Yet Another Cookie Recipe: Crinkly Coconut Cookies

I promise this is not a cookie blog, but I am very proud of these cookies. Thank you to my colleagues for taste-testing. Shredded coconut is a delight of modernist cooking – and its ready availability makes this recipe possible. I talked about Jewish uses of coconut in my 2018 post on Southeast Asian ingredients in Jewish cooking.

Golden cookies on plates
The cookies! They are crinkly and soft

Crinkly Coconut Cookies

Makes 24-30 cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup white granulated sugar

1 egg or 1 flax egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ½ cups white all-purpose flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp ground allspice

¼ tsp salt

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190C. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy – I use an electric mixer, but you can use a wooden spoon or a fork.
  3. Add the egg or flax egg and vanilla and combine.
  4. Sift together the flour, baking powder, allspice, and salt, then mix in the coconut.
  5. Fold the flour-coconut mixture into the butter mixture until thoroughly combined. You should have a soft, not too sticky dough.
  6. Roll the dough into 1 ½ inch/4cm balls (the size of a walnut), then squash to flatten a little. Place the balls 2in/5cm apart on the parchment-lined pan.
  7. Bake for 12 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and let sit on the sheet for another 10 minutes.
  9. Remove from pan and let cool. Store in a sealed container for up to a week.

A Floral Note: Honey Rose Cookies with Cardamom

Here is a recipe for honey rose cookies with cardamom. I based the recipe for these floral, spiced cookies on my maple spice cookies, but the change to honey and the addition of roses adds a very different feeling. The cookies also have little specks from the ground roses that add color and pizzazz.

Three golden brown cookies with piles of dried roses (red-purple) on a white plate
(Photo mine, April 2023)

Roses have been used in Jewish cooking for many centuries, but primarily in the form of rose water, which tends to be quite concentrated. Rose flavors are often associated with Shabbat and Shavuot. Beyond a floral note, rose often complements and cuts the sweetness in many desserts. In this recipe, I used dried edible roses – which you can find easily online, especially because they are often used for tea. Be sure you are using food-grade dried roses.

Honey Rose Cookies with Cardamom

Makes 24-30 cookies

1 stick unsalted butter or butter substitute, softened

½ cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons whole milk (or plant-based milk)

2 cups white flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons dried rose petals, crushed (I use a mortar and pestle)

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon table salt

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, using the method of your choice (electric mixer, hand mixer, or by hand).
  3. Add the honey, vanilla extract, and milk and blend together until combined.
  4. Sift the flour together with the baking powder, crushed rose petals, cardamom, and salt.
  5. Mix the flour mixture into the honey butter mixture until combined. You should have a pliable dough.
  6. With your hands or two spoons, roll balls of dough about 1 ½ inches/2 centimeters in diameter and place on the cookie sheet. Then use your finger to squash each ball into an oval-ish shape. You should get between 24 and 30 cookies.
  7. Bake for 12-13 minutes. The cookies should become golden and expand.
  8. Remove from oven and let sit on the cookie sheet for ten minutes.

Thanks to David Ouziel, Hannah Cook, and Douglas Graebner for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

A Second Brownie Recipe – Gluten-Free, Vegan Brownies with Walnuts

I have been trying to improve my repertoire of vegan, gluten-free desserts for a while now – partly to have more dairy-free and gluten-free desserts in my back pocket, and partly because it seems like a good idea.

Brownie on a plate
A vegan, gluten-free walnut brownie. (Photo mine / March 2023)

Hence these brownies. I based them on an excellent recipe by Arman Liew, but made enough adjustments that I decided to write up my version separately. This recipe is more like a bar, and thus is very different from my cakey Shabbat brownies.

brownie on parchment paper with brownies behind
Stock photo brownies that look a lot like my other brownies (Photo Pixabay/CC)

I added walnuts, which I crushed with a rolling pin. The walnuts not only complement the chocolate and temper the sweetness, but also add oil and density to the brownie. You could probably use any tree nut; a nut-free version would probably require some additional tweaks.

