increasingly thought of as Israeli-Jewish foods, can be found in any Greek restaurant. But the combination of these varied foods into one style of cooking, along with our own innovations, is uniquely Jewish.

On this page, I will identify and describe several of the better-known, popular Jewish dishes. Most of these dishes are Ashkenazic, because that's what I know. Sephardic Jews have their own distinct cooking traditions. I will provide recipes for those foods that I know how to cook, and will provide links to other recipes that I have scattered throughout this web site.

One ingredient you will see in many of these recipes is matzah meal. Matzah meal is crumbs of matzah (unleavened bread). You can find this in the kosher or ethnic section of your grocery store, if your grocery store has one (I have found it in such remote, goyishe places as Athens, Georgia), but if it is not available, you can usually substitute bread crumbs.

Challah 

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Challah, Wine and CandlesAny traditional Jewish meal begins with the breaking of bread. Challah is a special kind of bread used for Shabbat and holidays. It is a very sweet, golden, eggy bread. The taste and texture is somewhat similar to egg twist rolls (those little yellow rolls that look like knots). The loaf is usually braided, but on certain holidays it may be made in other shapes. For example, on Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to serve round challah (the circle symbolizing the cycle of life, the cycle of the years).

A local deli makes French toast with challah. I highly recommend this. Challah is also wonderful in sandwiches with roast beef or corned beef. Traditionally, however, it is simply used as you might use rolls with a holiday dinner.

The word "challah" refers to the portion of dough set aside for the kohein (See the List of Mitzvot, #394); that is, a portion that is taken out of the dough before it is baked. You may have seen the notation "Challah has been taken" on boxes of Passover matzah, indicating that this rule has been followed, that the challah portion was taken from the dough before the matzah was made. I am not certain how the term for the removed portion came to be used for the loaf of bread made after that portion has been removed.

Bagels and Lox 

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Is there anybody who doesn't know what a bagel is? A bagel is a donut-shaped piece of bread that is boiled before it is baked. They are often topped with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, or flavored with other ingredients. The bagel has been a part of Jewish cuisine for at least 400 years. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, there are references to it as far back as Poland in 1610. In America, bagels are traditionally served with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon) or other fish spreads (herring, whitefish, etc.). They are also quite good with cream cheese and a thick slice of tomato.

Those chewy hockey pucks that you find in your grocer's freezer bear little resemblance to a real bagel. A real bagel is soft, warm and spongy inside, lightly crispy outside. A fresh bagel does not need to be toasted, and should not be. Toasting is a sorry attempt to compensate for a sub-standard bagel.

Gefilte Fish 

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Gefilte fish is a cake or ball of chopped up fish. My sister-in-law describes it as Jewish Scrapple, although I suppose that is not very helpful to anybody outside of the Philadelphia area. It is usually made with white-fleshed freshwater fish, such as carp or pike. The fish is chopped into small pieces (a food processor is good for this), mixed with onions and some other vegetables (carrot, celery, parsley). The mixture is held together with eggs and matzah meal. It is then boiled in broth for a while. It can be served warm or cold, though it is usually served cold with red horseradish and garnished with carrot shavings. Sorry I can't produce a better recipe than that; I don't eat fish.

The word "gefilte" fish comes from German and means "stuffed." Some variations on gefilte fish involve stuffing the fish skin with chopped up fish.

Matzah Ball Soup 

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Also known as Jewish penicillin. Matzah balls are more traditionally known as knaydelach (Yiddish for dumplings). Matzah ball soup is generally a very thin chicken broth with two or three ping-pong-ball sized matzah balls (or sometimes one very large matzah ball) in it. Sometimes, a few large pieces of carrot or celery are added. Matzah balls can be very soft and light or firm and heavy. A friend of mine describes the two types as "floaters and sinkers." Matzah ball soup is commonly served at the Passover seder, but is also eaten all year round.

Below is my recipe for matzah ball soup. The parsley in the matzah balls is not traditional, but I like it that way.

Beat the eggs, oil and water together thoroughly. Add the matzah meal, parsley and black pepper and mix until you achieve an even consistency. Let this sit for a few minutes, so the matzah meal absorbs the other ingredients, and stir again.

Bring the broth to a vigorous boil, then reduce the heat until the broth is just barely boiling. Add the vegetables to the broth (if used). Wet your hands and make balls of about 1-2 tbsp. of the batter. Drop the balls gently into the boiling water. They will be cooked enough to eat in about 15 minutes; however, you may want to leave it simmering longer to absorb more of the chicken broth flavor. They are done when they float on top of the broth and look bloated.

For lighter matzah balls, use a little less oil, a little more water, and cook at a lower temperature for a longer time. For heavier matzah balls, do the reverse. If you are using this to treat a cold, put extra black pepper into the broth (pepper clears the sinuses).

Knishes 

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A knish (rhymes with "dish"; the k and the n are both pronounced) is a sort of potato and flour dumpling stuffed with various things. It is baked until browned and a little crisp on the outside. They are commonly filled with mashed potato and onion, chopped liver, kasha (buckwheat) or cheese. They are good for a snack, an appetizer or a side dish. You should be able to find them in any deli. The word "knish" is Ukrainian for "dumpling."

