If Wishes Were Like Shlishkes

Certain staples of Jewish cuisine are beloved as nonpartisan delicacies, as they should be. Steaming bowls of matzo ball soup soothe the soul, crisp latkes satisfy cravings for all things fried, and bagels are the grab-and-go breakfast for countless generations. Food doesn’t care what you do or don’t believe.

Shlishkes, however, haven’t made the same leap into mainstream culture. Originating with Hungarian Ashkenazi Jews, these humble potato dumplings are often compared to Italian gnocchi for their similar structure. Tender, soft, gently simmered morsels made from a bare minimum of ingredients, they’re within easy reach of anyone on a budget or with limited cooking experience.

Potato Shlishkes

How do you make shlishkes?

It’s quite simple:

  1. Boil and mash potatoes.
  2. Add flour.
  3. Cut into dumplings.
  4. Boil and drain.
  5. Toss with breadcrumbs and bake until toasted.

This final step is what truly separates it from the other potato-based pastas. Liberal use of vegan butter or schmaltz and breadcrumbs transforms homely dough into nutty, crunchy, rich, and savory delights.

Want to make these shlishkes your own?

Such a simple formula is ripe for creative interpretation. A few easy ideas for a tasty twist on tradition include:

  • Use coarse almond meal or crushed crunchy chickpeas instead of breadcrumbs for a gluten-free option.
  • Swap white potatoes for orange or purple sweet potatoes.
  • Add cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes to spice things up.
  • Use olive oil instead of vegan butter or schmaltz to decrease the saturated fat.
  • Finish with a sprinkle of vegan Parmesan cheese.

Like any good starchy side, shlishkes are best accompanied by a hearty entree. In truth, though, there’s no bad pairing or inopportune time to serve them. Enjoy shlishke for Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, Bachelor parties, Satanic rites; anything worth celebrating with a comforting, homemade meal!

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Noodle Kugel, Kit and Caboodle

I didn’t grow up eating noodle kugel. In fact, my dad’s distaste for the starchy staple was so severe, it was effectively banished from our household. No amount of gentle cajoling could convince me to try this odd noodle pudding later in life and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not a fan.

Lokshem (“noodle” in Yiddish) kugel existed as early as the 1500s, neatly fitting into orthodox and kosher homes as a dairy dish without meat. It truly rose to fame as a facet of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine in the 1800s with the sudden infusion of cheap sugar flooding in from refineries in Poland and Hungary. Raisins, cinnamon, and nutmeg were other popular additions, creating a very sweet, rich noodle casserole that could be served for breakfast and dinner alike.

Still, savory versions did exist, relying on fried onions and black pepper instead, which gave me hope for revitalizing this time-honored tradition in a way better suited to my tastes.

Breaking With Tradition

Apples are the subtle source of natural sweetness here, balanced out by the tangy bite of sauerkraut. The combination hearkens back to German cabbage and apples, simmered together with warm herbs for a heartwarming wintry stew. Meanwhile, tofu, unsweetened yogurt, and shredded vegan cheese create a high-protein base that replaces the dairy in one fell swoop.

Let’s not forget about the noodles themselves, which were typically egg ribbons, wide flat strands undulating in a sea of sweet pudding. You could simply use any ruffled or broad shape, but my favorite is broken lasagna noodles, smashed into large chunks to replicate that texture in a more free form approach. This is especially handy if you have a half-box leftover after your last recipe but can’t stand to fuss with all those layers again. Just grab a rolling pin and let out your frustration!

Now I’d compare this more to a baked ziti without marinara, or any other pasta casserole that can be scooped out hot or sliced when cool. Serve with a side salad, steamed vegetables, or simple soup to complete the meal.

How To Make A Healthier Noodle Kugel

This rendition already beats the competition by a mile when it comes to nutrition. Typically composed of one or two sticks of butter, a half dozen eggs, and up to a cup of white sugar, there’s really no comparison. Still, if you’re following a more restrictive diet, there are plenty of ways to adapt this formula further to suit your needs.

  • Gluten-free: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta instead of conventional noodles.
  • No Refined Sugar: Use no sugar-added apple butter.
  • Oil-Free: Replace the vegan cheese with 1/4 cup nutritional yeast and swap the butter or oil for aquafaba.

Make-Ahead and Meal Prep Options

Noodle kugel is the best guest you’ve ever invited to dinner. It can wait patiently to be served and is great with crowds.

