Ten Things to Check When Reading A Recipe

This post is based on several reader requests. A number of folks have told me that they, or their partners or roommates, have trouble with reading recipes and end up with kitchen disasters, bizarre results, or taking an extremely long time to make something.

I should begin by noting that this is not their fault. To begin, many recipes are badly written. Even the good ones can have problems though. Most recipes are written with lots of assumptions around knowledge, that you can reorder steps in your head, and that you have a given amount of cooking experience. They also assume the same set of sensory and bodily characteristics of everyone, and ways of thinking. (Recipes, as traditionally written, are horribly inaccessible.)

Kitchen with an open window
Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

I’m working on a longer-term project to address some of these issues from a neurodivergent lens (more coming soon!). That said, I want to share a checklist on what to check before you make a recipe, so that you are prepared for the recipe and what it entails, and make the recipe in a way that works for you. (Or not! Sometimes you might realize that a recipe isn’t for you. I’ve been cooking since I was six, and even I have that realization sometimes.)

This list has ten questions that I ask myself when I read a recipe. The answers to this question inform not just whether I make a recipe, but what I do before I make it, and how I make sure that I do all the steps to make it. I hope that this helps you, too.

Bags of frozen vegetables
(Photo public domain)

Before I begin: whenever I make a new recipe, I always read over the entire recipe at least twice (and usually many more times. Recipes are often complicated little beasts, and you should have a general idea of the shape of the recipe, even before you start asking these questions, and certainly before cooking.

Now, the checklist itself.

  1. How much time do I have to cook? This is important to know. If you have 45 minutes, for example, you probably do not want to do a very complicated recipe. If you have a whole afternoon, then obviously you have more options. I ask myself this question, especially given that recipe preparation times in cookbooks are often wildly off (and vary from person to person which is why I do not give them). To be safe, I tend to multiply any prep time by 1 ½.
  2. What ingredients do I need, and in what forms do I need them? The first reason I ask this of myself is to know what I need to buy, if I am going shopping, and to make sure I did not miss anything. Pay special attention to the forms of the ingredients since oftentimes, they are not interchangeable (for example, tomato paste versus fresh tomatoes). When you do substitute them, you will need to take special care – which brings me to my next question.
  3. What substitutions do I need to make? You might not have an ingredient, you might have an allergy or aversion, or you might have another reason you need to swap something out. Always start with any substitute the author suggests, and then go to the internet and do some searches if there are no suggestions. Only trust your guess with a substitution if you have done it before – for example, I can usually substitute eggs in baked goods because I have done so dozens of times. I have a common substitutions list.
  4. Do I have to prepare ingredients first or is that in the recipe? Most recipes are written with some directions as to how an ingredient should be prepared – a chopped onion, a drained can of beans, and so on. Often this makes sense, because the recipe itself quickly assembles and changes these prepared items. That said, preparation takes time (and is never properly reflected in time estimates). Check to see what things you need to do there – such as chopping vegetables. Account for that in your time if you can. If you’re new at cooking, or haven’t cooked for a while, I recommend observing and noting how much time it takes for you to do things like chopping, and how much energy. Factor these things in when reading a recipe – you may want to avoid a recipe for which the preparation is particularly intense. (Confession: my knife skills are still slower than average even though I’ve cooked for over 20 years now. I sometimes skip recipes that require tons of chopping as a result.)
  5. What equipment do I need? Always good to check – not just to make sure you have it in your kitchen. Chopping and prepping your ingredients only to find that your pot needs washing is a frustrating experience.
  6. What are the steps? I read this in advance to know how much energy it will take to make a recipe, and also how much I will need to concentrate, or if I can cook other things during parts or take it a bit easy. For example: a stew that cooks for an hour with only some stirring leaves a lot more room than, say, a stir-fry with lots of quick motions.
  7. What steps might I need time or help with? Some things can be tricky – it is good to know if, say, a long kneading process is involved. If you live with someone else who can help you, you can also check if you can get their help with a particularly tricky step – for example, draining pasta from a large pot.
  8. Have I made recipes like this before? What did I learn then that can help me now? This is always good to ask yourself, so that you can both apply new skills and remember from past mistakes. For example, I remembered from making a miso eggplant that extra miso burns in the oven really easily, so I made extra sure to make sure not too much miso dripped off when making miso-glazed salmon.
  9. What do I need to do before I start cooking? For example, do you need to go shopping – or wash a lot of things you’re bringing out from the closet? Or are you ready to go? This process takes energy and time.
  10. Do I have the time, energy, and things I need to cook this recipe? Consider the answers to questions 1-9. No shame if the answer to number 10 is no.

