And loving the excitement of showing the Just Add Love cookbook to the final grandmothers who have not seen it. Rina Mevorach, who was born in Libya and has lived most of her long life in Jerusalem, was thrilled to see her story in writing, and pictures.
“This is an honour, it’s a great thing for me,” she said and then proceeded to cook for me, of course. Why should being in your nineties prevent you from cooking and baking up a storm?
I’m always on the lookout for the easy way out, especially in baking, and this week’s recipe is for pastry that’s quick, ‘down and dirty’, no cold butter, no cold utensils, no leaving overnight in the fridge to rest; this is a hardy pastry from French chef Paul Calliat’s cooking school, and the recipe comes from food writer Marlena Spieler.
This is her enticing description:
“I just went to Paris, and I've brought you back a gift. You can't wear it. It took up no space whatsoever in my suitcase. But it's so wonderful, I can hardly wait to give it to you … My gift is the recipe for a pastry crust. It's delicious, easy, totally unthreatening. It's a crust you can whip up without thinking, a crust that will never let you down.”
One of the most wonderful things about writing Just Add Love, Holocaust Survivors Share their Stories and Recipes, is the people I’ve connected with – primarily the grandmothers, of course, who told their stories, and gave of themselves (and their recipes!)
The other people include children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, like Marlena Spieler, an American living in the UK, a daughter of Jews who escaped Europe before the Holocaust, a famous foodie, food writer and broadcaster. And I do mean food writer. She has written dozens of books and broadcast on radio and TV, and has also won the James Beard award (among others) for her food-writing.
But it’s not her books I’ve lost my heart to, it’s Marlena’s lively food-filled FB page, where she shares every dish she prepares, including buns and noodles which she makes herself and serves with unusual sauces and fillings, wonderful combinations of East and West. Marlena is funny, curious, inventive, super well-informed about food and a dog lover. Is there a better combination of tastes and interests?
Her standout dish – my assessment and hers – is homemade kimchee stuffed into a bun or sandwhich, topped with cheese and toasted. (That’s what she will be preparing at the World Gourmand Awards finals coming up in Hong Kong in July. Good luck Marlena!)
No Chinese chef can resist Marlena…
And they made dumplings together and he taught her his secrets!
I sent her some chapters from Just Add Love to read before the book was complete. Her comments were helpful and generous. This week we’ve had a long discussion on the quality of Israeli butter (why it’s so poor, when the white cheeses here are so spectacularly good) which was relevant to her pastry recipe. Is it the weather or the fact that goats live here more naturally than cows?
“Maybe get a cow and make your fortune?” Marlena suggests. I tell her I have enough trouble combining being a journalist with writing a book! Walking my dogs is all the animal husbandry I can take….
“The Caillat crust is utterly and endlessly forgiving. It will not let you down. You can't overwork it - any bits that get scraggly can just be tossed back into the mixture. No worries about chilling the dough or keeping your hands cool, and no worries about rolling the dough on a cool surface, because you don't roll it out at all - you just press it into a pan and bake it. You don't even need to add beans or baking weights - just prick it a bit. It obediently sets itself down, ready for the luscious fruit of any season.”
I’ve made this pastry twice, and Marlena’s right, it is very forgiving.
I made a savoury version with wholemeal flour and found that for the amount of butter in this recipe, I only needed 1 cup of flour, not 1 ½ cup as in the original recipe.
I then made the sweet version using all purpose white flour, in case the problem was the wholemeal flour, and it wasn’t. After consultation with Marlena, I’ve decided It the problem was the Israeli butter.
So I am giving you the quantities I used in Jerusalem. If you are not baking here and your pastry needs a bit more flour, do add it, up to half a cup more.
Marlena’s other bit of advice is if your butter is “a bit meh”, brown it, to add another layer of flavor to your pastry.
The Caillat Crust
Makes one 8-inch single layer tart crust
6 tablespoons / 85g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons water
1 cup all-purpose flour – may use up to ½ cup more
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
For the savoury version, omit the sugar and add ¾ teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 400 F/ 200 C. Grease or spray an 8 inch / 20 cm pie pan or tart tin with a removable base.
2. Place the butter, oil, water and salt in a small saucepan and heat on high just until the butter melts and bubbles form around the edge. If you let it brown slightly, it will result in a slightly nutty flavor, which is delicious. You can also do this in a microwave. Set aside for a few minutes to cool.
3. Add 1 cup of flour and the sugar to the butter mixture; mix using a wooden spoon, almost like making a roux. When it forms a ball, stop. You want it incorporated but not dry. If it needs more flour (ie if you are not using Israeli butter!) add slowly tablespoon by tablespoon until the mixture doesn't stick to the sides of the pan.
4. Turn dough out into prepared tart tin and press it into an even layer over the bottom and sides.
5. To bake completely ie for a filling which is not baked, bake for 15 minutes, or until crust is golden; watch the edges so that they do not burn. To par-bake bake 8 minutes, or until crust is just firm.
Remove from oven and cool, then fill as desired.
See Marlena’s recipe for a lovely fruit tart in her article above. Since I was baking during the festival of Shavuout in Israel, I used cheesey fillings for both the savoury and the sweet tart. Here are both recipes for you to try.
