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Stories to Remember, Recipes to Cherish

A remarkable new cookbook from the Museum of Jewish Heritage combines hope-filled portraits of Holocaust survivors with the dishes that they treasure.

Recipes Remembered
Author June Feiss Hersh

By Susan Tomchin
May 2011

For Proust it was a madeleine, but for Regina Finer, it is kluskies, classic potato dumplings, that transport her to her childhood, to a time before she was taken from her home and sent to the Warsaw ghetto. “So many of my memories revolved around traditions and food,” she says.

Finer is one of the Holocaust survivors whose story and recipes appear in Recipes Remembered—A Celebration of Survival by June Feiss Hersh, a new book published by Ruder-Finn Press in association with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Recipes Remembered is by no means a sad book. “It is life-affirming and uplifting, a retelling of the survivors’ life histories before, during and after the war,” says Hersh, who interviewed over 80 survivors or family members to coax out the stories and cherished food memories. “We did not talk about food in the context of starving. We talked about it in connection to happy, nurturing times: how they were nourished as children and how they continued that tradition as parents.”

The stories are powerful and evocative. A few come from names we recognize: Dr. Ruth Westheimer describes how, at age 10 in 1938, she departed Frankfurt with other children for the safety of Switzerland, forever leaving behind her parents and grandmother. Zvi and Jay Bielski describe what it was like to be the sons of Zus Bielski, who, with his two brothers, Tuvia and Asael, single-handedly saved more than 1,200 people, a story told in the 2008 movie Defiance. “Zvi told me that his friends had to read comic books to learn about superheroes,” says Hersh, “while all he had to do was to look across the table at his father.”

Most names, however, aren’t familiar to us, but their stories are no less inspiring. Hanna Wechsler describes how, after she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz, her mother snuck out of the barracks every night to see a friend who had stolen food from the kitchen. “I always say that my mother gave birth to me every day we lived in Auschwitz, because without her I would not have survived,” Wechsler says.

Another story is about Nadzia Bergson, who worked in the clothing department at Auschwitz and helped smuggle gunpowder for the Sonderkommando Revolt, the only organized uprising ever recorded at the camp. Bergson’s story is tied to that of her friend and fellow survivor Ada Ehrlich Rubin in a remarkable way in “A True Bashert,” a story that appears in the book.

Lilly Schwarcz Kaplan
The recipes—some 170 in all—are surprisingly diverse. “It was my job to elicit a variety of recipes,” Hersh says. “You can’t write a book with 50 recipes for chopped liver, so once someone gave me a recipe for a traditional Jewish food—say a brisket or a kugel—I didn’t take a second. I would draw them out and encourage them to tell me other dishes.”

The survivors Hersh interviewed found safe haven in varied places—the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Venezuela, Shanghai, Italy, France. Thus, we have such classic dishes as Chicken Paprikash from Hungarian native Lilly Schwarcz Kaplan, Honey and Lemon Stuffed Cabbage from Poland-born Ruth Baumwald Stromer (she uses an ingenious technique for preparing the cabbage leaves), and Edith Blumenthal’s Streuselkuchen-Crumb Cake, a definitive German dessert. But we also find Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice), which Ruth Kohn learned to prepare after her family escaped from Berlin to the Dominican Republic, and Nella Frendel’s Beef Bourguignon, which she began to make in Paris after fleeing Romania. Recipes from “gutsy Greek survivors,” only a small percentage of whose community survived Nazi barbarism, represent the Sephardic tradition.

Hersh worked diligently to translate sketchy recipes into precise renditions. “It is hard to cook from a bissel of sugar or an eggshell of matzoh meal,” she says, laughing. “The Yiddish word for it is shitteryne, which is idiomatic for ‘a little of this, a little of that.’ That’s how that generation of cooks prepares dishes that they have made thousands of times.” She tested and retested each recipe, speaking many times to the individuals who gave her the recipes, consulting them about the taste and texture. Nadzia Bergson's recipe for challah, scribbled on a note card, for example, listed five bags of flour. How much flour was in each bag? Hersh wondered. “Nadzia is deceased, but I spoke to her daughter and asked her questions about the challah when she made it with her mother. Was it golden? Was it eggy?”

Ruth and Moty Stromer
Sometimes, individuals would have only a memory, but no recipe. In those cases, Hersh called in one of nearly two dozen professional chefs to contribute recipes. There are recipes for Myrna’s Beef Short Ribs from Gale Gand, owner of Tru restaurant in Chicago; Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten’s Chopped Liver; and Sweet Onion Tart from noted New York chef Jonathan Waxman.

Released on May 1, Recipes Remembered, sold out its first printing in two weeks. Now in its second printing, it is available for $36 on the Museum of Jewish Heritage website. Hersh is understandably elated at the positive response to the book since she has fostered the project from its beginnings. In 2008 she had just sold her family business and was seeking an interesting undertaking. Her thoughts turned to the museum because she believes strongly in its mission. Combining two of her passions—cooking and writing—seemed ideal. She pitched her idea to museum staff and was given the go-ahead, as well as a list of survivors to contact.

With the help of the teacher from a class she took for first-time cookbook authors, she made contact with Ruder-Finn, a public relations firm that supports publication of select nonprofit projects with a socially conscious message. They provided the publication and design services for the book, while Hersh and her family, in conjunction with the museum, funded the printing.

She remains friends with many of the survivors whom she interviewed and finds that working with them on the book has shifted her perspective about life. “Before this I would go through my day like everybody else. If somebody canceled my cable appointment, I felt annoyed and inconvenienced. Yet, I listened to people who had a Kindertransport canceled and their sister didn’t get out of Germany,” she says. “It puts into perspective what really matters. How can resilient can you be? How can you take something that is negative and manage to find some good and move forward and not be paralyzed?