I hope this helps you as you go forth, explore recipes, and make great and delicious things in your kitchen.

Things You Can Learn From Autistic Cooks

This is the third post in a three-part series; you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

I am not a big believer in specific rules around cooking or what is proper. In these pages, I have called some of these rules “bullshit.” Cooking is great, but cooking is also work, and cooking is an intense experience. Sometimes, you do not have the time, money, resources, energy, space, or patience to follow everything to a T. No one has this 100% of the time. So you have to cook in your own ways, on your own terms. There is nothing wrong with that – but food media will tell you so.

As an autistic person, I find that many autistic people are better at knowing how to navigate these realities – and are not afraid to do so. We already have to navigate a whole, messy world – and food is one part of that. I think everyone, though, can benefit from some of these tricks, autistic or not. So, here are six things you can learn from autistic cooks – across the spectrums of autism and cooking habits.

cabinet of spices
A cabinet of spices. (Photo public domain)

1. Be very honest about what you can and cannot do in the kitchen.  Autistic cooks are often quite forthright about the skills they lack or find exceedingly difficult – whether it be because of common motor coordination or sensory issues or the things anyone might find tricky. While it can be good to build an ability to do something, I think there is a lesson here for everyone. It’s okay to know what you cannot do … and move on.

It can be disappointing to admit that you cannot do something, or cannot do something easily. However, this does not make you less capable or less good of a cook. No one person can do everything, and it is perfectly okay to work with certain bounds or to not do certain things. Honesty can make cooking a far more enjoyable experience.

As an example: my motor coordination is not fine enough to easily fold in egg whites into a batter, so I tend to avoid these recipes.

2. Allow yourself the time you actually need, not what you think other people expect you to need. Many autistic people are forthright about the fact that things can take more time for us – for me, it’s chopping; for others, it might be gathering ingredients or preparing various implements. We often discuss how inadequate suggested preparation time in recipes can be. We also plan more time to cook. I suggest that everyone do this – you know best how long things take for you. The suggested preparation times in books are not a dictum on your ability to cook. Give yourself lots of time, and feel no guilt.

3. Prepared ingredients are good. Many autistic people rely heavily on prepared, processed ingredients like store-chopped onions, frozen peas, packaged cooked beets, and certain kinds of mixes. These ingredients help many who struggle with the executive function of cooking, and also help those who take a bit more time in the kitchen. In addition, these ingredients’ predictability are comforting and even enjoyable by many autistic people. Many non-autistic cook shun these ingredients as short-cuts.

Yes, the original ingredients are different and in some cases taste better or are more predictable. However, a prepared ingredient can mean the difference between cooking and not cooking, or having the time to cook, or being able to cook something you want to make. They also save a lot of time and energy. I think everyone should be more honest and open about using these ingredients. As Rachel Laudan notes, we need “culinary modernism.”

Besides, many well-known chefs and food writers now make recipes that involve these ingredients and take advantage of their specific characteristics – Nadiya Hussain is particularly adept in this regard.

4. There’s nothing wrong with repetition or relying heavily on a few things. Most autistic people like repetition in some form or some shape. Food is an obvious example. Many autistic cooks, including myself, make extensive use of leftovers – dinner one day can also be lunch for the next two days. For some people, that would be dinner for two days as well. Many other people do not handle repetition in their food well – but I have to say, the repetition does make meal planning a lot easier. It is also less time-consuming (you cook once) and expensive.

Many autistic people – and for times in my life, including me – also rely heavily on a few foods. For some people, these foods are known quantities that do not introduce new things that can be overwhelming. For others, these foods do not require a huge amount of cognitive function to make. Many non-autistic people (like my partner) rely on certain dishes or foods, but it seems to be much more common among autistic people. This practice, I think, is good. It takes a lot of the cognitive work out of everyday, non-celebratory cooking – and is far easier for grocery shopping too. If you are just starting off cooking, or find cooking difficult, I think finding a few “reliable” dishes is a good idea. Two of mine for a long time were toast with spinach and eggs, and lentils and okra. (I do not eat the latter very much anymore – my partner despises okra.)

Some of you may have seen the terms “same foods” and “safe foods” bandied about. A “same food” is a food that an autistic person relies very heavily on – sometimes for dozens of meals in a row, a “safe food” is one that can always be consumed. I find a lot of the discourse in the autism community about “same foods” and “safe foods” absolutely cringe-inducing.  I also think that this discourse represents a minority experience, and is often rooted in people using autism as an excuse to feel entitled to other people’s labor, time, and work. As an autistic person, I find this infuriating.

