Passover Planning: Booze Edition, Part I

Boozy Seder Plate Prep

Passover's coming and the first night falls on Friday, April 22nd this year. That means that The Man and I are checking our list (and checking it twice) to see what we can make ahead of time before our raucous gaggle of friends and family descend upon our house, ready to eat, drink, and retell the story of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt.

So, those of you who have attended a Passover Seder at our house, you know we go big. We are very child-friendly and there are copious amounts of chocolates and candies for the kiddos. But we are also very adult-friendly. And that means booze. Lots of it.

The Passover Seder is known for its Four Cups of Wine symbolizing God’s relationship to the Jewish people: “God spoke to Moses: Tell the children of Israel: I will bring you out… I will rescue you… I will redeem you… I will take you for me as a people and I will be for you as a God…” (Exodus 6:2-7). But The Man and I are not ones to leave well-enough alone. Over the past few years, we have been developing cocktail recipes for shots to represent some of the symbolic foods on the Seder Plate. The first one we developed was inspired by the horseradish vodka served at Chicago's Russian Tea Time restaurant. [Stay tuned, because this shot is not the last one!]

One of the steps in the Passover Seder is the blessing over, and consumption of, bitter herbs (known as maror). Most Jews use horseradish for the maror and whether you eat it straight from the root or prepared from the jar, it is sure to clear out your sinuses (and recall the suffering of slavery). But what if you were to drink a shot of ice-cold horseradish-infused vodka? You should really try this; you won't go back.

Recipe for Maror Shots


1 bottle of good potato vodka

4 oz horseradish root, peeled and sliced thin.

2 tbsp peppercorns

Dried red chili peppers, to taste


Combine ingredients in a large, tightly sealed jar. Shake occasionally and let sit for 24-36 hours, tasting occasionally after 24 hours.

When it's strong and to your liking, strain and rebottle. Store in the freezer.

[Bonus holiday hint: If there is any leftover vodka, try breaking your Yom Kippur fast with it in the fall!]

Happy Easter! (I made you a pie.)

Happy Easter!


While this is not a holiday that we observe in our home, I do sometimes like to add a culinary nod to The Man's heritage. However, that was usually ham and even in my meat-eating days that was a product I steered away from. 

But there are other options. My mother would often buy her beloved son-in-law some sort of chocolate product in the shape of a rabbit if she was in town. I had plans to make Anna Gentile's Ricotta Pie this weekend, but I had to rethink things. Because vegan.

As always, when attempting to come up with recipes for Christian holidays, I veer Italian. This Sunday is no exception as I am attempting a vegan version of this Neapolitan classic. As I perused the veg-web, I came across Bryanna Clark Grogan's Pastiera Napolitana (a Neopolitan Easter Grain and "Ricotta" Pie).  This classic dish sometimes has barley, sometimes orzo, and often rice as its grainy filler. And I love myself some rice pudding with a sweet ricotta. Bryanna's recipe over at has a lovely top and bottom crust, which I am not attempting today. Because lazy.

Here's what we did:

Ingredients for Filling: 


1 cup soy creamer

1 cup almond milk (you could use soy)

1 1/4 cups Arborio (or other medium grain) white rice

2 tablespoons organic unbleached granulated sugar

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

"Ricotta" Mixture: 

3 packages medium-firm tofu, drained and crumbled 

1 1/2 cups organic unbleached granulated sugar 

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons orange flower water (optional, but traditional)

2 tablespoons finely-grated organic orange zest

2 tablespoons finely-grated organic lemon zest

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon sherry or Marsala

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon xanthum gum (Bryanna calls for agar powder, which I keep forgetting to buy)

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pie crust:

Optional work here. I bought two pre-made crusts, but I think in the future that the vegan hamantaschen dough would make a hell of a pastry crust.


