Book Reviews, Culinary Arts

Modern Jewish Baker – Shannon Sarna

Modern Jewish Baker Cover

As an avid fan and follower of Shannon Sarna on The Nosher, I have been looking forward to the September release of her cookbook Modern Jewish Baker for months. And I mean “looking forward to” at the pre-ordered, delivery tracking, and mailbox stalking level. Even with such great expectations, Modern Jewish Baker did not disappoint.

The book is divided into 7 main sections with “master recipes” for challah, babka, bagels, rugelach, hamentaschen, pita, and matzah. Sarna keeps it simple, in the organization, photography, and typeset, rightly focuses the reader’s attention on the recipes and directions, resulting in a user-friendly cookbook. While the design makes it coffee-table display worthy, you’re better served keeping it handy and using it in the kitchen.

Throughout the book Sarna celebrates her Jewish heritage and brings diverse ingredients to the table. She raises the standards of Eastern European favorites to new culinary heights, with a decidedly cosmopolitan approach and international flair.

The recipes are so clear, and the results so delicious, that anyone who loves Jewish baked goods will find a way to incorporate Sarna’s work into their Shabbat and holiday menus, and will want to make enough for the rest of the year too. My family inhaled the onion jam babka and balsamic apple date stuffed challah so fast on Rosh HaShanah that I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t bake them again next year. Actually, I suspect that my freezer is about to start working harder than ever. Sarna expects her readers to have access to a well-appointed kitchen, but the ingredients and timing proved more important than the equipment. Modern Jewish Baker is a gift to bakers who are willing to experiment, and who appreciate the solid back-up of detailed directions. Sarna has clearly done her homework in the kitchen, and the result is a book with the power to create mouth-watering Jewish memories for generations.

Book Reviews, Literature

King Solomon’s Table – Joan Nathan

45 seconds. That was how long it took me to get to the front door, open the box, and start reading after I go the alert on my phone that Amazon had delivered Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table. In this sequence of events, I broke a number of house rules: 1. my phone was on the table during dinner; 2. I looked at the messages on my phone during dinner; 3. I opened a non-birthday package at the table in the middle of dinner; 4. I was reading during dinner. Luckily only the four year old mini-bookandblintz was home with me that evening, and she doesn’t particularly care about those rules. She was more than happy to join in the fun and announce that each picture looks delicious. And she was right.

It’s impossible to read this book without thrilling over just how far kosher cookbooks have come. This volume is nothing less than an exultant celebration of the art, the clarity of writing, the range of available ingredients and the diversity of Jewish food in cookbook form. A quick comparison between this book and the three other Joan Nathan cookbooks sitting on my bookshelf kicks the party into high gear. This book has a polish and sophistication that cooks could only dream of Jewish Cooking In America was published 50 years ago.

As I read through the volume, my joy came as much, if not even more so, from the stories and descriptions that accompany each recipe.  Nathan has achieved an impressive balance between presenting functional instructions for food preparation, a travel and professional memoir, and a textbook on the history of Jewish communities and their appetites. The only potential fault is in the possibility that younger readers may find it more difficult to relate to her scenes of delightful domestic cooking without finding it just a bit twee. Nevertheless, I think this cookbook belongs on the shelf in every home that considers itself to be connected to the Jewish heritage. King Solomon’s Table would make an excellent gift for anyone taking a new step as a Jewish cook, from an epicurean bar mitzvah boy to a downsizing retiree. Basically, anyone with a kitchen and a willingness to try cooking something other than toast.

I have yet to try cooking any of the recipes myself, but I expect the book to prove user-friendly. While the recipes are grouped by meal, course, and ingredient (breakfast, starters, salads, meat, etc.) I suspect that one of the unique attributes of this collection is the versatility of so many of the dishes to be eaten and served at different times and places. As diverse cultural practices and local ingredients dictated traditional foods and when they were eaten, readers will inherit this wider array of options, allowing for even greater creativity. I will, of course, follow up with this review to show off the results of my experiments.

There is just one question that this book leaves unanswered. As a native Torontonian, the blueberry buns Joan Nathan associated with my hometown are less familiar to me than the exquisite “cheese bagels” we enjoyed during our trips to Montreal to visit my grandparents. These pastries, relatives of the humbler cheese danish, are shaped liked horseshoes, have a ricotta/cream cheese filling, and are ideally finished with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. I can only imagine that the author does not have the recipe, otherwise I must beg her to add it to the next edition.