The lesson here is about repetition as a concept, and reliability as a concept, but also being mindful of not being entitled to other people’s labor, time, or work. The vast majority of autistic people find regularity without that entitlement. Please do so too, non-autistic readers.

5. Substitutions are an art, not a cop-out. Many autistic people have sensory or taste aversions to certain foods: basically, eating these foods can be a painful, highly distressing experience. (To the point where many autistic people can handle an emergency better than they can handle a surprise encounter with certain foods.) As a result, autistic people often make substitutions when cooking.

Many people think substitutions are a cop-out. I disagree. Knowing how to replace something to imitate a flavor or make a similarly delicious dish is a tricky task that is as much a creative exercise as anything else. You can also find delicious new ways of doing things by doing so. Autistic cooking discussions endorse and support substitution – and I think we all should take a page when we talk about food and cooking. Substitutions are not a less-than!

A few years ago, I made a substitution cheat sheet for the blog – my examination of autistic cooking has made me realize that perhaps it needs expansion.

I want to give a special shout-out to Ruby Tandoh here, whose new book, Cook As You Are, contains substitution advice for every single recipe. I know she has discussed food and worked with autistic and other disabled cooks in the past (including me!), and I hope she kicks off a new trend of everyone joining us in appreciating the art of substitution.

6. Recognize cooking as cognitive work. Cooking takes thought, and not just in deciding what to make: one has to keep an eye out for several things happening at the same time, from making sure the water is still boiling to chopping vegetables to ensuring the rice cooks properly. These things all take energy to monitor – even if you do not notice it. Autistic people more readily acknowledge the attention and thinking that any cooking takes. I think everyone – and especially those who rely on others to cook for them – should do the same.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

What Do Autistic People Cook?

This post is part two of a three-part series. See the first post here.

In my last post, I discussed how the relationship between autism and food, often narrated as limiting, is actually multifaceted and very complex. There is joy, there is creativity, and yes, there are boundaries, but we autistic people relate to food well beyond limits. In this post, though, I want to discuss what autistic people cook, and how they go about cooking it.

What do autistic people cook? The answer to this question of course tends to vary from culture to culture – though on the internet, you’d come to believe that macaroni and cheese is the national dish of autistic people. A few commonalities abound. Many autistic people rely heavily on the same or a few recipes for various reasons. These “same foods” are safe from the perspective of sensory needs or a need for structure; the recipe is “known” enough to allow preparation without taxing executive function; often, the ingredients are on hand too. I have noticed that these same foods are often comfort foods of whatever culture an autistic person grew up with – for example, huevos con ejotes in Mexico or chili for people from Cincinnati.

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

Other autistic people tend to enjoy cooking a wide variety of foods, especially if – like me – they find sensory pleasure in cooking. Some autistic people also do not enjoy consecutive meals or consecutive textures. Sometimes, the “calculus” in a recipe might be different for autistic people than for people who are not autistic. For example: many autistic people are highly sensitive to texture, so a recipe may be more closely aligned around textural contrast or consistency than taste. (Chinese culinary tradition builds heavily on these contrasts.) Other autistic people, including me, add to the astringency, pungency, or acidity of their food, often doubling or tripling the amount of garlic, onions, or chilies in a dish. I realize as I write this that I’ve “gassed out” many neurotypical housemates over the years with a particularly spicy dish. It is hard to categorize what we autistic people in this category make, but I have noticed that many of us enjoy Mexican cuisine, Japanese and Korean cuisines, and the cuisines from around the Indian Ocean basin – Ethiopian, Indian, and Thai food. These culinary traditions place a lot of stock in the sensory experiences to which many autistic people are especially sensitive.

Gnocchi on a board
Gnocchi (photo CC)

Many autistic people are very adept at substitutions. Part of this skill comes from the aversions many autistic people have to certain textures, foods, or ingredients – and so they have to learn how to, for example, substitute for the depth of onion without the texture of onion. In addition, it appears anecdotally that autistic people are disproportionately vegetarian, vegan, or adherent to religious dietary rules. Sometimes, cooking certain things might involve an ingredient “swap.” When I surveyed people on an autistic food forum, a lot of contributors brought up substitutions.

Autistic people often heavily rely on written recipes. Why? Many autistic people have an easier time with structured directions or steps when doing complex tasks like cooking, and a well-written recipe helps in this regard. When recipes go awry, it can be hard for many autistic people to “course correct” – even when, as is often the case, it is the recipe author’s fault. (I’ve had to correct a few myself.)

