Building his own tradition, Jake Cohen blends Ashkenazi flavors with his husband’s Mizrahi family recipes

Jake Cohen recipe

Shared by Jake Cohen

This story orignally appeared on JewishFoodSociety.org

Recipe Roots: Basra, Iraq > Tehran > Ramat Gan, Israel > Istanbul > Basel, Switzerland > Gainesville, Florida and New York City || Berlin > London > Forest Hills, Queens

On January 1, 2015 Jake Cohen and Alex Shapiro both swiped right. A week after their first date, they were already seeing one another nearly every day. That spring, they faced one of their first big hurdles as a couple. Both families — Jake’s Ashkenazi and Alex’s Mizrahi — wanted them at their Seder tables. In Jake’s family, the annual invitation to Seder comes with a heaping side of Jewish guilt and expectation from his mother. “If you’re in the state of New York, there’s no reason you should miss Seder,” says Jake, who is the author of the new cookbook “Jew-ish: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch.”

But, Jake broke with tradition. That first year, the couple split their time, spending one night with Jake’s family and the other with Alex’s. The next year, they faced the same challenges of guilt and expectations. But, again, one night was celebrated with Jake’s family eating his aunt Susi’s famed braised brisket and his great-aunt Lotte’s meringues, and one was spent with Alex’s Persian family eating beet kubbeh a soup of dumplings wrapped in rice for the holiday, and tahdig, a prized dish of crispy rice. The Persian Seder was a revelation for Jake. “It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and yet still so Jewish,” he explains on the Schmaltzy podcast.

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As Jake and Alex’s relationship grew, Jake started to immerse himself in the Iraqi and Iranian cooking of Alex’s family. Alex’s mother Robina sent him a Persian rice cooker and a copy of the “Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies,” by Najmieh Batmanglij, a bible of the cuisine. And Jake started to ask various members of Alex’s family for the recipes they were best known for including Robina’s ghormeh sabzi, an herb-laden stew with beef and kidney beans. At the time, Jake hadn’t met Alex’s great-aunt Doris yet, but he was already asking around for her recipe for hadji bada, or Iraqi almond cookies that are Alex’s favorite sweet. 

The following year for Passover, to keep the peace, Alex declared that he and Jake would host a Seder for both families. For Jake, it was daunting. “It’s so many people, it’s such different traditions, it’s such big personalities. There are enough big personalities just within one family,” he says. He felt the future of their Seders hung in the balance, but he agreed to go along with the plan.

Having learned Alex’s family recipes, Jake prepared all of the signature dishes from both families — braised brisket and tahdig. It was also the night Jake met Doris. She walked into the room and handed him a small piece of folded paper. On it, was her recipe for hajdi bada. Thankfully, the blended Seder worked. “That Seder, we became one family,” Jake explains on Schmaltzy.

Finally, by 2019, Jake was not only ready to welcome both sides of the family to the table, but to blend them. He prepared ghormeh sabzi from Alex’s tradition, but with a brisket, nodding to his own family. Jake adds: “It’s just the perfect representation of this crazy Jewish family my husband and I have built.” 

Ghormeh Sabzi Brisket

Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Total Time: 4 hours  + overnight

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 5-to-5½-pound beef brisket, untrimmed

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek (leaves)

1 tablespoon dried turmeric

2 bunches parsley, minced (4 cups leaves and tender stems)

2 bunches cilantro, minced (4 cups leaves and tender stems)

2 bunches scallions, minced (12 each)

6 cups chicken stock

6 dried Omani limes

2 cups red kidney beans, soaked overnight and drained

Preparation

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. In a large Dutch oven or roasting pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Dry the brisket with paper towels, then season with salt and pepper. Sear the brisket, turning as needed, until golden brown, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the brisket to a platter.

2. To the pot, add the onions and cook until softened and slightly golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the dried fenugreek and turmeric, and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.

3. Add the parsley, cilantro and scallions to the pot and cook, stirring to scrape up any fond on the bottom of the pot, until the herbs are dark green in color, 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Add the chicken stock and dried limes, then nestle the brisket into the pot and bring to simmer. Cover with a lid (use tinfoil to cover if you’re using a roasting pan) and place in the oven for 1 hour.

5. After 1 hour, stir in the soaked kidney beans and, using a paring knife, pierce a hole in each lime to release its flavor into the stew. Continue to cook, covered, until both the brisket and beans are tender, 2 hours more. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, then let cool completely and refrigerate overnight.

6. The next day, skim and discard the solidified fat cap, then transfer the chilled brisket to a cutting board. Cut against the grain into ¼-inch slices, then return to the pot. Return the stovetop and reheat over medium-low heat until hot. Check for seasoning, then serve.

Chewy Iraqi Almond Cookies (Hadji Bada)

Makes: 24 Cookies

Total Time: 35 Minutes, Plus Cooling Time  

Ingredients

2 cups finely ground almond flour

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher salt

2 large egg whites

1 cup (200g) sugar

1 tablespoon rose water, plus more for rolling

24 whole raw almonds

Preparation

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two half sheet pans with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond flour, cinnamon, and salt to combine.

3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites, sugar, and rose water until foamy. (Note: You’re not making a meringue.) Stir in the almond flour mixture until a smooth dough forms.

4. Fill a small bowl with room-temperature water and add a few drops of rose water, then use this water to wet your hands to prevent sticking as you roll the dough. Roll the dough into tablespoon- size balls and place them on the prepared sheet pans, spacing them 2 inches apart and placing 12 balls on each pan. Push an almond into the center of each ball of dough.

5. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through, for about 15 minutes, until the cookies have spread out and their edges are golden. Let cool completely on the pans, then serve.

Excerpted from JEW-ISH: A COOKBOOK: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch© 2021 by Jake Cohen. Photography © 2021 by Matt Taylor-Gross. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.  

Lotte’s Meringue Cookies

Jake’s great-great-aunt Lotte always arrived at holiday meals with a Tupperware of her famed meringue cookies with chocolate chips and walnuts. It was only after Lotte passed away at 97-years-old, that Jake heard of her life growing up. Born in Berlin before WWII, she escaped to London where she worked as a maid. She later learned that most of her family perished in the Holocaust. “After so much pain and hardship, Lotte helped build a family full of so much love, one that I’m proud to be a part of,” Jake writes in “Jew-ish.”

Makes: About 36 Cookies
Total Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, Plus Cooling Time 

Ingredients
3 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup (200g) sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch or potato starch
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces dark chocolate (70 percent cacao), chopped (1 cup)
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preparation
1. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Line two half sheet pans with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until frothy. Then, with the mixer running, stream in the sugar and whip until white in color and beginning to grow in volume, but not yet able to hold soft peaks.

3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, whisk the cornstarch with ⅓ cup water. Cook over medium- high heat, stirring continuously, until thickened, about 2 minutes.

4. With the mixer running, slowly pour the hot cornstarch slurry into the egg white mixture, followed by the salt and vanilla. Raise the mixer speed to medium-high and whip until the mixture holds stiff peaks, 10 to 12 minutes. Gently fold in the chocolate and walnuts.

5. Spoon 2-tablespoon mounds of the meringue mixture onto the prepared sheet pans, spacing them 1 inch apart. Bake for 2 hours, then remove from the oven and let cool completely.

6. Serve once cool, or store in an airtight container lined with paper towels at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Excerpted from JEW-ISH: A COOKBOOK: Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch© 2021 by Jake Cohen. Photography © 2021 by Matt Taylor-Gross. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.