Rhymes With Bacon: Veganz Take Berlin

Rose and I at the East Side Gallery

Rose and I at the East Side Gallery

“Rhymes with bacon, which we don’t eat. Because we’re vegan…” sang Rose, as we stood on the train platform, eager to begin our evening.  We bristled with anticipation, and the warmth of a shared bottle of Prosecco–a welcome sensation in the brisk Berlin air that was chilling the train platform.  Tonight was to be my formal introduction into the world of the famed Berlin nightclubs that Rose adores.  Though it’s still not really my scene (despite my love of dancing), I was eager to traverse the dark corners of the nightclubs, as well as participate ever so slightly in the local drinking culture.

When I travel, one of my favorite things to do is immerse myself in the local vegan food offerings.  Even in Moscow, I unearthed favorable reviews for vegetarian restaurants, though I wouldn’t have been surprised were they completely absent from the local landscape.  Given that I had my trusty, local vegan tour guide in Berlin, I did far less research on the vegan offerings before I arrived.  From what I had heard, not only were there plenty of delicious vegan foods available, there was even an entire vegan grocery store chain in Berlin!

Berlin is so vegan friendly, that mushrooms can even DJ!

Berlin is so vegan friendly, that even mushrooms can DJ!

To start things off after my arrival, we swung by a local burger joint that happened to have late night hours.  While neither of us were particularly impressed by the tofu burger, which was actually just a slice of crisp, fried tofu on a bun with lettuce and tomato (we added the ketchup and mustard ourselves), I was just happy to be able to find something filling to eat at that hour.  It always surprised me that in a city with clubs that are open for literally 3 days straight, many restaurants still closed on the earlier side, frustrating both hungry travelers (from the land of 24 hour diners at least) and those suffering a case of the drunchies.

IMG_2625The next day, Rose took me to a favorite Vietnamese restaurant of hers, Hamy, which served vegan options alongside their regular menu.  The space was small and cozy, and featured a large chalk board detailing the daily specials, of which there were only two.  We chose the curry option, and asked for it vegan, with tofu instead of chicken.  Within minutes, we were served an incredibly large portion of heavenly curry, which was perfectly spiced and balanced.  Even chock full of coconut cream and fried tofu, it didn’t feel heavy or greasy.  In my eight months in Israel, I hadn’t had anything that came close (mostly because I only had curry from a restaurant once the entire time I was there, and try as I might, I’m no expert on Southeast Asian cuisine).  After lunch, we headed over to the East Side Gallery, a large section that remains of the Berlin wall, which was then covered in various murals by a number of different artists.

Depictions of the fall of the wall

Depictions of the fall of the wall

The rest of the afternoon was spent whiling away the hours in the sun, pursuing such Berlin past times as drinking cheap beers from a corner store in a park.  We also made our way to a bakery called Cupcake Berlin, which served several vegan options alongside the rest of their baked goods.  Rose and I decided to split a cupcake, and I also bought a brownie to save for later.  I can honestly say their vegan cupcake was amazing, in all of its simplicity.  It was a golden vanilla cake, with a perfectly moist and springy crumb, topped with a rich, buttery vanilla buttercream.  During my travels, I rarely found a cupcake that could compete with those I make myself, but the vegan cupcake at Cupcake Berlin could definitely give me a run for my money (though I think my flavors are by far more compelling).

Drinking 79 cent beer from the corner store in a random Berlin square

Drinking 79 cent beer from the corner store in a random Berlin square

Behold, Cupcake Berlin!

Behold, Cupcake Berlin!

Practicially perfect in everyway

Practicially perfect in every way

Friday was the first rainy day I had experienced in months, but luckily the light drizzle didn’t deter us from our explorations, and we went to the DDR museum, an interactive exhibition dedicated to the years East Germany spent under the communist regime.  We had a chance to look at everything from toys, to a model house, to the clothing (which was frequently made of such poor quality fabrics that many did what they could to smuggle American made clothing in from West Berlin).  There were also videos discussing the housing of the future in East Berlin, as well as clips of radio and television programs.  We quickly passed several hours opening drawers and lifting doors to read about life in the DDR, and how it compared to life in West Berlin at the same time.

With a bear for mom

With a bear for mom

IMG_2656

Welcome to the DDR! The best of all possible worlds….

