Filed under: Jewish holidays, Passover | Tags: choices, holidays, Jewish food, macaroons, matzah, modern life, Passover, Pesach, traditions
We remember when macaroons only came in vanilla and chocolate. Now the supermarket display is stocked with chocolate almond, chocolate dipped, chocolate chip, chocolate chunk, and “doubley chocolate gluten-free.”
Choosing one is almost as confusing as deciding whether our teeth need the toothpaste with “advanced whitening” or “tartar protection.”
We’ve been known to stand before the drugstore shampoo display paralyzed with indecision. Is our hair fine or limp? Do we need “Truly Relaxed” or “Curl Control?” Mostly, we’re just glad to wake up and find that we still have hair. We should probably go with “Age Defy,” which promises to “turn back the strands of time.”
These days, there are more choices than ever –and it’s both wonderful and exhausting. We understand how Russian immigrants, for whom shopping used to mean standing in a bread line, felt when they entered an American supermarket for the first time and were bewildered by the variety and abundance of consumer goods.
Shopping requires some soul-searching. To buy chicken broth, we have to weigh the relative evils of fat, salt, chemicals and chickens that haven’t been allowed to roam free. The problem is solved when we find a box that promises none of the above – at twice the cost. We also have to debate the merits of tried and true vs. something new. That turns out to be easy: The brand-new, “light whole wheat Bran Matzos” don’t even tempt us. We’ll stick with the plain kind.
After we navigate the grocery aisles, we realize that with Pesach coming, we have waaay more than four questions:
1. Do we have enough room to include Uncle Harold’s “lady friend” this year?
2. Where exactly should we put that orange on the seder plate?
3. Will our family want the same-old haroset or would they enjoy an exotic Sephardic version?
4. Should we finally buy new haggadot or use the raggedy old ones.
There are thousands of haggadot in existence – from an ecological haggadah that asks us to think about the four trees to a feminist haggadah that focuses on the contributions of Miriam, Sarah, Rachel and other women in Jewish history. Other haggadot themes include LGTB, interfaith, and hip-hop (for those who want their Jewish tunes written by rap artists). The 30-Minute Seder haggadah caters to those who want to nibble the gefilte fish sooner rather than later.
There’s even a new edition of the Maxwell House Passover Haggadah, which more than 50 million people have used since it was first printed in the 1930s. It’s considered the longest-running sales promotion in advertising history. On the inside cover it asks three questions: Do we want Master Blend, Breakfast Blend or Original Roast? Dayenu.
While we’re all in favor of diversity, we prefer to stick with the haggadot we pieced together through the years. We copied pages with our favorite passages, added in catchy songs from preschool, and deleted the parts we didn’t like. We’ve always disliked reading the section about the “four sons.” How dare they call one of the kids simple! There is one chief advantage to hosting the seder: We get to choose the haggadah. As the most famous Pharaoh, Yul Brenner, said, “So let it be written; so let it be done.”
When we were young, the choices – both secular and religious – were few. Watching TV meant walking over to the set and turning the channel from ABC to CBS to NBC. Three channels not three hundred. Buying sneakers meant choosing between Keds and Converse, and buying coffee meant instant or perked. For jeans, it was bell-bottom or straight leg.
Now we can’t buy sneakers until we decide if we are going to use them for tennis, running or walking. (Go for cross-trainers if you’re indecisive.) Buying a cup of coffee requires weighing the merits of venti vs. grande, cream vs. nonfat soy, and fair trade vs. exploitation. Shopping for jeans demands self-assessment: How do we know if we would look better in high-waisted, hip-hugging or low-rise? The online site we turned to for help asked us if we were shaped like a pear, apple or banana. At least we’re not an ugli fruit.
Passover was simpler then, too. There seemed to be just one recipe for haroset; it had apples and walnuts, not dates and pistachios and ginger. There was just one cup on the table for Elijah. You bought the big bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape and didn’t worry if it paired well with roasted chicken or was perfect with salty fish appetizers.