  1. For the rice: Bring milk and creamer to boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in rice, sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir, move to low heat, and cover, cooking for about 35 minutes--until milk has been absorbed. This should not be runny.
  2. For the "ricotta": Combine all the ingredients in a high-speed blender (like a Vitamix) until silky-smooth.
  3. When the rice has cooled, combine with ricotta in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Preheat oven to 375°.
  5. Fill pie crusts and bake for 45 minutes.*
  6. Cool on racks for several hours and refrigerate until serving time.
Silky smooth "ricotta"!

Silky smooth "ricotta"!

*This recipe made a little more than needed for two standard pie crusts. Might I suggest some ricotta fritters with the leftover filling?

Final Product!

Final Product!



An explanation for our hiatus

Where we've been (and where we're going)

So when last we left you, dear readers, was at the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Oh, how optimistic we were after a summer of regular blogging. To say we were busy is true (but who isn't), but there is more at hand here. We Culinary Converters here at The Interfaith Cookbook have been undergoing a bit of a conversion ourselves. Not religious, mind you (we like to think we have that stuff figured out), but culinary. 

Regular readers may have noticed that our Rosh Hashanah meal included an eggplant variation on our traditional bbq brisket. I became a vegetarian over the summer and that meal reflected that shift in our house. In October, the Man began a "Vegan Before Six" diet, which led to the funny distinction of Vegan Before Six/Vegetarian after Six. Suddenly, eggs? Ultimately, we have both embraced a happy, around-the-clock veganism.

My history with meatless eating is long and varied. I stopped eating meat for about eight years in the 1990s, and I have long credited that time for helping me become the creative cook I am today. Diet restrictions often lead to explorations of unusual foods and flavor combinations, many of which are just delicious. When I began to eat meat again, I had a bunch of rules for myself (many of them rather arbitrary). My reasons for switching to so-called plant-based eating are personal and multi-layered, as are any such dietary choices. My commitment to not being annoying about it is pretty firm, but it seems important to at least mention it due to the nature of this blog.

Which leads us to The Interfaith Cookbook. What now, friends? Many religious holidays have celebrated meat dishes at the center of the table. What do we do about this? Well, it was always our intention to offer multiple variations on such menus in order to accommodate guests of other faiths (and dietary requirements) at your table, so at this point we plan to continue to offer discussions of traditional foods and recipes but we will also offer suggestions on how to create meatless alternatives while still embracing the spirit of the holiday. (Vegan eating also has the added benefit of being kosher by default, so these recipes could fit on any table.) We are also open to suggestions on what you would like to see more here. 

But for now, we offer you a string of meatless recipes to enhance your spring!

A tart (or pie) to rival cheesecake

The New York Times offers up a ricotta tart that sounds like it might be a good option for Shavuot:

Also, It occurs to me that the traditional Italian Easter favorite, ricotta pie could be something to do on this holiday too! My very best friend's mother, from South Philly, used to make this pie. And her daughter (raised Catholic and married to a Jew) made it for Passover this year, substituting potato starch for the corn starch. For Shavuot, you can have the real deal!

Anna Gentile's Ricotta Pie

16 oz cream cheese

4 oz ricotta cheese

1 cup milk

4 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract (I used one pod, scraped)

2 Tbsps corn starch

Place all ingredients in the blender, blend until smooth (2 min). Pour into greased 7 x 11 Pyrex or two graham cracker crusts. Bake at 325 F, 45 min - 1 hour. Cool in oven for about 1 hour. Top with cinnamon or fruit.  

On Shavuot, Spring and Cheesecake

Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) gets short shrift in many non-Orthodox Jewish homes in America. In Reform congregations, it is usually the day when 10th graders have their Confirmation ceremony. Confirmation, you might ask? Sounds pretty Christian. In fact, dear readers, you are correct! The early European Reform movement introduced the Confirmation tradition in the early 19th century, believing that while the age of thirteen (for boys) and twelve (for girls) is traditionally the time when Jewish children become responsible for their religious lives, a few years more could really help with both the emotional and spiritual maturity needed for such a commitment. In fact, early Reformers did away with the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony altogether, preferring the more egalitarian and communal service over the individual celebration of Jewish boys becoming men.

