Chef Alon Shaya: Philly’s Homegrown Pride

One teacher who cares can change the trajectory of a student’s life. Alon Shaya, an Israeli-American James Beard award-winning chef, credits his success to such a teacher. In his new cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, he thanks Donna Barnett for guiding him to his track to success.

Alon Shaya came to Philadelphia from Israel when he was a young boy. He grew up in a challenging family situation. Although he was surrounded by love, he did not experience the stability he longed for. Barnett saw the talent and potential within him. She helped Shaya blossom in her Home Economics class at Harriton High School. When it was time to graduate, she found a scholarship and encouraged him to attend culinary school.

Now, Shaya is a famous chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He retraces his steps from Israel, to the United States, Italy, and back to Israel in his book. His recipes reflect his love for his maternal grandparents. There are delicious foods from their native Bulgaria such as burekas, kebabs, and a variety of eggplant dishes. These are the staples he learned to cook as a boy while standing on a chair in the kitchen next to his grandmother and mother. Alon Shaya then shares some of the classic dishes he discovered while training in Italy, such as hand-made gnocchi, pizza, and semifreddo. Next, Shaya takes us to New Orleans, where he opened his first restaurant. Some of these recipes are treif (non-kosher), such as those with crab, Andouille pork sausage, shrimp, and bacon. Those of us who keep kosher may adapt by substituting kosher ingredients, or omitting some of the non-kosher elements. He ends the book by circling back to Israel. His newest recipes are infused with Israeli ingredients and flavors such as za’atar (oregano), preserved lemons, pomegranates, and muhammara (red peppers and walnuts).

In the end, despite his fragmented upbringing, Alon Shaya was able to find his way home. In this moving book, which is much more than a cookbook, he shares his journey with us.

Israeli Independence Day or Yom Ha’atzmaut Menu

Picture of pita bread pocket over stuffed with falafel and Israeli salad. Photo: David Weekly https://www.flickr.com/photos/dweekly/

Photo: David Weekly

We have been blessed to merit participation in the celebration of 70 years of the modern State of Israel. The dreams of countless Jews have been realized in our times. After the Holocaust, it was the goal of the survivors who participated in building the new State of Israel to create the “New Jew,” one who would be different than the ones in Europe before the war. This “New Jew” was the Sabra, the Israeli. Sabras were strong, proud Jews. They did not look, act, speak, or dress like their parents. They also did not eat the foods of Eastern Europe. They ate Israeli food such as pita, falafel, hummus, and olives. Lets celebrate this wonderful occasion with an Israeli falafel bar.

Your falafel bar may replicate the experience of going to a falafel stand in Israel. You may purchase most of the components of a falafel ready made. Your guests will be free to compose their falafel any way they like. You will need:

  • Pita bread
  • Falafel balls
  • Tahini
  • Hummus
  • Baba ganoush
  • Israeli salad
  • Olives
  • Pickled cucumbers

For your convenience, the only thing on this list that I recommend that you prepare from scratch is the Israeli salad. This salad is very versatile and open to interpretation. If you like you may add diced radishes, fresh mint leaves, or parsley. You may also omit anything you don’t like and strip it down to the basic tomato, cucumber and pepper salad. You may purchase the rest already prepared either refrigerated, canned, or frozen.

Close up picture of Israeli salad showing diced cucumber and tomato. Photo: Sharon Gefen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15075904

Photo: Sharon Gefen

Israeli Salad

  • 1 tomato
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 pepper
  • green onion, to taste
  • cilantro, to taste
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt, to taste
  • black pepper, to taste
  1. Dice the tomato, cucumber, and pepper.
  2. Cut up the green onion and cilantro.
  3. Juice the lemon and add to the salad.
  4. Add the olive oil.
  5. Season with salt and black pepper.
  6. Toss well.

Easy Passover Cake Three Ways

Passover is a time of visiting with family and friends, as well as entertaining.

It is easier than you think to make a delicious home-baked dessert to sweeten these encounters: All you need is a torte to form the base, freshly whipped heavy cream, melted chocolate, nuts, and spring berries.

In my family, these cakes were rolled, with the filling on the inside. Something always goes wrong when I try this, so I just serve them like strawberry shortcakes.

For all of these cakes, preheat the oven to 350°F, and oil a 9-inch round cake pan. Note that peanuts, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds are kitniyot (not kosher for Passover).