Don’t get us wrong. We appreciate having lots of choices, but we do get tired of making them. And we know we’re not the only ones stressed out by the abundance of options. Maybe that’s why a number of manufacturers are reintroducing “classic” and “original” versions of their products.
This Passover, we’ll make it easy for ourselves, and we’ll pass over the “new and improved” super-tasty matzah, the “bigger and better” Pesachdik granola bars, and the “self-cooking” chicken. We’ll stick with tradition.
Filed under: jewish food, Jewish holidays, Purim, Yiddish | Tags: Hamantashen, Jewish food, Jewish holidays, lekvar, mun, Purim, Queen Esther, Scripps spelling bee
Purim is this Sunday, March 16. While we like the carnivals and the costumes, we love the hamantashen – both baking them and eating them.
According to the world-famous, super useful, really fun to read Dictionary of Jewish Words, hamantashen literally means “Haman’s hats.” Haman was the bad guy in the story of Purim. An advisor to King Ahasuerus of ancient Persia, he hatched a plot to kill the Jews. Queen Esther and her righteous uncle, Mordecai, were the good guys. Esther foiled the plot and saved the day. Spoiler alert: The king was in love with Esther.
During Purim services, the Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther, is read in synagogue. It’s customary to make noise – clap your hands, stomp your feet, and twirl your grager (a small noisemaker) – whenever Haman is mentioned, to drown out his evil name.
It’s also traditional to bake and eat hamantashen, triangular-shaped cookies filled with fruit. Traditional flavors include apricot, cherry, mun (Yiddish for poppy seed), and lekvar (the Hungarian word for jam that has become synonymous with prune butter). We’ve been known to fill hamantashen with dark chocolate chips, too.
We kvell when Yiddish words show up in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. In 1983, the winningest word was “Purim” correctly spelled by Blake Giddens from New Mexico! In 2007, contestants were asked to spell lekvar and in 2013, knaidel (spelled just the way we spell it, incidentally) was the winning word. Maybe next year it’ll be hamantashen!
Hamantashen are fun to make, and a great project to do with kids.
We’ve expounded on hamantshen before, but were inspired to write this post because we saw many hamantashen recipes on the Internet, and not all of them were great. As experienced Jewish cooks, we can’t resist dishing out our advice.
1. Don’t use regular jelly or jam. It will melt and run out during the baking. Use pie filling fruits, the kind that comes in cans, or fruit “butters,” like prune butter or apricot butter. (Apple butter is too thin.)
2. Don’t roll out the dough. Many recipes for hamantashen instruct you to roll out the dough and cut circles with a cookie cutter. Anyone who has ever made sugar cookies/Christmas cookies/Hanukkah cookies knows that rolling out dough can be challenging. The dough sticks to the counter and the rolling pin. It’s difficult to lift the wiggly shapes of dough onto the cookie sheet. The kids start to complain that baking together isn’t really fun. We are here to tell you that rolling out the dough is UNNECESSARY. It is much easier to simply make a small ball of dough (meatball-sized) and flatten it with the palm of your hand. This gives you the circle shape that is perfect for filling and folding into a triangle. Our friend the Bible Belt Balubusta – an experienced and creative Jewish educator, agrees with us.
3. Don’t overfill them. As delicious as that lekvar is, you really should only put a scant teaspoon of fruit in each one. Fold the three sides of dough up and pinch the corners together to ensure that filling does not leak out.
Many hamantashen recipes are pareve – meaning that they contain neither milk nor meat, which allows those who keep kosher to enjoy them with any meal. We’ve found that using cooking oil (instead of dairy butter) gives a more cookie-like, crunchy texture, but the raw dough can be too crumbly to shape well. Using margarine, butter or a combination of solid and liquid fats gives a more easily shaped dough. If your dough is too dry or crumbly, add a few teaspoons of liquid. We like orange juice, which imparts a fresh citrus vibe. Modern pareve cooks can also add in almond or soy milk.