But Jewish kids in white robes aside, what is Shavuot? Like most Jewish holidays it has both an agricultural and biblical significance. The former celebrates the early summer grain harvest and the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple (Shavuot is also called Hag ha Bikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits).  And the latter? It’s actually religiously a pretty big deal. It commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (seven weeks after Passover). Seems important, no? Indeed, and it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Ancient Israel (including Sukkot and Passover). The festival is inextricably linked to Passover, as the Exodus from Egypt makes the Jewish people a nation and the receiving of the Law institutes the religious principles they should follow.

Shavuot is also a holiday that has a direct Christian counterpart. Unlike Hanukkah (which has both benefited and suffered from its arbitrary proximity to Christmas) or Passover (which has a direct, yet troubled, relationship with Easter), Shavuot has an equivalent in the Christian holiday of Pentecost. In fact, Shavuot is often referred to as Pentecost (Greek for “fifty” as in fifty days after the first seder). The Christian meaning and observance of this holiday is different, commemorating a moment described in Acts (2:1-31) when the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of Jesus’ followers (on Shavuot).

But somehow, unless you are Orthodox (or Israeli), the holiday has gone relatively unobserved for many American Jews. There are notable exceptions of course, but ask many Jewish college students today (as I have) what the holiday is about and you’ll get a bunch of blank stares. I, for one, blame Hebrew School. It’s not really Hebrew School’s fault, it’s just an accident of the calendar year. Shavuot often falls in late May or early June, usually around (or after) the last day of the Hebrew School year. Unlike other holidays which have plenty of time to be studied, Shavuot is either an afterthought or omitted from the program altogether (see the unfortunate summer scheduling of Tisha B’Av as another casualty of the Hebrew School year). My kids end religious school a full week before Shavuot this year.

The other reason that Shavuot may go unobserved is that unlike most Jewish holidays, the primary observance is in the synagogue. Practices include decorating the synagogue with greenery and flowers. The Book of Ruth is read, and some participate in an all-night Torah study session (Tikkun Leil Shavuot).


Unlike other more popularly observed holidays that have an important domestic component (the Passover seder, Hanukkah candle-lighting, the Rosh HaShanah meals), Shavuot—as observed in the diaspora—is a synagogue holiday. And, the majority of American Jews are unaffiliated. So, without a synagogue, or without the prompting of your elementary-school age child, the holiday goes unobserved.

That stops now. Why? Because Shavuot is the holiday when you are supposed to eat cheesecake! There are a variety of reasons why many Jewish communities embraced the consumption of dairy on Shavuot. Again, some are agricultural, some biblical and some mystical. In Song of Songs, the Torah is said to be “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” and the Land of Israel as described as a land flowing with milk and honey. This “cheesecake holiday” was a revelation to me when I was visiting my family in Israel twenty years ago. Unlike in the United States, secular Jews in Israel have a cultural way of celebrating Shavuot. Much like Memorial Day has become an unofficial way of ushering in the summer by grilling out with friends, Shavuot—for those not engaged in all-night Torah study—an excuse to get together with family and friends and feast on dairy dishes such as cheesecake or blintzes. Cheese-filled kreplach or bourekas are also consumed.

So this year, Shavuot actually falls over Memorial Day weekend. The Culinary Converter and her family will likely be observing both a grill-fest in her backyard, as well as a dairy fiesta (probably not at the same time).