Leftovers can keep for 5 to 7 days in the fridge, covered tightly with plastic wrap. Individual servings can be microwaved for 2 to 3 minutes if you’re in a rush.

For longer term storage, you can freeze it for 4 to 6 months. Simply let it thaw at room temperature and re-heat in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, until hot all the way through.

You can double the recipe and bake it in a 9 x 13-inch baking pan for twice as many servings, which makes it ideal for potlucks and holiday gatherings alike.

There are truly a million ways to make noodle kugel. If you haven’t been fond of the sweet stuff in the past, give it another try through a more savory lens.

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Fat of the Land

The original “liquid gold” was not a processed cheese food. The true gilded elixir is every bubbie’s secret ingredient, the indescribable element that always made her matzo balls better than the rest. A staple of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, schmaltz is made from rendered chicken fat cooked with onions. Even in the height of the farm-to-table cooking craze when duck fat fries were all the rage, this humble grease never gained more attention. To this day, I have yet to see a single vegan alternative offered. In a world where we have plant-based ghee, browned butter, and niter kibbeh, I’m not asking, I’m demanding: WHY.

Vegan shmaltz is everything you want as a cooking catalyst and nothing you don’t. It’s free of cholesterol, completely kosher, full of flavor, and won’t leave your kitchen smelling like a barnyard for a week. As a nice side benefit, you’ll end up with a tidy pile of caramelized onions to lavish over meatless burgers, toast, scrambles, pasta, and anything else that could use a little umami assist.

Step up your matzo ball game by making this easy swap to replace the bland vegetable oil originally called for, but don’t stop there. Anywhere you might use melted butter, try using schmaltz instead. It will open up a whole new world of riches, bathed in a golden glow.

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Gefilte? Go Fish!

“Passover is right around the corner, so I was thinking about making a vegan gefilte fish this year.

Silence. The line went dead. After a few beats, I wondered if the call had dropped altogether, until my mom hesitantly, quietly responded, “…Why?”

My mother herself is a fair weather gefilte fish supporter, serving it dutifully every time tradition mandates. I get the impression that it’s more about ritual, symbolism, and classic Jewish guilt than genuine enjoyment, but for all that, her tolerance for the processed white fish dumpling is far greater than most. Even she couldn’t fathom why I’d want to revisit the reviled appetizer, and at such great effort.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s the challenge of creating something that is otherwise unattainable, of trying something new and novel, or my general propensity towards all things bizarre.

Let’s be honest, gefilte fish is an outlandish dish. They’re like poached pescaterian meatballs, spiked with the sharp bite of horseradish and bitter herbs. You can generally find them packed in shelf-stable glass bottles, which seem to live indefinitely in the back of your bubbe‘s pantry, like a long-forgotten science experiment gone awry. To make matters worse, because cooking is verboten on the Sabbath for strictly kosher households, it’s typically served cold.

Starting from scratch with plants, we can resuscitate this Franken-fish with just a bit of patience and perseverance. Potato and cauliflower provide the substance and texture with a fairly neutral taste, bolstered by caper brine for a subtly oceanic, saline essence. Olive brine or simply very salty water could do in a pinch, but something about the faintly lemony, pleasingly metallic taste of capers really suits the original inspiration.

There are plenty of similar interpretations on the internet, but what sets my fish-free gefilte apart is the genuine coating in aspic, reminiscent of the gelatinous goop that comes within the jar. Slicked with the sheen of agar, this extra layer locks in moisture, freshness, and an added veneer of savory flavor.

No one would be fooled by my finless imposters, even amidst the cacophony of colors on the average Seder plate; these gefilte are far and away the superior option. Banish those fetid, mummified monstrosities in the closet, and try something better than merely edible this year.

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Plenty of Knish in the Sea

What defines a feast? Is it the number of dishes, the volume of the servings, the size of the crowd? It’s a curious term with particular significance when dinner parties are discouraged, or downsized at best. The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history, while remaining firmly rooted in this present moment.

Let me explain. Years ago, I first learned of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The origins are hazy, details are scant, but the basic idea is that Roman Catholics would eschew meat before holy days, such as Christmas, eating fish instead as a form of fasting. That’s simple enough, but why seven? Theories abound, but none hold water. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, the seven sins, or seven days of the week. When it comes to the celebratory meal, however, you may just as well find 10 different fish dishes on the table, or even 12. Others might take a shortcut by combining everything into one big stew. All bets are off for this helter skelter celebration. The “feast,” built upon the principles of abstinence, could be decadent or downright austere.