Other autistic people, like me, are not as reliant on recipes but need other forms of structure in the kitchen as well – and tend to do certain things in very routine or predictable ways. For example, I cannot go to a grocery store without a list, which means I plan what I cook at home – and many adjustments I might make to recipes – well in advance. One autistic person posted about planning meals for a whole month! Autistic people often memorize key recipes, too – which adds another layer of structure. Even those who don’t need written recipes memorize them, because we autistic people often end up remembering reams of information anyway.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan
Bread pudding with cherries – a dish with a soft yet firm, chewy texture that pleases many autistic people. (Photo mine, November 2017)

There is a lot of tasty food in autistic kitchens. These habits in cooking do lead to lots of delicious-sounding things. On the autistic food group I am in on social media, many people post lovely-looking meals; some of my autistic friends are among the best cooks I’ve met. I hope, someday, to see several cookbooks by autistic people on the shelves of every bookstore. Not just to share the delicious food we make, but also a little bit about how we make it. As I will explain in the next post, I think everyone can learn from autistic cooks.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

Five Great Recipes for Office Return Weeknights

Here in the US, things are beginning to change around COVID. Obviously, these changes are a good thing – and we hope the same for elsewhere. However, there are some things that we will need to readjust to, and for some, that includes all the habits around returning to the office. Given commutes, we might need to cook more quickly on weeknights now.

In preparation for this, I have been trying some new recipes that do not take too long and make for hearty, tasty dinners. Some do require a bit more work than others in chopping vegetables, but none takes too long, and can easily feed a family or just yourself. Four of the five are by other authors, and I strongly suggest you make other recipes from those sites, blogs, and books!

Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa – Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

round pasta and dark greens with a bit of brothiness in a brown bowl
Orecchiette alle cime di rapa (photo mine, May 2021)

This recipe is one of my favorites, and comes from the south of Italy. The convenient part is that the vegetables and pasta are cooked in the same pot – something that, before learning how to make this myself, I thought was quite untraditional. This recipe also comes together quite quickly, and you can substitute kale or mustard greens for the rabe. Some people cook this with anchovies, but I leave the anchovies out and swap in a few more cloves of garlic and a bit of salt.

Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa from Oldways Table/Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Hiyayakko – Dressed Cold Tofu

Tofu with sauce and bonito and scallion on blue plate
Hiyayakko (from Just One Cookbook)

This is a classic Japanese summer recipe. Silken or other soft tofu is simply dressed with a few sauces and things for seasoning – scallions, ginger, and soy sauce are most common. It is very refreshing and filling and has a lovely, pudding-like filling. I use this recipe from a Japanese author, which also adds katsuobushi – very delicious dried bonito flakes. The optional black sesame seeds add a nice touch.

Hiyayakko from Just One Cookbook

Huevos con Ejotes Eggs with Green Beans

eggs and green beans on mexican pattern brown plate with salsa and tortillas on side
Huevos con Ejotes (Maricruz Avalos)

This recipe from Mexico is tasty and very balanced – the green beans add a vegetal texture and taste to the richness of the eggs. There are also many regional varieties. I’ve made a few different recipes, and these two really stand out to me. One is from Maricruz Avalos’ excellent blog, and the other is from Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez, which is a truly excellent cookbook. I usually eat this with corn tortillas and some salsa macha or some cheese and cilantro. I use vegetarian chorizo in Bricia Lopez’ recipe.

Huevos con Ejotes from Maricruz Avalos

Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez

Shakshouka

A particularly successful shakshouka from 2014. (Photo mine)

This is one of my favorites – and, contrary to what people tell you, is probably from North Africa. That said, it has become – in various forms – a classic around the Mediterranean, including in Israel and Palestine. It is also quick to make and quite flexible – you can take all sorts of delicious vegetables and use them. This recipe was one of my first for the blog, and I am still quite proud of it. My only new addition is to suggest making it in a cast-iron skillet, which makes for a lovely serving presentation and adds a bit of weight to the flavor.

Shakshouka recipe from this blog

Cigrons amb Espinacs Chickpeas and Spinach

Spinach chickpeas and onions in a white bowl
Cigrons amb espinacs (Gimme Some Oven)

This is a traditional Catalan recipe with a  long Jewish history – Claudia Roden mentions a similar recipe in her Book of Jewish Food, and such recipes spread throughout the Mediterranean after the expulsion from Spain. This recipe is also delicious and very easy to make with canned chickpeas. I eat it with nice bread, which you can get from a store – after all, you are busy.