2/3 cup margarine or solid vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
1/3 cup oil
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet or line it with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, cream the margarine or shortening, oil, sugar and eggs. (You can use an electric mixer to amke this part easier) Mix in the baking powder, vanilla and salt. Add the flour to this mixture one cup at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl until it forms dough. If you need to, add a teaspoon or two of milk or orange juice to get the dough to come together.
Use our secret “flatten a ball method” to make dough circles.
Filling: Fill with your favorite pie filling (if you stick to our recommendations and only use a teaspoon or so per hamantashen, one can of each flavor filling should be plenty.) We like Solo brand cake and pastry filling, which we find in the baking aisle of our supermarket.
Fold them into triangles and bake until brown on the edges, about 18-22 minutes. They won’t look completely brown like a traditional cookie, just brown on the bottom and tips of the triangle.
Makes 1-1/2 to 2 dozen medium-sized hamantashen – bigger than an Oreo, smaller than a catcher’s mitt.
Have a good nosh!
Filed under: culture, Uncategorized | Tags: Birchbox, cosmetics, food, gifts, Harry & David, monthly gift clubs, presents, Zabar’s
It seems like no one sends anything by U.S. mail anymore. If you have urgent news, you pick up the phone. If you’re under 35, you text it. Getting the mail just isn’t as much fun as it used to be.
Today’s mail brought three credit card offers, one bill (the rest come electronically), two ads from local real estate agents asking to list our houses, and brochures for day camps that our kids have aged out of.
Where are the handwritten thank you notes and the “wish you were here” colorful postcards from friends on exotic trips?
It’s been a long time since an actual party invitation or a beautifully wrapped birthday gift was delivered to the front door. While we appreciate the evites and Amazon gift cards that are “delivered” to our inbox, we miss their three-dimensional, touchable versions. It’s not the same when you have to print out the gift or invitation to hold it. Every now and then a package arrives and we get excited: Did someone send us a present? What could it be? What store is it from? Then we remember that it’s the replacement refrigerator filter that we had to go online and order from GE.com.
We miss getting surprise packages in the mail and, evidently, we’re not the only ones. There are dozens of gift/product/special thing of the month clubs – and if you sign up, your mail carrier will come bearing a fun gift each month.
We considered signing up for a Fruit of the Month club. Remember those crates of oranges that would arrive from Florida? Harry & David started it all when they took over the orchard business from Samuel Rosenberg, their dad. They grew the unique Comice pear, which was delicious and prized by fruit lovers. When the Depression hit, they needed to find new customers, so they started a mail-order fruit and gift basket company. They remain the kings of the Fruit of the Month clubs.
We like to buy our fruit at the supermarket, so we decided to check out some other “of the month” clubs.
For $10 a month, BirchBox.com offers high-end cosmetic samples “curated” just for us. If we sign up, a handsome box filled with soap, eye shadow, mini-hairsprays, hydrating lipsticks and luxe shampoos will arrive at our door. We don’t even have to be beautiful to join their club: We can shuffle to the door with bed head, wearing our grungy bathrobes, to pick up the gift boxes. But unless the company includes its $85 anti-aging Wrinkle Resist Plus Pore Minimizer Moisturing Serum in our boxes, we’re not signing up. We need more than their Face Rejuvenator to rejuvenate ourselves.
The Dog Treat of the Month Club offers a “full pound of doggie-deliciousness” in the form of fresh-baked gourmet dog treats. Fido will geta new shape and flavor each month. The club promises that your dog will be so excited to taste this amazing treat. But wait a minute: The doggie treats cost twice as much as the cosmetic box, and we don’t have a dog.
Feeling neglected, we checked out the Cookie of the Month Club. Compared with the gourmet dog biscuits, which come in orange and yellow and pink and are dipped in sprinkles and shaped like flowers, the plain brown cookies – meant for human consumption – didn’t stack up.
