What we can all learn from carrot soufflé
In The Dairy Restaurant (no not that one) by Ben Katchor, the writer traces the fascinating history of these fading Jewish New York institutions, born out of time and place, of kashrut - which mandates the separation of meat and dairy - as well as the high price of kosher meat. While New York Jewish food is synonymous with places like Katz’s Deli, selling hefty and extremely non-kosher Reuben sandwiches, these dairy restaurants showed a different side to Ashkenazi cuisine, completely adapted to expunge any mention of salt beef, brisket, pastrami or chopped liver. I’ve put a menu up top: doesn’t it read gloriously? Fresh huckleberry blintzes, kugel, boiled kreplach (filled with cheese not meat), all the eggs, all the dairy, all the cream. Cereal on a menu predating two bearded guys in Shoreditch. Plus that rich tradition of Jewish preserved freshwater fish, which Claudia Roden so memorably described as a ‘cold world’ and which Larry David so memorably refused to have his sandwich filled with.
The adaptation of Jewish food has made it the most amorphous, hard to pin down cuisine in the world, if it even exists at all. It’s defined by rootlessness and adaptation: wandering has taken Jewish food to cities where the cuisine has melded with them - that cold world in Budapest, Warsaw and Moscow, a significantly hotter one in Palermo and Baghdad. The Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy have provoked millennia’s worth of lateral thinking by clever chefs on how to adapt food to fit in with kashrut - like Portguese alheira or the chicken sesame toasts you find up at Chinese restaurants in Golders Green. Katchor actually posits that according to Hasidic law the only purely Jewish food is kugel, and that everything else in the canon has taken something pre-existing and adapted it to fit. How else to resolve the intricacy and fire of Ottolenghi, and the comforting simplicity of the carrot soufflé as part of the same cuisine?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of food lately, not just because it’s Passover but because I think this adaptability is something we - particularly chefs - should be thinking about. We all need to adapt. Restaurants need to adapt. The Kosher delis in Stamford Hill and Golders Green are out of step with time and fashion, but in their canteen food and takeaway service they possibly offer a template on how restaurants can reshape their offerings. The soufflé that writer Travis Mager has described requires no cheffy skills but it is delicious, and like those dairy restaurants in New York it displays the virtue of adaptability, right down to the suggested substitution of ingredients to make it Kosher for Passover.
The world is changing, but the most pleasurable things remain the same: the simplicity of great food and celebrating with family and friends, even if it is by videoscreen. Chag sameach and happy Easter.
What we can all learn from carrot soufflé, by Travis Mager
Let me begin this recipe for carrot soufflé by telling you that I am not a chef, and this is not a soufflé. A soufflé is a demonstration of the chef’s technique, but this is no more complicated than combining ingredients and shoving it all in the oven. It’s both delectable and comforting, but it is neither puffy nor delicate, and it does not fall from grace if you happen to cook like me. If, given the state of the world, you’re feeling charitable about definitions and are looking for a way to use some staples you’ll most likely have hanging around in a new way, I’ll happily continue.
As an American in London, I often feel removed from my family back on the East Coast: which great-grandchild is now walking, the ways in which my aunts and uncles are emotionally prodding each other, and who is responsible for bringing the whitefish salad to family dinners (actually, it’s always Uncle Michael). Particularly right now, as we sink further into this pandemic, there’s a greater need to stay connected with our loved ones. Each of my parents comes from their own large, Jewish families, and after I’ve tried speaking to all 50 of my immediate family members, for a bit more comfort I’ll often turn to a little notebook my husband and I began about a year ago: “Some Favourite Recipes Not From Our Cookbooks”. Buried among the recipes we’ve scouted online, including Smitten Kitchen’s gingerbread cookies, a Bon Appetit Thanksgiving turkey dry rub, and Ottolenghi’s Halva Rice Krispie treats (which he shapes into ghosts for Halloween—such fabulous drama!), this collection houses a few precious family heirlooms.
In addition to the colourful, crocheted afghan blankets and a resounding ‘HEDO!’ when she answered the phone, my Grandma Arlene was known for her enormous cache of Jewish recipes. When she passed away in 2018, I asked my dad for her Ashkenazi classics: sweet and sour stuffed cabbage, sour cream coffee cake, mandel bread, and my all-time favourite, this carrot soufflé. Many of the recipes my father shared with me were written on the back of notecards, all in my Grandma’s controlled cursive. Often, they would only have an ingredient list (and sometimes barely that), adding a "bishen" of this or a dash of that. “Just look up an old recipe and follow that,” my dad said, “You’ll be fine. They survived two wars with nothing and you’re losing your mind over how to make a cake? Give me a break.”
Our family history is fairly linear: Jews move west from various locations in Eastern Europe in the 1910’s-20’s, coming from Russia, Poland, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Bohemia. When they resettled, they continued to make their traditional recipes and adapted them for their new, American home. This flexibility is innate to the Jewish diaspora across the millennia—a constant reworking life to new surroundings, much like eating unleavened bread for Passover because it what was available—has allowed Jewish Americans to survive and thrive. My great-grandparents’ generation reworked dishes that were rooted in homeland familiarity, like a carrot pudding, and updated them for their new American surroundings where they had access to ingredients like copious amounts of sugar and processed breakfast cereals. Much like right now, when we feel like we’re living in an alternate universe and supplies are more scarce than usual, it’s this creativity that makes day-to-day life a bit more exciting. And it’s an infinitely better alternative than continuing to toss your humble carrots in salads.
I cannot attest to any Eastern European authenticity, but this recipe for carrot soufflé lovingly comes from my Aunt Marsha (who inherited it from her mother, my Grandma Arlene, who in turn inherited it from her Aunt Renee) and she makes it every year for the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana. With Passover this week, it’s also easily adaptable to lose the chametz (‘forbidden substance’) in the dish to make it Kosher for the holiday, when leavened products and flour are avoided, by substituting the flour for finely ground matzo meal and the cornflakes for crushed matzo. I’ll also admit that it’s an American level of sweet, which I adore, but you’re welcome to dial down the sugar in the egg mixture. We serve it as a side dish—it’s perfect with brisket—but it can also be served as a pudding. If you prepare the dish in a glass baking dish, it’ll come out looking like a Jewish trifle. Naturally, custard would be a welcome addition.
115g granulated sugar
3 tbsp flour (or matzo meal for Passover)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
Dash of cinnamon
15g bashed cornflakes (or matzo for Passover)
3 tbsp brown sugar
30g butter (room temperature)
40g chopped nuts (optional; walnuts or pistachios are best)
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Grate carrots and cook them in boiling water for 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain them in a colander and place them in a large mixing bowl.
Lightly beat the eggs and mix them in with the carrots along with the remaining ingredients. Stir until everything is incorporated, and place mixture into a glass baking dish.
In a different bowl, make the topping. Incorporate the brown sugar into the butter, then add the remaining ingredients. Spread evenly over the carrot mixture.
Bake for 40 minutes until the pudding is set. The topping should reach a deep, toasty brown, but if it starts getting too dark, cover with foil until cooked. Serve warm.
Travis Mager is a writer, sommelier, and marketing freelancer based in south London. He is currently furloughed from his hospitality job. The fee for this article was donated to LGBTIQ+ Outside, a homeless/crisis centre for those in the LGBTIQ+ community.
The illustration was done by Marie-Henriette Desmoures. For more commissions she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org . She was paid for her work for this article.
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