12 Cookbooks: The Jewish Cookbook

Post by Matt, Information Services staff

Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!

I am not a natural soup eater. This classically wholesome food – full of warmth and nourishment on even the coldest, darkest days – absolutely disgusts me.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I would never choose soup if another option was available to me. And I know I’m not alone; I like to think that everyone has their personal least favourite. Whether it’s soup or salad, mushrooms or olives, we all have dislikes that developed from childhood or past experience. Soup is mine. I don’t know when it happened or why. My dad, the main meal-maker in our household, was a highly competent cook who never made a memorably bad soup in his life. But, sometime between living with my parents and today, I stopped enjoying soup and started avoiding it whenever possible. 

When I met my partner, my dislike of soup became the focal point of some gentle teasing at my expense within their family. Nervous and desperate to please, I successfully hid my distaste for months, through several hearty meals of soups and stews, until my partner let slip that I have a soup-aversion. I will (probably) never forgive them for that breach of trust. And, I’ll probably never love soup, but that’s okay because I can learn to appreciate it.

And I have, slowly, through my partner’s Jewish family traditions and a meal associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover called matzo ball soup. Matzo ball soup is indistinguishable from the traditional North American chicken noodle soup, except for one thing: the titular matzo balls. These soft, squishy clumps of wet dumpling are visually unappealing, but texturally tasty – adding a bready, stock-infused flavour to the soup. They’re nothing like the original form of matzo, hard thin crackers which come with their own quasi-historical/religious significance: when the Israelites escaped Egypt, they left in such a hurry that they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise and unleavened (un-risen) matzo was the result. Matzo and matzo balls are an important part of the Passover seder, a ritual dinner that takes place as part of the holiday every spring.

hard thin square matzo crackers
Traditional Matzo crackers

So, I’ve learned to appreciate soup better through Passover and matzo ball soup. But November/December is traditionally the start of Hanukkah, another popular Jewish holiday. Am I making all of the traditional foods that Jewish families eat during Hanukkah? No! That would make sense. I’m making ‘Matzo Ball Soup’ and ‘Montreal-Style Bagels’ using Leah Koenig’s The Jewish Cookbook

the jewish cookbook cover
The Jewish Cookbook
Leah Koenig
431 pages

Call me a hypocrite, but I’m beginning to enjoy matzo ball soup. Something about the combination of savoury broth, soft vegetables, slightly-chewy noodles and soggy matzo balls turns my soup frown upside down. When it was time to find a recipe that could be vegetarian-friendly, last for several meals and make my partner happy, I couldn’t find a better candidate than matzo ball soup. 

I began by simmering a pot of vegetables in water for over an hour. Roughly chopped onion, garlic, carrots, celery, parsnip, sweet potato, dill and parsley all went into the pot and, over time, imparted their flavour to the resulting broth. After straining the vegetables out, further chopping and returning some carrots and celery to the soup, and adding a final pinch of salt and pepper, I had completed the first step of the soup-making process.

Next, I turned my hand to boiling some noodles and making the matzo balls. Koenig’s cookbook comes with a recipe for making them from scratch, but I decided to use a box mix from a local international grocery store instead. This made little difference to the finished product, as the mix is just a combination of matzo meal and a couple spices. Combined with egg and vegetable oil then chilled in the fridge, the goopy mixture is balled up and plunked into tightly-lidded boiling soup broth for 20 minutes. When the balls emerge, they are swollen, soft and ready to eat.

a bowl of matzo ball soup with three matzo balls, noodles, carrots and celery, on a green tablecloth

The finished soup was a resounding success. The broth was savoury, if a bit sweet, and the matzo balls tasted exactly like the ones I’d eaten with my partner’s family. It also lasted us for four nights! Overall, I was glad that my attempt to overcome my history of soup-avoidance had gone so well.

Next, I delved into a recipe that excited me so much I was happy to ignore the Hanukkah staples that would have made so much more sense this month. If you’ve ever had a Montreal-style bagel, you’ll likely understand my excitement. These unlikely all-stars are smaller and denser than their New York rivals, but the love and loyalty that these bagels inspire is incredible. The two Mile End bakeries, St. Viateur and Fairmount, who each claim to have invented the style, make their bagels using the original recipes in gigantic wood-fire ovens that practically operate 24/7. It’s been several years since I last visited Montreal, but I still think about those bagels fondly.