IMG_2666As the afternoon cleared up, we took a walk across the city and through the Brandenburg gate to see the Holocaust memorial.  On our way there, we took a slightly wrong turn due to an apparent obstruction in our path in the form of a World Cup Carnival (or something like that).  Our detour took us on a leisurely stroll through the Tiergarten before we finally found the memorial.  One of the things that struck me most on my trip was just how late the sun was setting, late even for a trip that nearly coincided with the summer solstice.  As we took in the memorial–both the large stone slabs situated outdoors, which slowly envelope you into their abyss, before receding as you reach the other side–as well as the underground exhibit, we were entirely unaware of how late it was, and just how close to closing the exhibit was.  The indoor exhibit was a more personal display dedicated to works of art made by victims, information detailing the destruction that was wreaked upon each specific communities throughout the rest of Europe, and spotlights on several families that were deeply affected by the events of the Holocaust.  I was rushed through the final exhibit, as the staff closed down the memorial for the evening. It was a sombre start to Shabbat, which I insisted we celebrate in some small amount, especially after an evening spent connecting to the darker moments of our history.  It was then that I finally cracked open my last bottle of wine from the Tzfat winery, and in sharing it with Rose in Berlin, it tasted even better than I remembered.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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In the thick of it

In the thick of it

We spent Saturday relaxing at home, in preparation for our big night out (we also had a tame night out Friday, where I was introduced to Rose’s friends as well as a DJ they were fans of).  We decided to eat in that night, in order to be more budget conscious, and just as we were discussing the merits of making homemade pizza for dinner that night, one of Rose’s roommates informed us that he and his girlfriend were planning on making pizza–effectively deciding that pizza was indeed the right choice for dinner.  We stopped off at the vegan grocery store that was several blocks from Rose’s apartment, and I marveled at the selection of vegan products I hadn’t had access to during the previous months.  I managed to reign myself in, and only bought a vegan candy bar from, GoMax Go (and basically the thing I missed the most in Israel), and a block of Italian style Cheezly, which I’d heard about, but never seen in the US (or Israel for that matter).  Rose’s roommate made the dough, and we individually topped our pizzas. I chose to make a white pizza with a creamy vegan bechamel, spiced with some black pepper, and enriched with just a touch of the Cheezly.  I also added succulent caramelized onions, razor thin slices of mushroom and yellow bell pepper (two ingredients I’m not generally a fan of, but were totally perfect in this application), some sliced fresh tomato, and then topped the cooked pizza with fresh arugula.  It was absolutely delicious, which lead me to stupidly eating the whole thing (despite its relative heft and richness…I thought I wouldn’t be able to eat for a week after polishing off the last bite).  Luckily, I had the chance to dance it off later that night, when we finally were admitted to the club.

Veganz, vegan grocery store!

Veganz, vegan grocery store!

A vegan pizza in the making

A vegan pizza in the making

Side by side with Rose's pizza, ready for the sauna

Side by side with Rose’s pizza, ready for the sauna

Omnomnomnom. Vegan white pizza complete

Omnomnomnom. Vegan white pizza complete

We started Sunday morning off by going to sleep (and we arrived home early by Berlin standards).  Our plan for the day was to check out a vegan cafe near Maur park, and then hit up Bear Pit Karaoke, within the park proper.  Fast Rabbit (the cafe) was cute and funky, and its menu featured two different wraps, plus a soup of the day.  Rose informed me that they also have THE BEST fries (which I think are named something like the gang bang….).  I decided to get the half and half wrap, which combined both filling options.  I am well aware as I struggle to describe this meal that I should have taken notes, or at least tried a little harder to document our lunch, however, I’m blaming my subpar memory of that particular hour on sleep deprivation.  I do remember Rose having a cauliflower based soup that was so good, I kinda wanted to steal it all from her.

