Whether it’s matzah at Passover, latkes during Hanukkah or loaves of challah bread for Rosh Hashanah, many Jewish holidays are celebrated with special foods.
One of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, begins Friday at sundown and lasts until sundown Saturday. Also called Day of Atonement, it’s a solemn period of prayer, introspection and fasting.
Before and after the 25-hour fast, families and friends often come together to share a meal featuring a variety of classic Jewish cuisine, ranging from kreplach to kugel. For some families, though, their table will include dishes that highlight a twist on traditional recipes.
Many home cooks are reinterpreting classic Jewish dishes to reflect their personal preferences, highlight seasonal ingredients or make them suitable for those with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Others enjoy trying out contemporary recipes for Jewish fare featured on food blogs, online recipe sites and in cookbooks.
At Yom Kippur and throughout the year, Omaha resident Evelyn Katz likes putting her own flair on classic Jewish cuisine. Before going to synagogue on Friday, members of her family will gather at her house for a pre-fast meal, featuring dishes she prepares as well as food brought by guests.
Since Katz is vegetarian, the spread will include several meatless options. Her take on classic Jewish chicken soup will be veggie-based with either a pasta or grain added to it. Other dishes planned for the occasion include roasted eggplant, couscous salad, stuffed peppers and tzimmes, a traditional sweet Jewish stew of root vegetables and fruit. To accommodate her sister’s tastes, Katz leaves out the carrots commonly used in the recipe.
Part of the joy of cooking, Katz said, is being able to customize dishes to your own liking. When she was vegan, she would bake egg-free versions of challah bread and would replace honey with agave syrup for her own twist on traditional Jewish honey cake. Her meatless take on classic chopped liver is made with walnuts, green beans and onions.
“It’s challenging but fun,” she said of reworking classic Jewish dishes. “It’s always fun to try to new things.”
Several old-school recipes that utilize modern cooking techniques and ingredients more in tune with the times are featured in “The New Jewish Table” by chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray. The couple own and operate Washington, D.C., restaurant Equinox.
In their cookbook, the duo offers a fresh take on whitefish salad with less mayonnaise than traditional versions and the addition of unexpected ingredients like finely minced fennel bulb. Mini pastrami Reubens are made with small slices of cocktail rye bread for a more updated presentation, and their recipe for a modern-style tzimmes calls for fresh plums rather than the traditional prunes.
“It’s got a little nostalgia mixed in with new techniques,” Kassoff Gray said of the recipes in the book. “It’s much more health-oriented.”
The couple’s cookbook adds a modern twist with an emphasis on lighter cuisine to the Yom Kippur menu. Among the dishes is an eggplant dip with pita chips as part of the break-the-fast meal.
“It’s something people can dive into right away because everyone’s ravenous and hungry,” she said.
A fresh green salad also makes sense because it’s a high water-content dish that’s perfect for replenishing the body after fasting, she said.
No matter what’s on the menu, Kassoff Gray recommends doing as much prep work as possible. Side dishes, sauces and other elements of the meal can be made a few days ahead, stored in the refrigerator or freezer, then reheated when it’s time to eat.
That’s the approach Nancy Rips of Omaha recommends.
“The point to be remembered is you can’t cook on Yom Kippur Day, so you need to have these dishes in the refrigerator ready to serve,” Rips said by email.
Rips, who has written several books about Jewish holidays, makes a few adjustments when cooking Jewish food. To save time when making challah bread, Rips uses quick-rising yeast instead of active dry yeast. With other dishes, she trims calories and fat by using skim milk and light sour cream.
Her plans for breaking the fast include going to a friend’s house for a traditional dairy meal of bagels, lox, cream cheese, kugel (a rich, creamy noodle casserole) and various salads, fruit and desserts.
The periods of fasting and breaking the fast are times to reflect on and reconcile relationships with people and with God, said Beth Katz, founder and executive director of Project Interfaith, an Omaha nonprofit group that educates and engages people on religious and cultural diversity and other issues.
“Breaking the fast is this time to really begin moving into that new chapter,” she said. “There’s sort of a cleansing component. It really feels like after Yom Kippur, you’re able to move into this new year.”
Recipe: Whitefish salad on toasted bagel with Havarti cheese
• Makes 6 open-face sandwiches
• ½ pound smoked whitefish
• ½ cup sour cream
• ½ cup mayonnaise
• 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• ¼ cup finely minced celery
• ¼ cup finely minced red onion
• ¼ cup finely minced fennel bulb
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill leaves
• 4 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise, including some of the green
• 3 bagels (sesame seed or your choice)
• 6 slices Havarti cheese
• Red onion slices
• Tomato slices
Make the whitefish salad. Flake the whitefish into a medium bowl (use your fingers). Add the sour cream, mayonnaise, lemon zest, salt and pepper; blend with a fork. Stir in the celery, onions, fennel and dill. Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper if you wish. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Make the sandwiches. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the bagels in half and toast them in a toaster. Arrange them on a baking sheet, cut side up. Top each with on slice of cheese. Place in the oven to melt the cheese — about 3 minutes. Transfer the bagels to individual plates or serving platter and top each with a few onion slices and tomato slices and a generous dollop of whitefish salad. Serve immediately.
— Recipes courtesy of Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray
Recipe: Chocolate hazelnut rugelach
• Makes 24 to 30 cookies
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
• 1 pinch kosher salt
• 2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
• 10 tablespoons cold cream cheese
• 1 cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped
• ¼ cup hazelnut praline paste
• 1 cup toasted, coarsely chopped hazelnuts
• Cream for brushing
• Turbinado sugar for sprinkling
• Confectioner’s sugar for dusting (optional)
Make the dough. Place the flour, granulated sugar and salt in the container of a food processor fitted with a blade; pulse to mix. Add the butter and cream cheese and pulse until just combined and a dough forms. Scoop the dough into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap; refrigerate for at least 2 hours (preferably overnight).
Roll out the dough. Lightly flour a work surface. Divide the dough into 2 pieces and roll out each to a 10-inch diameter round about ¼-inch thick. Cut each round into 12 to 15 equal wedges. Cut a very small vertical slit at the base of each wedge — this will help the dough roll into a crescent shape, like a croissant. Transfer the wedges to a baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate while you make the filling.
Make the filling. Combine the chocolate and praline paste in the top of a double boiler over (not in) simmering water. Stir occasionally to combine as they melt. Stir in the hazelnuts. Remove the top pan from over the water and set aside until the chocolate mixture cools to room temperature.
Fill the cookies. Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper (the paper will adhere better if you lightly spray the pan with nonstick cooking spray before laying the paper on it). Remove the baking sheet with the dough from the refrigerator. Working with one wedge at a time, spread some of the filling over each wedge and then, starting at the base, roll it up and shape it into a crescent. Transfer the crescents to the prepared baking sheet. Transfer the baking sheet with the crescents to the freezer. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Bake the cookies. When the oven is heated, remove the baking sheet with the crescents from the freezer. Brush the crescents with a little cream and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake until golden brown — about 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool on the baking sheet (crumbs would make a mess on your countertop).
When ready to serve, dust the rugelach with confectioners’ sugar if you wish.