Vegan and Gluten-Free Walnut Brownies

Based on a recipe by Arman Liew

Makes 24 brownies

4 tablespoons ground flaxseed

¾ cup water

2 scant cups vegan chocolate chips – semi-sweet or dark chocolate

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) vegan butter – Earth Balance works well

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ½ cups gluten-free flour

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder (make sure it’s gluten-free)

1 cup walnuts, crushed

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C, and line a 9”x13” (23cm x 33cm) pan with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the flaxseed and water and let sit for a few minutes, or until it gels up. Set aside.
  3. Melt the chocolate chips and vegan butter in a large bowl. I usually do 30 second spurts in the microwave on high, mixing in between, until melted. You could use a double boiler if you like.
  4. Add the sugar, maple syrup, and vanilla extract to the chocolate mixture and mix in thoroughly.
  5. Add the flaxseed mixture to the chocolate mixture and mix in thoroughly.
  6. Sift together the gluten-free flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder.
  7. Fold the dry mixture into the chocolate mixture until just combined. The texture should be consistent and no dry spots should be apparent.
  8. Fold in the walnuts until evenly distributed.
  9. Pour the mixture into the pan and use your spatula to spread around evenly. Note that this will be a thick mixture – much thicker than a traditional brownie batter.
  10. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top has solidified.
  11. Remove from the oven and let sit in the pan for at least 30 minutes.
  12. Remove the mega-brownie from the pan and slice into squares. I usually measure mine to be about 2 inches on each side.
  13. Keep in a sealed container for up to four days, separating layers of brownie with parchment paper.

Thank you to my colleagues for providing User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Maple Teparies

Ever since my visit to Owamni last June, I have dreamt of one dish in particular: cedar-braised teparies. That dish is woody, sweet, and savory at the same time – and thus almost magical. Since then, I have come to very much appreciate not just that recipe, but all of the wonderful things one can do with tepary beans.

Tepary beans are an indigenous type of bean from Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora – in the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham. This area is one of the driest in the world, and the tepary bean has been bred to withstand some extreme drought conditions. It grows in many climates and is water resistant – and is absolutely delicious. The beans are nutty but savory, and have a toothsome bite even when fully cooked and soft. I briefly mentioned teparies in my piece about climate mitigation – and now am providing a recipe here. Most teparies come from native producers on traditional lands – I recommend Ramona Farms as one, O’odham-owned and -run source.

Teparies take a long time to cook – and this is where culinary modernism and a pressure cooker come in handy. Over a typical heat, teparies can take several hours to cook – which is great for the weekend, but can sometimes be quite difficult to fit into the normal week. And though tradition matters, we should also remember that these kinds of cooking times historically ate into the lives of those who cooked (mostly women) in ways they did not exactly choose. With a pressure cooker, the cooking time reduces to just an hour of largely hands-off cooking time. In addition, with refrigeration, we can now cook beans in advance – and keep them, knowing that they will be safe to eat, for the next day or day after. Between technology and their climate potential, teparies have a lot to offer.

Brown glazed beans with flecks of sauteed scallion in a bowl
Maple teparies (photo mine, February 2023)

For this recipe, I melded two other recipes for teparies: one by Owamni’s chef and cookbook author Sean Sherman, and the other by Kusuma Rao – a food blogger with some truly excellent work. I decided to add some of my other favorite flavors, including red onion and the very much not-indigenous butter. I’m quite happy with the result, which is reminiscent of both Sherman’s dish and an old-time, but less soupy, Boston baked beans. You can serve this dish with many things – but I recommend also trying Sherman’s sweet potatoes with maple chili crisp with these beans, or a nice short pasta. I also recommend trying both Sherman and Rao’s recipes too – they’re excellent.

