Someday in the (hopefully) not too distant future, when it comes to how productive or unproductive we were during Covid, Beth Lee will be able to beat many of us: she wrote a cookbook.
Not only that, it’s her first. And it came together within a few months.
The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook: 50 Traditional Recipes for Every Occasion was published earlier this month by Rockridge Press / Callisto Media.
Many of the recipes are suitable for Rosh Hashanah. One of them, Lee’s apple-filled challah buns, was created for a Zoom cooking class she taught for her synagogue during the pandemic, to share food when people couldn’t be together. Tailach – balls of dough that are either baked or deep-fried – are coated with a honey-ginger syrup. There is both a Russian honey cake and an apple cake with candied ginger and cinnamon. There’s Duvshaniot, an Israeli spiced honey biscuit, and honey-sesame candy that would make perfect gifts at Rosh Hashanah. For breakfast there is an apple ball and a Blintz casserole.
Lee, 58, lives in San Jose and is the creative force behind the food blog OMG! Yummy, which she founded “on a whim” in 2010 with the encouragement of her children. Long in high-tech marketing, Lee found that she’d rather write about pita chips than computer chips, as she likes to say.
As her blog gained steady following, she rose to fame for another 15 minutes when she was featured in a 2013 New York Times article on the popularity of “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi for co-founding a Facebook group called Tasting Jerusalem devoted himself to the cookbook.
Lee’s husband is Korean-American and she made it a point to learn recipes from his family as well.
“In the family that I have started, it is very important to me that I carry on the Jewish traditions and learn the food traditions from his side,” she said.
While Lee said writing a cookbook had long been her goal, the way this turned out was completely unexpected. The publishing industry is no longer functioning as it used to, and within this new model, publishers sometimes decide what topics to have in their catalog and then hire the author. In this case, that writer happened to be her.
“It just felt like the right book for me,” Lee said in an interview. “The circle has come full circle because I thought so much about my grandma in the early days of my blog and felt that this was an opportunity for me to put on paper what she and her recipes meant to me.”
Lee’s maternal grandmother, Annie Reich, who lived in Brooklyn and immigrated from Poland, was known in the family for her baking, she said, and as a child Lee was an avid taster.
In an early blog post on OMG! Delicious, she wrote about the fact that none of her grandmother’s children carried on baking.
The cookbook required Lee to delve deeply into the world of Jewish baking and explore familiar recipes alongside others that were completely alien to her.
“I learned so much about my own tradition, but also about other traditions,” she said. “Hopefully this book will be something that will help people carry on Jewish eating traditions, and that means more to me than I thought.”
Lee said she particularly appreciated the project as the pandemic progressed.
“I’ve talked to people about recipes I wouldn’t have talked to,” she said. It also meant a near-complete carbohydrate diet for her family, she joked, although her neighbors benefited as well, as she often wrote to them when there was something new to try and they tried it from a social distance outside.
“It gave us a reason to socialize when it was otherwise easy not to,” she said.
When creating the cookbook, Lee made sure to strike a good balance between sweet and savory – in addition to pastries and cakes, there are recipes for rye bread and bourekas as well as Sephardic and Mizrahi dishes (both Yemeni breads, Malawach and Lakuch, are included). “I’ve tried really hard to stick to the basics, but not everyone agrees,” she said.
It was important to her that the recipes were accessible, with ingredients that can be found in every grocery store. An ambitious cook can hunt rose water in a Middle Eastern market, she said, but the recipe that calls for it can be made without it.
While the classics and trends are included (babka, bagels, rugelach), Lee said some of the recipes were new to her, like the Yemeni breads mentioned above and one for Biscochos de Benveniste, a Sephardic biscuit that is barely sweet.
“I had the most wonderful conversation with a friend’s mother about her,” she said. “It meant a lot to her and it meant a lot to me too.”
Sweet Challah Rolls with apple and currant filling
Without dairy products, without nuts, pareve
Preparation time: 40 minutes / Inactive time: 30 minutes / Cooking time: 27 minutes
Challah rolls filled with apples and currants are the ideal sweet pastries for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I originally developed this recipe for a High Holidays cooking class, but these little gems are perfect all year round. Ready faster than a traditional Challah recipe, these rolls are also versatile: leave out the filling, bake a loaf instead of individual rolls or double the recipe and freeze it for another day. Makes 8 rolls
For the dough
- 2¼ teaspoons (7 grams / 1 packet) active dry yeast or instant yeast
- 3½ cups (438 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
- ¼ cup (47 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (235 grams) warm water (105 ° F to 115 ° F)
- 1 large egg
- ¼ cup (56 grams) of vegetable oil
- 1½ teaspoons of kosher salt
For the filling
- 1 cup (118 grams) chopped and peeled sweet firm apple
- 1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ cup (36 grams) currants or raisins
- 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
For washing eggs
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon of water
Mix: In the bowl of a food processor, whisk together the yeast, flour, and sugar. Add the warm water, egg, oil and salt.
Knead: Using the stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, knead on medium to low speed for 3 to 4 minutes, making sure the dough is thoroughly mixed and scraping the sides as needed. After kneading, the dough should be smooth and peel away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is too sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour as needed.
First climb: Take the dough out of the bowl, shape into a round and place on a sheet of parchment paper. Use your finger to poke a 1-inch hole through the center of the dough. Cover the dough loosely with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 30 minutes.
Make filling: While the dough rests, mix the chopped apple, lemon juice, currants, cinnamon, and sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Put aside.
Preparation: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Fill and shape: Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Flatten a piece into an approximately 6 by 4 inch rectangle and spread a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center. Close the dough around the filling and gently roll it out into a roughly 9-inch rope with your hands. Loosely coil the rope, tuck the end underneath and pinch to seal it. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough to make 8 rolls. Place on the prepared baking sheet.
Second climb: Cover the challah rolls loosely with a kitchen towel, place in a warm place and let rise for about 30 minutes, or until the dough slowly springs back when bumped.
Preheating: Preheat the oven to 375 ° F.
Wash eggs: Whisk the egg and water together. Use a pastry brush to brush the egg detergent on each roll and get into every nook and cranny.
To bake: Bake the buns at 375 ° F for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 ° F and bake about 22 minutes longer. Place on a wire rack and let cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Variation tip: Use different fillings to make savory rolls or change the sweet filling by using a different dried fruit. Alternatively, leave out the filling and top with sesame or poppy seeds instead. To make a large loaf, braid the filled ropes into a loaf and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes.