Thanksgiving and Passover: Celebrations of freedom and new beginnings


Yesterday a friend asked me if I would be posting something in my blog about Thanksgiving, and my immediate response was no. (After all, it’s only about Passover.) But then I got to thinking and realized that not only could I write something that linked the two celebrations together, but that I absolutely should. (See an earlier post about creating a Thanksgiving Seder plate.)

Like Passover, the Thanksgiving festival itself takes place not in a temple of worship, but directly at the dinner table amongst family and friends. One of the nicest things about Thanksgiving is that it is a national holiday (specifically American/Canadian), celebrated by all faiths and backgrounds. While Passover may be a Jewish holiday, it is probably the only one celebrated by all levels of Jewish observance, from the most secular to the most traditional.

Each celebration coincides with the harvest — Passover in the spring, and Thanksgiving in the fall — where special foods available during each particular season are central to the meal. During Thanksgiving we go out of our way to prepare dishes that utilize foods native to the Americas, such as corn, cranberries, turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and pecans, which over time have become symbols of the holiday itself. During Passover, varying Jewish communities make a special effort to prepare foods using fresh spring produce, such as a variety of greens, herbs, vegetables, and fruits, while matzah (the unleavened bread symbolic of Passover), is often incorporated into dishes as well.

Finally (and most significantly) each of these two holidays is an opportunity for us to teach our children (and remind ourselves) about important moments in our history when people were persecuted for their differences and forced to flee for a better, more open life. For the Pilgrims it meant traveling for two treacherous months by sea from Europe, to an unknown life in the New World, for the chance to to worship freely and live life in a new way. And for the Israelites the Bible tells of how enslavement in Egypt forced them to wander through the “wilderness” or desert for forty years just to escape the wrath of the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, in hopes of rebuilding their lives in the Promised Land.

In summary, Thanksgiving as well as Passover represents the will to free oneself from an oppressed life, as well as the strength to start anew, despite the many obstacles and difficulties that might be encountered along the way. During this holiday season when we think about what we are thankful for, let us remember not only those in the past who have succeeded in finding and building a freer life,
but for those today who who have only started their journey.

Fall Grapes for a Spring Wine: It’s never too early to prepare for Passover!


For most Jews the Passover holiday is the last thing on anyone’s mind in October and November, but for some individuals this is exactly the time to start preparing for the holiday. Late fall is when wheat grains will be milled into flour meant for matzah, and in one of my first posts to this blog, I noted how the legendary Streit’s matzah factory on the Lower East Side would begin their methodical cleaning of the factory at this period of time in order to start producing Passover matzahs for the spring. In many countries around the world, grapes are now being harvested for bottles of wine that will be sitting at our tables months from now as well. In the following account, one young woman reminisces about a childhood tradition while growing up in her home country of Georgia:

“In the fall season preceding Passover, my father would make the wine. We had a cellar where he would keep a giant wooden vat and fill with kilos upon kilos of grapes. My brother, sister, and I would put on these special very tall boots and stomp up and down on the grapes to make the juice for the wine. Then my father would turn this handle on the side that would separate the skins somehow, and empty the juice into a bucket. He would pour this juice into huge glass containers shaped similar to bottles and ferment it into wine specifically for Passover in the spring. I love those memories, and I can still hear our giggling.”

— Irina Kazhiloti

Passover and the spring season may be months away in time, but the matzah and wine for your Seder are already underway.

Libyan Butternut Squash Pudding: The trick to this treat.


If you’ve always liked the idea of traditional American pumpkin pie, but simply never became much of a fan, this Eastern version might be for you. The trick is to use fresh butternut squash instead of pumpkin for a richer texture as well as a more natural sweetness (with a little spice from the ginger), and because it’s dairy- and gluten-free, the overall texture is lighter. It’s a nice way to end a heavy meal, and if you really miss the richness from the dairy, you can always serve it with some fresh whipped cream on top!