Maple Teparies

Based partly on recipes by Sean Sherman and Kusuma Rao (Ruchikala)

1 cup tepary beans, soaked in 2 inches water for at least 4 hours or overnight

3 ½ cups water

1 red onion, peeled and cut in half

5 bay leaves

2 tbsp neutral flavored oil (I use sunflower or canola)

½ cup maple syrup, divided in two ¼ cup portions

2 tsp salt, divided into two 1 tsp portions

1 tsp dried sage, divided into two ½ tsp portions

3 tablespoons butter or neutral-flavored vegetable oil*

3 scallions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

¾ teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

  1. Drain the beans, then place into a pressure cooker with the water, red onion, bay leaves, neutral oil, ¼ cup of the maple syrup, 1 tsp of salt, and ½ tsp dried sage.
  2. Seal the pressure cooker. Place the pressure cooker on the heat as per the manufacturer’s directions. When the pressure cooker begins hissing or whistling, turn the heat to medium-low and cook for one hour. (Follow a similar pattern for an Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker.)
  3. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat. Let the pot depressurize, then remove the cover. Take out and discard the onion and bay leaf.
  4. Drain the beans. You can save the liquid if you like to use in a soup or stew. You can go up to this step in advance, and then cook the beans within the following three days.
  5. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and then add the oil or butter.
  6. Add the scallions and garlic and sauté for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the garlic begins to change in texture, smell, and color.
  7. Add the remaining salt and sage, along with the paprika, and stir in.
  8. Add the beans and mix thoroughly with the other ingredients in the pan.
  9. Add the remaining maple syrup and the vinegar and mix thoroughly with the beans.
  10. Cook, stirring frequently, until any liquid in the pan is mostly reduced, about 5-10 minutes.
  11. Remove from the heat and serve.
  12. Store leftovers in a sealed container for up to five days in the refrigerator.

*Variation: you can also use coconut oil, but if you do so, add another ¼ tsp paprika and an extra teaspoon of maple syrup when you sauté the beans to balance the flavors.

Great Books: Tava by Irina Georgescu

One of the great things about Romanian food is that there is something for everyone. Luscious corn porridge, mamaliga, with salty curd cheese, hearty soups, elegant salads, spiced meats, and ethereal fruits. Many communities, including Jews, have lived in Romania and influenced its cuisines – and this shows up in Romanian baking. Germanic, broad-shouldered fruit pies, light shortbreads common across the former Ottoman Empire, and swirled fruit-and-nut breads reminiscent of Eastern Europe all stand side by side. Romania is an underrated baker’s paradise.

Cover of Tava

Irina Georgescu captures this fantastic diversity in her latest book on baked treats, Tava. This dessert-focused book chronicles both traditional Romanian and Balkan recipes like the plăcintă cu mere – and apple and walnut pie – and gogoşi doughnuts, and newer creations like a crepe recipe with a toffee apple and rosemary sauce. Georgescu writes in a relaxed, yet passionate style, and provides a richly illustrated journey through the diverse regions and culinary traditions of her homeland. This book follows Carpathia, an excellent and not dessert-focused compendium of traditional and modern Romanian cooking.

The recipes in the book are fantastic. One of my personal favorites is the apple and caraway seed loaf cake, which is beautifully simple and very delicious – the juice of the grated apple is what moistens the cake, so it feels luscious and light at the same time. I can also vouch for the malai dulce – sweet cornbread – recipe, and the wonderful pinwheel swirl shortbreads, which were fun to make. Something that I deeply appreciate about the recipes is that the sugar content is much reduced compared to other books, so none of the recipes I have tried are either too sweet or cloying at all. I wonder if this is common across Romanian confectionary, or simply attributable to Georgescu’s (obvious) culinary genius. I’m excited to soon try the courgette (zucchini) fritters and the various pies.