Catalan Chickpeas and Spinach from Gimme Some Oven

Guest Post: An Interfaith Seder, by Michael Faccini

Today we have a guest post from my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who is a social worker and all-around Jewish advocate in New York. Michael and I speak quite often, and he offered to write a post about his experience hosting his non-Jewish partner for a seder this year – including some delicious food photos and an exploratory experience. This piece is really lovely, and it’s an honor to have it here on Flavors of Diaspora. Also – I covet Michael’s ability to make flan and I will definitely ask him to teach me soon. 


Table with food and seder plate
Michael and Luis’ seder table (photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

For the past few months, I’ve been dating someone really wonderful and quite unexpected. He’s kind, considerate, supportive, and…not Jewish. I’ve been in a lot of communities in which that is automatically A Problem. So, even as he was asking respectful questions and watching Fiddler with me on a date night, I was worried about Pesach. With hesitation I asked if he wanted to do a seder with me and he said yes, without hesitation. 

After some questions, he said, “I’ll try any Jewish food…as long as it has flavor.” Uh oh. You see, my partner is Puerto Rican. His bar for flavor is a lot higher than most traditional Pesach foods that are often too bland, even for me. Challenge accepted, but with trepidation. As I planned the menu, I felt pangs of guilt. Yeah, this would have flavor, but it was all food from my culture, none from his. It’s not exactly a cultural exchange if the only culture present is mine. Remembering how he talks about his aunt’s flan, I came up with the solution: a traditional seder (with flavor) and flan for dessert. 

Seder plate with beet instead of bone and a glass of salt water
Michael and Luis’ seder plate (photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

I looked at all the Pesach recipes I could find. Which had flavor? Where could I add flavor? How was I going to do that with still impaired smell and taste from covid (recipes and memory, mostly)? I decided on: matzo ball soup, tzimmes, potato kugel, and rosemary lemon chicken. Much of the flavor for the soup came from this lovely site’s vegetarian broth recipe (Jonathan note: this compliment was unsolicited!), but also a last minute innovation in the matzo ball mix: adobo seasoning. Matzo balls are often too bland for me, but these were flavorful and delicious. For the kugel, I tried caramelizing the onions before adding them. Not really worth it and I learned that no one cares that a kugel is “bland.” The rest was standard. I made the full meal except the matzo balls themselves and the chicken. Partially this was for Shabbat, but as someone with chronic fatigue issues I find that premaking and then reheating food for stuff like this allows for pacing that reduces stress and prevents exhaustion. 

Now for the Puerto Rican side. I am a baker, but I have never made baked custards and they are notoriously easy to mess up. I went into this nervous from a technical perspective, but also because flan is a cultural food. I always worry that doing cultural foods poorly will be seen as insulting, even though he said he appreciated that I was even trying. So, I settled on this recipe and proceeded with anxiety, justifiably. My loaf pan was a little larger than the recipe. My oven is notoriously unreliable and decided that it wanted to be at 350 that day, not 300. I set the timer much earlier than the recipe and pulled it when it looked like the appropriate jiggle, until I moved it again and it looked too set. I did a video of the jiggle for amusement and sent it to him, captioned: “Here’s the (probably overbaked) flan for tomorrow.” He responded, “it looks fine.” Doubtful. 

Roast chicken with rosemary
Roasted chicken for the chag. Jonathan thinks this is a masterpiece of roast poultry. (Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

Hopefully you’re asking yourself what he contributed to the food. My apartment is shomer kashrut even if I’m not, so I actually didn’t ask him to bring anything, and I kind of tried to discourage him. But he’s a Puerto Rican that likes to cook, so I should have known that wasn’t going to happen. He surprised me with maduros made from the blackest plantains and tostones because he knew it couldn’t have flour and that I love plantains. He also for the first time in his life bought kosher wine, requested to be sweet. And, y’all, he and the guy at Jay’s liquor delivered. I usually don’t like wine, but I enjoyed this one

Oh, wait, isn’t there more to a seder than the food?

That was also a challenge. If you think New Yorkers are all Jewish literate, I have news for you. He is a New Yorker through and through, but doesn’t know a lot about Judaism. I wanted to make his first seder one that would be educational, but mostly engaging and enjoyable. He’s a comic book nerd, so I got us the Graphic Novel Haggadah (generally enjoy, but lacks translation for a lot of things) and freely did some skimming, often with me explaining while we admired the artwork (it’s very well done). For maggid, we watched the Rugrats Passover special and Prince of Egypt. No finer maggid exists. For it all, he was engaged and curious, exactly how you should be at a seder.

