NEW YORK (JTA) – People write kosher cookbooks for many reasons: to publish tasty new recipes, to augment the canon of Jewish cuisine, and to present low-fat, fool-proof or trendy fare.
Doris Schechter, author of “At Oma’s Table” (Penguin Group, 2007), didn’t fit into any of these categories.
“My literary agent told me Penguin was looking for a Jewish grandmother cookbook,” she recalls. “I thought they were interested in my story, but they really wanted memories of my grandmother.”
This posed problems for Schechter, causing her to hesitate.
“You have to understand, I never went there,” she says, explaining that she had sealed off that part of her past, locking it away in her heart.
Schechter’s life story follows the path of many Jews of a certain age.
She was born into a comfortable family in Vienna. The Holocaust not only shattered their world but her childhood. An uncle, an aunt and a grandfather were among those who perished.
After the war her surviving relatives immigrated to America
“I came to this country with a lot of trauma,” Shechter says. “I lost my father.”
After the war he died of spinal meningitis. Her family lived in a barracks at Fort Ontario, an emergency refugee shelter in Oswego, N.Y. After a series of complications, her mother moved to New York City with Schechter and her baby sister.
“I grew up in an Americanized neighborhood where no one spoke with accents,” she says. “I was the only refugee in my classroom.”
Out of necessity Schechter’s mother went to work, while her “Oma” – grandmother in German – looked after the children, the house and the kitchen.
Young Doris learned many valuable lessons from Oma – lessons that carried her through life. More than a matriarch, Leah Goldstein was an amazing role model who instilled dignity, respect and perseverance in her granddaughters. She maintained the Jewish dietary laws, shopped for food almost daily, baked like a Viennese pastry chef, held the family together with love and wore sensible shoes.
Many of Oma’s recipes were transformed into the pastries Schechter sold at the famed My Most Favorite Dessert Company bakery, formerly in Great Neck, N.Y., and New York City. In 2001 she published “My Most Favorite Dessert Company Cookbook: Delicious Pareve Baking Recipes.” Today Schechter is the proprietor of My Most Favorite Restaurant located in midtown Manhattan’s theater district.
With all the cooking tips and affection that Oma bestowed, she never taught Doris anything about Thanksgiving dinner. Like many immigrants, Oma didn’t consider including this all-American holiday in her repertoire of sturdy soups, goulashes, briskets and boiled potatoes.
She had come from a different culture. After losing her husband and two children, Oma was more inclined to hold onto the customs she had left behind than adopt new ones.
“It wasn’t in my grandmother’s itinerary to celebrate Thanksgiving,” Schechter says, explaining that bypassing the holiday had differentiated her family from their neighbors.
While her family conversed in German and ate chopped herring salad, Schechter’s friends spoke flawless English and ate hamburgers on doughy buns.
Torn between two cultures, Linzer torte vs. pumpkin pie, Shechter decided that when she grew up, she would host Thanksgiving.
“For me as a newcomer, it was important to be American, to assimilate,” she says. “I changed my name from Dorrit to Doris.”
Schechter hosted her first Thanksgiving shortly after getting married. She started small with canned cranberry sauce and a basic stuffing of bread cubes, onion and celery. But desiring more unique harvest fare, she created her own Almond Raisin Stuffing, Cranberry Fig Chutney and an incredibly moist Roast Turkey with Garlic Oil. She added applesauce, carrot loaves and corn bread to the menu.
While Schechter observes every Jewish holiday, she claims Thanksgiving is her “most favorite” festivity of the year.
“I love this holiday because everyone shares in it equally,” she says. “We’re celebrating the wonderful part of the American landscape. I feel truly American every Thanksgiving.”
Schechter, a mother of five, says that when her children were young, “I hosted all the holidays. People prefer to be invited to your house when you have five children.”
From the start, Oma was an enthusiastic guest on Thanksgiving.
Schechter baked sugar cookies with her children, shaping them into turkeys and pumpkins, which she does today with her grandchildren. No Thanksgiving was complete without Apple Bundt Cake, one of Oma’s recipes, for which her children and 16 grandchildren still clamor.
Over the decades Leah Goldstein never dwelled on life’s painful blows. She took pleasure in her grandchildren. Aging as she lived, gracefully, she died at 91.
“She made an indelible impression on me,” Schechter says. “She was a woman of valor.”
“At Oma’s Table” contains recipes from three generations of women in Schechter’s family, but Oma Leah Goldstein is the heart of this book, which is plump with nostalgic anecdotes.