When Koenig’s cookbook offered up a recipe that recreated a Montreal-style bagel, I jumped at the chance to try it. I started by combining yeast, sugar and warm water together and then letting it grow bubbly. Then I mixed it together with more sugar, honey, vegetable oil, egg yolks, flour and salt until I had a workable dough. After kneading, the dough rose while I prepared a pot of boiling water mixed with honey (a distinctive element of the Montreal style). I divided the dough into more than a dozen balls and rolled each one out into a foot-long rope that I wrapped around my hand and rolled once again, to seal the ends and create a ring. These were dropped, a few at a time, into the boiling water for 30 seconds on each side, then dressed with sesame seeds or everything bagel spice mix. Finally, the bagels were placed on two large baking trays and baked at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes.

As I tried to gingerly coat the bagels in seeds, I discovered my rolling technique needed more work; nearly all of the bagels began to unravel and take on a crescent shape rather than a truly homogenous ring. Despite this setback, I pressed forward and ended up with a pretty handsome plate of Montreal-style bagels.

They tasted pretty awesome too. A chewy, seed-covered exterior gave way to a soft, fluffy and slightly sweet interior, perfect for spreading butter, cream cheese or just eating plain. I want to say these bagels lasted a week, but they did not come close. The only reason they lasted more than 48 hours is because I froze some for my partner when they returned from an out-of-town trip. And they tasted great after being frozen too!

I was very happy with my journey through Leah Koenig’s The Jewish Cookbook this month, even if it didn’t exactly align with Hanukkah like I intended when I chose it a year ago. Anyway, I expect I’ll flip through it again to make traditional Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) before I return it. And there’s more to explore beyond that holiday, with recipes for kugels, babka, knishes, brisket and hundreds of other recipes from Jewish communities around the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about cooking across the Jewish diaspora or exploring the origins of other Middle Eastern cuisines, check out these resources in our collection today:

Now, for the sad news: this will be my last 12 Cookbooks blog post. Starting in January, I’ll be moving on to a new career opportunity and I’m taking a little time in December to sit back and decompress. As a result, I won’t be able to finish the last entry in the 12 Cookbooks series. But that’s okay. Ultimately, this series was about challenging myself to widen my horizons, expand my knowledge of international cuisine, and develop my skills in the kitchen. I think I’ve done that exceedingly well. In fact, I’m so pleased with the way it’s turned out that the number of cookbooks couldn’t matter less. I’ve had so many glorious successes, memorable failures and unique experiences that I’m just so grateful I got to share with you.

Over the past year, I’ve learned to make dumplings from scratch, conquered my fear of curry, and baked amazing sourdough bread. I’ve toiled miserably for hours over a wood fire and profoundly messed up several recipes, but learned so much from each mistake. I’ve challenged myself to learn more about the food of different cultures and how those foods intersect with power, politics and colonialism. I even followed a vegetarian diet for a whole month. This little passion project started as a way for me to turn a chore into something I could do on work time, but it quickly evolved into one of the best things I’ve ever done.

So, you see, it really doesn’t matter if 12 Cookbooks is actually 11 Cookbooks. Making it through December would have been nice, but it’s not necessary. 

Editor’s Note: If you’re curious, my plan was to make a full Christmas dinner for the finale. I’ll likely end up making it anyway. 

My main hope for this series, what I want people to take away, is this:

  • Cooking is fun. Even the preparation and planning.
  • Cooking is easy and it’s okay to make mistakes.
  • Cooking is rewarding and a great way to bond with friends and family.

I still need to eat, so I’m going to keep going, even if I don’t write about it here. I hope my experience has inspired you to keep going too, however that looks for you. Whether it’s finding an exciting and unfamiliar cookbook in the library’s collection, learning about a forgotten family recipe, or teaching a trusted, reliable one to someone new, I hope you take some steps on your culinary journey; it’ll be worth it, I promise. Let’s get cooking!

Have questions? Want more recommendations?  

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