Kosher Recipes Get an Inventive Update by Modern Cooks
A new generation of women is bringing a distinctive personality and creative panache to Jewish cooking.
By Amy Spiro
A generation or so ago, Jewish cooks in search of holiday dishes frequently relied on photo-free, spiral-bound volumes put out by a local synagogue sisterhood and containing at least 12 different untested recipes for potato kugel. Or many turned to recipe cards from friends or relatives with instructions that often left out specific measurements or essential ingredients.
Today, kosher cookbooks have changed with the times, with dozens of volumes boasting full-color glossy photos of innovative, creative (and tested) recipes that explore cuisines from Mexico to China and everything in between. Gone are the days of eating the same chicken soup, gefilte fish and mandelbrot each week: Today’s home cooks can find recipes for Thai-style coconut chicken soup, tarragon fish croquettes with honey wasabi dipping sauce and lemon rosemary biscotti—all kosher!
And the world of Jewish recipes has also moved far beyond the printed page, to websites and blogs from cooks around the globe, each imparting its own cultural twists on kosher food.
Unlike the user-compiled cookbooks of the past, the personality behind today’s recipes is often a compelling factor.
Jamie Geller is arguably the face of kosher food today. Though she was preceded as a modern kosher innovator by Susie Fishbein—whose eight books in the Kosher By Design series redefined kosher cookbooks (and sold more than 450,000 copies)—Geller has vaulted to fame in the kosher world by combining her love of food with her business acumen.
Since she published her first cookbook in 2007, Geller has aggressively built a kosher media empire, including a popular website, a print magazine, a cooking show that airs online and on Jewish Life TV, and now a third cookbook, which was published in November.
She’s been called “The Kosher Rachael Ray” by The Miami Herald and “The Queen of Kosher Cuisine” by Haaretz. But Geller, a 35-year-old mother of five, is more comfortable out of the kitchen.
“I never ever describe myself as a chef,” she says. “Whenever I have the power to oversee [what people write about me], I say, ‘Can you not call me a chef? I’m a home cook.’ ”
Geller sees herself primarily as the founder and chief creative officer of the Kosher Media Network, an integrated media and marketing company that includes all of Geller’s brands and marketing connections, jdeal (a Groupon-style site for Jewish audiences) and several other organizations.
“My background is media and television and producing,” says Geller, who got her start as a producer for CNN and then HBO as a secular 20-something living in New York. But her life since then has been a series of twists and turns: She embraced religious life, got married, and then, just last year, moved to Israel, where she continues to run her business.
Her schedule varies widely depending on the day, and she does everything from recipe development to blogging, editing, marketing, fundraising and public cooking demonstrations.
“I work around the clock because I work with people in both Israel and the States, so there’s never an off-time,” she says. On her site, JoyofKosher.com, Geller regularly posts stories and recipes, and she publishes content from many of Jewish food’s brightest stars, like cookbook authors Ronnie Fein and Sharon Lurie and bloggers Alessandra Rovati of Dinner in Venice and Melinda Strauss of Kitchen Tested.
Geller has an eye for absorbing talent in her business dealings as well. Tamar Genger, executive editor of JoyofKosher.com, founded the website as a recipe-sharing site, and she merged with Geller’s then-Kosher.com blog after six months. Shifra and Shlomo Klein launched a kosher food magazine, Bitayavon, several months before the Joy of Kosher magazine was published, but after a year and a half, Shifra and Shlomo joined Joy of Kosher as editor-in-chief and director of marketing and sales, respectively.
Geller’s newest cookbook, Joy of Kosher: Fast, Fresh Family Recipes (William Morrow, 2013), is a slight departure from her first two, Quick and Kosher: Recipes from the Bride Who Knew Nothing and Quick and Kosher: Meals in Minutes.
“The idea of the Joy of Kosher is really … to bring back the joys of cooking to kitchens, to entertaining and just to life,” Geller told Jewish Woman. “I added the word ‘fresh,’ ” she says, “because I really want people to know I’m still cooking quick, but the shortcuts I’m taking are not in the way of premade or prepackaged things in most cases.
”The book offers either a “dressed up” or “dressed down” version of each recipe, plus a wine pairing for each dish. It is also heavily filled with stories and anecdotes from Geller’s life with her family and copious photos of her children. It is that personal touch, Geller says, that keeps people buying cookbooks when they could simply turn to the web.
“It’s more than a cookbook; this is a story of a life, a life that we can all relate to,” she says. “The stories are like pages from my diary and life.”
While cookbooks like Geller’s remain popular, the rise of food blogs and recipe websites in both the kosher and non-kosher food world is undeniable. And the most popular Jewish cooking blogs tell a story in addition to supplying recipes and photos.