Blintzes 

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Blintzes are basically Jewish crepes. A blintz is a thin, flat pancake rolled around a filling. It looks a little like an egg roll. As a main dish or side dish, blintzes can be filled with sweetened cottage cheese or mashed potatoes and onion; as a dessert, they can be filled with fruit, such as apple, cherry or blueberry. They are usually pan fried in oil. They are generally served with sour cream and/or applesauce.

Cheese blintzes are the traditional meal for the festival of Shavu'ot, when dairy meals are traditionally eaten. Blintzes are also commonly eaten during Chanukkah, because they are cooked in oil.

The word "blintz" comes from a Ukrainian word meaning "pancake."

Cholent 

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Cholent (the "ch" is pronounced as in "chair" -- an exception to the usual rules of pronunciation) is a very slowly cooked stew of beans, beef, barley and sometimes potatoes. It is the traditional meal for the Shabbat lunch or dinner, because it can be started before Shabbat begins and left cooking throughout Shabbat. A recipe for cholent is on the Shabbat page.

Holishkes (Stuffed Cabbage) 

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Holishkes are cabbage leaves stuffed with meatballs in a tomato-based sweet-and-sour sauce. They are known by many different names (galuptzi, praakes, stuffed cabbage), and are made in many different ways, depending on where your grandmother came from. It is traditionally served during the holiday of Sukkot, although I am not sure why. Below is my recipe.

Gently remove the cabbage leaves from the head. You want them to be intact. It may help to steam the head briefly before attempting this. Boil the leaves for a minute or two to make them soft enough to roll.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a saucepan and simmer, stirring, until the sugar dissolves (it will dissolve faster if you pour the lemon juice over it). Pour about 1/4 of the sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish or lasagna pan.

Combine all of the filling ingredients in a bowl. Make a ball out of a handful of the filling and roll it up in a cabbage leaf, rolling from the soft end to the spiny end. Put the resulting roll into the casserole dish with the sauce. Do this until you use up all of the filling, making 8-10 cabbage rolls. Then pour the remaining sauce over the top.

Bake approximately 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

If you don't like so much refined sugar in your diet, you can substitute about a cup of raisins or prunes for the brown sugar.

Tzimmes 

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Tzimmes is any kind of sweet stew. It usually is orange in color, and includes carrots, sweet potatoes and/or prunes. A wide variety of dishes fall under the heading "tzimmes." On Passover, I commonly make a tzimmes of carrots and pineapple chunks boiled in pineapple juice. On Thanksgiving, I serve a tzimmes of sweet potatoes, white potatoes, carrots, and stewing beef.

Tzimmes is commonly eaten on Rosh Hashanah, because it is sweet and symbolizes our hopes for a sweet new year.

The word "tzimmes" is often used in Yiddish to mean making a big fuss about something.

This is the tzimmes recipe I use for Passover:

Put the carrot slices and the pineapple with its juice in a large saucepan and bring it to a very low simmer. Let it simmer for half an hour or longer, until the carrot slices have absorbed most of the pineapple juice and are soft. If the juice level gets too low before this is done, add a bit more pineapple juice or, if none is available, some water.

This is the tzimmes recipe I use for Thanksgiving:

Brown the stewing beef lightly in a little oil in a 2 quart saucepan. Add the water and sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer. Peel and dice the potatoes and carrots and add to the pot. Let it stew covered at very low heat for at least an hour, adding water periodically if necessary. There should be water, but it should not be soggy. Once the potatoes are soft, take the cover off and let most of the water boil off. Mash the whole mixture until the potato part is the consistency of mashed potatoes. Put the mash into a casserole dish and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

If you don't like so much refined sugar in your diet, you can substitute about a cup of raisins or prunes for the sugar.

Kasha Varnishkes (Buckwheat Groats with Bow Tie Noodles) 

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Kasha varnishkes is commonly thought of as a holiday dish today, but it comes from very humble beginnings: a poor man's fare from our Eastern European heritage, made from simple, hearty grain and noodles. The word "kasha" is Russian for porridge, though it refers primarily to buckwheat porridge, the most common and inexpensive grain available. The origin of the word "varnishkes" is a bit more puzzling: it apparently comes from a Ukrainian word meaning "stuffed," and refers to the fact that the original Ukrainian dish was made by stuffing kasha into a shell, more like a knish or a pierogi. The Jewish version is made by tossing the kasha (buckwheat groats) with bow tie shaped egg noodles.