As you might have guessed though, my curiosity about the concept has nothing to do with seafood. The mere title started forming new, unorthodox neural connections in my food-obsessed brain. What if we replaced the fishes with… Knishes?

Now that’s something I can make sense of. Call it a Jewish hand pie, empanada, baked bao, kolache, or breakfast pastry; none are too far off the mark. Typically stuffed with mashed potatoes or toasted buckwheat, it’s humble fare with universal appeal. One knish could be a substantial snack, while two make a hearty meal. Three knishes might be somewhat extravagant, but seven? Seven would definitely constitute a feast.

Thus, I present to you a new holiday tradition: The Feast of Seven Knishes! Stemming from a single master mashed potato filling, it may be a bit time-consuming to complete, but not complicated. Traditional inclusions are typically very simple, humble ingredients, so I tried to stay true to the art with a few of the basics.

Caramelized onions make everything delicious, so they’re a fool-proof way to get this party started. My secret ingredient is a pinch of baking soda to speed the process along. Sure, they get a bit softer that way, but texture isn’t so critical when they’re wrapped up in a crisp pastry shell anyway.

Spinach is also a classic all-seasons addition, adding a verdant vegetable into the mix, even if it’s just frozen and thawed. Such is the case here to make light work of the process, though you could certainly wilt down a fresh bundle if you had some handy. Likewise, kale, collards, swiss chard, or any other dark leafy greens would be right at home here, too.

It’s hard to beat the rich umami flavor of even plain button mushrooms, but a dab of truffle oil definitely bumps it up to the next level. Just a drop will do, lending volumes of bold, earthy, savory taste to every satisfying bite. You could omit the extra flourish in a pinch, though it’s well worth the investment, even for a small bottle.

Departing now from the beaten path of knish history, tender red beets brighten the next filling with a bright, rosy hue. Kissed with the woodsy notes of liquid smoke, it’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat straight out of the mixing bowl. Look out, plain mashed potatoes; this one might just beat you to the table next time.

Inspired by another one of my favorite potato pastries, samosa spices enliven this curry-scented knish polka dotted with toothsome green peas. Truth be told, if you merely wrapped the dough differently and tossed them in the deep fryer, they’d be identical with the Indian appetizer. Now that’s fusion fare I can get behind.

Finally, defying the odds, and perhaps common sense, I couldn’t leave you without a sweet treat to end the meal on. Yes, you can have knishes for dessert, too! Buttery brown sugar batter riddled with gooey chocolate chips evokes the nostalgic flavors of cookie dough. Mini chips ensure equal distribution of the chocolatey goodness, though you could also chop up your favorite dark chocolate bar for a variety of different sized chunks.

No matter how you define a feast, or what your personal interpretation looks like, there should always be room on that table for at least one knish. If seven varieties is too grand for this unique season, feel free to multiply just one filling that strikes your fancy by seven. There’s no shame in loading up on only your favorite flavors. That could still be considered a plentiful feast, too.

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Honey-Do List

I think we can all agree that the end of year 2020 cannot come soon enough, for all its trials and tribulations. However, I’ll settle for striking a line through the year 5780 for now. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year arrives at sunset tonight. Offering an opportunity for a fresh start, rebirth and renewal, the significance of this holiday feels especially salient this time around.

Apples and honey are practically synonymous with the occasion, expressing edible wishes for a sweet new year. There’s usually a loaf of challah on the table, a lustrous golden crust shining beside tall pillar candles, perfumed with that same nectarous sweetener, too. In celebrations past, maple syrup was the default replacement, and plain bread the only alternative. Now we have truly ambrosial bee-free honey, either store-bought or homemade, and egg substitutes galore.

Rather than simply veganizing the classic round loaf, I felt that we could all use an extra measure of sweetness to rebound from such a miserably bitter 12-month cycle. Honey cake is a common addition to the festive table, but probably not like this one.

Kasutera, the Japanese interpretation of Portuguese castella sponge cake, is the perfect non-traditional dessert for Rosh Hashanah. Light and fluffy, yet still dense and rich, it glows with a golden interior crumb singing with floral aroma. The top and bottom are deeply caramelized from the high sugar content, but the interior remains as bright as a sunny day. Having the opportunity to enjoy such delicacy, tenderness, and indulgence strikes me as an ideal catalyst for a truly sweet new year on the horizon.

Chag sameach! Sweetest wishes for the year 5781!

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