Challah | Bagels and Lox | Gefilte Fish | Matzah Ball Soup (with recipe) | Knishes | Blintzes | Cholent (with link to recipe) | Holishkes (with recipe) | Tzimmes (with recipe) | Kugel (with recipe) | Jewish Apple Cake | Links to Other Recipes
Jewish cooking is a unique synthesis of cooking styles from the many places that Jews have lived throughout the centuries. Jewish cooking shows the influence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish, German, and Eastern European styles of cooking, all influenced by the unique dietary constraints of kashrut and other Jewish laws.
Many of the foods that we think of as Jewish are not unique to Jewish culture. Stuffed cabbage, a traditional Jewish dish, is common in Eastern Europe. Blintzes and knishes are familiar to all Germans, not just Jewish ones. Falafel and hummus, increasingly thought of as Israeli-Jewish foods, can be found in any Greek restaurant. But the combination of these varied foods into one style of cooking, along with our own innovations, is uniquely Jewish.
On this page, we identify and describe several of the better-known, popular Jewish dishes. Most of these dishes are Ashkenazic, because that is what we know best. Sephardic Jews have their own distinct cooking traditions. We will provide recipes for those foods that we know how to cook, and will provide links to other recipes scattered throughout this web site.
One ingredient you will see in many of these recipes is matzah meal. Matzah meal is crumbs of matzah (unleavened bread). You can find this in the kosher or ethnic section of your grocery store, if your grocery store has one (it can be found in such remote, "Gentile" places as Athens, Georgia), but if it is not available, you can usually use bread crumbs instead.
Any traditional Jewish meal begins with the breaking of bread. Challah is a special kind of bread used for Sabbaths and holidays. It is a very sweet, golden, eggy bread. The taste and texture is somewhat similar to egg twist rolls (those little yellow rolls that look like knots). The loaf is usually braided, but on certain holidays it may be made in other shapes. For example, on Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to serve round challah (the circle symbolizing the cycle of life, the cycle of the years).
A local deli makes French toast with challah. It is highly recommended. Challah is also wonderful in sandwiches with roast beef or corned beef. Traditionally, however, it is simply used as you might use rolls with a holiday dinner.
The word "challah" refers to the portion of dough set aside for the kohein (See the List of Mitzvot, #394); that is, a portion that is taken out of the dough before it is baked. It is not certain how the term for the removed portion came to be used for the portion that is left over after it is removed.
Is there anybody who does not know what a bagel is? A bagel is a donut-shaped piece of bread that is boiled before it is baked. They are often topped with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, or flavored with other ingredients. The bagel has been a part of Jewish cuisine for at least 400 years. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, there are references to it as far back as Poland in 1610. In the USA, bagels are traditionally served with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon) or other fish spreads (herring, whitefish, etc.). They are also quite good with cream cheese and a thick slice of tomato.
Those hockey pucks that you find in your grocer's freezer bear little resemblance to a real bagel. A real bagel is soft, warm, and spongy inside, lightly crispy outside. A fresh bagel does not need to be toasted, and should not be. Toasting is a sorry attempt to compensate for a sub-standard bagel.
Gefilte fish is a cake or ball of chopped up fish. It is usually made with white-fleshed freshwater fish, such as carp or pike. The fish is chopped into small pieces (a food processor is good for this), mixed with onions and some other vegetables (carrot, celery, parsley). The mixture is held together with eggs and matzah meal. It is then boiled in broth for a while. It can be served warm or cold, though it is usually served cold with red horseradish and garnished with carrot shavings.
The word "gefilte" fish comes from German and means stuffed. Some variations on gefilte fish involve stuffing the fish skin with chopped up fish.
This is also known as Jewish penicillin. Matzah balls are more traditionally known as knaydelach (Yiddish for dumplings). Matzah ball soup is generally a very thin chicken broth with two or three ping-pong-ball sized matzah balls (or sometimes one very large matzah ball) in it. Sometimes, a few large pieces of carrot or celery are added. Matzah balls can be very soft and light or firm and heavy. The two types may be described "floaters and sinkers". Matzah ball soup is commonly served at the Passover seder, but is also eaten all year round.
Below is a recipe for matzah ball soup. The parsley in the matzah balls is not traditional, but it is good that way all the same.
Beat the eggs, oil, and water together thoroughly. Add the matzah meal, parsley, and black pepper, and mix until you achieve an even consistency. Let this sit for a few minutes, so the matzah meal absorbs the other ingredients, and stir again.
Bring the broth to a vigorous boil, then reduce the heat until the broth is just barely boiling. Wet your hands and make balls of about 1-2 tbsp. of the batter. Drop the balls gently into the boiling water. They will be cooked enough to eat in about 15 minutes; however, you may want to leave it simmering longer to absorb more of the chicken broth flavor. They are done when they float on top of the broth and look bloated.
For lighter matzah balls, use a little less oil, a little more water, and cook at a lower temperature for a longer time. For heavier matzah balls, do the reverse. If you are using this to treat a cold, put extra black pepper into the broth (pepper clears the sinuses).
A knish (the k and the n are both pronounced) is a sort of potato and flour dumpling stuffed with various things. It is baked until browned and a little crisp on the outside. They are commonly filled with mashed potato and onion, chopped liver, or cheese. They are good for a snack, an appetizer, or a side dish. You should be able to find them in any deli. The word "knish" is Ukrainian for "dumpling".
