I collect cookbooks the way other people collect coins, shot glasses, or miniature teaspoons. I began my cookbook collection a few weeks before our wedding, and today, I know it intimately. I know in which book to find which recipe, which book has the best pictures, and even which one lays flat when opened, making it easier to read while cooking.
I can also tell you which book is my favorite, which was my first purchase, and which I use most often. My Spice and Sprit; the Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook by the ladies of the Lubavitch community, probably known better by its semi-official title, “The Purple Book”, holds pride of place in my collection. Not only was it my first cookbook, but it is also highly esteemed, because its older, yellow version was my mother’s first cookbook. The yellow cookbook kept my mother’s already kosher kitchen “heimische” no matter where in the world we were living.
The book has accompanied me on a veritable cooking odyssey, from spicy cheese lasagne to summer fruit soup. At other times, it has led me through the details of rolling knish dough and kneading challah. I have traveled to China with lemon chicken and South America with empanadas. I once asked my mother if the Lubavitch women had collected their recipes from all the different Chabad houses around the globe. My mom said she wouldn’t have been surprised, though she couldn’t possibly imagine which national cuisine had spawned “beer-batter-covered deep fried meatballs.” The Purple cookbook is a highly recommended addition to any cook’s reference library, from novice to Michelin-starred chef.
My early childhood was spent in Caracas. The Chabad House in Caracas was like a second home to me. It was a fun-filled place to go on a Sunday morning. My mother would teach arts and crafts in the back room, my brothers would run in and out of rooms teasing each other and anyone else who came past them. While the younger kids were busy making cardboard marionettes or yarn pompoms, the older ones played educational games or learned Torah with the Chabad emissaries. On one memorable rainy Sunday, a young Chabad emissary taught us South American kids how to play his new American game, “Twister”. I can still remember us as young kids, hopelessly tangled, with the young Chabadnik laughing along with us.
The summers in Caracas were spent traveling back and forth on the school bus to Chabad Camp. At camp, my brothers were three-star generals and I was a cadet. These were our ranks in the Tzivos Hashem or “G-d’s Army” (please don’t think for a second that there were any militant over- or undertones to any of this). Our ranks were determined by how many good deeds we had done.
On one memorable outing, my brothers made up a song concerning me, and to this day – 30 years later − anyone on the bus that day can remember the Ilana song, word for word. Let me just say that Ilana and banana rhyme perfectly in any language. I believe that for creating that song alone, they should have been stripped of their stars.
A few years later, my parents took the show on the road again; this time to Hong Kong, where the Chabad emissaries made every Jew who came to town – whether transient or permanent – feel welcome. In this outpost, so far from the communities in which most of us grew up, the welcome was a wonderful surprise. Lubavitch in the Far East (“LIFE”) made Judaism as accessible to the traveler or resident as chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant. Yet again, the tremendous energy that the Chabad emissaries bring to their jobs has never failed to impress me.
The loss of any life is to be mourned; yet, G-d is kind to us. He lets us feel only the closest of deaths with heartbreak, with complete sadness. But a death within the Chabad community, a community that for years has seen their charter as offering Judaism in every corner of the globe, affects us all. Orthodox or secular, traveler or resident, the Chabad representatives who venture out into the world are not missionaries. They are emissaries.
A missionary is a persuader. His job is to convince you that his way is correct, and that what you have been doing until now is incorrect. An emissary is an ambassador whose job is to represent his boss; be it a country, an organization or a religion. With diplomacy, he offers another point of view. Chabad’s job is to teach that Judaism is not only possible wherever you may find yourself − it is desirable.
I can’t comment on global terrorism, or the age-old question of why good people suffer. I don’t know how the Lubavitch community will deal with the tremendous loss their family; their community has suffered in the last week. For my part I’ll bake. It’s the only way I know how to deal with any crisis. Whether stressed or sad, I have one surefire coping mechanism. The more I “potchker” with my food, the more time I spend on a particular recipe, the closer I feel to G-d – as if by creating puff pastry from scratch, I can hold on, even for a millisecond, to some ever-fleeting godliness.
This week, you can be sure that I will be using my Chabad cookbook for inspiration. Perhaps the baking will help me find the strength to cross the chasm of despair into faith. When we lose something, we each find a way to make it better in our own minds.
This coming week, find a way to commune with G-d. Light Shabbat candles, do good deeds, put on tefillin. That is what the people in Chabad recommend. For my part, I will bake.
May we only hear good tidings about our families and brethren around the world. May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Cauliflower Kugel – Adapted from
Spice and Sprit, The complete kosher Jewish cookbook:
In recent years kugels have gone the way of the Crepes Suzette, and Cornish hens. I would like to make the case for this kugel; it is not only low in fat, it is jam packed with vegetables. The original recipe calls for a corn flake crumb crust I prefer a little Mediterranean touch with the pine nuts, but that is totally your call.
2 small heads cauliflower, cut into florets
1 large onion chopped (about 1 ½ cups)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium leeks, whites and light green parts, thinly sliced (about three cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons finely ground almonds (or matzah meal)
½ cup toasted pine nuts
Pre heat oven to 350 F.
In a large pot of salted water, cook the cauliflower until soft when tested with a fork. Drain the cauliflower and return to pot using a potato masher, break up the cauliflower into very small pieces.
While the cauliflower is cooking, warm the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the onion and leek and sauté, stirring once in a while until the leek has lost its shape and the onion begins to brown slightly.
Add the sautéed leeks to the cauliflower, mix well and add seasoning to taste; I like a hefty amount of pepper. Once the seasoning is adjusted, add the eggs and ground almonds.
Place the mixture in a 9×13 ovenproof dish, sprinkle with toasted pine nuts, cook uncovered for about 50 minutes until center is set and top is golden.Ilana Epstein