Is there such a thing as Jewish food? Besides matzo and the Sabbath stew known as cholent, no other “Jewish” dish has been created by Jews. Our kugels, kreplach, knishes and challah, etc., are delicious borrowings from wherever Jews have wandered. Perhaps “Jewish food” is a metaphor for the Jewish people – our ability to adapt has helped to ensure our survival.
The iconic “Joy of Cooking” would hardly be the first place you’d look for Jewish recipes, but after attending a book launch of the new 2019 edition, I was curious to see what “Jewish” dishes were included. The event was held at Melissa’s Produce in Vernon, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch with recipes from the book, all made with Melissa’s fresh produce.
“Joy of Cooking,” first published in 1931 by Irma Rombauer, has been a kitchen staple through multiple edits. Now John Becker, Irma’s great-grandson, and wife Megan Scott have published the encyclopedic 2019 edition with over 4,000 recipes, including 600 new ones. Both were on hand to reveal the amazing evolution of the book.
“Irma self-published the cookbook out of need rather than desire,” Scott told us. “Her husband died by suicide, and she was left with no way of making a living during the Great Depression. She had 3,000 copies printed for her friends and family and attracted the attention of a publisher.” And, as they say, the rest is history.
“Perhaps the reason the book was so successful,” Scott continued, “Irma was smart and witty and funny. She injected personality into the book at a time when most cookbooks were dry cooking manuals written by home economics professionals. Irma’s book was very friendly and conversational. She didn’t even love to cook. Her biggest goal in the kitchen was to get out of the kitchen as soon as possible. She cooked because she had to and realized that a lot of her readers did so too.”
“She did like to bake cakes,” added Becker, “so there was some joy there.”
Entertaining, however, was important to her. “She was very social and liked throwing parties,” continued Scott. “She would invite the ladies to lunch. She had visiting authors come by and have coffee klatches.”
The unusual recipe formatting, which Irma created in 1936 for the second edition and has been used since, combines the instructions and ingredients in the order of use, a boon to the cook. “You don’t get lost because you’re not jumping back and forth,” Scott noted.
“The third edition was published In 1943 and was known as the wartime “Joy of Cooking,” said Scott, “because she included information on how to cope with rationing, how to use less sugar and meat and limited cuts of beef. She had a whole section on how to use soy protein instead of meat.”
“It was also the first edition to include a variety of recipes that use canned goods, the kitchen hack of Irma’s day.” Becker added. “At the time it was revolutionary.”
Irma’s daughter Marion took over with Irma’s passing in 1962. “Marion wanted to turn “Joy of Cooking” from a personal collection of recipes into the American version of “Larousse’s Gastronomique,” an all-inclusive reference book,” said Becker. “With this new edition we wanted to do what Marion did for a new generation of cooks.” Indeed, this newest edition is truly an all-encompassing reference book with detailed descriptions of methods and techniques (including my pet peeve, the proper way to measure flour.) The mantle passed to Becker’s father, Ethan, on Marion’s death in 1976.
I found virtually no Jewish recipes in my own 1946 edition with its yellowing pages and dangling cover. (I would love to tell you my mother handed it down lovingly to me, but in truth l paid two dollars for it at a used bookstore.) “Ethnic recipes started to be included with Marion in 1963,” Becker told me in a subsequent phone call. “In the ’97 edition a Selma Abrams contributed at least nine Jewish recipes, including kasha varnishkas and babka, and we certainly have many in this new edition from latkes and kugels to sabich—an Iraqi-Jewish sandwich—and other Israeli favorites like shakshouka,” The index entry for “Jewish recipes” includes the usual suspects—challah, blintzes, gefilte fish, three Passover dessert recipes, among others, and some surprises, like fried artichokes. There are three more listed under “Israeli.”
When I spotted the bialys recipe, I had to try it. I had not had one since I left New York in 1971! “A cousin of the bagel, a bialy is a chewy, flat roll with a depression in its center filled with a mixture of onions and poppy seeds,” write the pair. “Originally from Bialystok, Poland, these exceptional little breads are difficult to find in the United States outside New York City.”
The Sweet and Sour Brisket is a sumptuous, satisfying dish, its sweet and tangy sauce begging to be mopped up with challah. “Pot roast has been in the book since 1931,” Scott noted. My 1946 edition calls for chuck or other less costly cuts. For best flavor, do make this dish a day ahead.
Sweet and Sour Brisket
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Preheat oven to 350°F
3½ to 4 pound beef brisket flat portion (or “ first cut“), trimmed
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Heat in a roasting pan over medium-high heat:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Brown brisket, about 5 minutes each side, then transfer to a plate. Reduce heat to medium, add more oil if needed, and add:
2 large onions, sliced
Cook onions until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add:
½ cup dry red wine
½ cup beef stock or broth
Cook 1 minute, scraping up browned bits. Stir in:
1 cup mild, tomato-based chili sauce
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 bay leaf
Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Return meat to pan and spoon sauce over it. Cover pan tightly with foil, transfer to oven, and cook until brisket is fork-tender, 2 to 3 hours.Remove pan from oven, uncover, and let cool in pan, then refrigerate overnight. Remove bay leaf, slice meat, and return to sauce. Reheat in 350°F oven 25 to 30 minutes.
Source: ”Joy of Cooking,” 2019 edition (Scribner, $40), by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker and Megan Scott.
Yield: 8 Bialys
Combine in large bowl or stand mixer fitted with dough hook:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm (105° to 115°F) water
1 envelope (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
2½ teaspoons sugar
1 cup bread flour
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening, melted
1¾ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons malt syrup or sugar
Gradually stir in:
3 to 3½ cups bread flour
Cover and let rest 20 minutes. Knead about 10 minutes by hand or on low to medium speed until dough is smooth and elastic. Let rest, covered, 15 to 20 minutes.
Divide dough into 8 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place on oiled baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise until puffy, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, heat in medium skillet over medium heat:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Add and cook, stirring, until very soft and just starting to brown:
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
Remove from heat and stir in:
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 450°F.
When dough is ready, stretch each piece into roughly a 3 1/2- to 4-inch round. Use your fingers to press dough thinner in center than at edges. Place bialys onto greased baking sheets.Spoon equal amounts onion filling onto center of each bialy, and spread out to cover thinner part of dough. Bake until bialys are golden brown, 13 to 16 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool.
Adapted from “Joy of Cooking.”
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at