Back to food. We couldn’t eat until late because I needed to wait until Shabbat ended (like 8pm) to put the chicken in. While we enjoyed our maggid options, I prepared the chicken and soup before reheating the rest. The chicken, well, the chicken had some oven related issues. We had that much later than the rest. This was the first time he’d had tzimmes and kugel. Both were hits, with the tzimmes suggested as particularly good for ham (he’s probably right and I’m pretty sure I may be asked to recreate them for just that purpose). He’s had and enjoyed matzo ball soup, so that was not new but eagerly anticipated. The broth particularly was a hit (y’all, this broth really is delicious and refreshing) and the adobo made the matzo balls themselves much more enjoyable. He enjoyed it all immensely and it definitely filled the flavor requirement. 

A whole rectangular flan
The flan. (Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

It was time for the part of the night I’d been looking to most anxiously: the flan. I warmed the caramel by putting the pan in hot water briefly and then unmolded. I cut us slices and could tell immediately that it was not, in fact, overbaked. It was set well but still very creamy, almost like a soft cheesecake. The couple of times I’ve had flan, it was less creamy and more rubbery. I watched carefully as he took a bite and I knew before he’d said anything that I’d done well. The flan, he insisted, was perfect. His mother would be the final judge. 

When he went home in the morning after flan for breakfast, I gave him a hefty portion of flan to take with him. As soon as he got home, he had his mom try to the flan. He called me on speaker right afterward. His mom tells me how good the flan is and says, “Will you teach me? You’re Jewish, right? A Jew teaching a Puerto Rican how to make flan.” I responded that of course I would. My partner ended the call by saying that I was honorary Puerto Rican now. 

The seder was undramatic and enjoyable. But it was also transgressive. I, a white Jew, invited my Puerto Rican non-Jewish partner to seder. Even as leaving rabbinical school frees me to be open about this relationship, none of us can pretend that interfaith relationships are accepted in many Jewish communities. While we are often not read as a interracial couple because I’m often assumed to be Latine, we similarly cannot pretend that such couplings are universally accepted. There are a lot of “don’t do this” messages for our relationship just because of our demographics. That alone is transgressive, but also the act of genuine, curious cultural exchange. How often do we interact with people who are different from us in which we both are full humans and we talk about our differences? It went beautifully. I was Jewish, unapologetically. He was Puerto Rican, unapologetically. And we got to spend the evening sharing ourselves and our cultures. May we leave the narrow places in our worlds and minds so that we can have more of that freedom. 

A slice of flan on a blue and white plate
(Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

Jewish Food, Dementia, and Inclusion

Two forget-me-not flowers
Forget-me-not: the international symbol of dementia advocacy (Photo by Ithalu Dominguez)

Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.

Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.

Trays of vegetables and fruit on a metal table
Institutional settings do not always offer choice. (Photo public domain)

We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.

Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.”  This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.

Three baked challahs
Challah: a traditional bread that can be grounding. (Photo mine, October 2016)

What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.

I strongly encourage my readers to complete the Dementia-Friendly America video series, to learn how to better support your family, friends, and neighbors with dementia.

A Little Project of Mine

notebook and pad
(Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com)

Shana Tova! I hope you are well and safe in this time. Though I am going to continue to spend much less time on social media, I feel ready to come back and make some blog posts, and some food- and planning-related posts again. I want to do things that I enjoy – without affecting my mental health.

There’s more content forthcoming: a lemonade recipe, a polenta recipe, and a post about dementia among them. But first, I want to talk about a little project that has helped me process this time.

Every day, I write whatever I’m thinking about food into a diary. Often, it is a recipe, with some thoughts about what I made or how I served it. For the first two months, each day was about an ingredient or a method. Later, I started tying food to the politics of the time: to the fight for black lives and racial inequities in food systems,  the way fights over the food industry during COVID tied with political assumptions, and how food reflected how reactionary some left-wing claims were. Sometimes, it was just how I was feeling, with a food-related tinge. Disorganized as this may sound, I now have about 28,000 words worth of diary entries from the past six months.

This food diary has helped ground me through the bizarre evolution of this plague. Through it, I am able to track how things have changed – sometimes for the better, sometimes not as much. Furthermore, it’s helped me realize once again the connection between what and how we eat to our political, social, and economic realities. I wrote in April and June about how coronavirus has changed our cooking habits. This diary has given me a glimpse into that on a personal level.

I’m not planning to share more than one post here – the writing is far too raw, and the recipes are written telegraphically. (To give you a sense, I literally wrote “LMFAO it’s going to be sticky” as a transition in one recipe.) But what I will say is that it has helped me – and is likely to be the basis of some future writing. Watch this space.