Helwat al Yaktin 
(Libyan Butternut Squash “Pudding” with Cinnamon,
Ginger, and Vanilla)

Yield: SERVES 8 / Makes eight 1/2-Cup servings

For Preparing Pan or Ramekins:
8-inch square or round baking or pie pan
(non-stick, glass, or ceramic preferable over metal)

2 to 3 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil

For Pudding:
2 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil
2 1/2 pounds fresh butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes,
(already peeled and cut cubes okay,
but please don’t substitute with frozen or canned purée)

1/2 cup vanilla or regular almond milk
3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Baking and Serving:
1 to 2 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil (for greasing the bowls or pan)
1/2 cup reserved cooked butternut squash cubes
(you will need about 8 small cooked cubes so that each serving
gets a piece on top)

Ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.; Grease pan generously with oil and set aside.

2. Warm oil in a large non-stick skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Reduce to a medium-low heat and mix in the butternut squash cubes. Cover, and cook until very soft and slightly browned, about 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes to prevent burning.

3. While the squash is cooking, whisk the milk, egg yolks, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, salt, and vanilla together in a medium bowl.

4. Pour squash cubes into a food processor and pulse until smooth. Scrape the puree into the bowl with the liquid mixture and gently mix to combine.

5. Scrape mixture into your prepared baking pan, spreading it out with the spatula to make it even. Place pan onto the middle rack of your oven and bake 1 hour until center is slightly firm and edges are pulling away from the pan. (Note: Mixture will still be a bit soft to the touch — but not liquidy, and overall top color will turn a deep orangey-brown.) Remove from heat and cool for 30 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and chill in refrigerator for 2 hours, or overnight.

6. Serve cold sprinkled with cinnamon.

A Seder Plate for Rosh HaShannah? (It’s not just for Passover!)


Did you know that in some Sephardic homes there is the custom of presenting a special Seder plate before the Rosh HaShanna meal, just like one does for the Passover Seder? Eight symbolic foods (Simanim) are selected and arranged on a platter to ensure a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year, and while certain ones may physically represent an idea (such as using pomegranates to symbolize fertility and abundance because of the many seeds within), another less obvious food choice may be made simply because its name in Hebrew sounds like another Hebrew word with a different meaning (for example: using a leek because its Hebrew word karati sounds like karat meaning “to cut off,” implying the hope of breaking away from one’s enemies). Below is a quick guideline or listing of the types of things often used on a Rosh Hashanna Seder plate:

For the New Year, we eat foods that symbolize the following:

Abundance (foods that are plentiful)
Mitzvot (good deeds)
Fertility, Life (foods that are round, continuous, plentiful)
The act of breaking away from evil, enemies and bad things



happiness, prosperity, good luck and success:
Aniseed, round challah with raisins added, sweet wine, stuffed foods like gefilte fish,
tzimmes (sweet stew: carrot, sweet potatoes, prunes, raisins, sometimes meat)

Apples, pears (first fruits of season from the tree,
dipped in honey, sugar, or sesame seeds for abundance and extra sweetness)

good deeds (mitzvot) and abundance:
Pomegranate seeds (belief that there are as many seeds — 613, as there are mitzvot)

Dates (Hebrew word for date is tamar and is related to word tam meaning, “to end” in hopes
that our enemies will end)

happiness: Gourd, pumpkin, butternut or acorn squash (Hebrew word for gourd is kara, which also means “to announce,” and rhymes with a similar sounding word meaning “to rip apart”)

freedom: Spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard, kale, beet leaves
(Hebrew word for beets is seleka and related to root selek meaning, “to depart” or “remove” implying that enemies and bad luck be taken out; Aramaic word for leafy green, like spinach, is silka)

friendship, freedom from enemies: Leeks, chives, scallions, spring onions
(Hebrew word for leek is karati and sounds like karat meaning “to cut off,”
implying from one’s enemies)

leadership: Whole Fish (with head left intact), ram’s head, head of cabbage, garlic
(“Head” of year, leaders to all nations, poor and powerless, move forward/ahead/progress)

commemorating tribulations, difficulties, struggles, and hardships of past year:
Savory and bitter foods

prosperity: String beans, peas, beans (plentiful, abundant, round/circle of life)
(Hebrew word for beans is lubia, sounds related to Hebrew word lev meaning “heart,”
and rav meaning “many”)

NOTE: Some refrain from eating lemon or salt fearing that it will bring bad luck in coming year.