The Pickle of the Month Club delivers jars of pickles to your front door. You can choose among their sweet, sour, bread and butter, and spicy varieties. At $18 a jar, it adds up to almost $300 for a year of pickles. We prefer to go to our local deli and have our pickle with a nice turkey sandwich. It has a whole pickle bar where you can spear your own, and it’s free. Life is good.
The Hot Sauce, Puzzle, Jerky, and Candle of the Month options didn’t interest us either. All are available and looking for new members for their exclusive clubs, but we don’t want to join and go to a lot of unnecessary meetings.
At the bottom of the list, for those who can’t make a decision, is the Grab Bag of the Month club. Even the description sounds bad: “This club gets items out of our warehouse and into your hands at a great value.” There are no photos of the products you’ll receive, just a question mark. A disclaimer says, “This club is not for picky people. It is for those who love all foods or for groups of people who will eat anything.” As Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
We agree that the Coffee of the Month club is tempting. We think that a week of hazelnut followed by Zanzibar gold and then Hawaiian kona would be great, but whom are we fooling? After a month of all that variety, we’d be longing for our tried and true. We’re particular about our coffee and we know what we like. Ellen gets Zabar’s coffee delivered to her house; Joyce gets her dark roast shipped from Costa Rica. We like to think we’re adventurous, but don’t mess with our morning joe.
Most of the clubs offer 3-, 6- and 12-month options. While we love the idea of a present coming in the mail, we think 12 months of anything could be too much. No matter how unusual it is at the start, after you open it three or four times it will become the same old, same old. It’s like people shouting “Surprise! Surprise!” at you over and over again.
Come to think of it, we have enough surprises courtesy of our aging memories.
If we order a box of chocolate-covered strawberries right now, between now and the time it arrives, we’re likely to forget that we ordered it. We’ll stand at the front door, look down at the package and wonder who sent it. Then we’ll exclaim: “Oh, it’s from me!” and dive into this thoughtful, perfect gift.
Maybe we’ll even write ourselves a thank you note, put a stamp on it, and send it in the mail. We’ll be delighted when it arrives.
Filed under: calendar, culture, Current Events, jewish food | Tags: food, Jewish food, knishes, kosher, matzah ball soup, Northeast Philadelphia, snacks, Super Bowl Sunday
In preparation for Super Bowl Sunday, all the morning shows are touting recipes for pulled pork sliders, Velveeta queso dip, and barbecued cola meatballs – for epic snacking on the biggest football day of the year. Our menu is a little different. We made a special trip to Lipkin’s Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia to buy kosher knishes, because when it comes to celebrating, we prefer Jewish food.
Inmates in Florida’s prison system prefer Jewish food, too. While there are only about 300 Jewish prisoners, requests for kosher meals have skyrocketed to 4,400. Prison officials don’t take kindly to these chazers. Kosher prison meals cost almost twice as much – as anyone who buys an Empire kosher chicken rather than a goyish Frank Purdue chicken knows. Who wouldn’t want to eat roasted chicken, glazed carrots and mashed potatoes on a Friday when the prison alternative is a mystery meat supplement known as PVT? (We don’t know what this stands for; we’re guessing “Pretty Vile Tasting.”) Dealing with this upsurge in “observant Jews,” prison officials are considering asking each man to recite a little bit of his Bar Mitzvah parshah before he gets his kosher dinner.
Being confined and eating bad food makes us think of a prison of another sort – being stuck in a narrow coach seat on an airplane. We’re old enough to remember when flying was a treat, when they trusted passengers in the main cabin with metal forks and knives to cut up the hot cheese omelet that was served for breakfast by a smiling young stewardess. These days in coach, you only get fed if you shell out $8 for a icy cold, pre-packaged “snack box.”
