With 'The Holiday Kosher Baker,' a chef aims to spiff up the sweets of the kosher canon.
It’s a story of self-discovery so common as to be almost part of American mythology. A young American woman finds herself in a charming European city, miles away from the fast-paced Northeastern metropolis she calls home. Walking along the rain-swept streets of these new surroundings and inspired by the magnificent pastries in the bakery windows, her mind starts to wander into the fanciful land of “What if?” On a lark, she decides to do something whimsical, non-practical and entirely fun – she enrolls in a baking class in Paris.
The class proves to be a revelation. She finds that with every pour of sugar, every twirl of the mixer and every pinch of salt, she comes alive. She spends hours a day honing her craft and soon, she is filling orders for friends. Before she knows it, the new baker has a flourishing catering business and has outgrown her small European kitchen.
She returns to the United States, where she takes her baking to the next level – leading classes, appearing in televised cooking shows and publishing cookbooks, all with the goal of bringing a new sophistication to the way we eat.
Wait a second, you might be thinking, wasn’t there a movie about this a few years ago?
Well, yes. But the heroine of this story is not Julia Child, but Paula Shoyer, a Long Island native who fell in love with baking while working in Europe and who been on a mission to bring about a “kosher baking revolution” ever since.
A lawyer by training, Shoyer was based in Geneva, where she worked as a speech writer for UN Watch, an organization which monitors UN treatment of Israel; After having her first child, she left speechwriting and began to take baking classes in Paris.
In 2010, Shoyer published her first book “The Kosher Baker” and has now come out with her second book, “The Holiday Kosher Baker: Traditional & Contemporary Holiday Desserts” which includes 120 recipes. Close to forty percent of them are designed specifically for Passover, but of course there are choices aplenty for a festive winter, as well.
Shoyer, a friendly, pretty woman with an ebullient manner, speaks passionately about her mission. “The vision is to keep spreading the kosher baking revolution,” she said. “I started with “The Kosher Baker” to get people to bake at home because homemade is healthier, and it’s tastier… I feel that life’s too short to eat bad desserts.”
Each chapter in “The Holiday Kosher Baker” – which follows the yearly cycle from Rosh Hashanah through Shavuot – begins with a description of the holiday and an explanation of the spiritual origins of its food traditions; for example, why hamentaschen symbolize the hidden nature of God in the Book of Esther.
The book also includes a Baking 101 section consisting of tips for the beginner and intermediate baker and a list of equipment every baker should have. At 240 pages, this 8” x 10” book can be propped up in the kitchen or on your lap, as you leisurely look at the full-page color photos, plan menus and read Shoyer’s anecdotes about the recipes.
Like Susie Fishbein before her (Shoyer edited two Kosher By Design books), Shoyer seeks to raise the bar of kosher baking by introducing more contemporary confections into the kosher canon and by bringing a new spin to time-tested favorites.
Flip through the pages of “The Holiday Kosher Baker” and you’ll find plentiful examples of traditional desserts that incorporate modern sensibilities: vanilla bean hamentaschen, fresh-lemon sponge cake and raspberry and rose macaroon cake. The majority of the recipes in “The Holiday Kosher Baker” however, are true newcomers into the Jewish baking oeuvre and reflect Shoyer’s training in classical French baking. Since that cuisine is famously buttery, Shoyer has produced pareve versions of such delectables as chocolate almond croissants (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), nougat glace (Passover) and caramelized mocha and vanilla bean Napoleons (Shavuot).
Find a recipe for the ridiculously adorable Tie-Dyed Cookies here.
“Pareve” shouldn’t mean “second-best,” Shoyer said.
“You shouldn’t know that it’s dairy-free, it should just be good,” she said. “There’s no reason to lower the standard. Not anymore – we have great ingredients.”
“The Kosher Baker” does lean heavily towards Ashkenazi baking. Readers might find themselves wondering why there isn’t more Middle Eastern and North African influence, given that those culinary traditions’ desserts are naturally dairy-free.
While Shoyer’s self-styled “kosher baking revolution” looks ahead, she says that her interest in baking has its roots in her childhood, specifically in the time she spent in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“All my baking memories are from my grandmother,” Shoyer said. “She was just a master baker.”
Shoyer adapted her grandmother’s recipes to suit the modern palate, and in the process, learned the importance of sitting down with relatives and transcribing their recipes first-hand.
“One of [my grandmother’s] best recipes was this yeast cake that was a dairy cake. It was about 6 or 7 inches high with a swirl of nuts. When I finally went to try it . . . she had this beautiful recipe, but I found it impossible to read. She would sometimes say, ‘Add flour, and then add more flour.’ I learned that when grandma gives you a recipe, you don’t wait 4 years to try it.”
And as for that other woman from the past, the one known for adding a stick of butter to everything and for having a voice in the key of G? Shoyer says the similarity of their paths did occur to her.
“ ‘Julie and Julia,’ that was basically my story!” said Shoyer.
“The best part of that movie was that I could really identify with was the moment when Julia pulls the cookbook out of the envelope, and looks at it. And I remember, I jumped out of my seat and thought, ‘That’s gotta be like giving birth to your first child, the greatest feeling in the world.’”
Shira Klapper grew up in Rockaway, NY and now makes her home in Washington, D.C.. She writes about Jewish life, food and style and is currently developing a book based on an article she wrote for The Atlantic about bat mitzvahs in 1980's Long Island.
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