“The best lesson we can learn from them is to pick and choose what’s important in life—family, tradition and faith—and move forward, not getting stuck in silly, petty issues that get us all bogged down on a daily basis. How can you bellyache over something as stupid as being stuck in traffic when you speak to someone whose parents were stuck on a train to Auschwitz? It really puts life in perspective.”

Evelyn Pike Rubin’s Sweet Summer Peach Cake (print)

For the batter:
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup apple juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder

For the filling:
1 pound peaches (about 3 to 4 medium), sliced
5 tablespoons sugar mixed with 3 teaspoons
Ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375° and grease and flour a 9-inch spring form tube pan. (There are cooking sprays that have a touch of flour in them, perfect for this application.)

Prepare the batter by beating the eggs, vegetable oil, juice and vanilla, in a large bowl, on medium speed, for several minutes. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. A standard kitchen strainer makes a great sifter. On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, and then beat on medium speed, for several minutes, until smooth and thick. If you don’t have an electric mixer, you can do it Evelyn’s way, sifting together the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt then creating a well and using a wooden spoon, stirring in the juice, oil, vanilla and egg.

Start the filling by removing the pits from the peaches. A simple technique is to cut around the circumference of the peach and twist. The two halves should separate and the stone pit will be easy to remove. Cut the peaches into 1/4-inch thick slices. Sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar over the peaches and toss to coat. Don’t let the peach mixture sit too long or it will become soggy.

Pour a third of the batter (about 1 to 1 1/4 cups) into the bottom of the prepared pan. Top the batter with half the peaches, trying not to let them touch the sides of the pan. Spoon in the next third of batter and then the remaining peaches, finishing with the remaining batter. Bake at 375° for 1 1/2 hours.

After 1 hour, check the cake to be sure the top is not browning too quickly. If it is, cover loosely with foil and continue baking. After 1 1/2 hours a bamboo skewer inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean, the cake should be golden brown and the texture firm to the touch. Allow the cake to cool completely before removing from the pan. Sliding a knife around the edges and underneath the cake will make transferring to a cake plate much easier. Yields: 10 to 12 servings; Start to Finish: Under 2 hours

Cook any remaining peaches in a saucepan until they become very soft and the syrup thickens. Cool and enjoy as a topping for the cake. A dollop of whipped cream and a scoop of vanilla ice cream couldn’t hurt. The cake has a dense texture, similar to coffee cake, which makes it wonderful for breakfast the next day.

Lilly Kaplan’s Chicken Paprikash (print)

2 medium onions, sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 pounds chicken parts, on the bone, skin removed
1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
Kosher salt and pepper
1 green pepper, cored, seeded and sliced

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan, cook and stir the onions and garlic, over medium heat, until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. In the same pan (adding more oil if needed), brown the chicken pieces in batches and set aside on a plate. When all the chicken is browned, add the chicken (not the juice that has collected), onions and garlic back into the pan. Stir in the tomatoes, chicken broth, white wine, paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Top with the green pepper slices.

Simmer, covered, for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Remove the chicken to a serving platter and bring the sauce to a slow boil. If the sauce is too thin, thicken it by creating a roux. In a skillet, heat 2 teaspoons of oil and then blend in 2 teaspoons of flour, stirring constantly to avoid burning the roux. You’ll want it to be a light blonde color. Let the roux cool a bit, and then stir it into the sauce, cook for several minutes to let it do its thing. If the sauce is still not thick enough, repeat the above process. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve with noodles or dumplings. Yields: 4 servings, Start to Finish: Under 2 hours

Paprika can be hot, sweet, and several degrees in between. Look for pure Hungarian paprika--it’s worth the difference. And be sure never to add paprika directly into a dry pan, it will burn quickly as it releases its natural sugar.

Ruth Stromer’s Honey and Lemon Stuffed Cabbage (print)

1 medium head of cabbage, frozen for one week, and then thawed overnight in the fridge

For the sauce:
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
24 ounces canned tomato juice
2 beef bones (shin bones work well)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For the filling:
1 cup cooked rice
1 pound ground beef
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder or minced dried onion
1 egg

To finish the sauce:
1/2 cup honey
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice, or 1/2 teaspoon sour salt

After the cabbage has been thawed, separate the leaves. You will need to cut the hard end (tip of the core) so that the leaves release from the head, and cut out the thick white rib on each leaf. You should have at least 14 to 16 leaves, large enough to stuff. Let the leaves drain and rest on a paper towel while you prepare the sauce and filling.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven, cook and stir the onions, over medium heat, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Pour in the tomato juice, add the bones and season with salt and pepper. Let the sauce simmer, uncovered, while you prepare the filling.

Cook the rice, according to package directions. Let the rice cool for a few minutes then combine it with the rest of the filling ingredients. Fill each leaf with about 1/4 cup of filling; don’t over fill (the amount depends on the size of the leaf). Roll the end toward the middle, tuck in the soft sides and roll into a tight package. Place the rolls in the sauce close together, this will help prevent them from unrolling while they simmer. Cook, covered, on a low heat, for about 1 1/2 hours, and then push the cabbage rolls to the side so you can stir in 1/2 cup honey and fresh lemon juice or sour salt to the sauce. Gently stir, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, covered, for 30 minutes longer. Yields: 14 to 16 rolls; Start to Finish: Under 2 1/2 hours (plus the time to freeze and thaw the cabbage)

There is no question that the texture of the cabbage leaves using this method is different than when boiled. This same recipe can be prepared using the more traditional method of boiling the cabbage to obtain the wilted leaves.


Related article: A True Bashert

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