Mushroom and Green Onion Tart
1 par-baked pie crust, as above
500 g/ 1 lb mushrooms of your choice
1 bunch green onions (scallions or shallots)
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons olive oi
4 large eggs
½ cup cream
1 ½ cups whole milk (may need less)
1 cup shredded pecorino parmesan or other tasty cheese
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Optional: 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1. Preheat oven to 375 F/ 180 C.
2. Wipe mushrooms to clean them, then slice. Slice green onions. Reserve some large slices of both for the top and set aside. Chop garlic. Nothing needs to be super small.
3. Cook remaining mushrooms and onions in the olive oil in a large frying pan. After 3 minutes add chopped garlic. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. The mushrooms can retain some shape, as you will bake them next. Allow to cool a little.
4. Spread half the cheese, and half the cooked mushrooms and onions on the pie crust.
4. Julia Child says that the secret to a good tart is to “Keep the Ratio”: 1 egg in a measuring cup plus milk or cream to the half-cup level. 2 eggs and milk or cream to the 1-cup level. And so on. For this recipe, crack 4 eggs into a measuring cup and add the half cup cream and the remainder of the milk until the total volume is 2 cups.
5. Mix with a whisk until light and frothy. Add the salt, pepper and thyme if using, and continue to whisk for a further 2 minutes.
6. Pour half the egg mixture over the cheese and mushrooms. Add remaining cheese and cooked mushrooms and onions and pour in the remaining egg mix to cover the ingredients. Decorate top with remaining slices of uncooked mushrooms and onions.
7. Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until the egg no longer looks liquid in the center, and is golden on the edges.
8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
VERDICT: This was a great tart. The mushrooms were so good they were almost sweet. It also worked cutting them in larger slices. The mix of fresh and cooked veges was good too. I took the tart to a friend’s place for dinner and without any prompting - or knowing - she said that the pastry was fantastic! She made some lovely salads and a delicious salmon bake and the whole meal was super-colourful as well as healthy and delicious.
So now for a sweet pastry - the way Marlena intended it.
This is a no-bake filling, as having baked the pastry I really wanted an option that would be less work! (Though it did require some hours hanging around in the fridge… )
This recipe uses a firm white cheese, farm cheese in Australia or farmers’ cheese in the US, which has less calories than cream cheese. There is no gelatin, the filling firms up in the fridge. I decorated it with apricots because they are what I had at home and they go well with cheese filling, but you can also use strawberries or other berries or summer fruit as well.
Cheesecake with Apricots & fresh Thyme & Za’atar
1 fully baked pie crust, as above, 8 inches/20 cm
500 g / 1 pound white cheese eg farm cheese, farmers cheese, or ricotta
½ cup / 110 g sour cream
1 cup whipping cream
½ cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
100 g apricot jam
Optional: fresh thyme and zaatar for decoration
NOTE: If you are using ricotta, it’s best to drain it in a colander for an hour or two first to prevent the mixture from becoming too liquidy.
1. Using an electric mix master, beat the white cheese with the whipping cream.
2. When it is smooth and has increased in volume add the sugar or honey, the lemon juice and salt. Beat in the sour cream at the end. Taste. You can add more lemon juice if you like it lemony, or more sugar if you like it sweeter.
3. Using a spatula, spread the filling into the crust. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, overnight, or minimum 2 hours. (Mine needed an overnight stay before it set!)
4. Decorate with sliced apricots. Put apricot jam into a small pot and heat over a low heat on the stovetop till the jam is runny. Brush over fruit on top of cake and sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serve at once or put back into the fridge till you are ready to serve.
This week I received two messages that makes your heart sing, if you happen to have just written a cookbook. First, one of our Kickstarter supporters, Michelle Keys Trevor, posted a photo of herself cooking with her 98 year old grandmother! Then satisfied customer Alice Peer wrote that she had just made a recipe from our book - Just Add Love Grandmother Saba Feniger’s cheesecake.
“I made Saba’s cheesecake last week for a friend’s birthday and it was such a success my husband asked me to make it again to take to another friend tomorrow,” wrote Alice.
You can order your copy of our book from this website - right here.
In addition to cooking, Marlena Spieler understands the important role played by grandmothers. The history of the women her family in the early twentieth century is one of escape from Europe’s persecution of its Jews.
“One of my grandmothers came from China. First Harbin, then Shanghai, then San Francisco. I barely knew her, in fact she was my step grandmother but my only grandmother on that side, as she died when I was maybe 6 or 7. She was originally from eastern Europe or Russia and we didn't speak the same language, but I felt very close to her. So did my brother.”
“We saw her every week and even though we didn't talk much, we sat together and felt happy,” says Marlena.
As Marlena is about to visit China herself, she remembers how often her family, like so many other American Jews, ate in Chinese restaurants. “On the other side, we went out to eat in Chinese restaurants at least once a week, usually twice. It was old west Chinatown and our grandparents had a pawn shop nearby. My earliest memory is of sitting in a highchair in our favourite Chinese restaurant with my grandfather.”
As one of the women I interviewed for Just Add Love put it, you love your mother, but you adore your grandmother. Marlena also recognises that overwhelming and less complicated love.
“Yes, now that I’m a grandmother, I can feel that bond and see it in my grandson, and it brings me to tears just thinking about it.”
More love - and more kimchee stuffed toasted cheese sandwhiches - all round.