Dumplings in breadcrumbs on a lined table in a book
Curd cheese dumplings in Tava (photo Irina Georgescu/2022)

Georgescu openly celebrates the Jewish influence – and other influences – on Romanian cuisine. Some of these are in the recipes that many communities share – for example, noodle puddings or doughnuts. She also adds a well-written and very nice discussion of Jewish baking traditions in Romania at the end of the book, followed by a hamantaschen recipe with plum butter that looks absolutely divine. I appreciated also that hamantaschen were in the section on gifts – after all, they are a traditional part of mishloach manot. Along with the Jewish insert – again, appropriately placed – there are also entries on Hungarian-speaking, German-speaking, and Armenian communities in Romania, with wonderful recipes attached.

hamantashen with powdered sugar on a plate
Georgescu’s hamantaschen with plum butter (photo Irina Georgescu, 2022)

Beyond the celebration and the recipes, Georgescu’s book gives one more gift: an excellent antidote to authenticity discussions in food. Georgescu explicitly focuses on the diverse origins of Romanian food, and resists the urge to mush them into a single narrative – in fact, she rejects authenticity! She states,

              “I prefer to say ‘this is how we eat in Romania’ a kaleidoscope of old, traditional and regional recipes, relevant to who we are now.”

              I hope many more authors and cookbook creators take this lesson from this excellent book.

Tava: Eastern European Baking and Desserts From Romania and Beyond, by Irina Georgescu

By Request: Simple Guajillo Salsa

Here is a recipe for a simple guajillo salsa that I often make for certain Mexican dishes. It is based on a number of recipes for different salsas that I have found over the years. A number of friends have asked for the recipe, so I am writing it up here.

a pile of dried dark maroon chiles with a sign saying "guajillo nuevo"
Guajillos for sale in Mexico. (Photo Paul Sableman/Flickr via CC)

Guajillos are the dried form of the mirasol chili pepper and one of the most common in Mexican cooking – and though the state of Zacatecas produces the most (link in Spanish), they are used all over Mexico. Cascabels are a dried version of a different form of the mirasol pepper. Both of them have a mild to medium heat – which adds perk but also a wonderful, savory richness.

Dark red salsa in a gray bowl
The salsa. (Photo mine/January 2023)

When preparing dried chiles, it is best to remove the stems and seeds first. Usually, I just rip off the stem and shake out the seeds, but if a chili is being particularly annoying (it happens), you can snip with scissors as well.

Simple Guajillo Salsa

Makes about 1 ½-2 cups

8 dried guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried cascabel chiles, stems and seeds removed

Hot water

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp salt

½ tsp cumin

2 tbsp lime juice (I just use from the bottle)

2 tbsp vegetable oil

  1. First, you will need to toast your chiles. You can do so in one of two ways:

    (a) Lay them out on a dry skillet or comal on medium heat for about 20-30 seconds on each side. Make sure they do not burn! Then remove. I flip them over with tongs.
    (b) You can also microwave them on high for about 30 seconds.
  2. Put the chiles in a bowl or container, cover with hot water, and then cover the bowl. The chiles may float on top a bit – do not fret. Let soak for about 30 minutes.
  3. Remove the chiles from the water and put in a blender with the garlic, salt, cumin, and lime juice. Do not discard the water quite yet.
  4. Puree the mix. Then, add a few splashes of the (colorful!) chili soaking water until you get to a smoothie-like, but still thick, consistency.
  5. Heat a skillet over a medium low heat. Add the oil, then immediately add the puree. Stir around for about 2 minutes. If it starts to bubble, move off the heat and keep stirring.
  6. Move to a container or bowl and let sit for at least 20 minutes.
  7. Serve at any temperature, though I find that room temperature is best. Store in a sealed container for up to a week in the fridge.

Chocolate Babka

A braided ovoid chocolate-laced bread on a cutting board
A free-form chocolate babka. Yes, I am aware of what it looks like. (Photo mine, September 2021)

This is my chocolate babka recipe – which I have posted elsewhere, but not as a blog post. I nailed down this recipe during the initial stages of the pandemic, based on my cinnamon babka recipe and Tori Avey’s chocolate filling. It has been one of my dessert standards since then. (To the point that last year, I brought one on a plane to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with my partner’s family. I am nothing if not absolutely ridiculous.)

