NEWTON — When the Sisterhood of Temple Shalom decided to update its cookbook, last revised in 1995, they faced a quandary. The congregation is blessed with a bounty of talented and enthusiastic home cooks, so finding enough recipes to fill a book would be no problem. But when it comes to brisket and kugel (a pudding usually made with noodles or potatoes), most cooks are convinced that theirs is the best. If every 'best' brisket and kugel in the congregation were submitted, the cookbook committee could have too many recipes to comb through and risk offending a proud chef.
Thus was born the Sisterhood Brisket (& Kugel) Throwdown, held recently as a social event and the kickoff to the cookbook project. According to Lynda Schwartz, the contestant coordinator, "The biggest reason to do it was to have fun. The enthusiasm of our contestants was considerable." The competition was open to the entire congregation. The first-, second-, and third-place recipes will go into the new cookbook. In the end, 16 briskets and 13 kugels were entered for consideration. These were judged by a panel of two rabbis, a cantor, and two food professionals, one of whom is a member of the congregation. "We picked the clergy because they can't be bribed," said coordinator Bonnie Kornman.
The rules were fairly loose. Contestants had to submit brisket and kugel entries in a standard foil pan (10½- x 8½-inch), hot, sliced (the brisket), and covered with foil. Before taking a bite of food Rabbi Neil Hirsch said, "They're all competing against my bubbe."
Judges conferred briefly before they began tasting brisket to determine the criteria for evaluation. They settled on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best, based on taste, tenderness, flavor, and texture. "Nobody likes a mushy brisket," noted Hirsch. As the judges set to work, the 100 or so guests mingled, drank wine, and noshed on mezze from Sevan Bakery in Watertown. Many curious observers strolled by or lingered close to the brisket table. Halfway through the tasting, Cantor Peter Halpern was "still in search of the perfect brisket."
After working their way through the meat, the judges dived into the creamy and crunchy, sweet and savory noodle and potato offerings without taking even a moment to establish criteria. Marjorie Druker, cookbook author, chef, and owner of New England Soup Factory, noted, "They're all delicious in their own way. What's really nice is all these [people] keep the tradition. It tastes like life. It's sweet and it's savory."
In the judging room, there was pretty clear consensus on the first- and second-place brisket and kugel. The winning brisket, a barbecue recipe, won the judges over with its flavor, crisp exterior, tenderness, and the fact that it was equally good with or without the accompanying sauce. They deemed the prize kugel "a classic with creamy interior, a nice crunch on top, and really good dairy flavor." Winners received aprons with their prize food emblazoned on the front — and, of course, bragging rights.
Jay Schwartz, the brisket chef (yes, his wife was the contestant coordinator and no, she did not have any influence whatsoever on the judging), had never before made this particular brisket. He did it to honor Hirsch, a Texas native, who will be leaving the congregation soon. "I did not expect to win," said Schwartz humbly. As a scientist who does not own a smoker, Schwartz "plotted and hatched" ways to achieve the smoky flavor and impressive crust using his gas grill. He approached it as he does many challenges, researching and studying recipes, and in the end chose one that "seemed to ring true to me as a scientist." It rang true to everyone else as eaters.
Jennifer London, who was the second-place brisket winner, made a traditional recipe with carrots and potatoes that she got from her friend, Lulu Powers, a chef in Los Angeles, who got it from the late photographer Herb Ritts's mother. Like all the entrants, London adapted it to make it her own.
Jody Klein used an old family recipe that she has tweaked to win the kugel contest. Her mother used to make the noodle pudding when Klein was growing up. Now Klein makes it for the breakfast meal after Yom Kippur and the celebrations after her children's bar and bat mitzvah services.
Looking very content at the end of the meal, diner Eric Sall noted, "You don't usually taste other people's briskets. You usually just eat your own."
With the new cookbook, the line between the two may start to blur.