Cheesecake, Pickles, and Joan Nathan, Oh My!

Pastrami, pickles and cheesecake could be an expectant mother’s salty and sugary cravings, but these traditional Jewish foods were featured in the mouth-watering lineup of programs during the first online The Nosher Jewish Food Festival on June 9. Created by The Nosher, a Jewish cooking and recipe preservation site, the fest was a day of talks and cooking demonstrations from chefs, writers and restaurateurs, including Anne Byrn, Michael Twitty, Benedetta Guetta, and Joan Nathan. In addition to the food discussions, there was also tikkun olam, with spotlights on two charitable organizations, Leket Israel (the National Food Bank) and MAZON, an organization that addresses hunger and food inequities.

Vered Guttman, an Israeli chef and food writer who cooked for Passover at the Obama White House in 2014, led How To Make Israeli Cheesecake – American Cheesecake’s Lighter Cousin. Ahead of Shavout, she showed viewers how to prepare cheesecake that instead of relying on cream cheese, uses vanilla pudding mix and a German cheese called quark that you can find at Whole Foods and Kosher markets (Guttman also shared how to modify the recipe if you can’t find quark). Of course, cheesecake isn’t just for the holidays and would be a treat in Summer. For days when you don’t want to turn on an oven, try Israeli Tiramisu, which Guttman also whipped up.

For those with less of a sweet tooth, there were savory offerings. Most of us who reach for a gherkin are tasting brine with Ashkenazi origins. But on The Pickle Panel: Differences Between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Pickling Traditions, Mike Benayoun, creator of the site and Jeremy Umansky, chef and owner of Cleveland’s Larder Delicatessen and Bakery (and a James Beard nominee), examined both the techniques of Eastern Europe, as well as contributions to the mighty cucumber from the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities. Later, Umansky was joined by Elyssa Heller, founder and CEO of Edith’s (a pandemic pop-up turned sandwich shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), and Todd Ginsberg, chef-partner of Rye Restaurants (a mini-empire in Atlanta) for a spicy look at Making Pastrami Cool Again: The Modernization Of The Jewish Deli.

Legendary chef and author Joan Nathan was the keynote speaker for Joan Nathan Dishes On Her New Memoir, “My Life In Recipes”, and the 81-year-old’s energy and enthusiasm were boundless, matched by the lively wild turkeys outside her window that were distracting her. Nathan’s background is a mix of German, Slovakian and Polish, but it was her grandmother’s German handwritten cookbooks that Nathan was drawn to. On Saturdays, Nathan would visit with her grandmother and aunt to listen to the Met operas and feast on the German recipes her aunt made. “I’ve always been curious”, Nathan explained of the life-long trait and her interest in recipes. “Food and people are part of that. I love discovering lost Jewish recipes and unrequited heroes”.

Her interest in documenting recipes really took shape in the 70s when Nathan, who was living in Jerusalem and working for the city’s mayor Teddy Kollek, “started discovering Jewish food that wasn’t my mother’s.” She recalled her Moroccan cleaning woman bringing her a coconut cake with Grand Marnier and being astonished. “This was a Jewish woman!” She visited Jewish, Muslim and Christian homes and learned about the “traditional recipes, the ones the children of these immigrants didn’t want but that the grandchildren did. The older ones didn’t always want to give me the recipes because they thought if they gave them to me, the family members wouldn’t come visit anymore.”

It would probably come as no surprise that Joan Nathan – whose childhood memoir had a note from her preschool teacher that read “Joan enjoys her morning lunch and throwing parties” – “loves Shabbat. It’s like a Friday night party. We can forget time. It’s a great beginning”.

That approach to the Sabbath and the delectable recipes will have you feeling the spirit of the fest on Fridays, or really for any meal shared with good friends and family. Follow a traditional recipe passed down or create something new to be treasured and remembered.