I talked about the history of babka in a 2019 post. What I have come to appreciate about chocolate babka since then is how it reflects a very Jewish experience: of new foods evolving with encounters with new products in new places. Chocolate babka came about in 20th-century New York, enabled by cheaper chocolate and an enormous amount of creativity in New York’s Jewish bakeries at the time. Now, it is one of those treats that generally pleases a very wide audience. I’ve also come to appreciate the delicious babkas created by other communities – I’m a big fan of the log-like Ukrainian ones.

Slice of chocolate-swirled bread on a white plate
Cross-section of a (free-form) babka. (Photo mine, May 2020)

I make my babka a little less sweet than many are, and I like to add chopped walnuts to add weight, depth, and nuttiness. You can omit the walnuts if you have an allergy. I also make the babka with butter – though dairy is only partly traditional, it is delicious. The butter also adds to the delicious density of a babka – something that certain people on certain British baking shows do not appreciate, I am told.

You can braid in a loaf, which is what I direct here, but I’ve come to enjoy free-form babkas braided like a challah. I added directions in a note at the bottom. You can also add an egg wash if you are feeling fancy, but I am invariably too lazy.

Chocolate swirled loaf in a loaf pan
A baked babka. (Photo mine, May 2020)

Chocolate Babka (with Optional Walnuts)

Makes two medium loaves

1 cup/250mL whole milk

1 package active dry yeast

2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided in half

5 tablespoons salted butter, melted

2 eggs

3 ¾ cups sifted white flour (about 450g)

8 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 oz/120g dark chocolate chips

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup walnuts, finely ground (optional)

  1. Warm the milk to about 100F/39C – I do it in 15 second spurts in the microwave. The milk should be warm enough to touch with your finger but not feel like it’s burning you.
  2. Add the yeast to the milk, stir in, and let sit for five minutes.
  3. Mix the yeast mixture in a large bowl or stand mixer bowl with the eggs, salted butter, and 1/3 cup of the sugar.
  4. Add the flour, ½ cup at a time, and mix in thoroughly, either with your hands and a spoon or the dough hook on the electric mixer. Once it is in, knead for six to eight minutes on a floured surface, or use the dough hook on the electric mixer for about five minutes. The dough, when ready, should be roughly the texture of your earlobe and should be smooth and bounce back.
  5. Oil a large bowl, put the dough in it, and cover. Let rise for about 1 ½ hours, or until a bit more than double in size.
  6. Meanwhile, you can make the filling. Melt the unsalted butter and the chocolate chips together until smooth. (I use the microwave). Mix in the other 1/3 cup sugar, cocoa powder, and walnuts if using until combined. Set aside.
  7. Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Grease two loaf pans. Grease – not flour – a large surface and a rolling pin.
  8. Punch the dough down, then split into two parts. Take one part, roll it out to about half an inch/1 centimeter thickness. Spread half of the chocolate filling evenly on it, leaving a 1 inch/2.5 cm perimeter around the edges of the dough.
  9. Pick up one edge and roll tightly into a tube. If you want, you can slice the tube in half before the next step.
  10. Bring the two ends together, and twist into a figure eight-ish shape. Place in the pan.
  11. Repeat with the other half and other pan.
  12. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until brown on top and hollowish-sounding when you tap it. Let cool for five minutes in the pan, then until your desired temperature on a rack. Store in a sealed plastic bag for up to a week or so.

For a free-form babka: Bake instead on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Shape the coils however you want – I recommend in this case slicing the tube in half and twisting the two halves together for a visual effect.

Many thanks to the friends, neighbors, and roommates who have helped me develop this recipe over the years: AJ Faust, Zachary Maher, Ying-Ying Chow, Rebecca Fedderwitz, Bo-Young Lee, Joseph Jeffers, Hannah Cook, Douglas Graebner, Melanie Marino, Margaret Curran, Maryam Sabbaghi, Sara Weissman, Gilah Barker, Zach and Hannah Kinger, and of course, my partner David Ouziel.