It’s Recipe Testing Time! A dinner party where everyone else does the cooking.


Me (on far right) providing information about the varying dishes prepared, and the countries they are from.

It’s the season for recipe testing for my Passover cookbook, and as I did with my first cookbook
(A Fistful of Lentils) I have decided to distribute various recipes to friends, acquaintances, family members, and willing participants to see how they would play out in the general field. It’s a bit nerve wracking for me, as unlike in a cooking class where I am able to give guidance to a student, in this case I am sending my instructions out and have no idea how it will return. What if after writing all of these recipes, many of them just don’t work or taste good? What if I have to rewrite them all? It’s also a bit tricky to find the perfect recipe tester. While someone who is anxious around the kitchen and does not know the basics of cooking may not be the best one to rely upon, expert cooks can be too creative, refusing to follow anyone else’s instructions but their own. The best tester I have found is one that likes to cook, but prefers some structure. I need a perfectionist.

So here’s how it all worked: I send out an invitation to a dinner party,
but the catch was that I would be the only person NOT cooking.
With the invitation also came rules:

–Select one or two recipes from the list I have attached that appeal to you.
–Please follow recipe EXACTLY as I have written, following all measurements (including weight),
steps, and ingredients I have listed (no substitutes).
–If anything does not make sense, please call, text, email me at any time!
–Take notes on the recipe you have printed out and bring them along with you
to the dinner along with the dish. (
Things to look out for and note: cooking time is out of range,
steps are confusing, yield is totally off, ingredient amounts appear to be too much or too little
— in this case you should contact me before proceeding.)
–If you normally prefer to leave out salt (or sugar) in your food,
please do not cut it out or reduce the amount when following my recipe.

–Try to to have fun :)

Thus far I have conducted two different recipe testing dinner parties, and overall the results have been good. Most of the feedback has been that the steps were clear and organized, and that they liked the recipe and would do it again. Some even said that they enjoyed being challenged with a recipe from a particular part of the world that they normally would never make, and even felt better about having structure without the pressure of improvisation. Still others expressed how they were a bit skeptical about some parts of the recipe, and were either pleasantly surprised or had suggestions with how to improve it. The following are some examples of what was made and the reviews from the cooks who prepared them. With each recipe (some more, some less) I obtained some valuable information about how to improve them.


Guizadas aux Noix Mélangées (Tunisian Mini Mixed Nut Cakes with Orange Zest), prepared by Ann. Comments: Dough sticky and a bit messy to handle; Baking time too long made cakes a little dry; spraying paper baking cups with some oil helped cakes come out very easily; Liked mixture of nuts used and addition of orange blossom water. (©Photo by Ann Preis.)


Lentichi (Italian Lentil Salad with Red Bell Peppers, Red Onion, and Olive Oil), prepared by Manon. Comments: Recipe easy to follow and even though I normally don’t like lentils, I really liked the flavor of this salad; Thought note about cooking lentils just until chewy or al dente was a good description to prevent me from overcooking them.


Dolmas de Verduras (Greek Stuffed Mixed Vegetables with Ground Lamb, Rice, Lemon, and Mint), prepared by Jim. Comments: The dish took a lot longer to prepare than I thought it would (although you did say to bake it for several hours); I had to buy a corer, but once I had it I enjoyed learning how to scoop out the zucchini. I love this type of dish and would definitely make it again (but would leave more time and maybe not prepare it on a very hot summer day!).


Panada (Greek Egg-Lemon Soup), prepared by Jeanne. Comments: I had to use nearly 6 lemons (as opposed to your suggested “3”) and still did not obtain the full cup of juice needed. At first I thought that the taste was a bit too lemony, but overall flavor is still delicious and I loved the addition of mint (good as a sauce too!). Recipe very easy to follow.