Nut Cake

  • 2 3/4 cups toasted and ground walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, pine nuts, cashews, Macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, or coconut.
  • 1/2 cup cane sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 7 eggs, separated
  1. Place the ground nuts, brown sugar, and salt in a bowl. Mix well.
  2. In a separate bowl, whip the egg yolks and the cane sugar for about 5 minutes.
  3. When the egg mixture is fluffy, fold it into the nut mixture.
  4. In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites.
  5. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
  6. Fold the rest of the egg whites into the batter.
  7. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.
  8. Bake for 60 minutes.
  9. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Sponge Cake

  • 1/4 cup matzo meal
  • 2 tablespoons potato flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 8 eggs, separated
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  1. Whip the egg yolks, orange zest, and 1 cup of sugar in a bowl.
  2. In a different bowl, whip the egg whites with 1/2 cup of sugar.
  3. Add the matzo meal, potato flour, and orange juice to the yolk mixture.
  4. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the yolk batter.
  5. Fold the rest of the egg whites into the batter.
  6. Pour the batter into a prepared cake pan.
  7. Bake for 70 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

 


Photo by Tim Sackton. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Chocolate Cake

  • 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2 cups ground almonds (or other nut of your choice)
  • 7/8 cup sugar
  • 10 eggs, separated
  1. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave.
  2. Whip the yolks and sugar in a large bowl.
  3. Add the melted chocolate and ground almonds.
  4. Whip the egg whites in a separate bowl.
  5. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture.
  6. Pour the batter into a prepared pan.
  7. Bake for 60 minutes.
  8. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool.

All of these cakes are delicious unadorned, and pair very well with coffee or tea. However, you can have fun garnishing them. Here are some easy ideas you may use separately or together:

Whipped Cream

  • heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon brandy
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • nuts
  1. Whip the cream with the sugar and brandy.
  2. Spread the whipped cream over the cake.
  3. Sprinkle some nuts over the cream.

Alternatively, you can sprinkle some powdered sugar over your cake, melt some chocolate chips in the microwave and spread the melted chocolate over it, or garnish it with fresh spring berries.

Sephardic Seder Flavors

Too Good To Passover, by Jennifer Abadi, is an exploration of the diversity of Sephardic and Mizrahi Passover traditions. Abadi spent six years interviewing people from Jewish communities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Along with their sentimental memoirs, her subjects shared treasured family Passover recipes. [Read more…]

Seven Decades of Israeli Film

Scene of two men sitting at a table eating from the movie "Maktub" (Fate)

The movie “Maktub” (Fate)

It has been 70 years since Israel declared its independence.  So this year, the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia (IFF) will showcase films that highlight different aspects of the region’s history. The movies will be shown at various locations in Philadelphia and the nearby suburbs from March 3 to March 25.

Several of the documentaries and feature films epitomize the struggles that the infant Israeli nation underwent as it transitioned from survival mode to inclusion. Others deal with the acceptance of minorities, modern day dilemmas, and affairs of the heart. [Read more…]

Drunken Purim Babka

Portrait of King Stanislaus Leszczyński.

To really celebrate Purim, we should consume so much alcohol that we cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Unlike at all the other Jewish holidays, alcohol takes center stage during Purim. Why not extend this pleasure to all the recipients of your mishloach manot packages? Mishloach manot are the gifts of food that are traditionally given out during Purim. One delicious Purim food from the Polish Jewish community that can be added to a gift package is shikkor babka, or drunken babka. [Read more…]

“Milky” Chocolate Pudding: From Childhood Treat to Adult Extravagance

How can you steal someone’s heart? One effective way is to cook a dish that transports them back to a happy childhood memory. For many people that I grew up with in Israel, the treat that accomplishes this is called “Milky.” “Milky” is a chocolate pudding snack topped with whipped cream. It is manufactured by the Strauss Group near Tel Aviv. While many of us still love this childhood nosh exactly the way it is, it can be fun to prepare our own grownup homemade version of it.

Preparing a dessert like “Milky” is not very difficult. You begin with a base of chocolate pudding made from scratch. Give it an adult touch by adding any combination of whisky, rum, chocolate liqueur, or coffee liqueur to it. Then, you may whip your own heavy cream to garnish the pudding. A final elegant touch of chocolate shavings turns a childhood treat into a refined adult extravagance.

Photo pudding with whipped cream and chocolate. by pengrin https://www.flickr.com/photos/pengrin/

Pudding. Photo: Pengrin

Homemade Chocolate Pudding

  • 5 squares quality dark chocolate, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 6 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup liquor
  1. Mix the cornstarch, sugar, and cocoa in a pot.
  2. Add the milk, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly.
  3. Remove the pot from the flame when the pudding has thickened.
  4. Stir in the chopped chocolate and vanilla extract.
  5. Pour the pudding into a glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator.

To serve:

  1. Mix the chocolate pudding with 1 cup of the liquor of your choice. You may combine several types of liquor.
  2. Cover with plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  3. Prepare the whipped cream.