Blintzes are basically Jewish crepes. A blintz is a thin, flat pancake rolled around a filling. It looks a little like an egg roll. As a main dish or side dish, blintzes can be filled with sweetened cottage cheese or mashed potatoes and onion; as a dessert, they can be filled with fruit, such as apple, cherry, or blueberry. They are usually fried in oil. They are generally served with sour cream and/or applesauce.
Cheese blintzes are the traditional meal for the festival of Shavu'ot, when dairy meals are traditionally eaten. They are also commonly eaten during Chanukkah, because they are cooked in oil.
The word "blintz" comes from a Ukrainian word meaning pancake.
Cholent (the "ch" is pronounced as in "chair" -- an exception to the usual rules of pronunciation) is a very slowly cooked stew of beans, beef, barley, and sometimes potatoes. It is the traditional meal for the Sabbath lunch or dinner, because it can be started before the Sabbath begins and left cooking throughout the Sabbath. A recipe for cholent is on the Sabbath page.
Holishkes are cabbage leaves stuffed with meatballs in a tomato-based sweet-and-sour sauce. They are known by many different names (galuptzi, praakes, stuffed cabbage), and are made in many different ways, depending on where your grandmother came from. It is traditionally served during the holiday of Sukkot, although it is not clear why. Below is the recipe.
Gently remove the cabbage leaves from the head. You want them to be intact. It may help to steam the head briefly before attempting this. Boil the leaves for a minute or two to make them soft enough to roll.
Combine the sauce ingredients in a saucepan and simmer, stirring, until the sugar dissolves (it will dissolve faster if you pour the lemon juice over it). Pour about 1/4 of the sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish or lasagna pan.
Combine all of the filling ingredients in a bowl. Make a ball out of a handful of the filling and roll it up in a cabbage leaf, rolling from the soft end to the spiny end. Put the resulting roll into the casserole dish with the sauce. Do this until you use up all of the filling, making 8-10 cabbage rolls. Then pour the remaining sauce over the top.
Bake approximately 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
If you do not like so much refined sugar in your diet, you can substitute about a cup of raisins or prunes for the brown sugar.
Tzimmes is any kind of sweet stew. It usually is orange in color, and includes carrots, sweet potatoes and/or prunes. A wide variety of dishes fall under the heading "tzimmes". On Passover, for example, some make a tzimmes of carrots and pineapple chunks boiled in pineapple juice.
Tzimmes is commonly eaten on Rosh Hashanah, because it is sweet and symbolizes our hopes for a sweet new year.
The word "tzimmes" is often used in Yiddish to mean making a big fuss about something.
This is a meat-based tzimmes recipe suitable for holiday use:
Brown the stewing beef lightly in a little oil in a 2 quart saucepan. Add the water and sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer. Peel and dice the potatoes and carrots and add to the pot. Let it stew covered at very low heat for at least an hour, adding water periodically if necessary. There should be water, but it should not be soggy. Once the potatoes are soft, take the cover off and let most of the water boil off. Mash the whole mixture until the potato part is the consistency of mashed potatoes. Put the mash into a casserole dish and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
If you do not like so much refined sugar in your diet, you can substitute about a cup of raisins or prunes for the sugar.
Kugel is another dish that encompasses several different things, and the relationship between them is hard to define. The word "kugel" is generally translated as "pudding", although it does not mean pudding in the Jell-O brand dairy dessert sense. It is pronounced "koo-gel" or "ki-gel", depending on where your grandmother comes from.
Kugel can be either a side dish or a dessert. As a side dish, it is a casserole of potatoes, eggs, and onions. As a dessert, it is usually made with noodles and various fruits and nuts in an egg-based pudding. Kugel made with noodles is called lokshen kugel. Below is a recipe for a noodle kugel.
Beat the eggs thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter, sugar, and cinnamon; beat until thoroughly blended. Cook the noodles and rinse them in cold water. Do not drain them too thoroughly. Put the noodles into the egg mixture and stir until the noodles are coated with the mixture. Let them sit in the refrigerator for about 15-30 minutes, so the noodles absorb some of the egg mixture. Stir again.
Put about half of the egg-noodle mixture into a casserole dish. Put the raisins, almonds and apples on top. Put the remaining egg-noodle mixture on top of that. Bake for about 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees, until the egg part is firm and the noodles on top are crispy. Can be served warm or cold.
Jewish desserts generally do not have any dairy products in them, because of the constraints of kashrut. Under the kosher laws, dairy products cannot be eaten at the same meal as meat, thus Jewish desserts are usually pareve (neither meat nor dairy). An example of this kind of cooking is the Jewish apple cake, which may be seen in many grocery stores. It is not clear if this kind of cake is actually a traditional Jewish dish; we cannot find any recipes for it in any of our Jewish cookbooks. However, the style of it is very much in accord with Jewish cooking styles. Jewish apple cake is a light, almost spongy cake with chunks of apples in it. It has no dairy products; the liquid portion that would usually be milk is replaced with apple juice, making a very sweet cake.
Elsewhere in this site, you may find recipes for:
Latkes, potato pancakes traditionally served during Chanukkah.
Hamentaschen, filled cookies traditionally served during Purim.
Charoset, a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine traditionally served during Passover.
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