A Traditional Purim Feast. Brought Up to Date.
Judy Bart Kancigor
When Jayne Cohen and her sister returned home after their grandmother had passed away, they were determined to recreate the holiday dishes they had grown up on. But neither had ever attempted these traditional recipes. Those had been Grandma’s province.
“We had never thought to copy down her recipes,” Cohen lamented. “But we shared a secret suspicion that allowing her foods to vanish from our table meant losing something much greater and more vital. And we could not bear another loss.”
Together the sisters experimented with recipes, using cookbooks for inspiration, questioning and reinterpreting, just as the rabbis through the ages have questioned and reinterpreted the meanings of Biblical texts, she said.
“We decided to make foods familiar enough to taste like Grandma’s, yet still be fresh and inventive. Dishes reimagined so that they reflected our changing palates and insatiable culinary curiosity.”
That experiment led Cohen on a decades-long quest to preserve these timeless family recipes before they disappeared, while updating them with new flavor profiles.
The result is “Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Classics and Improvisations” (Wiley), with nearly 300 classic and contemporary recipes for all the holidays that unite old and new traditions. In each chapter Cohen provides a history of the holiday as well as touching personal narratives chronicling her own family’s experiences and celebrations.
“You walk a fine line trying to make foods familiar enough to taste like the holidays, yet still be fresh and innovative,” said Cohen, talking to me by phone from her home in New York. “You don’t want to wind up with something very chef-y.”
“People say, how could you touch the sacred? But when you look at how Jewish food has evolved throughout the ages, as has its ritual, people are constantly using new ingredients and new techniques, which have kept the cuisine vital and the traditions vital. We’re all sophisticated these days in terms of taste – heavy food is not appealing to us – we have to keep it fresh and exciting.”
Case in point: Purim.
“Purim was one of those holidays that was very minor when we were growing up,” she recalled. “We had hamantashen and groggers in Hebrew school. But now Purim has become very cool. There are Purim parodies, and comedians like Lewis Black and the Daily Show comedians are doing these Purim rabbi-type things in their political commentaries.
“Isaac Mizrahi lives in my building, and one year the Jewish Museum did a Purim fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria – it was a masked ball – and he did these fashion designs, Esther as a fashionista, and had all these designers that he knew submit designs.”
In adapting recipes that invoke the spirit of the holidays, Cohen fashions a chickpeas cocktail nibble for Purim. Why chickpeas?
“Esther was supposed to have eaten only pareve vegetarian food,” she explained, “grains, nuts and seeds, because the food at Ahasuerus’s court would be nonkosher, so she couldn’t have any of the meats. Supposedly all those legumes and grains kept her beautiful. That alone is a reason to indulge.”
Eating kreplach is another Purim tradition.
“Kreplach are associated with three holidays, Yom Kippur, Simchas Torah and Purim,” Cohen noted. “The filling is hidden, and to me the real reason we eat kreplach on Purim is the theme of disguise and revelation. The whole Purim story is very interesting – the whole theme of revealing yourself and coming out that goes so well with kreplach and other covered kind of foods, the truth that is hidden but will be revealed. Also, there’s the idea that God’s will was hidden, so that really ties in very neatly with kreplach.”
And how did poppy seeds come to be associated with Purim? “On some level they have been said to symbolize Haman’s fleas. Any negative things that you could heap upon Haman you would do. So we bake mohn cookies and pound cake with poppy seeds or cabbage mixed with poppy seeds and noodles.”
Hamantashen translates to “Haman’s pockets,” and the three corners have nothing to do with his hat, she revealed. “That was a Middle Ages kind of hat. The triangle could be his pockets in which he kept the lots. The whole idea of consuming your enemies is very interesting. The Sephardim eat Haman’s ears fried in syrup. The whole idea is you are consuming a part of him.”
Recently Cohen wrote an article on sweet and sour Jewish dishes and found another Purim connection. “It’s not in the book, but I realized when doing the research that a lot of Jews from different parts of the world eat sweet and sour dishes, and the whole Purim story started out sour – or bitter – and then turned sweet, so combining both tastes in a food became popular among some Jews. I love Jewish food! There’s never one single reason. Cabbage is always considered to be an antidote to drunkenness, so what could be a better food for Purim?”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” and can be found on the web at http://www.cookingjewish.com.
Chickpeas with Garlic and Barbeque Spices
Yield: About 3 cups
1 cup dried chickpeas (about 1/2 pound; see Cook’s Note)
1 1/2 teaspoons olive or canola oil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika, preferably smoked
1 teaspoon ground cumin, preferably freshly toasted and ground
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pick over the chickpeas and rinse them well in several changes of cold water. Soak them overnight in enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Or use the quick soak method: put them in a large saucepan and add about 5 cups cold water; bring the water to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes; remove the pan from heat and let the chickpeas stand, covered, for 1 hour. Drain the chickpeas.
In a large saucepan, bring the chickpeas to a boil with enough fresh cold water to cover by 2 inches. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until very tender, 1 to 2 hours, depending on the age of the peas. They should be rather soft, not at all al dente, but don’t overcook to mushiness (you’ll be cooking them further with the spices, and you should be able to pick them up and munch them like popcorn, dissolving in your mouth, not in your hands.) Drain well, place in a large heavy nonstick skillet, and shake over low heat until very dry. Add the oil and toss until the chickpeas are evenly coated.
