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Jewish Food: History & Judgement

March 28, 2017

Yesterday we were talking about the things you can learn from attending a casual tasting. Well, the learnings get kicked up a notch when you’re actually judging a culinary contest.

Granted, Sunday’s contest was relatively small. It was part of the Jewish Food Festival at Congregation Gates of Heaven. Yes, I know it sounds a bit like a cult. That’s why I like to just call it Gates. And it’s full of people who care deeply about food.

The latke dinner at Chanukah is the best latke dinner I’ve been to in the area. So many latkes. It’s like fried potato heaven. And then there are the monthly potlucks, which feature not just delicious dishes from congregants, but also the reliably ultra-tender and well-seasoned baked chicken from the in-house kitchen.

But the annual Jewish Food Festival is the crown jewel. Del cures salmon. Randy chops liver. Harvey mixes up egg creams. And countless congregants pitch in to bake rugelach, braise brisket, and stuff knishes.

Oh right, the judging. I was on a panel of judges which included the rabbi and Jewish cookbook author Tina Wasserman. When you get three Jews to judge something, it feels kinda like a beit din. It’s a heavy task. And we were tasked with judging dessert.

Before the judging Tina gave an illuminating talk about what makes Jewish food Jewish. From her perspective that means it has to follow the laws of shabbat and the laws of kashrut. But she also took a historical perspective and went all the way back to the year 711 when Moors brought foods from all over the world to Spain, and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Some of my favorite gleanings were about the invention of Crisco in 1911 and how that helped Jews to become American. How the tradition of black eyed peas on New Year dates back 2500 to a Jewish dish called Lubia. She insists caponata is a 500 year old Shabbat dish, that’s incorrectly attributed to Italian rather than Jewish cuisine. And that anything with the combination of pine nuts and raisins is also Jewish.

Learning buried facts about one’s own culture is always a lot of fun.

It’s also fun to judge dessert competitions with someone who bakes. Because while I may be able to identify strengths and weaknesses in certain dishes, it’s fascinating to see those through the eyes of someone who has an intuitive understanding of what it would take to improve upon that dish in the kitchen.

So we had three dishes to evaluate. The category was Kosher for Passover desserts. And that’s no easy task. They were being judged on three criteria, taste, creativity, and appearance.

We had a peach cake with raspberry sauce and whipped cream, a chocolate mousse cake, and a fallen chocolate cake with a sweetened mascarpone frosting.

Each of the dishes had something to love.

The peach cake was beautiful to look at with a bright pop of color from the red raspberry sauce. The sauce also gave the cake some acidity, which was cut with the richness of the whipped cream. It was a strong contender, and for Passover cakes it was quite good. But passover cakes ultimately depend on matzoh meal, and that ingredient’s flat, dusty flavor, is hard to shake.

I argue that the best passover desserts are the ones who minimize or eliminate the use of matzoh meal entirely.

Like chocolate mousse cake. This was delicious. It may not have looked the best, or been the most creative, but it was quite tasty. There was a lot to love about this dish, from the deep chocolate flavor, to its level of sweetness, to the gently whipped cream topping that had a glossiness I look for but seldom find.

The judges agreed that the most creative offering was the fallen chocolate cake which was more like a dense brownie. It was equal parts cake and sweetened mascarpone topping. And this dish had lots of potential. With a more tender baked layer, and less sweetness in the topping, this could have won the day.

But ultimately, all the judges agreed that the one dessert they would want to eat again was the chocolate mousse cake. It was not an easy decision.

Since I don’t have a sweet tooth, my dessert was a schmear of chopped liver on a bit of rye, topped with a few pieces of hot, sliced corned beef. Man, I do enjoy the food of my people. Now, back to the diet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. -R. permalink
    March 28, 2017 11:24 am

    “She insists caponata is a 500 year old Shabbat dish, that’s incorrectly attributed to Italian rather than Jewish cuisine.”

    Proof please. While I won’t disagree that everyone and their brother traipsed through Sicily in the past 2500+ years, this statement undercuts a deeply traditional Sicilian dish, with many delightful variations to be had all over the island.

    • Deedee permalink
      March 29, 2017 11:05 pm

      Here’s an explanation written by Tina
      Eggplant caponata is an identifiably Italian appetizer of sautéed eggplant, onions, and tomato, seasoned with capers, red wine vinegar, and sugar. What is less identifiable is that this dish is a 400-year old Jewish Sabbath dish. Jews were exposed for 700 years to the foods the Moors enjoyed and brought with them to Spain. The island of Sicily was a Spanish territory in 1492 when its 40,000 Jews were expelled during the Inquisition. These displaced Sicilian Jews loved eggplant and cooked it often. Italians thought it was poisonous (not to mention that they associated it as “Jew” food) and called it melanzana (from mala insane, which means bad spirit or bad apple). When the Spanish explorers brought tomatoes to the old world, most people did not eat them, because these, too, were considered part of the nightshade family and thus poisonous. Once eggplant and tomatoes were determined to be edible, they were introduced into Italian and Italian Jewish cuisine. Combining eggplant and tomatoes with the addition of vinegar and sugar ensured their place on the Sabbath table.

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