One woman who has risen to prominence is Tori Avey, better known as “The Shiksa.” Avey, a convert to Judaism who has embraced the shiksa moniker traditionally thought of as derogatory, has spent more than three years blogging at TheShiksa.com about the history of Jewish cuisine. She’s been featured in The New York Times, on PBS, in Parade Magazine and on various local morning shows, and she won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ people’s choice award for best blog in 2012. Her recipes, like apple honey challah, potato cheese burekas and lemony dill schmear, explore Jewish history and traditions through food, but she intersperses those with more modern, innovative dishes. Last year she started a new blog, The History Kitchen, that explores the general history of food “from ancient Mesopotamian meals to the cocktails of Mad Men and everything in between.”
Amy Kritzer first started blogging to explore her Bubbe’s classic recipes. But the Austin, Texas, resident loved cooking and writing so much that she quit her job and went to culinary school, and she now teaches cooking classes, develops recipes and works as a food writer.
Kritzer, 30, is quickly gaining a following with her fresh twists on traditional foods and has been featured on The Today Show, Bon Appetit’s website and Geller’s JoyofKosher.com, among other outlets.
Kritzer, who doesn’t keep kosher, started her blog, What Jew Wanna Eat, to “get back to [her] culinary roots.” Now she focuses on spicing up Jewish food, with recipes like BBQ chicken latke sliders, deep-fried matzah balls with wasabi cream sauce, Neapolitan hamantaschen, and goat cheese and zucchini blintzes with cilantro cream sauce.
While Paula Shoyer is thrilled with the inventive take on kosher cooking these days, she still longs for the day when the desserts will catch up.
“I always call what I do my kosher baking revolution, because we’re so lagging behind in kosher desserts,” says Shoyer, a cookbook author and pastry instructor. “We can do better.“
"I want home bakers to bake more; I want bakeries to use my recipes; I want caterers to wake up,” she continues. “People pay a fortune to kosher caterers, and I think we should get what we pay for. The food is quality, we just don’t get good desserts. I want the standard to keep getting higher.”
Shoyer came to the culinary world a little later in life, after successful careers as both a lawyer and a speechwriter. While living in Geneva and working for an NGO at the UN that monitors human rights, Shoyer decided to take a pastry course in Paris for fun. That spiraled into running a dessert catering business in Switzerland for two years, returning to Maryland to work as a baking instructor and a cookbook editor, and then publishing her first book, The Kosher Baker, in 2010. That book launched her into the kosher culinary world, and she soon became an in-demand speaker and teacher across the country.
Her newest book, The Holiday Kosher Baker (Sterling), published in November, delves deeper into traditional and contemporary kosher baking for all the Jewish holidays. There are new recipes for blintzes, babka, challah and rugelach but also stylish Jewish takes on recipes long taken for granted. Her layer cake is flavored with English breakfast tea and features four layers in graduated shades of blue, perfect for Jewish occasions; her gingerbread cut-out cookies are full-flavored and shaped as Hebrew letters; and her pumpkin doughnuts are perfect for Chanukah, especially when it coincides with Thanksgiving, as it does this year. The most extensive chapter covers Passover, with detailed information, techniques and ingredients about that difficult baking holiday.
“When it comes down to it I’m a teacher at heart,” says Shoyer. “All of it is teaching, whether I’m writing recipes and explaining in detail how to achieve success with baking or doing it live to people or on television, it’s all the same teaching,” she continues.
In addition to crusading for better desserts in the kosher world, Shoyer is doing her part to bring kosher to the mainstream. She was a contestant on the Food Network show Sweet Genius in 2011, and she regularly appears on local radio and TV shows.
Despite the progress lately, “people still see [kosher] as very niche and narrow,” says Shoyer. “That’s OK; it’s growing for us by leaps and bounds. “I’m not sure we’re completely there yet, that it’s completely mainstream,” she adds. “I think we’ve made huge progress, [but] there are still people who have no idea what kosher is at all. But in major cities they see it; they know what it is.”
Shoyer also occasionally blogs on her own site, The Kosher Baker, but she distinguishes herself from the large community of food bloggers. (See a video on Shoyer's site, here.)
“I’m not going to post a recipe online unless I’ve tested it a bunch of times, and I often get people in other kitchens to test the recipes,” she says. “Your average food blogger is going to make that once and put it up there, and that’s fine and there’s a whole community who would be happy to try that out.”
Ultimately, she says, “I’m not going to criticize them because I think getting more people in the kitchen to bake from scratch is a wonderful thing. Baking from scratch is just so much healthier.”
Amy Spiro is a journalist and writer based in Jerusalem. She writes for The Jerusalem Post and The New York Jewish Week and blogs at bakingandmistaking.com. She holds a certificate in baking and pastry arts from the Jerusalem Culinary Institute.