Passover Prep (Post-Pandemic)

It’s been a horrible year of mixed emotions and isolation.  

We’ve grown accustomed to wearing  a mask and standing away from the next person in line. Going to the supermarket isn’t fun like it used to be, but it’s not the terrifying reconnaissance mission it was last spring. 

But things are looking brighter. Most of the older people we know have been vaccinated (yay!), and the CDC says that we can get together with a few friends or maybe see our kids. So we’re trying to keep our hopes up and plan for a Passover that might be on the road to sort-of normal. 

Speaking of on the road, we can count on a field trip to the amazing ShopRite supermarket in Cherry Hill, NJ, to get our enthusiasm for the most food-centered Jewish holiday going. Just off of Route 70 in the Garden State Pavilion (turn at the “Famous King of Pizza” restaurant), the ShopRite is the last store at the end of the parking lot. We’ve written about the ShopRite before and how much we love its aisles of pesachdik (OK for Passover) groceries and products imported from Israel.   

Members of the tribe who live in the boondocks have told us how lucky we are to have such a tremendous selection of Passover foods.  They post photos on line – of lonely jars of gefillte fish and yahrzeit candles, filling half a shelf in the “Foreign Foods ” aisle of their supermarkets. Most grocery stores do not order in the goods like the Ravitz family does. We know it’s special – and that’s one of the reasons we love it.    

This year Passover comes early. The first seder is Saturday night, March 27, so we went early to check out what’s new. We passed right by the wall of pesachdik cereals.

We tried them once or twice when the kids were little, but as soon as everyone tasted them – and agreed they tasted nothing like Honey Nut Cheerios – the box went in the trash. One year, we sprinkled the O’s in the backyard, and even the squirrels turned them down. We learned our lesson many years ago: Another $4.99 ventured, nothing gained.

Then we spied a label we could love: Haroset!

Haroset is the classic mixture of apples, walnuts, sweet wine and cinnamon that stands in for bricks and mortar on the seder plate. We like to make our own. It’s one of the Passover cooking jobs the kids used to love to do. Maybe that’s because they liked to pour (and sample) the sweet Manischewitz wine. Many recipes call for only a few tablespoons of wine, which yields a dry haroset where the white, shredded apples shine through. We say the apples should have enough wine to take a bath in! They should soak it up and look a little purple by the time you’re ready to eat.

If you make Sephardic haroset, you don’t use apples. Sephardic haroset (like Sephardic Jews) comes from countries in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East – including Italy, Morocco, Spain and Israel. Sephardic haroset calls for fruits like dried dates, apricots and figs. You can add pistachios and spices like cardamom, clove, and ginger. So we give props to this import from Israel: The label says it contains Kinneret dates, which are grown near Lake Kinneret, aka the Sea of Galilee, the fertile farming region of Central Israel. 

It turns out that those dates took a pit stop in Bayonne, NJ, on their way from Israel to Cherry Hill!

Did you know that North Jersey is a mecca of Jewish foods? From their gigantic warehouse in Bayonne, Kayco is a family-owned company that distributes 105 of the best-known Jewish food brands, including many that they import from Israel. Their roster of well-known Jewish food names includes Carmel, Gefen, Yehuda and Afikomen brands. (You know that’s for Passover!)

. . . when you sell so much Manischewitz that the company gives you a free-standing display for your “kichels”

They have Sabra hummus, Telma soups, Dorot spices, Prigat grapefruit drink and Kedem  the dark purple grape juice you remember. In 2019, when Kayco acquired all of Manischewitz’s  products, “the announcement was seen in the kosher world as the equivalent of General Motors acquiring Ford,” wrote Joseph Berger in The New York Times.    

New products from Kayco this year include Gefen’s almond milk coffee creamer and Manischewitz macaroons in Earl Grey Tea and Cold Brew Coffee flavors. We remember the year when we looked forward to sampling the “new” Rocky Road flavor, only to be disappointed by shreds of pareve marshmallow in a standard chocolate macaroon. But “cold-brew coffee” flavored? Who says Manischewitz is not hipster! We won’t be able to resist trying these, but we’re glad they did not try to make kombucha flavored.