Gadgets and the Climate-Friendly Kitchen

This piece follows – but is not a sequel to – my piece on Climate Mitigation in the Kitchen.

We do not eat a lot of meat in the Katz-Ouziel household. Some of this is personal: we both genuinely enjoy vegetarian proteins; my eleven years of keeping various forms of kosher meant that I became pretty accustomed to a low-meat diet; David (my partner) is especially sensitive to animal welfare and well, reminders that food was once a sentient being. And beyond all of that, less meat is often  environmentally and financially better (but not always!). So a lot of our protein comes from beans – not quite to the glorious lots of beans meme of the 2000s, but close.  Most of those beans are canned – thank you modern food processing – but some of the most delicious ones are not canned. So I soak and cook.

Brown, white, and black beans in glass cups
A selection of dried beans (photo by JPMattH in the public domain)

I recently acquired a pressure cooker, and it has made it much easier to eat lots of beans – not just commonly canned varieties. Many of these are more drought-resistant, or are connected with the continent’s indigenous heritage, or grown as part of efforts towards crop diversification. Some are just delicious. Across the board though, these beans, when substituting for meat, are a good choice for climate-conscious eating – and the pressure cooker helps make that choice easier and better.

I have talked a lot about the importance of processed foods on this blog, including vis-à-vis climate (linked above), but I have not given enough space for gadgets. When I say gadgets, I am talking about machines that make cooking easier – everything from a food processor to a pressure cooker to an Instant Pot to my favorite, the humble rice cooker. Even a microwave counts! We often romanticize doing things the “hard,” “real,” or “long” way, but these tools make cooking a lot less drudging for users – and open up a lot more things to be actually practical to cook. (Rachel Laudan says as much in her timeless piece on modernist cooking.) Given that we have to make many adjustments for climate-friendlier eating, I think gadgets can play a key role.

A shelf with rice cookers
A selection of (somewhat pricy!) rice cookers at a store in the US. (Photo Chris Devers/public domain)

Specifically, I want to highlight three potential benefits:

  1. Gadgets make it easier to change one’s diet or adapt to new foods. A lot of the non-financial trouble with changing one’s diet, or learning new foods, is not the food itself. Rather, it is knowing how to cook it, or the cognitive load of changing one’s cooking habits. (I have a suspicion that this is one reason why some vegans and vegetarians revert to meat-eating.) If gadgets make things easier to cook, then they reduce that cognitive load. Many people seem to agree with me, given the wealth of gadget-centric recipes and resources out there, especially for vegetarian cooking.
  2. Greener eating becomes more accessible for people with disabilities and people with time limitations. As I’ve noted before, tools and gadgets help many people with disabilities cook. This is because our capacities mean that some “common” techniques are not always possible. A lot of food culture, including “sustainable eating” seems to also focus on cooking methods that involve types of tasks that some people cannot do, or cannot do regularly. Better gadgets, and embracing gadgets, allows disabled and non-disabled people alike to benefit from greener eating.

    Even for someone who does not have a disability, other things matter too. The frank truth is that most people – and especially people with fewer resources – do not have the time or wherewithal to cook in many of these more “authentic” or “from-scratch” ways. Gadgets open up a lot of cooking possibilities because they allow food to be made with less time and less effort. Climate-conscious foodies should embrace gadgets because they make it more practical for many people to cook greener at all.
  3. Gadgets reduce reliance on gas. Gas for cooking is bad for the planet and causes a lot of emissions and pollution. Electric cooking is one solution, but many people cannot afford to switch over. Things like rice cookers, Instant Pots, and other things not only save time, but also help folks use less gas – even if some gas is used in the process, as with a stovetop pressure cooker. Of course, the electricity should be from a cleaner source.
Greenhouse on a green field
A greenhouse in Iceland – a gadget writ large, perhaps? (Photo in the public domain)

Of course, there are other benefits too. And perhaps I am missing one – I would love to hear from you how gadgets help you – or not – with climate-friendly eating. Are you able to eat greener foods more easily? Have you found new tricks or recipes that you especially enjoy? And what sort of gadgets do you want to see? The climate affects and will continue to affect everyone, and there is infinitely more to say on this topic. I look forward to your input. Enjoy beans and other delicious things in the meantime!