Maf’rum (Libyan Fried Potato-Beef “Sandwiches” with Tomatoes, Onions, and Cinnamon), prepared by Nacer and Kim. Comments: Most of recipe was well written, but at some points we were a little confused by exactly how to cut the potato slices (a photo or illustration in the final cookbook may be a good idea for this recipe). It was helpful that you gave a visual description of just how the potato should look once cut properly; You might want to change “finely chopped” carrots to “finely diced,” as the shape and size might be better understood. Although challenging, this is the type of recipe we would do again! (And we would try to work on slicing the potatoes even thinner.)


Mashwiy’yah (Tunisian Roasted Tomato and Sweet Red Pepper Salad with Garlic and Olive Oil), prepared by Sam. Comments: The recipe was clear and easy to follow, but you might want to warn people that they have to allow time to properly peel the thin skins off of each pepper after being roasted. It’s not a difficult dish to do, but to do it right, it takes time and care!


Alheira de Mirandela (Portuguese Veal, Beef, and Chicken Sausages with Garlic and Smoked Paprika), prepared by Alexana. Comments: I followed this recipe EXACTLY, and even bought measuring cups and spoons to do it! I’m not sure if it came out right, and my husband said that it tasted good (but that it “wasn’t like Jennifer’s”).

Four Generations Come Together for Algerian Boulettes with Green Peas

David Rak's grandmother Ginette (seated left), clockwise: David' mom X, David's Dad X, David's wife Jennifer, David (center), and his youngest daughter Léa

David Rak’s grandmother Ginette (seated left), David’s parents Nicole and Robert Rak (standing in back),                 David and Jennifer Rak (center and right), and their youngest daughter Léa (on David’s lap :) )

Each spring, Ginette Cohen would pack her suitcase with quatre épices and a box of Spigol spice packets, and fly from France to New York City to visit her grandson David Rak for his birthday. In his tiny Harlem kitchen, she would prepare the dish that he most longed for: Les Boulettes, and a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to catch her on a visit and learn her secrets. Ginette explained to me that for other occasions, these meat patties would be coated in semolina and served over couscous, but during Passover they were instead dusted with matzah meal and served over steamed crushed matzah. Proudly served on all occasions, Boulettes gives delicious new meaning to Algerian-Jewish comfort food.

The following is a visual recipe for Boulettes:


Step 1: Combine ground lamb and beef, eggs, broken up matzah, almond flour, onions, garlic salt, pepper, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, saffron, mint, coriander, and parsley in a large bowl.


Step 2: Roll meat into large balls and roll lightly in the semolina or matzah meal.

Step 3: Place all coated meatballs onto a cutting board or tray and flatten slightly into patties.

Step 3: Place all coated meatballs onto a cutting board or tray and flatten slightly into patties.

Step 4: Dip patties into beaten eggs.

Step 4: Coat patties into beaten eggs.

Step 5: Gently place patties into a pan with very hot oil to fry until dark golden-brown on both sides.

Step 5: Gently place into a pan with very hot oil and fry until dark golden-brown on both sides.


Step 6: Simmer boulettes with peas in a broth made of water, onions, salt, turmeric, and saffron for 1 hour.


Step 7: Serve!


The End of an Era: Streit’s Matzo Factory To Leave the Lower East Side

Fresh baked matzah from Streit's factory; Photo by ©Liz Rueven,

Fresh baked matzah from Streit’s factory;
Photo by ©Liz Rueven,

After nearly 100 years, Streit’s Matzo Factory on the Lower East Side will be moving out. It’s especially sad to me because I give Jewish Food Tours in this neighborhood, and one of the highlights is stopping by the factory and store to get a taste of freshly baked matzah, still warm from the oven. It’s also a loss since it is one of the few remaining family owned businesses still standing in lower Manhattan, going back to the turn of the 19th century. (Hopefully Yonah Schimmel’s, Katz’s Deli, and Russ & Daughters will hang in there!) They will remain open until the end of this month, and move to their warehouse in New Jersey. Eventually they will reopen in a new location, to be announced!

Check out this article on npr to learn more.


Making Matzah at the Factory


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