Cookbooks a perfect idea for last-minute Hanukkah presents

Jewish cookbooks

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

If you thought the Internet had rendered cookbooks irrelevant, you’d be wrong. Yes, thousands of recipes are available for free on websites and cooking blogs. But only a cookbook can take you on a culinary journey to someplace you’ve never been, teach you about culinary traditions you knew little about, and guide you in preparing delicious meals for family and friends. 

Many people share my sentiments, as evidenced by the number of new cookbooks on the market. Better yet, as we are in the midst of the holiday season, any of the following cookbooks would make a terrific Hanukkah gift.

The roots of the first two cookbooks I recommend can be traced back to Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late 19th century. In the European shtetl, women were homemakers. But here in America, economic pressures forced many of those women to work outside the home. Hence, the Jewish delicatessen was born. Through those delis, rich European culinary traditions would be preserved, immigrants would enjoy the foods they grew up on and neighborhood deli owners would have a good source of income.

In the beginning, the patrons of those Jewish delis were principally Jewish immigrants. But today, deli food has blossomed into a culinary genre enjoyed by all. “The Mile End Cookbook” by Noah and Rae Bernamoff (Clarkson Potter, 2012; $27.50) and“The Artisan Jewish Deli At Home”by Nick Zukin and Michael C. Zusman (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2013; $27.99) provide fascinating stories about the deli movement and some great recipes to re-create deli favorites.


The founders of the Mile End Delicatessen, which opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2010, are two 20-somethings in love with each other and in love with the deli foods of their childhoods. For Noah, who grew up in Montreal, the essence of deli food was great smoked meats. For his wife, Rae, a New York City native, the appeal was to innovate those traditional deli favorites with an emphasis on quality ingredients.

As you might guess, their cookbook, subtitled “Redefining Jewish Comfort Food from Hash to Hamantaschen,” has an entire section on smoking meats and fish. Though time consuming, their recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. An entire section is devoted to condiments for smoked meats — everything from pickled gizzard confit to gribenes and schmaltz

If you enjoy baking, you’ll find recipes for a delicious range of classics, including kaiser rolls, pletzel, pumpernickel bread, cheesecakes with compote, mandlebrot and jelly doughnuts. And if you find yourself in that inevitable meal rut, “The Mile End Cookbook” offers exciting recipes and ideas for memorable breakfasts, great sandwiches and stick-to-your-ribs dinners.

The second of my deli cookbook recommendations, “The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home,”pays homage to deli classics, including recipes for kreplach, green sorrel spring borcht, cheese blintzes, traditional bagels made with a sourdough starter (which I have made and were a big hit with my family), and kippered salmon, which had been a particularly popular menu item in the delis of the 1920s and 1930s. 

The authors precede each recipe with lively stories of that food’s origins. They also offer recipes that put contemporary twists on the classics, including innovative recipes for pastrami and cheddar scones, pastrami Benedict, herbed matzoh brei and creative options for filling rugelach that reflect the four seasons.

In addition to this wonderful recipe collection, the book is peppered with interviews of Jewish food mavens  such as Nach Waxman and cookbook author Joan Nathan, and great stories about some of our nation’s finest delis. Even if you’re not a cook, the appetizing photos will make you want to search out the closest deli and delve into its history.

And if you happen to know a baker, a wannabe baker or a history buff, I recommend “Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking”(Camino Books, Inc., 2011; $24.95). The authors are the late Norman Berg, a professional baker for 25 years, and Stanley Ginsberg, an avid self-taught baker who learned most of what he knows from

his grandmother and mother. Their goal in publishing this book was to “preserve and celebrate the tastes and traditions of real Jewish baking and feelings of community they evoked.”

This is a book about our Jewish-American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jewish immigrants came to our nation in pursuit of the American Dream. The authors have painstakingly revised their collection of traditional Jewish bakery recipes for the home baker, with ingredients broken down into ounces, grams and baker’s percentages. After all, none of us could, or would want to, bake a large enough batch of flomenkuchen (plum cake), sitnice (rustic pumpernickel) or mini-schnecken to supply the entire St. Louis Jewish community! The tantalizing photos make me long for salt sticks, onion-poppyseed pletsl and Mohn bars.

My next recommendation is Paula Shoyer’s second cookbook, “The Holiday Kosher Baker”(Sterling Epicure, 2013; $35) Trust me: Even if you don’t keep kosher, you’ll want to bake some of her goodies. Shoyer, who went from practicing law to practicing the art of fine pastry with a degree from the Ritz Escoffier pastry program in Paris, is a fabulous instructor. Her recipes, which she introduces with information regarding degree of difficulty, kashrut classification and ingredients linked to common food allergies, are clear and concise.

Shoyer divides her recipes into sections by the major Jewish holidays, including an explanation of each holiday’s traditions. Most recipes include baking tips and menu suggestions. In her chapter on Passover, she even has some pantry suggestions and a list of recipes found elsewhere in her book that could be used at Passover with, in some cases, minor alterations. Shoyer has taken many traditional recipes and made them contemporary, such as babka bites, apple and honey challah rolls and honey cake biscotti. 

And then there are recipes for sweets that would be right at home in the finest pastry shops in Paris: chocolate eclairs, canneles, caramelized mocha and vanilla bean Napoleons, and raspberry and rose macaroon cake. Simply paging through the book and gazing at the mouthwatering photographs will make you want to own it.

In 2009, I reviewed Janna Gur’s wonderful first cookbook, the award-winning “The Book of New Israeli Food”(Schocken, 2009; $35). She has now published her second book, “Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh” (Schocken, 2014; $35). This new cookbook provides a splendid collection of recipes and traditions that shaped our Jewish culinary heritage. 

Gur takes us on a Jewish “soul food” journey that includes bistil (potato patties stuffed with spiced minced meat) from Libya, badrijani nigvzit (eggplant rolls with walnut and herb filling) from Georgia and chukor (phyllo spinach and cheese pastries) from Turkey. These and other recipes will instill a new appreciation for the complicated evolution of traditional Jewish cuisine.

Gur founded and is the editor of the Israeli magazine Al Hashulchan (“On the Table”). She is also, as she demonstrates in her cookbook, a masterful networker. Some of the recipes were inspired or given to her by Israeli restaurateurs, whose parents and grandparents inhabited the lands of their origins. Others came from Israeli home cooks who have embraced their culinary heritage and woven many of these unique dishes into their family’s menus. With recipes that are easy to follow, Gur’s newest collection will awaken your hunger for tradition and delectable meals.

The recipe at top, Moroccan in origin, is a stunning example of how simple ingredients can combine to create a relatively healthy confection that can be a sweet Hanukkah treat.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]