Conjuring comfort food

Conjuring comfort food

Shannon Sarna’s new cookbook reimagines classic recipes

Ms. Sarna shows off a tray of goodies 
from her book. (Doug Schneider)
Ms. Sarna shows off a tray of goodies from her book. (Doug Schneider)

During the pandemic, as restaurants closed and everyone hunkered down, many people cooked at home, taking the time to bake challah or try Jewish recipes they wouldn’t otherwise have attempted or had the energy for.

Shannon Sarna of South Orange is one such home chef; now she’s also the author of a cookbook perfect for the times we are living through. Her “Modern Jewish Comfort Food: 100 Fresh Recipes for Classic Dishes from Kugel to Kreplach” was out early this month, in time for Rosh Hashanah.

“This seemed like a good moment to share classic dishes and playful dishes to inspire people to stay in the kitchen and keep baking and cooking food that is both new and old to them,” Ms. Sarna said.

The 216-page collection showcases recipes and variations that have shaped Jewish cuisine from around the world. Ms. Sarna includes many traditional dishes, then provides new twists to them. She has a recipe for stuffed onion from Syria, another for black and white cookies from New York, “and just about everything in between,” she said.

Her basic tomato and pepper shakshuka is reimagined into a deep-dish pizza; classic potato latkes invite vegetable-focused variations such as beet and carrot and summer corn zucchini; and a multitude of dumpling recipes reflect the range of the Jewish diaspora. Sweets include two kinds of Israeli-style yeasted rugelach and funfetti macaroons.

This isn’t Ms. Sarna’s first cookbook. She wrote “Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More.” In that book, she offers step-by-step instructions for the seven core doughs of Jewish baking.

She’s also known for her nontraditional challah recipes; her work has been featured on Buzzfeed, Edible Brooklyn, and Modern Loss, and in Parade magazine.

A former communications manager, Ms. Sarna became editor of the Nosher, an online Jewish food guide that offers recipes and news about trends in kosher restaurants and new items available in grocery stores. She also demonstrates cooking techniques in live presentations throughout New York City and New Jersey. Her audiences have ranged from 20 to 400 people.

The book enables home cooks to make Jewish dishes that are delicious but not intimidating, Ms. Sarna said. In writing the recipes, she broke down the steps and didn’t overcomplicate the list of ingredients. She included visual guides and made sure the results were tested many times.

Her specialties for Rosh Hashanah are apple tahini crumble, which are “much easier than a honey or apple cake,” she said, and Syrian stuffed onions with pomegranate sauce, “a sweet and tangy dish that is really a showstopper.”

Recipes she reinvents include a play on a sweet dairy noodle kugel and a pineapple upside down cake that features caramelized pineapple rings and maraschino cherries on top. Instead of cake, it is a traditional kugel with bits of pineapple baked throughout.

“Schnitzel is a classic dish beloved by many, but not everyone eats meat,” she said. So the book includes zucchini schnitzel.

Her one go-to recipe is a basic shakshuka, “because I usually have all the ingredients around, and in a pinch, it is a satisfying dinner.”

The cookbook also includes variations on chicken soup, shakshuka meatballs, stuffed cabbage and eggplant, and pastry. There is Israeli-style stuffed pepper varieties and versions of foods for Passover and for vegetarians. “There are some very easy recipes, but it’s really more about mastering some of the comfort foods and different ways that you can make them,” Ms. Sarna said.

“The least favorite Jewish food is an easy one,” Ms. Sarna said. Ptcha, a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish that is an aspic prepared from gelled calves’ feet, is not easy, and it’s rarely made. “My grandparent’s generation made it,” she said.

Ms. Sarna says that her interest in preparing food from scratch comes from her family. Her late mother was an Italian-American who loved baking. Her father, who is Jewish, also likes to cook. And her grandfather was a food chemist for General Foods. “I had a very diverse set of influences in the kitchen,” she said. Family from South America also enriched her culinary upbringing. She became kosher in her own household.

Her husband, Jonathan Goldberg, grew up in Paramus; his parents, Jodi and David, live in Englewood now. Ms. Sarna and Mr. Goldberg have three children, who go to the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the family belongs to Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

Ms. Sarna says that she shops for ingredients at different stores, looking for the best prices and variety.

She doesn’t think that Jewish food recipes necessarily have to be changed to appeal to younger generations and their tastes. But, she added, “showing younger Jews that there is room within the Jewish food world for playfulness, adaptability, and interpretation allows them to feel ownership over the food they create while being connected to their roots.”

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