Shavuot Menu 2015:

Chilled Yogurt Soup

Pierogies w/sour cream

Big salad

Yogurt Cake

Chilled Yogurt Soup from Afarsimon

This is a recipe that I have been attempting to perfect only from memory. A few years ago, I managed to recreate a soup I had frequently at a Persian dairy restaurant in Tel Aviv. Alas, I don’t remember exactly what I did. The place, Afarsimon (translated as persimmon), was a daily morning hangout for my grandfather and his friends. They would sit and drink coffee, gossip and kvetch about politics. When I was little, I would go for the strawberry milkshakes. When I grew older, I would go for this garlicky yogurt soup. It’s been at least twenty years since I ate at Afarsimon, so my memory could be deceiving me. The restaurant, like my grandfather, is long gone. I can’t remember if there was toasted cumin in it or not, but I do believe it was served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika on top.

Anyway, I am going to try it this way and I’ll report back after the chag!

1 large English cucumber, or 5 persian cukes

2 cups plain yogurt. Greek is probably best, but you should use one with fat

2 crushed garlic cloves

juice of half a lemon

a few sprigs of mint, minced (another option is dill, but The Man is not a fan)

salt to taste

olive oil and paprika for garnish      

Peel the cucumber and grate. Salt and leave in a colander for a bit, allowing to drain.

Beat the yogurt with the garlic, lemon juice and the mint. Add the cucumber and mix well. Taste and add salt as preferred. If it’s too thick add a wee bit of water.

I can’t imagine this can’t be done in a blender, but I haven’t done it that way. Perhaps this is the year (now that the Vitamix has entered our lives, I am always looking for stuff to do in it).

Drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika.

Turkish Yogurt Cake [adapted from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon (Knopf, 2008)]

4 large eggs, separated

½ cup superfine sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 2/3 cups strained Greek-style yogurt

grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

juice of 1 lemon 

Optional syrup

2/3 cup water

1 ¼ cups sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange

Beat the yolks with the sugar until it is a thick and pale yellow cream. Beat in flour, yogurt, the lemon zest and juice until well blended.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff and carefully fold into the above mixture. Pour into a round (preferably non-stick) 9 inch baking tin greased with butter. Bake at 350° for 50 to 60 minutes until brown. It will puff up and then fall (don’t be alarmed).

Turn out onto serving plate (or if you use a tin w/removable bottom, release) and serve warm or cold.

If making the syrup, boil water, sugar, lemon juice and orange zest for 3-5 minutes. Cool and chill in refrigerator.

 serves 6



So, are you making/eating dairy for Shavuot?

(Also, you can drink dairy as well! See the Ramos Gin Fizz!)

Fasting and Feasting

Jews talk a lot about eating, but this post is [mainly] about not eating.

The Jewish ritual year calls for abstention from food on six occasions, the most well-known and observed fast being that of our upcoming Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. According to the latest National Jewish Population Survey, 60% of American Jews fast on Yom Kippur, a number that is significantly higher than those who belong to synagogues (47%). Among those Jews who are affiliated, the number is higher (79%) a percentage that comes close to the 83% who light Chanukah candles and dwarfs the lighting of Shabbat candles (48%).

Why is this particular observance so popular?

1. Fasting on Yom Kippur can be redefined as a physical purification akin to the contemporary “cleanse” detox diet. Or it can be spiritually purifying on a variety of levels. While many people fast as a repentant effort to have God hear their prayers, others may take advantage of this day of hunger to think of those who have no food. 2. Fasting on Yom Kippur—unlike adopting a strictly kosher lifestyle—is a twenty-five hour annual experiment. When it’s over, you don’t have to look back. Plus you usually do it with your friends and family. Which brings us to

3. Other Jews are doing it all over the world at the same time. Fasters may feel linked to their ancestors and their community through this annual shared experience.

My parents never fasted, without apology. My sister and I have often reminisced about the difficulties of attempting to fast on a particular Yom Kippur morning with the delicious smells of breakfast wafting upstairs. Due to my own spotty observance, the first time I fasted on Yom Kippur—I mean really fasted—was six years ago when Pakistan was hit with a tragic earthquake which killed tens of thousands and left even more homeless. The quake hit during the fasting month of Ramadan and I kept hearing news stories of survivors continuing their daily fasts as the world fell apart around them. I thought, a bit sheepishly, if they could do it under those conditions, I—in my comfortable house in Connecticut—certainly could do it. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that “saying grace is an act of the greatest importance….We do not recognize the miracle this represents because we live in a world which, for the moment, has plenty of everything, and because our memory is short. Yet those who live in less fortunate countries understand that to be able to satisfy one’s hunger is the marvel of marvels…” Similarly, the ability to choose to fast when others go hungry not by choice is an important lesson in privilege and inequality.