In a small bowl, stir together the garlic, paprika, cumin, mustard, cayenne, brown sugar, cinnamon, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the chickpeas and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, to marry the flavors. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. These are best served warm.
Cook’s Note: If you must, substitute about 2 1/2 cups canned chickpeas (rinsed and drained) for the dried ones. Dry and season them in the skillet, as instructed above. But canned chickpeas – excellent in hummus and so many other dishes – tend to be rather mushy and bland (too much flavor leaches into the canning liquid) for this recipe.
Poached Prune Kreplach with Honeyed Cream and Pecans
Dairy, Yield: 6 to 8 servings
For the Prune Kreplach
About 24 plump pitted prunes (it is a good idea to prepare a few extra for tasting)
Sweet red Jewish wine or red Concord grape juice to cover the prunes generously (2 to 3 cups)
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
About 48 wonton wrappers (allow a few extra in case of tearing)
Egg wash (1 or 2 large eggs as needed, each beaten with 1 teaspoon water)
For the Honeyed Cream
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, preferably not ultrapasteurized
About 2 tablespoons fragrant honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
Combine the prunes, wine, cinnamon, cloves, and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan and simmer over low heat, partially covered, until the prunes are very tender, about 20 minutes. Boil for a few minutes, uncovered, over high heat, stirring constantly, to evaporate any remaining liquid, watching carefully that the mixture does not burn.
Discard the cinnamon stick and cloves and let the prunes cool in the pan, then refrigerate them, covered, for at least 20 to 25 minutes before stuffing the kreplach.
Fill and trim the kreplach, using one prune and two wonton wrappers for each krepl, and sealing with the egg wash. For a festive presentation, consider using cookie cutters to make attractive shapes.
Poach the kreplach: in a large, very wide pot, bring at least 5 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil. Slip in the kreplach, one by one, being careful not to overcrowd the pot (if necessary, cook them in batches, or use two pots). Lower the temperature slightly (the kreplach might explode if the water is boiling furiously) and poach for 3 to 6 minutes, until tender (exact time will depend on the brand of wonton wrapper used). Lift the kreplach out, a few at a time, with a large skimmer, gently shaking the skimmer so the water drains back into the pot (the kreplach are too fragile to pour into a colander).
Prepare the sauce: Put the cream, honey, and vanilla in a heavy medium saucepan and boil over medium-high heat until reduced by about half. (If allowed to cool, reheat slowly until hot before serving.)
This rich dish is best enjoyed in small portions. Serve each person 3 or 4 kreplach topped with the honey cream sauce and sprinkled with the pecans.
Mishmash Kreplach (Beef, Potato and Fried Onion Kreplach)
Meat, Yield: About 50 kreplach
2 1/2 cups chopped onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup mashed potatoes (leftover is fine)
1 1/2 cups shredded cooked beef (leftover flanken, pot roast, or brisket)
1 large egg yolk
About 50 wonton wrappers
Egg wash (1 or 2 large eggs, as needed, each beaten with 1 teaspoon water)
Accompaniments: rich homemade chicken or beef broth, leftover brisket or other beef gravy, fried onions, or fried mushrooms (see Cook’s Note)
In a large skillet, sauté the onions in the oil over medium-high heat, lifting and tossing them frequently, until soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and continue sautéing until the mixture is tinged a rich caramel color in spots. (Good fried onions should be an amalgam of several degrees of doneness: from nearly clear to butter yellow to speckles of deep bronze.) Salt and pepper to taste and scrape into a large bowl. Add the mashed potatoes and the meat and combine well. Season generously to taste and stir in the egg yolk. Cover and refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour.
Fill and trim the kreplach, using about 1 heaping teaspoon of filling per krepl, folding it into a tight triangle, and sealing with the egg wash.
Poach the kreplach. In a large, wide pot, bring at least 5 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil. Slip in the kreplach, one by one, being careful not to overcrowd the pot (if necessary, cook them in batches, or use two pots). Lower the temperature slightly (the kreplach might explode if the water is boiling furiously) and poach until tender, 3 to 6 minutes (exact time will depend on the brand of wonton wrapper used). Lift the kreplach out, a few at a time, with a large skimmer, gently shaking the skimmer so the water drains back into the pot (the kreplach are too fragile to pour into a colander).
Serve the poached kreplach in broth, sauced with leftover brisket or pot roast gravy, or topped with fried onions or sautéed mushrooms.
Cook’s Note: To prepare a cloak of fried mushrooms, sauté 1 cup chopped onion and 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic in 2 tablespoons oil over moderately high heat, stirring, until deep gold, 5 to 7 minutes; add 3 cups thinly sliced mushrooms (fresh shiitakes would be delicious, but cremini or regular button mushrooms will do very well) and cook over high heat until the mushrooms smell fragrant and release their juices; add 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, and cook for another 2 minutes; season to taste with salt and pepper; garnish, if desired, with chopped parsley, scallions, chives, or dill.