Food Sharing in a Pandemic

I was originally going to write a long resource post about how to share food safely and what to make in this time of cautious life. I hold by an ethic of harm reduction: I take it as given that you will socialize and that food will be a part of that, and not always “bring your own.” How to do that safely is something that is useful to know.

I dithered on this post, which was handy, because other resources came out! So in this brief post I will share a few resources, a few foods, and then the blog’s first ever video: a sharing mechanism.

Good Resources

Yes, it is probably safer to “stay home” or to not share food, but realistically, I know that that is not going to happen. So do public health departments. I found the Washington DC guide for cookouts to have a lot of broadly applicable information:

Also, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance here. (Yes, I know they got some things wrong early on. But many epidemiologists have said the same things as this.)

Today’s guidance on outdoor cookouts (and travel) is good!

Some great highlights: centralize serving, use individually portioned things, and of course, wash your hands.

Tasty Food to Share

Here are some blog recipes that I find are easy to share in outdoor settings and portion well individually.

A Serving Video

Here is an awkward video I made with two of my friends to demonstrate a safe way to serve and share a food at an outdoor picnic. The food is chocolate babka. Thank you to Joe Jeffers and Hannah Cook for starring, and to David Ouziel for filming! The video is captioned. A transcript with or without descriptions of what is on the screen is available on request.

If you prefer a text description of what to do, here it is:

  1. Have one person serve the food. Let’s say it’s you.
  2. Wash or sanitize your hands.
  3. Put on your mask. Wash your hands again.
  4. Put on gloves if you wish – it is helpful for reducing anxiety, and for avoiding things other than COVID.
  5. Set out your serving tools – knife, cutting board, etc.
  6. Cut/make a serving and place it on a plate or napkin.
  7. Step 6 feet/2 meters away.
  8. The other person should come and take it.
  9. Step back. Repeat steps 6-8 for each person.
  10. Remove gloves, wash your hands.
  11. Remember to wash your hands between removing your mask and going back to serve any more food. Don’t reuse gloves!

How Are Cooking Habits Changing?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about food during this time. Some of it is because, well, I am always thinking about food. Some of it is because dreaming about food helps me deal with the wildness of the outside world – as I told Ruby Tandoh for a piece in Food52. And some of it is because, well, there is a lot to say. I’ve been keeping what has become a fairly lengthy personal diary themed around food and food systems since the onset of the pandemic, with tons of materials and recipes and thoughts. I am also working on a piece about food sharing in socially distant ways (with video!). Beyond that, though, I have been noting observations I have made – both in my professional work in local government and urban planning, as well as the cooking habits I see in my away-from-the-desk life.

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

A lot more people are cooking, for sure – even as various places “reopen”. Many of these people were far more reliant on restaurants, takeout, and prepared foods before the pandemic; which, though not always leading to restaurants’ closure, certainly made a takeout-centric lifestyle a lot more difficult.  So folks turned to the kitchen, and new trends blossomed: sourdoughs, jam-making, homemade pastas, and complex dishes. Others cooked because they were bored; still others cooked their grief away. And even consummate cooks like me, now with more time to cook complicated things we saved for chagim and birthdays, branched out in new directions. (I mastered khachapuri.) For those new to cooking, the sudden imposition of more time, and time at home, provided an opportunity to actually learn some new skills. Some liked the cooking, some did not. But two months in, a lot of new habits might be sticking. That is curious to me, though I’m always happy when more people find joy, solace, or simply something in cooking.

Of course, the consequences from this change are not always positive. For the millions of people who rely on kitchen work, serving, and other food work to pay their bills, the shift to cooking at home can be catastrophic – no matter how virtuous the intent. Then, of course, there is the question of who is doing the cooking at home. Women are still doing far more chores than men in shared households, and that extends to cooking. Increase cooking time without addressing patriarchy, and that’s increasing women’s work. (Cooking is hard!) Then, of course, we should also remember that food safety problems can come from improperly made home-cooked food – not ideal in the time of a pandemic. One is not, actually, necessarily staying safe at home. That said, some people are now cooking more, or cooking differently.