As experienced travelers, we knew the trick of ordering a special meal in advance. The kosher one was reputed to be the best of the lot – a slight upgrade from TWA’s beef bourguignon. Airlines still offer this option but only on “select flights” – which means almost never – unless you’re flying business class. Along with kosher, choices include Muslim, vegan and gluten-free meals. For Hindus passengers, American Airlines suggests “our delicious vegetarian choice.”
Pope Francis knew he had to provide kosher meals when he recently hosted a dozen Argentine rabbis at the Vatican. Rather than doing the cooking himself, he did what Jewish women have done for years – he called a caterer. He turned to Ba’Ghetto, an Israeli-owned Roman restaurant for help. Then they had to kasher the Vatican kitchen so they could reheat the food when it arrived. They spent days scorching, scouring and sterilizing before covering the countertops with aluminum foil, just like Fayge Silverman does in her kitchen in preparation for Passover.
The Pope’s menu had a lot of fish offerings: baked sardines with endive and tangy grilled zucchini, gnocchi with tomato and pine nuts; and little twists of pasta with sea bass and tomatoes. But they also served beef filet with a Barolo wine reduction. Dessert was a parve variation on the Pope’s favorite pistachio mousse. To keep things kosher – which means no milk if you’re serving meat – it was made with soy-based creamer imported from Israel.
If Jewish food can be found at the Vatican, is it any surprise it was spotted at a local Catholic hospital? Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia is part of the Mercy Health System, and at a recent medical staff meeting one of our husbands was thrilled to be able to nosh on lox and bagel. He was happily surprised to see it on the buffet table alongside the scrambled eggs and waffles.
Jewish restaurateur Danny Meyer (owner of The Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern) grew up eating lox and bagels. Like us, he notices when Jewish food turns up on mainstream menus. “Greek diners are selling matzah ball soup and ersatz corned beef,” he explains. “I think those places created a bridge.”
That’s how Jewish food moves out of the neighborhood. Bagels were the first to go (Now you can find pumpkin bagels at a Panera in Kansas). Matzah ball soup and potato pancakes are following close behind.
When you think of traditional Jewish food, Manischewitz comes to mind. The company has plans to jazz up time-honored Jewish foods so they’ll appeal to new markets. They’re thinking of tempting non-kosher consumers with cumin-laced Moroccan gefilte fish and white chocolate-covered egg matzos.
We don’t think they need to go there. We enjoy old-fashioned matzah ball soup just the way it is, and so do a lot of other people. Why mess with a good thing?
On Super Bowl Sunday, we won’t be too wrapped up in the game. We don’t care that much about football. We’ll be watching the commercials, hanging out with friends, and cheering for the potato and mushroom knishes.
Filed under: Jewish holidays | Tags: ecology, fruit, holidays, Israel, Jewish holidays, seven species, trees, Tu b'Shevat
The old fashioned name for the holiday, before modern Hebrew was widely spoken was Hamisah Asar b’Shevat – which is simply the Hebrew word for “15” and the Hebrew month, Shevat. Ellen’s mom likes to tell the tale that little kids were taught the rhyme “Hamisah Asar b’ Shevat/It’s a funny name but we like it a lot.”
Each character in the Hebrew language has a numerical value (aleph, the first letter is 1) So after Hebrew was brought back to popular use as the language of the State of Israel, the holiday name was changed to Tu b’Shevat – with the “tet” and “vav” of Tu adding up to 15.
But enough about the name, the holiday of Tu b’Shevat is a day to appreciate nature and the environment and plant trees. In Israel, they plant trees. Here, kids often plant seeds in Hebrew school (to grow a plant by Spring) or donate money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel.
It’s also customary to eat the seven species (shevat haminim) that are mentioned in the Bible – and have grown in Israel for thousands of years. They are: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey from dates.
Some people have Tu b’Shevat seders, to taste and enjoy the fruits and agricultural products from Israel. (We might just have a glass of Yarden wine and some olives before dinner).