In my class on foodways, I spend some time discussing Ramadan. My students are usually split on their responses to the fasting and feasting that occurs during that auspicious Islamic month. “Are you really thinking of the poor when you are preparing to party after sundown?” they ask. Ramadan is in fact a time when many Muslims increase their regular practice of


, or alms giving. While there is a tradition of celebrating grand iftars well into the night, those who have nothing are remembered more keenly in light of the celebrations of plenty. Similarly for Jews, we should remember the Talmudic passage that declares that the “The merit of fasting is the charity [dispensed]” (Berachot 6b). Many synagogues do host food drives during the month of Elul, so we should think of the food we are not eating on Yom Kippur and donate the money we likely would have spent on food to the poor.

My students are usually appeased when I explain that the purpose of Ramadan is actually closer in spirit to Christmas than Yom Kippur as it commemorates the literal word of God being given to the world as manifested in the Qur’an, much as Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In fact, for many Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Christmas Eve is a fast day followed by the celebratory feasting on Christmas Day. Despite these historical precedents, there remains discomfort for some with the idea of celebrating after a day of fasting.

Discomfort aside, the late twentieth century has seen a rise in such celebrations among American Jews. The first Break Fast I hosted fell during Ramadan. Coincidentally (or maybe not), my guests were all families with one Jewish parent and one Gentile parent. As a gesture to my Muslim brothers and sisters, I chose to serve apricot juice and dates—the traditional iftar foods. My good interfaith intentions fell by the wayside however when a dear friend showed up with some really good-looking smoked fish and ice-cold vodka. Immediately the juice and dates were moved to the kids’ table. In a recent New York Times


, religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer explores the Break Fast rituals in America and quotes Alana Newhouse saying that the best part of breaking the fast “is breaking the fast on some kind of liquor. It’s better than any hallucinogenic drug. It’s a European tradition. It is the closest I have come to a mystical experience.” I concur with Newhouse.

The new American Break Fast Feast as it is now observed, I submit to you, fills a need not just for those of that are hungry after 25 hours of self-denial, but also for those American Jews who have been able to engage with the Jewish ritual calendar mainly through the embrace of secular symbols such as dreidels and potato pancakes. So what are we celebrating when we eat our bagels and whitefish after sundown? That we made it through the day? I think that we are offering a thanksgiving for our ability to share food with our loved ones and our community.

Rosh HaShanah; New Year, New Blog


So this is the first post for this blog, which is fitting given the time of year.

It's the New Year in the Hebrew Calendar and my family is determining the menu with which we will greet the year. When discussing symbolic foods, I mentioned black-eyed peas, which are eaten by Jews on Rosh HaShanah but are also eaten by southerners on New Year's Day (for luck). My husband then suggested we make this vegetarian version of Hoppin' John from a favorite Chapel Hill restaurant (Crook's Corner). We figured we would make a traditional, southern bbq plate with slaw (but we'd substitute beef brisket for the pork). And this year I swear off honey cake for good. It's not my thing, it's never great, and I need to own that. Besides, if you were to have a honey-based dessert wouldn't you want Greek loukoumades or Italian struffoli? I would.

So the menu this year is tentatively as follows:

The ubiquitous apples and honey,
Slow-cooked BBQ Brisket
Crook's Corner's Hoppin' John
Rick Bayless' Hickory House Sour Slaw
and some sort of greens, possibly collards
sweet honey fried something like the aforementioned deliciousness.

A specialty cocktail is in the works. What are you cooking?