Schechter acknowledges that when she started writing, she was nervous about returning to her childhood. She feared what might be lurking behind memories she had buried for decades. But the book turned out to be a bittersweet journey that reaped valuable lessons.
“It taught me to accept my past and celebrate it,” she says. “No one should give up his or her roots. It was amazing that I tried for so long to be typically American and then began to look back and appreciate where I came from. As I hear myself talk, there’s something poetic about it.”
The publication of her new cookbook has put Schechter in a pivotal position: She is a grandmother who has kept the memory of her own grandmother alive through stories and recipes, a gift to her family and yours, who can enjoy Liptauer (a savory spread) and Schlag (fresh whipped cream) for years to come.
The recipes below are from “At Oma’s Table.”
APPLE, ALMOND, AND RAISIN STUFFING
2 tablespoons flavorless vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
2 1/2 cups peeled, cored, and chopped McIntosh apples (about 3 medium sized)
1/2 cup raisins
6 cups plain bread cubes or croutons
6 cups vegetable broth (can use canned)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram
3/4 cup almonds, toasted and chopped
Coarse kosher salt and pepper to taste
In a wide, large saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add the onion and cook, stirring until golden. Add the apples and raisins, cooking until the apple pieces color but do not brown, about 46 minutes. Add the croutons and stir well to combine with apples and onion. Add the broth, parsley, and marjoram. Cook to combine and heat through. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the almonds, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool completely. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
ROAST TURKEY AND GARLIC OIL
10-12 pound kosher turkey
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup fresh rosemary (the cluster of leaves only, no woody stems)
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
2 or 3 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
Garlic oil: In a small jar, combine 1/4 cup oil with 15 to 20 minced garlic cloves. (Can be stored in refrigerator for up to 2 days.)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Fit a large roasting pan with a V-rack. Rinse the turkey in cold water and pat it dry.
In a small food processor, make a rub by combining the sage, rosemary, garlic, and kosher salt. Chop until well combined, but not pureed, or chop very fine by hand. (Use at once or herbs will turn black.) Massage the rub over the outside of the turkey and in the cavity as well, really rubbing it in. Dust the turkey all over with paprika. Lastly spread garlic oil over turkey, pressing it into skin. When stuffing is completely cool, pack the turkey cavity and neck cavity with stuffing, patting the openings until stuffing is firm.
Put the turkey on rack in the roasting pan and tent it with aluminum foil. Roast at 450 degrees for 1 hour. Lower the temperature to 400 degrees and roast the turkey for 1 hour more. Remove the foil, baste the turkey with pan drippings, and carefully rotate the pan in the oven. Roast for 30 minutes more.
Test turkey for doneness by pricking thigh with a fork. If the juices run clear when the thigh is pierced, the turkey is done. (Another sign of doneness is the skin color; it should be a rich golden brown.) Remove the turkey from the oven and transfer it to a serving platter.Yield: 6 to 8 generous servings.
Grated zest of 2 medium oranges
2 bags (12 ounces each) fresh cranberries, rinsed, drained, and picked over
8 dried figs, chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 small)
1/4 cup raisins
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons finely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
After removing zest from oranges, cut off the peels and discard. Cut oranges into small pieces. Combine the orange zest and segments and all the remaining ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan. Over medium-high heat, stir occasionally, until the sugar dissolves, 8 to 10 minutes. Increase the heat to high and boil rapidly, stirring more frequently, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cranberries pop and the mixture cooks down to a jam-like consistency. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool. (The chutney will thicken as it cools.) Serve at room temperature. The chutney will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week. Yield: 5 1/2 cups.
APPLE BUNDT CAKE (Pareve)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted margarine
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 2/3 cup sugar
3 extra large eggs
4 medium McIntosh apples, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Kugelhopf (bundt) pan and set aside. In a bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder; reserve. In a cup, stir together the orange juice and vanilla; reserve.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the margarine and 1 1/2 cups sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In thirds, add the flour mixture to the beaten egg mixture – alternating with the orange juice mixture. Combine the batter well.
In a third bowl, toss the chopped apples with 2/3 cup sugar, cinnamon, and orange zest. Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Top it with half of the apple mixture. Cover apples with remaining batter. Sprinkle remaining apple mixture on top. Bake cake for 1 hour, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out just clean. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. To serve, invert cake onto platter. Yield: 10 to 12 servings.