Happy Tu b’Shevat
Filed under: Uncategorized
Ellen was recently invited to a baby naming. She knew she’d be called up to the bimah and the congregation would be eye level with her shoes. While she couldn’t lose 30 pounds in a week, she thought that she could make a good impression from the ankle down. So she went in search of a new pair of black dress shoes – pretty but practical enough to allow her to navigate steps and not trip in front of everyone. She picked a pair with kitten heels and a ribbon bow on the front.
She didn’t actually need a new pair of black shoes; she had many in her closet. This got us thinking: How many pairs of black dress shoes can a woman own? Don’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question.
Joyce has two pairs of black dress shoes but five pairs of black sandals, which she wears as late into the winter as she can. She hates to have her toes squished. She does not wear socks with sandals – her daughter would disown her for that. Joyce is the daughter of a podiatrist, which might explain why she always wears sensible shoes.
Practical black shoes are good. Ellen has a pair of Clarks she loves. She was wearing them when a woman said, “Oh, I have those same shoes.”
“Oh, yeah, they are creepy but comfortable,” Ellen replied. Once again, talking before editing her thoughts.
All this shoe musing has led us to the scientific theory that when it comes to shoes, comfort is inversely proportional to beauty. The higher the heel, the more studded with rhinestones, the trendier the look, the more uncomfortable the shoe.
That’s why our comfortable day-to-day shoes are so plain Jane.
One of us owns a pair of Stewart Weitzman shoes with sequins and rhinestones. Bought for a wedding, they cost a pretty penny. In fact, they are soooo pretty that they hurt soooo bad. They live in the back of the closet, never to be worn again. Someone with more fashionable feet would be glad to find them in a thrift shop, but we can’t bear to give them away — they’re almost like new because we’ve only worn them once!
We both have a closetful of shoes but wear the same two or three pairs. This doesn’t stop us from shoe shopping. We’ll browse anywhere, but we like to make a pilgrimage to the Mecca of shoes Nordstrom. Swedish immigrant John W. Nordstrom was on to something when he opened a small shoe store in Seattle in 1887. The family business grew nationwide; they didn’t even add clothing to their stores until 1963.
Nordstrom’s shoe department is filled with sales associates who ask your shoe size and scurry to the back room, returning with towers of boxes. We like the personal service, but do feel bad when we choose just one pair – or none – after asking to see “just one more” style.
At the self-service end of the shoe spectrum is DSW where you are on your own to roam the stacks of boxes piled sky high. When you try on a pair, you have to stop a stranger and ask, “What do you think of these?” Then you have to figure out the Tangram puzzle of making the shoes fit back in the box. And what do you do with all that left-over tissue paper?
A glimpse of the kids’ sneakers with Velcro closures makes us wish that Velcro was an option for fashionable ladies. We know from experience that it’s hard to lean over in pantyhose and Spanx and thread the thin leather strap through the teeny-tiny buckle on the back of your ankle. Velcro would be so much easier.
But like diapers, Velcro shoes are for people at either end of the age spectrum: You are either wearing Buzz Lightyear sneakers or extra-wide Dr. Comfort therapeutic, diabetic shoes (with Velcro closures).
While we do check to see if the shoe fits – by walking around the store one whole time – we don’t always reject the ones that don’t make the grade. We just lie to ourselves and say the shoes will “loosen up.” We actually believe the clerk who says, “You just have to break them in.” That never happens.
With winter right around the corner, we took a moment to assess our boot situation. We own those fashionable ankle boots that are meant to be worn with tunic tops and leggings, but you’ll be happy to know that we don’t wear leggings ; our leggings shipped has sailed.
So back to boots — we have short Uggs; tall Uggs; waterproof, rubber-soled snow boots; boots with fake fur; and boots without fur and a pair of padded ones, just for snow. But who are we kidding? We probably won’t be wearing boots very much. When it’s snowy and icy, we’ll stay inside and put on our fuzzy slippers.