Maur Park

Maur Park

The unexpected highlight of my trip to Berlin was definitely Bear Pit Karaoke, which was held in an open-air, stone amphitheater in the middle of the park.  It’s run by one guy, who brings in a small karaoke machine, laptop (and umbrella), and sets it up Sunday afternoons for some free entertainment. We clearly weren’t the only ones who thought this sounded like a fun time for a lazy Sunday, as the amphitheater was filled with people of all ages, and from all over the world.  After the first song or two, we made our way to an empty bench smack in the middle of the audience, where a man was making the rounds with a cooler of beer, while the host cracked jokes both in English and German.  We were just in time to see the most adorable little girl get up to sing a german song, aided by her mother–followed by a tween who sang a song of her own.  Rose and I contemplated getting up there, but with neither liquid courage, nor the perfect song in mind for the two of us to sing, we kept our hands by our sides.  Our favorite participants were always the American bros, likely in Berlin at the end of a study abroad trip, and dared by their friends.  But even American college guys in polo shirts and boat shoes belting out the Backstreet Boys couldn’t compete with Drunk German Lady.  I can’t remember the exact moment of her arrival, but at some point in the middle of the song, she made her way towards the singer, and began her booze fueled groove.  With each successive singer, she continued to assert her presence, until the host finally (and quietly) asked her to please leave the spotlight.  She refused.  The karaoke continued, and Drunk German Lady continued to dance.  Each of the singers took it in stride, which possibly encouraged her more.  The host’s intermittent pleas became more desperate, as he even appealed to Drunk German Lady’s husband (slightly less drunk, Drunk German Man) to escort her away.  Drunk German Lady began to protest.  She stumbled around the circular stage, appealing to the audience with shouts I couldn’t understand.  At some point she even laid down on the stone.  Her greatest and final attempt to remain a part of the festivities was to drop trou.  And no, she was not wearing any underwear.  The crowd simultaneously gasped, and covered their (or more likely their children’s) eyes.  Unlike in the US or Israel, throughout this whole ordeal, there was not a single security guard in sight.  The gig was only up when a large biker dude stood up, grabbed Drunk German Lady, and unceremoniously threw her out of the Bear Pit area.  She fled the scene, and her husband followed.  As we were leaving later, we passed her laying down in the middle of a walkway in front of a band.  I guess drunk habits die hard.

Welcome to the Bear Pit

Welcome to the Bear Pit

Adorable, courageous toddler

Adorable, courageous toddler

Drunk German Lady getting  her groove on

Drunk German Lady getting her groove on

My last full meal in Berlin was a green thai curry from a pan-Asian place a short ride from the park.  As we exited the park grounds, we passed through a flea market, and spotted a young guy packing up one of the tables, wearing a shirt with Hebrew writing on it.  This was my third Israeli sighting on the trip.  Somehow, we ran into the same guy and some of his friends on the train back to Rose’s, after getting our dinner, and I was quite excited to make sure I hadn’t forgotten all of my Hebrew in the preceding 4 days (it’s been 2 1/2 months since I left now, and I seem to still have the ability to hold a conversation).  For a final Berlin thrill,we made our way back to Berghain for a Sunday evening dance sesh, before my departure the next afternoon.

So long Berlin, hello France!

So long Berlin, hello France!

I managed a final German culinary hurrah at the airport, where I purchased a beer and a bag of paprika chips (which is apparently the flavor to try), and got ready to start my Provençal farm adventure.  All in all, I had a great time.  Even if I could have only eaten bread for the visit, it would have been worth it to see Rose.  As it stands though, Berlin has an amazing vegan scene, and it’s definitely one of the most affordable cities I’ve ever experienced.  I definitely hope to make it back for another visit in the near(ish) future, and try even more amazing vegan noms.

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The Last Supper: Polentils and Broccoli

As my penultimate day in Israel transitioned into my ultimate Israeli night, I realized that despite wanting to enjoy the many delicious vegan meals on offer in Tel Aviv (before setting off on my European adventure), I had a lot of food left in my kitchen that needed to be used up.  I also had the good fortune to already be spending my time with friends who needed feeding.  After a quick stop at the corner store for some supplemental fruits and veggies, I devised a plan to use up the abundance of herbed polenta chilling in my fridge, as well as the garlic and lentils that had been generously given to me by a friend several months ago (I preferred to save personal food items such as these for when I had guests, so that I didn’t incur the wrath of my ever temperamental roommates should I share anything hailing from the communal pantry).  Earlier that morning, I had begun my polenta experiments, attempting to both pan-fry and bake the starchy squares.  Baking was the clear winner, from the ease of execution , to the crispy exterior.  The pan-fry used too much oil, inducing a veritable volcano of grease, while failing to achieve a crisp and golden outer crust.  That morning, I served the polenta with a sauce of succulent caramelized onions and creamy techina (because I didn’t have quite enough onions to serve them alone).  This style of polenta preparation had the potential to be not just an upscale snack or brunch, but also a deceptively fancy dinner.