It’s no surprise  that we ended up with a cart full of Passover goodies!

But just as much as we enjoy the newest Passover products, we treasure our oldest and dearest Passover objects. When we take them out again each Spring, it’s like seeing old friends:  The Israeli seder plate that was a gift from a favorite cousin. The jumping frog decoration that our preschooler made (25+ years ago!) with a paper plate and googly eyes. The shallow, wooden bowl that Poppy used to chop apples in to make the haroset. The Elijah’s Cup, from a husband’s bar mitzvah kiddush many eons ago. Joyce’s  grandmother’s 12-quart Wearever aluminum stock pot – which can hold enough matzah ball soup for the masses. 

We cherish the memories and the links to family history. We like combining the old and the new – so we’ we look forward to placing the new-fangled flavor cold brew coffee macaroons on Aunt Ruth’s vintage pressed glass cake stand.  We know she would be eager to try them too!

Happy Passover to our family and friends!

Enjoy – and taste the haroset!

 

Our all-time favorite Pesach art: Moses (and the Tablets of the Law) by Rembrandt van Rijn with macaroons (by Manischewitz) in this illustration by Mike Licht

 

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Oy! – Revisited

In January 2020, we wrote a blog titled “Sometimes You Just Need a Good Oy!”

At the time, we had no idea what was to come in the year ahead, and how much we’d really need to depend on a good oy to get us through the dumpster fire that was 2020

Sunday, March 13 will mark one whole year since COVID-19 was declared a national emergency – one whole year of too few hugs and too many oys.  

While Dictionary.com chose “pandemic” as its word of the year, we, of course, picked oy. In honor of this honor, we are revisiting this perfect, all-purpose Yiddish word . . .

At one of our “Shmoozing With the Word Mavens” programs, the hosts decorated the tables with Oys!

First, a refresher: Oy is an interjection that can be used to express a range of emotions. It’s perhaps the most popular Yiddish expression. It can be used on its own or paired up with other words: Oy vay (short for oy vey iz mir) means “Oh, woe is me.” Oy gevalt is a cry for help similar to “Oh, my God!” 

In The Joys of Yiddish, the gold standard for many Yiddish definitions, venerable author Leo Rosten writes that oy can be used to express anything from “a cry of dismay to a reflex of delight.” But we tend to think of oy – and use it – to express dismay, disappointment or upset. And sure enough, in Rosten’s list of the 29 emotions that oy conveys, 25 are negative: aggravation, anguish, apprehension, astonishment . . . and that’s just the As! 

We don’t yell “Oy!” when we’re delighted. We’re with London journalist David Robson, who wrote in The Jewish Chronicle: “For me, oy is mostly a better, more acceptable surrogate for the f-word.” Maybe that’s why we throw oy around so much!

While a single oy packs a punch, a triple oy – or oy-oy-oy – is what you need when things go really wrong. This explains why oy has been a favorite of ours during the pandemic. We’re almost at double-digit oys these days.

As 2020 came to an end, The Washington Post asked readers to describe the year in one word or phrase. Lee Sakellarides, of Merritt Island, FL, submitted oy vey. “Every day presented new reasons to shake our heads in bewilderment and despair,” she wrote. “Every time we thought we had hit rock bottom, the bottom fell out and we plunged to new depths.” Oy vey, indeed.

Oy is beloved – and uttered – by almost everyone, including cartoon charactersYou might know that Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons is Jewish. In Season 3, when Krusty’s father, Rabbi Hyman Krustovsky, discovers that his son has decided to be a clown instead of a rabbi, he’s devastated. “Oy vey iz mir,” the rabbi shouts.

In the animated film Madagascar, when some animals escape from a New York zoo to explore the world, they end up washed ashore on a desert island. Apprehensive and astonished (remember Leo Rosten’s As?) Gloria the Hippo exclaims: “Oy vey!” – and her zebra and giraffe friends know exactly what she’s talking about. 

Joyce has a longtime friend, a Jewish woman, who goes on and on with her stories and wanted to break the habit. The friend asked Joyce to pick a safe word to signal that she had had enough and needed a break. Joyce picked oy. It was the first word that came to mind.