Whipped cream

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  1. Combine the heavy cream and sugar together in a bowl.
  2. Whisk until the cream forms stiff peaks.

Add toppings

  1. Spoon some chocolate pudding into a small bowl.
  2. Top with whipped cream.
  3. Garnish with chocolate shavings.

Exotic Winter Waffles

I stumbled upon a jewel while exploring the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia: the Queen Village Food Market, which is a Turkish grocery store. Its shelves are stacked with exotic imported spreads, nuts, dried fruits, olives, spices, tea and coffee. The refrigerator offers a selection of Turkish cheeses, and the freezer has an array of sweet and savory stuffed pastries. I could not resist purchasing some intriguing spreads and some of that traditional Middle Eastern gelatinous confection called Turkish Delight.

I walked home in the ice, snow and frigid temperature that this January has brought us. To the joy of my daughter and her teachers, the weather conditions had resulted in a snow day. One way to enjoy this special time off and to make our home cozier was to bake. After my visit to the Turkish grocery store, I was inspired to prepare some exotic homemade waffles. [Read more…]

Philadelphia’s Hebrew Charter School: Take Two

In the fall of 2019, pending approval of the charter from the School Reform Commission, a Hebrew charter school will open in the East Falls neighborhood in Philadelphia. This will be the second attempt to establish a Hebrew charter school in the area. The Solomon Charter School, Philadelphia’s first Hebrew charter cyber school, closed in 2013 after only five months of operation. The reason for the closure was a failure to operate within the charter and cyber school laws. But Hebrew Public, the umbrella organization that is leading the establishment of the Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School, is confident that this new school will succeed and grow.

Hebrew Public, funded by the Steinhardt Foundation, spent more than two years researching potential locations to house the new Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School before they settled on the former site of the Women’s Medical College Hospital in East Falls.

Charters schools are public schools, so the Philadelphia Hebrew Public Charter School will not be a Jewish school. The focus of the school will be on the study of Modern Hebrew, Israel and it’s culture, and history. When the students reach the eighth grade, they will be eligible to participate in a fully-funded trip to Israel. Initially, the school will offer classes for kindergarten and first grade. The plan is to add an additional grade each year until it reaches the eighth grade.

Diverse by design, the administrators intend to enroll students from all over the city. Thus far, they  have visited a number of  nursery schools to invite families to consider applying.

Hebrew will be taught using the proficiency approach developed by Dr. Vardit Ringvald. Instead of spending years drilling conjugations, the focus will be on the students’ listening, speaking, reading, and writing abilities. The teachers will be able to use their creativity to select songs, stories, advertisements, and any other media they like to help their students be immersed in Modern Hebrew.

The Hebrew Public umbrella organization encourages its teachers to experience Israel by applying for a summer fellowship to teach English in the country at Talma, an organization for low-income students to learn Hebrew and English. Talma is a public summer school program in Israel that is organized by a partnership between the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Schusterman and Steinhardt Foundations. Fellows are placed in schools that serve Arab, Jewish, Bedouin, and mixed Arab-Jewish schools. This is an opportunity for the teachers to explore Israel and grow professionally as part of an international group of teachers.

Currently, Hebrew Public directly manages and supports Hebrew charter schools in New York, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington DC, and California. The demographic data for the whole network of schools from the fall of 2016-2017 shows that 50% of the students are caucasian, 27% African American, 11% hispanic, and Multiracial and Asian make up the rest. Of the languages spoken at home, 66% of the students speak English, 11% speak Hebrew, 8% speak Russian, and 8% speak Spanish. These pupils are called “heritage speakers,” as they grow up immersed in a language other than English at home, which adds to the global orientation of the schools.

The School Reform Commission will hold hearings on the charter application in December and January, and vote in February. There is already a lot of interest in the new school in Philadelphia from families who are pre-registering before the charter has even been approved. If it is approved, with Hebrew Charter’s experience and track record of successful schools, Philadelphia’s Hebrew Charter School will be off to a very promising beginning.

Hanukkah Food Hacks

What can be more festive than delicious holiday specialties made from scratch? For many of us, that is a voyeuristic pleasure, to be enjoyed in a magazine. Real life does not play out that way. Lack of time or attention span is no reason not to enjoy preparing your own Hanukkah treats. Here are some easy shortcuts that will help you fill your home with the aromas and flavors of homemade delicacies.

Latkes (Potato Pancakes) Photo: Jacob Kaplan-Moss https://www.flickr.com/photos/jacobian/

Photo: Jacob Kaplan-Moss.

Latkes

An easy shortcut to fresh homemade latkes is purchasing frozen shredded potatoes, or hash browns, and frozen diced onions. [Read more…]