Hanukkah starts at sundown Sunday, and I’m pleased to report that I have figured out my menus and gifts. Two new Jewish cookbooks helped me get there: “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen” by Faith Kramer and “The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook: 50 Traditional Recipes for Every Occasion” by Beth A. Lee.
"52 Shabbats" (due out Dec. 14) is built around the custom of Shabbat dinner, the Friday night holiday meal that is the Jewish way of saying “welcome to the weekend.” The book is unique on several levels.
First, the primary focus is a single holiday meal — as opposed to on all holidays or all meals for a weeklong holiday — but that meal happens every week. Some people may be content with the same menu every week, but Kramer is evidently not.
She embraces not only particular dishes from countries where Jews have lived and adapted to the culinary culture, but also particular ingredients from those cuisines. Kramer's recipes are rooted in classic Jewish preparations and have familiar-sounding names, but her unique spin often completely transforms them into something new.
Brisket becomes Pomegranate Molasses Brisket. Pulled Pork becomes Pulled Turkey. Kramer also simplifies traditional time-consuming preparations and repurposes ingredients in unusual ways, as with Stuffed Cabbage Meatloaf, Falafel Pizza and Brisket Fried Rice.
Most of the recipes in the book are for main dishes, which are organized by season and thus use seasonal ingredients.
A standout for me is the Pomegranate Molasses Brisket. It uses an ingredient used in Sephardic and Mizrachi kitchens — pomegranate molasses — in the Ashkenazic preparation of brisket. The result is reminiscent of fesenjan, the Persian chicken and pomegranate stew, and you can’t help but swoon as you take in the tender brisket and that piquant, just-shy-of-too-tart sauce.
Inspired by a friend’s story of a Mexican American grandmother who made kosher tamales at Hanukkah for her Jewish grandchildren, Kramer's Friday Night Tamales use Ashkenazic beef tzimmes (a stew of meat and fruit) as the tamale filling. The masa is made with schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) instead of lard (pig fat in the masa harina is what makes tamales off-limits for Jews who adhere to the dietary laws). Z’hug and harissa are suggested in place of — or along with — salsa.
Stuffed Cabbage Meatloaf reduces the hours of futzing to fill and roll cabbage leaves one-by-one to a few minutes of layering and wrapping several cabbage leaves around one large loaf of meat the way one would wrap a roast in puff pastry to make a beef Wellington.
And then there are the Challah Fritters with Sweet Tahini Sauce. This brilliant repurposing of leftover challah had me addicted at first bite. A thin, crackly crunchy crust encases a chewy, distinctly banana-y and not overly sweet interior. They are sort of like a deep-fried, banana-flavored challah French toast.
I applaud Kramer’s ingenuity. She has assembled a collection of imaginative, familiar-yet-different recipes suitable for a holiday dinner that comes up every week. And the recipes, clearly written and straightforward, are appropriate for other holidays as well. Everyone who ate something I made from the book had only good things to say. The Tahini Mashed Potatoes elicited the question from a friend eating them at my table: “Why haven’t we always put tahini in our mashed potatoes?”
While “52 Shabbats” focuses primarily on entrees and offers a few desserts for Shabbat dinners, Lee’s “The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook” (published in hardcover Oct. 5) is a collection of traditional Jewish baked goods, both sweet and savory. Many are associated with particular holidays such as Challah, Matzo Farfel Kugel, Hamantaschen and Macaroons, others with everyday eating, like Bourekas, Deli-Style No-Knead Rye Bread and Black-and-White Cookies and Knishes.
Lee has identified 50 iconic Jewish baked goods such as honey cake, rugelach, kugel and knishes that she believes are Jewish baking classics. While most of the recipes are of Ashkenazic origins (from which she hails), Sephardic and Mizrachi preparations are represented as well.
Rather than put a spin on tradition, Lee nestles in and merely tweaks it a bit. She has updated techniques to include modern methods and tools, particularly stand mixers, which come equipped with a dough hook.
There are recipes for breads, pastries (sweet and savory), cookies, cakes and more. The first chapter contains her Bubbe’s challah recipe, which was part of the inspiration for this book. It produces two magnificent challahs: pillowy, chewy and dense.
Other recipes include A Hero’s Chocolate Babka (the kind that eluded Jerry and Elaine in the well-known "Seinfeld" episode); Ready for Lox Homemade Bagels (the kind people make special trips into New York to buy and lug home by the dozen) and Malawach, a savory Yemenite flat and flaky bread popular in Israel.
There are holiday-oriented recipes like Shortcut Apple Strudel and Taiglach for Rosh Hashanah, Chocolate-Dipped Almond Coconut Macaroons and Matzo Farfel Kugel for Passover, Hamantaschen for Purim and Blintz Casserole for Shavuot. And for Hanukkah, along with the obligatory Sufganiyot (jelly donuts) there are also Bimuelos (fritters doused in syrup), an olive oil cake (Marble Pound Cake) and Olive Oil Hamantaschen.
While the recipes in “Essential Jewish Baking” are not necessarily breaking new ground in the manner of “52 Shabbats,” they are well-written and easy to follow. Lee offers guidance and encouragement to beginning bakers. She tells a story with each recipe and credits the many friends and acquaintances from whom she acquired them.
Perfect for budding Jewish bakers, the book is also a convenient compendium of “greatest hits” for those who like to bake time-honored foods for Jewish holidays. Lee’s enthusiasm for her subject and friendly, approachable style make it a good read in addition to being instructive.
Clearly, I will be serving Kramer’s Pomegranate Molasses Brisket and Tahini Mashed Potatoes at my Hanukkah table, along with those Challah Fritters (did I mention that they are also Hanukkah-appropriate?). Lee’s Bimuelos and Marble Pound Cake will also likely grace my table.
As for who will receive these cookbooks as gifts, I am not at liberty to disclose that at this time.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.