The friend kept talking, and a few minutes later Joyce let out an oy! – not because her friend was talking too much but because Joyce was empathizing with her tale of woe. 

The takeaway: While oy is a good empathy word, it’s not a good safe word because we need it! We use it! We can’t live without a good oy

But . . . with more and more people getting vaccinated and with spring on the way, we’re breathing a little easier and oy-ing a little less these days. 

We can’t wait to go from oy to joy!

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Time to Make the Hummies

Many beloved Jewish foods inspire debate: Are the best matzah balls floaters or sinkers? Fluffy or dense? Are latkes better with sour cream or applesauce? 

When it came to hamantashen, the triangle-shaped Purim cookie, for years we thought there was only one question: prune (lekvar) or poppy (mun)? 

Or apricot or fig?

 

The Jewish holiday of Purim is on the horizon (it’s Friday, Feb 26 this year), and it’s one of our favorite holidays. Who doesn’t enjoy drinking and noshing? In preparation, we’re doing a little hamantashen research and have found that there are a lot of questions beyond what you fill your hummies with.

you can probably find this on the bottom shelf in the baking aisle of the supermarket

 

There’s a longstanding debate whether the cookie part should be soft and crumbly or hard like pie crust. How much like a cookie do you want your hummie to be? Then Boston threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. Evidently, in Beantown there’s a version of hamantashen that uses a yeast dough and the hamantashen turn out looking like a danish. 

Seth Gitell, who grew up near Boston, posted on Facebook that he is haunted every year by the culinary mystery of yeast-dough hamantashen. “In and around Boston, yeast dough hamantashen are something of a local delicacy,” Gitell wrote. “Yet I’ve seen people (in the bakery) clearly from out of town, stare at the triangular buns agape, asking “What is that?”  
 

Seth Gittel’s Boston yeast hamantashen (filled with poppy seeds!)

To us here in Philadelphia, we also ask, ”What is that?”

Your yeast-dough hummie looks like a challah roll with some filling. This is not the hamantashen we know and love. 

“But you would love them. They are delicious. Have you ever had a yeasted hamantashen?”  raved baker Karen Blacker, who with her husband Richard, has owned Blacker’s Bakeshop in Newton, MA for 13 years. The bakery is kosher and makes all sorts of cakes, cookies, danish and treats.  

Growing up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, Blacker is familiar with yeast dough hamantashen. Most of her customers know them too, she reports, which leads her to believe that the preference for yeasty hummies is more widespread than just New England. “I’ve had people who grew up in South Africa tell me that’s the type they grew up with,” she says.

According to Blacker, yeasty hummies are also triangle-shaped, but the filling is not visible. “The dough is tucked underneath,” she says. “They’re not open on top. They’re so good.” Blacker bakes them in all the traditional flavors –  and an apple variety.  But along with yeast hamantashen, the bakery makes the more familiar cookie dough variety and Blacker says, 99% of the bakery’s hamantashen sales are the cookie version. Hhhuummm…….. 

In her iconic book, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen  award-winning chef and cookbook maven Joan Nathan weighs in on the yeast vs. cookie dough debate by concluding that cookie dough, which uses butter, produces the tastiest hamantashen. There is one recipe for hamantashen in her cookbook – and it calls for butter. 

 

We’ve long known that kugel (noodle pudding) can be sweet (apple raisin) or savory (onion mushroom). But desserts? Several years ago, when we used to go to restaurants, chef Michael Solomonov introduced us to savory rugelach at Abe Fisher, his restaurant that puts a contemporary twist on many old-school Askenazi faves. At Abe Fisher, before the entree was served, the waiter brought out an appetizer of savory rugelach filled with salmon, boursin and kimmel seeds –  not cinnamon sugar and nuts. They were delicious. 

But when we saw photos on social media of “pizza hamantashen” filled with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, or “brisket hamantashen” stuffed with shredded meat and barbecue sauce,  we were dismayed. It was wrong. It was a shanda. We don’t want to go there. But then we read that Joan Nathan tried savory – and liked it.

