on 6 September 1998
I was aware that this volume was coming. In fact, I've known about it for almost a year, and based on Ms. Goldman's other recipes which I'd tried from her website, Baker Boulanger, I have looked forward to it. From the cover design, which screams for you to pick it up, right down to the Source Guide (where to buy equipment, tools and ingredients) included at the end, this book is a winner.
What makes A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking so special? Recipes alone are important, but when you read the introduction, you not only learn what distinguishes Jewish baking from all others, why the author set out to put this collection together, and an extensive section on kashruth and the ingredients that play a part. Many authors grind out cookbooks at amazing speed, making it likely that something will be lost, and that "something" is usually the way a dish is fine-tuned to spectacular perfection.
The recipes in this cookbook were created, tweaked and honed; they were tasted and refined; then they were taste-tested by others; and finally, they were kitchen-tested by a host of volunteers. Their names occupy four pages. Quality shows.
The book is organized by Jewish holiday: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (as in breaking fast), Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot. In addition, there is a sizeable chapter on all manner of bread baking, with lots of important and often innovative information about equipment and techniques, plus lots of recipes.
One of the things I especially appreciated was the way Ms. Goldman presented challot. For sure, most of us are aware that we bake one kind of challah for Shabbat, another for Rosh Hashanah, etc. While challah is a centerpiece of Jewish cuisine, we have variations for different occasions. Sometimes it's sweeter, such as for Rosh Hashanah, where we celebrate by presenting foods that will usher in the sweetness of the new year. Our Rosh Hashanah challah also takes on a different physical appearance, being wound into a turban shape to symbolize the continuity of life. Rather than lump all the challot into one place, the author introduces the basics of making challah in the first chapter, and intersperses special holiday recipes in the chapters which follow.
I consider myself a fair bread baker, but I was intrigued by the section on breads. While I expected to read material already familiar to me, I was mesmerized by new methods and techniques, and I found myself becoming anxious to get to the kitchen to try them out.
A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking is packed with information, some about the individual recipes and some which tie Jewish foods to religion and culture. Many recipes are accompanied by variations which often appear to create something completely different, all by changing one or two ingredients. The only (and I do mean only) thing I found disappointing about this book was the lack of color photos. Perhaps when this winner goes to a second edition, the publisher will include some.
As I said, I couldn't wait to start trying out some recipes, but there was a problem. With everything looking so wonderful, how could I possibly decide which to make first? And what would happen when I had all this delicious food around the house---much as I'd love to live the "sweet" life, reality dictates that I exercise a modicum of control. I was in luck because timing was on my side. My synagogue choir was in overdrive to prepare for the upcoming holidays, so I had a willing, if not eager, audience for my testing.
I began with "The Titanic Cafe's Chocolate Chestnut Torte." Light, luscious, delicate, chocolatey, decadent...and flourless. While the recipe calls for a chocolate ganache glaze, Ms. Goldman comments that she prefers this with a dusting of cocoa, which is the way I did it. (It should also be noted that there is a special Passover version of this recipe in the book. )
There is little more to say, except that it was immediately popular with choir. As I listened to the sounds of culinary ecstasy, I began to feel that if I continued to provide such treats, attendance would remain high. I'm not sure if the torte had anything to do with it, but there were twice as many people at the second rehearsal.
For the second rehearsal, I chose a recipe called "My Mother's Fancy Apple Cake." A cookie-type crust encases lots of apple slices which are baked till soft, then a custard mixture is pour over this and it continues to bake. Now, I have to admit that I violated my first rule of cooking...I didn't read the whole recipe before I started. Actually, I read most of the recipe, but missed the last line which indicates that it should be refrigerated at least 4 hours to set properly.
So there I was, a half hour before rehearsal, trying to decide what to do. Do I take it or leave it? I couldn't help myself. It smelled so good, I figured it might set somewhat by the time we had our break. It did, but I'm sure refrigeration would have made a significant improvement. Of course, the aroma from the back seat of the car on the way to rehearsal was almost too much to bear.
When I started slicing it at the break in rehearsal, I was worried it would be swimming on the plates, and while it was a bit more liquidy than I would have liked, it was superb in taste. More oohs and ahhhs, and several marriage proposals later, people were lining up, hoping for seconds.
I never revealed the error to my adoring public, but I made this cake again, the way the author had intended, and it was, as I suspected, even more delicious.
Other recipes of note: "Almost-Nettie's Cinnamon Meringue-Walnut Babka," "Miami Beach Coffee Cake," "Shredded Dough Plum Tart," and "My Trademark, Most Requested, Absolutely Magnificent Caramel Matzoh Crunch." In the case of the matzoh crunch, you should be aware that, with only four ingredients, it will take you longer to read the short recipe than to make it.
I'll admit, I'm not a fan of the way matzoh is often "used and abused" in the name of the holiday. Too often, we are left with a variation of a year-round dish that pales miserably in comparison to its former version. With this in mind, I was tempted to wait till Passover to make the Matzoh Crunch, but the title, the ease of preparation, and frankly, Ms. Goldman's reputation, spurred me to try it. All I can say is, "Wow!" You know there's matzoh there, but you don't feel as if you're eating a second-rate adaptation. I daresay, I can't think of a better way to make this.
Finally, I had occasion to feed my writers' group. It was the least I could do in exchange for their comments and criticisms regarding this review before it was published. For this group, I prepared the "Majestic and Moist New Year's Honey Cake." It was the ultimate proof that, while honey cake is traditionally Jewish fare, you don't have to be Jewish to love it.
As I look to the heavens for the tell-tale lightning bolt, I must confess that until I tried this recipe, I would never have conceived that there could be a honey cake better than my beloved grandmother's. I'll go one step further. If she were alive today, I'm sure my grandmother would rip up her own recipe and keep this cookbook handy.
The cake is unbelievably moist, full-bodied in flavor, with a perfect texture that begs to be eaten slowly and savored in tiny bites so as to make the experience last as long as possible. And even then, you gaze longingly at the uncut portion, hoping someone will offer you seconds while you mentally gauge a way to cut down on caloric intake the rest of the week to compensate for such culinary decadence. How many times have I heard someone say, "I can cook, but I'm no baker?" Great news, then. On page 32, you'll find a long list just for you. It's called, "Winning Recipes for the Bakery-Challenged." There is even a splendid recipe for challah which you can start in your bread machine. To say this was easy to make is an understatement. I love the challah recipe that's been on my website forever, but Ms. Goldman's recipe is denser and sweeter. If you have any leftover bread, use it to make memorable sandwiches.
A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking could easily make the term "baking-challenged" obsolete.