If you want to learn more about eating, climate change, and food in the environment, I highly recommend Climavores – a new(ish) podcast by Tamar Haspel and Mike Grunwald.

Fun at the Capital Jewish Food Festival

DC had its first Capital Jewish Food Festival the day before Sukkot this year. A new museum, the Capital Jewish Museum, is about to open Downtown, and this institution put together and hosted this festival. The goal: celebrate Jewish food loudly, publicly, and in a fun and delicious way in the nation’s capital.

A brick and glass building with steps and a terrace. Drawing
A rendering of the forthcoming museum. (Image Capital Jewish Museum)

I bought tickets as soon as I heard that this event was happening. After all, how often is there going to be a brand-new Jewish food festival near me – and five blocks from my office, no less? I had a lot of fun, and thought I would write up my experience to share with you. For those of you local to Greater Washington, the festival was held on F Street NW between 3rd and 2nd Streets, right by the Judiciary Square Metro. I got there a bit early – but the crowd really started packing in shortly after I arrived. There were throngs of people!

About fifteen to twenty vendors were present, offering samples for ticket holders and additional delicious things for purchase. Some of my favorites included a fantastic challah apple bread pudding from Bread Furst, Venezuelan flan (very Shavuot-appropriate!) from Immigrant Food, and a fantastic hummus with winter squash from Little Sesame. For those who did not want to limit themselves to samples, there was more to buy. If my pantry had not been already packed, I would have absolutely gotten some delicious baked goods from Baked by Yael (what fantastic challah!).

Hummus with pita and winter squash from Little Sesame
Hummus with pita and winter squash from Little Sesame (photo mine, October 2022)

What I loved about the vendors is that they were neither limited to explicitly Jewish vendors, nor to specific interpretations of Jewish tradition. One stall had a delicious Venezuelan-style flan – which some Jews probably eat at Shavuot, but it was not marketed as either Jewish or for Shavuot. It was a delicious flan that you could eat Jewishly! In addition, other community groups were there as well with their wares – including a Chinese-American heritage association with delicious mooncakes. The message seemed to be “these things are part of Jewish tables too.” This mixing also gave rise to some pairings most would not think of – that flan was an excellent counterweight to the bread pudding I just mentioned.

Two plastic cups with fried foods and sauces
Vegan nuggets and fries from PLNT Burger (photo mine, October 2022)

There were keynote speakers too – including the inimitable Joan Nathan and Michael Twitty. Both held book signings after their talks. I was not able to make Twitty’s because of a prior conflict with his speaking time – though I’ve had the fortune to meet him before, in 2016 – but I was able to meet Joan Nathan! As longtime readers know, I have relied quite a bit on her work over the years as I’ve developed my own Jewish culinary practice and knowledge. She, like Twitty, is incredibly sweet in person. If you have a chance to meet Twitty or Nathan, take it! Meeting your heroes is a fabulous opportunity.

The crowd was awesome – and though it got a bit overcrowded, it was wonderful to see people enjoying the joyfulness of Jewish tradition. A lot of Jewish tradition is indeed “Remember that we suffered,” but there is a streak of joy too, and that is what I like to share. Food is a huge part of that, and this festival amplifies that opportunity for joy. It was really awesome to see Jews and their friends just enjoying a very public day out, eating tasty Jewish things. I heard people introducing their friends to Jewish foods, or talking about what they learned or particularly enjoyed. It was also wonderful to hear folks say things like “I’m not Jewish but I love Jewish food.” The joy of Jewish food really should be for everyone, and I appreciate that the Museum consciously pushed back on the often insular and exclusionary approaches to Jewish cultural celebrations. After all, we are never just Jewish either.

