Friday, September 23, 2011

Rosh Hashanah with The Shiksa

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Tori Avey, the Shiksa in the Kitchen
I've been on back-to-back business trips for the past few weeks, which means I've had zero time to get started on (or even think about) cooking for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the upcoming Jewish high holidays. To get me in the mood, I asked Tori Avey, who writes the wonderful blog The Shiksa in the Kitchen, about her high holiday habits. Tori, who converted to Judaism in 2010, describes herself as a culinary historian, and her blog explores both the past and present of Jewish cooking.

For those of you who know no Yiddish, shiksa means "non-Jewish woman" in Yiddish, and often it's a term slung around with claws - as in, "Why are the most eligible Jewish men always attracted to the shiksas?" (Which they are.)

Erika: Tori, who hosts your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holiday meals? What's your routine through the two holidays? 

Tori: My family and I host the Rosh Hashanah meal, unless we’re in Israel or out of town. That’s actually how I got my nickname “The Shiksa in the Kitchen” — I started cooking our Rosh Hashanah and Passover meals close to 10 years ago, long before I converted to Judaism. My annual Passover meal has close to 50 guests! Rosh Hashanah is a bit smaller, usually around 30. Cooking for that many guests is tough, but I’ve found a few ways to make things easier. A week before the meal, I create a “holiday game plan.” The game plan includes my menu, the recipes I’ll be using, grocery list, cooking times, what time I should start cooking each item, and how much of everything I’ll need. I also have a list of the items we need for the blessings. I try to cook certain food items ahead of time, things that do better after a night in the fridge (brisket, certain marinated salads). I start two days before the holiday so I have a jump start on everything. The more I can prepare in advance, the more I’ll enjoy the actual holiday and spend time with my family and friends! 

Yom Kippur is a very quiet day in our home. We usually don’t have guests and we keep the break fast meal very simple. This year we’ll be breaking fast with our friends from Israel, who will be in town with us, so that will be fun. 

E: Do you cook the same things each year for the high holidays, or do you try to change things up from year to year? 

T: I try to change things up every year, but there are certain dishes that are expected. I always make matzo ball soup — that’s a given for both Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Brisket is also on the menu, but I tend to change the type of brisket that I’m serving from year to year. This year, I’ll be serving brisket with a pomegranate molasses marinade because I’m currently obsessed with homemade pomegranate molasses. I’ll be posting the recipe for that next week.

Tori's Honey Apple Cake, a traditional Rosh Hashanah sweet
E: What's your signature Rosh Hashanah dish? 

T: My Honey Apple Cake. Everybody loves it! It’s full of moisture and flavor from the shredded apples, and it’s dairy free! It also happens to be very pretty. I make it as a Bundt cake, dust it with powdered sugar, and decorate it with drizzled white frosting. 

E: Challah: Do you bake your own? Raisins or no raisins? 

T: I love baking my own! It wouldn’t feel like a holiday without the smell of freshly baked challah in the air. The round challah is my favorite. I usually make a few with raisins and a few without. I like to make the round shape using the Linked Loops method on my challah braiding blog. So pretty! 

E: Do your non-Jewish relatives join you for the high holidays? What do they think of the whole thing? 

T: Yes! They love it. My mom often helps me in the kitchen. She’s my partner in crime. I think I was destined to become Jewish, even though I wasn’t born that way… when my mom married my dad, she walked down the aisle to “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. A hint of things to come, perhaps? 

E: What traditions did you inherit from your husband's family, and which did you develop on your own after you married? 

T: My husband was born in Israel; he’s half Ashkenazi (Russian Jewish) and half Sephardic (Israeli Jewish). His mom’s Jewish family goes back at least six generations in Haifa, Israel. Because of the two different Jewish backgrounds in our family, we cook what I like to call “Ashkephardic” style, blending Ashkenazi and Sephardic cooking traditions to inspire new flavors. Ashkenazi food is rich, comforting, stick-to-your ribs…brisket, cholent, gefilte fish. Sephardic food is Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/Spanish inspired. It’s all kosher, but the flavors are so diverse. It’s really fun to merge the two cuisines. For example, our family cholent recipe has an Ashkenazic base (meat, potatoes, barley, beans), but we spice it with Sephardic spices (cumin, paprika, turmeric, cayenne) and we add eggs, which is a North African tradition that we picked up in Israel. 

I’ve been cooking since I was a child; my mom taught me our family recipe for egg noodles when I was 8 years old. In college, we used to have a “Tori Cooks Night” where all my USC friends would gather and I’d cook dinner for everybody. But I never went to culinary school, and I’m certainly not a “trained” chef in the traditional sense. After I met my husband, I wanted to learn to cook the foods he grew up with. Jewish food fascinated and inspired me. I enlisted the help of family members and friends to teach me their favorite family recipes and cooking methods. As I became more confident in the kitchen, I started experimenting on my own and combining flavors to create new recipes. I also studied vintage and antique cookbooks to find out how things were done “way back then.” I’m a food history nerd. 

Nowadays, a lot of what I do in the kitchen is improvised — if something makes sense in my imagination, I throw it together to see if it works. It doesn’t always. I’ve had a few notorious flops (like a terrible pumpkin soup for Thanksgiving a few years ago…yikes!). But if it turns out yummy, more than likely it ends up on my blog. I only share recipes that I really, really love.

E: Which Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur food do you most look forward to? 

T: Okay, I know this might sound so boring, but the Rosh Hashanah food I most look forward to is matzo ball soup. I guess technically that’s a Passover food, but we eat it every Rosh Hashanah, too. I bind the matzo balls with schmaltz and mix in some fresh dill. I slow cook the chicken all day long with vegetables, seasonings, and nutmeg to make a really flavorful stock. The chicken falls off the bone when you take it out of the broth, it’s so tender. Then at the end of cooking, I mix some fresh dill into the broth for an extra burst of flavor. Holy moly. It’s the best! 

For Yom Kippur, we usually break the fast with a dairy meal, so it’s all about a fresh toasted sesame bagel with thinly sliced lox and whipped cream cheese. Doesn’t get any better than that!!


Jeanne @JollyTomato said...

Great story, Erika (and Tori)! My mouth is watering over that honey apple cake. Looks like this "shiksa" will have to try it out on her own family. : )

Cat and DOG Chat With Caren said...

thank you Erika for introducing me to yet another fantastic blog!

I just subscribed and am thrilled that you posted this!

Mari Nuñez said...

Great post! I am glad to learn more about your culture and tradition. Shiska in the kitchen, seem like a great blog, will head over there.

Thanks and have a great weekend :)

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