My recipe is below. The trickiest part of this recipe is locating the ingredients! They are often hidden away in the kosher section of your grocery store, if you have one. The most commonly available kasha (and it has reliable kosher certification) is Wolff's brand. Kasha comes in various textures: whole, coarse, medium or fine. I like to work with medium, which sticks well to the noodles, but many swear by whole grain. Fine definitely gets too mushy. As for the noodles: both Manischewitz and Streits make suitable noodles (marketed as Bows or Egg Bows). If you can't find these, don't substitute regular egg noodles -- they don't have the texture needed to hold the kasha! Instead, substitute farfalle (bow tie-shaped pasta) or even rotini/rotelli (corkscrew pasta), which don't taste the same but hold the kasha well. Both Wolff's kasha and Manischewitz noodles are available on Amazon.com if you can't find them in your grocery store, though they are usually only available in 12-packs.

Ingredients:

Equipment:

In the pot, saute onions in cooking oil until they are carmelized (browned and crispy but not burnt). Add the water or broth (carefully so it doesn't splatter), garlic, pepper, salt and butter or margarine and bring to a low boil. Turn it down to a simmer if it boils before you are ready for it.

While the water is heating, beat the egg in the mixing bowl and mix in the kasha, stirring well until the egg is absorbed into and coating the kasha. Pour the mixture into the skillet at medium-low heat and stir constantly, breaking up any clumps that may form in the kasha. The objective is to cook the egg as a coating on the kasha, keeping each groat separate. Do not use any grease (oil, butter, etc.)! That will make the kasha mushy.

Pour the water and onions mixture over the kasha and stir until it is evenly distributed. Turn off the heat and cover the kasha skillet tightly. Let it sit and absorb the water for about 15 minutes.

While the kasha is absorbing the water, cook the bow tie noodles according to package directions. You can use the pot previously used for the onions (don't even need to clean it first). Drain the noodles well.

Check the kasha. The liquid should be absorbed. If it is not, turn up the heat a bit to boil off any excess. Mix the kasha and the noodles.

This is commonly served with mushroom sauce or brown gravy, or just with butter.

This makes a lot of kasha varnishkes! It's hard to reduce the recipe, because it requires one egg, and how do you get half an egg? I've seen recipes that reduce it (and speed up preparation) by skipping the egg, but I would not recommend that. The egg keeps the kasha light, fluffy and intact; without the egg, the kasha becomes an oatmeal-like mush.

Please note: don't use both butter and chicken broth! Mixing meat and dairy is not kosher! If you're using chicken broth, use margarine or schmaltz (chicken fat). If you're using butter, use water or vegetable broth.

Kugel 

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Kugel is another dish that encompasses several different things, and the relationship between them is hard to define. The word "kugel" is generally translated as "pudding," although it does not mean pudding in the Jell-O brand dairy dessert sense; more in the sense of bread pudding. The word "kugel" is pronounced "koo-gel" (with the "oo" in "book"; not to rhyme with "google") or "ki-gel," depending on where your grandmother comes from.

Kugel can be either a side dish or a dessert. As a side dish, it is a casserole of potatoes, eggs and onions. As a desert, it is usually made with noodles and various fruits and nuts in an egg-based pudding. Kugel made with noodles is called lokshen kugel. Below is my recipe for a noodle kugel.

Beat the eggs thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter, sugar and cinnamon beat until thoroughly blended. Cook the noodles and rinse them in cold water. Do not drain them too thoroughly. Put the noodles into the egg mixture and stir until the noodles are coated with the mixture. Let them sit in the refrigerator for about 15-30 minutes, so the noodles absorb some of the egg mixture. Stir again.

Put about half of the egg-noodle mixture into a casserole dish. Put the raisins, almonds and apples on top. Put the remaining egg-noodle mixture on top of that. Bake for about 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees, until the egg part is firm and the noodles on top are crispy. Can be served warm or cold.

Jewish Apple Cake 

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Jewish deserts generally do not have any dairy products in them, because of the constraints of kashrut. Under the kosher laws, dairy products cannot be eaten at the same meal as meat, thus Jewish deserts are usually pareve (neither meat nor dairy), so they can be served after a meat or dairy meal. An example of this kind of cooking is the Jewish apple cake, which I see in many grocery stores. I do not know if this kind of cake is actually a traditional Jewish dish; I cannot find any recipes for it in any of my Jewish cookbooks. However, the style of it is very much in accord with Jewish cooking styles. Jewish apple cake is a light, almost spongy cake with chunks of apples in it. It has no dairy products; the liquid portion that would usually be milk is replace with apple juice, making a very sweet cake.

Links to Other Recipes 

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Elsewhere in this site, I have provided recipes for:

The ultimate traditional Jewish cookbook, sadly out of print for several years, is Leah W. Leonard's Jewish Cookery. It contains traditional Ashkenazic recipes for holidays and all year round. All of the recipes are kosher. There is a special section for Passover recipes. The book contains a brief discussion of holiday food customs and the laws of kashrut.

Another cookbook that I've gotten a lot of good use out of is Josephine Levy Bacon's Jewish Cooking from Around the World. Don't let that surprising last name fool you! These are kosher recipes from both Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition, as well as Yemenite and Indian dishes. Jews have lived in just about every country in the world, and these recipes reflect the melding of Jewish traditions and dietary laws with the prevailing cooking styles in the countries where we have lived.

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