Crispy polenta cakes, topped with brilliant broccoli and two scoops of delectable lentils Photo by Steven Winston

Crispy polenta cakes, topped with brilliant broccoli and two scoops of delectable lentils
Photo by Steven Winston

Inspired in part by a paté I’d had at lunch the day before, I wanted something similar to top the polenta.  While the paté I’d consumed for lunch consisted of a combination of mushroom, cashew and walnut blended to smooth and creamy perfection, I only had lentils (and no blender), which luckily lend themselves exceedingly well to the base of a vegetarian paté.  In order to add depth and richness to the lentils, I opted for roasted garlic, with its silky texture and sweet, deep garlic flavor.  To heighten the effect, I also threw an onion into the oven, and roasted it until it was also soft and sweet (way easier than traditional caramelization I might add).  With the lentils and polenta, or dare I say ‘polentils’ covered, it was time to turn my attention to the meal’s main vegetation, fresh broccoli.  While I am normally a big fan of crispy roasted broccoli, I wanted something bright and crunchy to offset the polentils, so I quickly braised the florets with garlic, white wine and lemon juice, infusing the stalks with tons of flavor, without roasting them to death.  It was the perfect ending to an incredible eight months in Israel, shared with good friends (and some good wine).

The cook at work, documenting before dinner Photo by Steven Winston

The cook at work, documenting before dinner.
Photo by Steven Winston

In order to pull this meal off relatively quickly, I recommend making the polenta the night before (or even several days in advance).  Then the day of, all you have to do is pop the polenta in the oven with the garlic and onion, and let the squares bake while everything else cooks.  I would put the lentils in to boil next (and don’t salt the water until they are cooked, otherwise they will take longer).  Should you decide to cook the lentils in advance, warm them gently before mashing.  To my American readers, sorry for the metric measurements, but I followed the initial cooking instructions given on the bag of Italian polenta, which was in grams and liters.  Feel free to follow the given instructions for whichever brand you buy, and rather season according to my suggestions.

Hebred Polenta Squares

  • 500 g Italian coarse ground polenta
  • 2 liters of water
  • 1 tbsp each: dried thyme, oregano, and basil
  • salt to taste
  • olive oil

Bring water to a boil and salt generously.  Slowly add the polenta, whisking steadily in order to avoid lumps.  Ad the herbs and adjust the salt.  Cook for about 50 minutes, stirring frequently, until polenta is soft, very thick, and creamy.  Pour into a greased pan (or two if necessary, I used a long foil loaf pan, as well as a 9×13 in loaf pan), and let cool until firm (preferably overnight). Cut into 2 in squares that are about an inch thick each.  Preheat the oven to 400 F (~250 C).  Lay polenta squares on a greased baking sheet and bake until slightly brown and very crispy, about 30-40 minutes

 

Mugging for the camera. Photo by Steven Winston

Mugging for the camera.
Photo by Steven Winston

Rustic Roasted Garlic and Lentil Paté

  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 medium onion, peeled
  • Olive oil
  • 1 1/2c brown or green lentils
  • water to cover
  • salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F (~250 C).  Cut off the top of the head of garlic, leaving a small amount of each clove exposed.  Place on top of a sheet of foil and drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil.  Wrap the garlic well with the foil, and place in the oven.  Repeat with the onion (no need to slice off the top).  Roast both the garlic and the onion until soft and caramelized, about 30-50 minutes.  It is ok if one takes longer than the other. In the meantime, place the lentils in a medium-large pot with 3 1/2c of water.  Simmer over medium-low heat until very soft, about 30 minutes.  Do not salt the lentils until they are done cooking, or else they will take much longer to soften.  When the lentils are done, add the garlic and chopped roasted onion (both should be similar to a paste, but the garlic you will only need to squeeze out of the skin, the onion might need a little more coaxing), plus 3 tbsp of olive oil.  Mash together until mostly smooth (or throw it in a food processor, especially if you want it completely smooth), adding a little extra water if necessary.  Taste for salt and adjust the seasonings.