In her most recent book, King Solomon’s Table, Nathan explores Jewish cooking around the world, with a focus on foods  from Italy, Israel, Spain and other Sephardic countries beyond the usual Ashkenormative recipes. In the book, Nathan shares a very modern recipe for Savory Pumpernickel Caraway Hamantashen with Caramelized Olive and Dried Plum Filling, which she got from a chef in Berkeley, CA. Along with the ingredients in the recipe title, these savory hummies include instant coffee, molasses and cocoa powder.

“When I first looked at the recipe, I had my doubts, but I made it anyway,” Nathan writes in the cookbook. “To my surprise, everybody loved the savory hamantashen and wanted the recipe. I have since tweaked it a bit and now I start my Purim dinner with (savory) hamantashen and end with sweet.”  If we ever return to the days when we can host a real holiday dinner for actual people, we’d be glad to try her recipe! 

As with many traditional Jewish recipes, the kosher question also figures into the list of possible ingredients. Many of the recipes that call for butter give the option of substituting pareve margarine. But as any experienced baker knows, margarine is not great in baked goods. The better kosher substitute is canola or corn oil; these yield a softer, more crumbly dough. Some people say this softer hamantashen is most like the “commercial” bakery version. 

The cookbook from the former JCC Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia is filled with Bubbes’ memories of cooking – everything from homemade gefilte fish to pierogies, knishes, potato latkes and more. The book includes two recipes for hamantashen and both use oil, not butter.  

We’ve decided that the best hamantashen recipe uses both butter and oil. The resulting dough is soft but not crumbly, tasty but not too crunchy. 

And finally – a baking hack that will save you time and effort. You don’t have to roll out the dough  and cut circles. Make a small ball of dough in your hands and then simply flatten it – on parchment paper  or right on the baking sheet –  to make a dough circle, suitable for filling and folding into a triangle. No more wasted dough from cutting circles. No more gathering and rerolling dough scraps. Just flatten a ball. 

Hamantashen only come around once a year, so get baking. You can always mail some hummies to the kids or drop some on a neighbor’s front step. Or, send some to us.  

Best Hamantashen Recipe 

⅔ cup butter or Crisco

½ cup cooking oil

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

3-4 tablespoons of orange juice

 

To fill the hamantashen:

cherry pie filling
chocolate chips
lekvar/prune spread
mun/poppy seed butter 

Cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Add in eggs. Stir in oil, salt and vanilla.

Add in the flour, a cup at a time, the baking powder, then the orange juice.

It will form a stiff, heavy dough. The dough should come together and be a bit crumbly.  Add a few tablespoons of flour if the dough is too sticky to handle. Add a dash more orange juice if it’s too dry or crumbly to form into balls.

Use a spoon to form small balls of dough. With your hands, press the ball flat to make a circle. If you make big circles, your hamantashen will be larger and the recipe will yield fewer cookies.  

Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle and fold the edges up, to make a triangle. If you chill the baking sheet of hamantashen for 30 minutes before baking, it helps them keep their triangle shape.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20-23 minutes until brown on the bottom. The upper cookie part will not turn brown, except along the edges. 

Fannie Fertik’s Hamantashen With Fruit Filling

For more than 30 years, starting in the  1970s, Fannie Fertik was the food columnist for the Jewish Exponent newspaper in Philadelphia. She specialized in time-tested, simple recipes that yielded familiar, old-fashioned results. This recipe for hamantashen appeared in her cookbook: Fannie’s Favorites: A Collection of Great Kosher Recipes (1985) and it’s the OG classic version, with orange juice and cooking oil.  

Dough:
3 eggs, well-beaten
1 cup sugar
1 cup cooking oil
1 navel orange, juiced and zested
1 lemon, juice of
3-½ to 4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Mix in the order given. Chill.

Roll out in small amounts on a well-floured board. 

Cut in 2- or 3-inch rounds. Fill with a half-tablespoon or more filling, depending on size. (See recipe below) Shape dough into a triangle and pinch openings together.

Place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until browned. Yields 40.

This is Fannie’s recipe for a combination fruit filling – for when you can’t choose between prune and cherry!

Fruit Filling:
1 cup prune butter (lekvar)
1 cup cherry preserves
1 c. orange marmalade
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 lemon, juice and rind
Corn flake crumbs for thickening, as needed

Mix all ingredients together thoroughly

 

Happy Purim!

 

 

 

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