Some of these changes will “stick” for a while. People may cook at home because going out makes them anxious. People may cook at home because that is what they are used to now. People may cook at home because they feel pressure to do so from peers or social media. People may cook at home because that is what they can afford. People may cook at home because they like it. Perhaps it is all of these things. And for those of us in Jewish communities, cooking at home may also happen because all the other wonderful parts of semachot – happy occasions – are so much harder in a physically distant world.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

But I have been wondering about what these things mean long-term. One is that I think we will see some of a shift in what kind of cooking is celebrated in social media and popular discourse. The 2010s saw a lot of cooking as a showpiece: the cookies, the stews, the perfect open-faced sandwiches. (Too often without honoring marginalized creators and contributors.) But when people have spent much of a formative moment in their lifetimes cooking for themselves and those in their households, or closest circles, showpieces begin to mean much less. I think, across cultures, that we might see more “home-style” cooking – as loaded and historically complex as this idea is – in which the process and the comfort take a much more central stage. Sure, you will have centerpieces, but cooking now sits in a very different place in many people’s brains.

Cooking is work! And I sense that there is greater appreciation for that now. When you have to cook, for work, or for a family, or for yourself, you start to learn shortcuts and tricks because you know that you do not have the time, energy, or space for the “real thing” – as bullshit as that concept is anyway. A lot of new cooks are coming in, and I think they are coming in with a perspective that is not about cooking something that shows status or looks good – though that is always part of food. Rather, it’s about trying to eat and enjoy it – and the process – even as the world seems to fall apart, and even when the energy to cook isn’t fully or really there.

Perhaps we will shift to a food culture that is less precious – and hopefully, less racist. A lot of this picture-perfect food culture is built on a narrative and process that steals from the work of people of color, and masks the risks and labor of cooks of color across the food industry. I hope that these changes lead some white folks to have greater empathy – and pay more attention to whose food stories are told, and who gets the money from them. I also hope that cooking habits lead people to glorify aspirational cooking a little less, and the fact that food should be for everybody a little bit more. I also hope that, now that some have experienced cooking labor for the first time, that there is more weight and advocacy for the millions of kitchen workers that feed America – few of whom have the luxury to eat the way white pundits tell them to.

But who knows if these hopes will come true? Like the virus, food habits are often unpredictable.

Chocolate Cake Means You Made It (and a Recipe)

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table
Chocolate red wine cake with homemade ice cream. (Photo mine, April 2020)

It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”

Text reading "Rebecca Gomez has for sale at the chocolate manufactory no. 14, upper-end Nassau Street between Commissary Butler's and the Brick Meeting, Superfine warranted chocolate, wholesale and retail, white wine Vinegar by the cask or single gallon at 4 s., Spermaceti oil and common Lamp citto, Fig Blue, soap starch etc. etc. Also a few gross Mogul and Andrew playing Cards, at a low rate and by the dozen"
A Jewish merchant woman’s advertisement for chocolate and other goods in 18th-century Rhode Island. (Document found in Library of Congress archive)

Chocolate has a long history in Jewish cooking. Of course, cacao and the chocolate it comes from originated in what is now Mexico, and only reached Europe after the Spanish conquest. Despite the Inquisition, Sephardi Jews were involved in the chocolate trade from almost its beginning in Europe, and well-off Jews in the Netherlands were already making and consuming chocolate in the 17th century, and in Italy and the Americas in the 18th. New developments in cocoa processing and production gave us eating chocolate and cocoa powder for baking in the 19th century; Jewish people in Europe and the Americas were involved in early manufacture of both. By the late 19th century, chocolate was still a luxury good, but widespread across Europe, especially in cities; Jewish merchant families and better-off Jewish communities began to incorporate chocolate into baked goods. As a result, the consumption of chocolate quickly became a status symbol. Incorporating a bit of chocolate, even as a paltry glaze or with store-bought candy was a sign of the times and living large. Contemporary recipe books from the United States, Germany, and Lithuania all contain recipes with chocolate in holiday food sections.

Yiddish-book with food images on cover, reading "Krisko resepies far der idisher baleboste/Crisco recipes for the Jewish housewife"
This Yiddish-language cookbook was distributed by Crisco to sell their products to Jewish communities – and like many others of its time, it included chocolate cake. (Image from Yiddish Book Center/CC)

One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.

Chocolate cake on a plate
Chocolate red wine cake cooling (photo mine, April 2020)

This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authenticper se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tcha probably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
Chocolate babkas – another new application of chocolate in the 19th century (Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

Chocolate cake is a mechayeh – something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.


And now, a cake.

I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”

Chocolate Red Wine Cake

Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade

Serves 8-10

6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)

⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

⅔ cup white sugar

¾ cup red wine

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 ¼ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

Oil or butter to grease the pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
  2. In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  5. Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  6. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
  7. Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
  8. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
  9. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.

Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

This recipe was updated in March 2021 based on additional experimentation.