If you ask traditional Jewish cooks to discuss their favorite Rosh Hashana recipes — classics such as brisket, chicken soup, and potato kugel — you’re inviting many opinions. In this case, nine, to be exact; one for each woman in the room.
Fran Putnoi, a former president of Temple Israel of Boston, recently gathered a group of friends at the synagogue, 60- and 70-something women, to share their favorite holiday memories. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and the start of the High Holidays, begins on Sept. 16 at sundown. The women have stories of recipes passed down through the generations, they’re experts on what formulas are popular in their households, and they’re delighted when grandchildren gobble up the matzo balls.
Almost everyone in the group is of Ashkenazi descent (the cooking reflects Eastern European traditions). Putnoi, who lives in Cambridge, is half-Sephardic on her mother’s side and was raised on the spicier, more exotic cuisine of her mother’s native Turkey. Two of the women grew up with little or no Jewish foods (one converted before marriage). The rest have touching memories of the Rosh Hashana table and have proudly carried on the traditions they inherited.
Every cook knows, there is never just one way to make something. But there’s always a mother’s or grandmother’s or cousin’s recipe held in high regard, as if it were a unique formula. While most self-respecting cooks will alter a recipe slightly, making it more their own, following the advice of our forebears brings a sense of history and nostalgia to our tables. Not only are we making Aunt Sylvia’s tzimmes or Nanna’s rugelach, but we’re also using a century-old soup tureen or compote dish that same woman used.
Susan Ebert’s holiday menu invariably includes “Jane’s mother’s brisket,” which came from an old graduate school friend. The Cambridge resident begins with beef, which she seasons with garlic powder and celery salt, and braises in tomato sauce. Marilyn Turck Pritikin, who lives in Boston, smothers her brisket with Hungarian hot paprika, which is how her mother did it.
‘I’ve never made a brisket in my life.’
Some of the women share well-worn, food-stained, handwritten recipes on index cards; others say the family recipes were never written down. Harriet Steinberg’s brisket recipe goes like this: “Combine ketchup and red wine vinegar in a water glass, add a full glass of water, and do that three times.’’
Harriet Greenfield, of Chestnut Hill, adds a bottle of chili sauce and brown sugar to her meat, then wraps it with onions, green bell peppers, and other flavorings in a tight foil package.
Holidays cooks aren’t reluctant to use convenience foods. It was probably in the 1950s that brisket recipes came to rely on ketchup, onion soup mix, and chili sauce. Most of these cooks are less interested in reinventing the wheel than being praised for the final result.
But they’re very specific about how the meat and vegetables should be cooked. Steinberg, of Brookline, simmers potatoes separately, “so you don’t get that starchiness in the sauce.” Most prepare the meat in advance and they know what combination of ingredients will make a flavorful gravy.
After listening to the variations, Pam Goodman of Brookline, who converted to Judaism 35 years ago, asks: “Do they really taste different?” The women laugh and Ebert says, “Maybe we should do a brisket bake-off.” Goodman admits she’s enjoying the conversation and comparisons. “Trying someone else’s recipe is what makes it fun.”
“I’ve never made a brisket in my life,” says Putnoi, whose mother came from Izmir, Turkey. For Rosh Hashana, she prepares butterflied leg of lamb or Chicken Marbella with olives and prunes (popular for decades from “The Silver Palate Cookbook”) and always Turkish meatballs.
Ellen Rovner pipes in that she “became Marbella-ed out years ago.” The Brookline resident often serves fish — either salmon or a Sephardic-style cod with chickpeas, tomatoes, and cumin — as an entree for the vegetarians at her table.
When the conversation turns to chicken soup, the group gets nostalgic. “It’s what my family looks forward to,” says Helene Bailen of Newton. She raves about her cousin Roberta’s recipe that was offered only after Bailen promised to follow it precisely. “You have to use kosher chicken and no dark meat and no onion and no celery,” she says.
Matzo balls are a point of personal pride, a form of grandmotherly one-upmanship. Most use a mix (and most of their mothers probably did not) and opinions vary on whether the rounds should be firm or fluffy. One of Ebert’s grandchildren calls them “monster balls.”
Kugels, which are firm, savory or sweet puddings made with noodles, potatoes, or carrots, are frequently on holiday tables. Ebert’s potato kugel is a family recipe, “which I tweaked a little,” she says. Carol Kur of Falmouth makes a winning noodle kugel once a year for breaking the fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. “It has everything terrible in it for you,” she says, ticking off ingredients such as sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, eggs, and butter.
Tzimmes, a meaty stew of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes and other dried fruits, and honey (see Page 8), still graces some Rosh Hashana tables, but carrot ring and Jell-O molds are mostly relegated to the past. Putnoi, citing the differences in her healthier ancestral cuisine, prefers Mediterranean-style sides, such as leek and spinach frittata, green beans with tomato sauce, and stewed eggplant.
Holiday desserts are usually seasonal treats, such as apple pies and cakes, Italian plum tarts, linzertorte, and mandelbrot (twice-baked cookies similar to biscotti). Interest in honey cake is fading. “It’s always on the table but nobody likes it,” says Putnoi. Once a year, Bailen makes her mother’s rugelach which, she says, “reminds me of her.”
Remembering their mothers and grandmothers, Rovner says, “We don’t want to lose our connection to all the women’s shoulders we’re standing on.”
In that way, says Bailen, “We’re never alone in the kitchen.”
One woman, Greenfield, who grew up in postwar Pittsburgh, says her family didn’t eat traditional Jewish foods. Without the benefit of family favorites, she says, “My kitchen is filled with the recipes of my friends.”
Some of the women have ceded hosting responsibilities to the next generation. “I loved the idea that my son and daughter-in-law wanted to re-create this in their home,” says Bailen. Putnoi suggests it’s not easy passing the torch. “It’s mind-boggling to sit at your children’s holiday table,” she says.
The women appreciate the value of ritual, which Putnoi says, “is what people connect to.”
And they may not all agree on how to make a brisket or chicken soup, but they’re in unison on one point, voiced by Kur.
“It’s important for our children and grandchildren to remember our tables,” she says.