A street with pedestrians and covered stalls on both sides. No cars are on the street.
The festival early on – about three times as many people were present just 45 minutes later! (Photo mine, October 2022)

I hope the festival continues next year. I am planning to write to the museum for two suggestions: one on space and one for accessibility. The festival was popular – which is good – but the street space was perhaps too small for the number of folks who wanted to attend. Next year, if possible, I would suggest that they spread out along more than one block to accommodate everyone. Related to that, the seating areas were a bit hidden, which made it hard for folks who cannot stand for a while or eat and walk. These areas should be more clearly marked.

I hope to see you at the festival next year!

The Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum will open soon at 575 3rd Street NW in Washington DC, by the Judiciary Square station on Metro’s Red Line.

Great Books: Koshersoul, by Michael Twitty

Great Books: Koshersoul, by Michael Twitty

Several years ago, Michael Twitty came out with The Cooking Gene, which was a fantastic exploration of African-American culinary history. I gave it a rave review on this blog. That book explored the West African roots of both African-American food and Southern food as a whole, with Twitty’s own personal experience intertwined. Twitty has followed this work with another magnificent book: Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew. Twitty writes about his own Jewish journey, the experiences of America’s many Black Jews (both African-American and of other backgrounds), and how these play out both in the kitchen and in White Jewish communities.

A Black man with a beard and short hair in a green print kente shirt at a lectern
Michael Twitty, the author, delivering a book talk at the Library of Virginia and looking fabulous. (Photo Library of Virginia in the public domain, undated)

Koshersoul is memoir, history, food book, and conversation all at once – and Twitty balances these very deftly. Historical explorations, ethnography, and analysis are intertwined with Twitty’s own well-narrated stories. You learn a lot as a reader – but also come to appreciate not only the intersections Twitty experiences every day, but also the way he can connect these to wider ranges. Twitty also is the rare memoirist that does not come off as self-indulgent – and, in fact, he shows a great deal of empathy and care for the many people he chronicles as well.

The book meanders – which I think adds to its excellence. The stories Twitty tells are not chronological, but rather go back and forth across his life and across history. What this structure does is make the book feel more like a story being told in person, rather than a tome. In addition, because it reflects how we tell stories in person, I found that the structure made it easier for me to envision certain things – particularly when it came to the discussions of food, or some of the more intense stories from Twitty’s Hebrew school teaching years.

Okra stacked on a table
Okra – one of the foods that Twitty discusses in his examination of African influences on Jewish cooking and the food of African-American Jews and the communities in which they live. (Photo Postbear/public domain)

I think this book is an important one. White Jews like myself would do well to read it. Twitty is not only unflinching about racism and racial dynamics in the Jewish community, but also the impacts of “mainstream” Judaism’s headlong rush to whiteness on their fellow Jews’ very real lives. There is also a very important analysis embedded in the book of Jewish food culture – and how much of the politics around Jewish food comes from a distinctly unsavory tradition.

The food discussions in the latter part of the book are fascinating, and also have a realness to them that I find refreshing. Discussions of Jewish food are oftentimes sappy with nostalgia or a distinct unrealism about the cultural balance Jews – and especially Jews of color – face. Twitty faces these head on, with frank discussions about the role of enslaved Black folks and domestic workers in cooking Jewish cuisine, their influence on Jewish foodways, and also the balancing Jews by birth and choice do between cuisines and kashrut. I think a lot of Jewish food writing could learn from Twitty in this regard.

Twitty ends his book with some fantastic recipes. These recipes combine West African, African-American, and various Jewish traditions. Some are by him, and some are by the many Black Jews who Twitty worked with as he crafted the book. Keep the book because these recipes are ones you will want to come back to again and again. Two personal favorites are the Jollof Rice and the Tahini-Nokos Dressing.

Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew, by Michael Twitty. I provided the book link here, but please try to buy this from a Black-owned bookstore if you can.