 

I don't know why there was a towel on his head. Photo by Steven Winston

I don’t know why there was a towel on his head.
Photo by Steven Winston

White Wine Braised Broccoli

  • 1 crown od broccoli, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 c white wine
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • salt

Place a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add the olive oil and warm for a minute or two before adding the garlic and crushed red pepper.  Sauté  until just fragrant, and add the broccoli, wine wine, lemon juice and salt.  Let simmer for about 5 minutes, until broccoli is cooked, but still a vibrant green.

To assemble:

Place a polenta square on a plate, add the broccoli, and then a large dollop of lentils. Serve and repeat.

The diversity of reactions to this dish were certainly amusing.  All of my dining companions that night were certified meat eaters, and each claimed a different part of the meal as their favorite.  Two of the boys were amazed by the heartiness of the lentils, and continued to exclaim their surprise that a meat-free meal could be so satisfying.  Monica, my only other female companion that night, couldn’t get enough of the succulent, flavor-infused broccoli, and Steve (also our brilliant photographer for the evening) kept going back for more polenta. I couldn’t have asked for a better last night in Tel Aviv.

Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 3)

At long last, the conclusion:

That Thursday afternoon, we had a class with another kabbalist, with the intent of discussing Shabbat. What I remember from this class, however, was the idea that the whole world was connected, and how everyone’s actions can impact another. While I didn’t want to rile the group up by being the stereotypical vegan, I asked our instructor Alon afterwards what kabbalist thinking had to say about eating animals, if they indeed prescribe to the idea that everything in the world–including everything in nature–is interconnected. His answer was that this perspective didn’t honor human life alone, but that animal life was also something to be respected, and that there were many kabbalists who believe that as we move closer to the coming of mashiach (messiah) more and more of the world will go vegetarian. I continued this discussion with Nina, who brought up the idea that even the famous Rav’ Kook (first head Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) had said at times that the diet proscribed to Adam and Eve in the Torah was a vegan diet, based on scavenging nuts, seeds, and fruits from Eden. While I never expressly felt that I needed Judaism to validate my dietary choices, there have been people who have insisted to me that I couldn’t possibly be fulfilling Shabbat mitzvot adequately because they involved the consumption of fish and meat. Finding answers to these questions, which were very much pertinent to my own life as a Jew was validating, and definitely strengthened my beliefs, both in terms of Judaism, and in terms of veganism.

Continuing on within the weekly Jewish cycle, Thursday night was filled with preparations for Shabbat. Once again, we had to prepare the common room to accommodate 40+ people for a meal, while the rest of us set about preparing the food. We set about making two vats of soup, one vegetarian, and one a traditional chicken based broth with matzoh balls, salads, roasted chicken, roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes, as well as a vegetable stir fry. While our equipment was far from state of the art, through an intense amount of teamwork, we made quick work of the kilos of potatoes that needed peeling and chopping, and by the time we headed to bed that night, we were well on our way to an easy and restful Shabbat.

Hiking locally

Hiking locally

Friday morning saw another local hike, this one ending at a natural pool with a waterfall, but given the condition of my ankle on the last one, I sadly elected to stay behind. To my delight, another of the participants also stayed behind (unfortunately due to the severity of his allergies), and instead the two of us spent the day exploring Tzfat, and visiting an incredible local winery.

We brought in Shabbat first by lighting candles, while swaying to the sound of a nigun (a wordless melody), followed by a trip up to the balcony to reflect on the highlight of our week. We stepped out in into the fading sun, and began to sing (and dance) to several songs traditionally sung during kabbalat shabbat, or the service during which we welcome in the Shabbat spirit (and famously written in Tzfat many centuries ago). After this first celebration of song, we were encouraged to go synagogue hopping throughout the city for maariv, the evening service. In a moment of hesitation I took to sing one of my favorites, “Yedid Nefesh” (soul mate), I sort of missed the train (had I tried I could have made it), and instead sat on the balcony with another straggler, quietly singing a few of my favorite Shabbat melodies, and watching the stars begin to burn into view. Our meal was conducted with much song and revelry, so much so that Shlomo somehow broke a chair, and I regularly feared that a table was in danger of being broken in half given the exuberance of the banging that accompanied the songs. It was after dinner though that the real Shabbat magic began. We once again lowered the tables so that we were close to the ground and spread the mats around on the floor. Cups of wine were passed around, and so began the giving of l’chaims (literally, ‘to life’ but here meaning toasts). Many of us went around, toasting each other or toasting experience, until Shlomo stopped us, and asked us to take on a new task. We took the time to go around the large circle, and pay one compliment to the person sitting to our right, and then one to ourselves. The room filled with emotion and sentiment as we began telling each person, just what made them special, and then dug deep to share in honest words the things that we thought made ourselves special. It was an important reminder to verbalize to our friends and loved ones just what makes them so amazing, but also, just how powerful an effect compliments can have on strangers. Being told by someone you may have just met that night (as we were joined by a number of people for Shabbat who hadn’t been there the rest of the week), that their first impression is that you’re a warm and friendly person, or that you’re awesome because you’re vegan was incredibly moving. But as Shlomo said, we weren’t even at the first level.

The line up at Ancient Tzfat Winery

The line up at Ancient Tzfat Winery

For those of us who chose to stay up (as it was long past midnight), we, along with Shlomo, Rachel, and Nina (Tifferet had already fallen asleep), went around the circle, each taking a turn singing a song, entirely alone, in front of the rest of the group. What I guess is less of a secret than I sometimes make it out to be, is that I am a classically trained singer. In fact, my vocal training began at the tender age of 14, which means I’ve officially had more formal singing training than anything else (including dance, linguistics, and even baking). Even so, I remain fairly terrified of singing solo for other people, an anxiety which can be slightly relieved only by starting out in one of my completely ridiculous character voices. As I waffled between doing my one man Les Mis show (nerve wracking because what if no one else thought it was as funny as I do) or “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, Nina gently encouraged me to go with the latter. Now “Part of Your World” isn’t particularly challenging vocally, and I’ve sung it many times in the safety of my home, reveling in how comfortably it fit into my voice. Despite this, as I began the first notes, the familiar fear overtook my body, constricting my abdomen and throat, making it quite difficult to sing. Still, I pressed on, though now I had a real fear of sounding awful, but silently encouraged myself to make it a character and to be as cutesy and “talky” (this is a very esoteric bit of vocal jargon meaning to make the song as speech like as possible) as I could be. But at some point, my fear began to melt away, and I felt as I were almost in a trance, where my voice opened up, and so did my heart. I genuinely feel that singing in front of this small group of people was one of the most difficult challenges I undertook the whole week, and not because I’ve never opened my voice up to other people before, but I think it was in part because of the sheer vulnerability to which I was able to expose myself, allowing for genuine emotion to shine through.

Touring Tzfat on a lovely Friday afternoon

Touring Tzfat on a lovely Friday afternoon

The levels we went to after the song were, in order, dancing (no problem), be an animal (naturally I chose my puppy), and “go crazy” (I was in a pencil skirt and it was 4 am, I did yoga…), none of which I found to be particularly frightening. But still taking part in these exercises until a mere hour before the sun came up, fortified the bond we’d been forging throughout the week. Our Saturday schedule didn’t allow us to sleep in, rather it pushed us to go out and celebrate Shabbat with the greater Tzfat community, as we were invited to lunch with local families in groups of two or more. I had the honor of eating lunch with David Friedman, a local artist as well as his wife, and some of their friends. We were served incredibly delicious, wholesome vegan cooking, while discussing news about the neighborhood, sharing bits of our personal lives with everyone new, and even learning just a bit more about Pesach and how it should be celebrated now that we’ve made a return to the land. One of the rules they had for their table, was that only one conversation could take place at a time, thereby ensuring that everyone was engaged with the person speaking, and also helping us to focus on only one thing at a time. As was suggested when the rule was presented to us guests, it helped to calm the energy at the table, bringing everyone to a more peaceful and restful place.

With the end of Shabbat, brought the end of our time at Livnot, which ended much as it began. In song, in a circle, experiencing the togetherness of the group, only now we were no longer a group of strangers, bonded by our shared anticipation of the week to come, but a close knit family, who had traveled together from Egypt to freedom, by opening up through song and dance. We sang through the ritual of havdalah–Shabbat’s closing ceremony so to speak–then went around and shared what we would each be taking away from the Livnot experience. I was struck by how passionate every person was about their experience with Livnot, and unlike other programs I’ve participated in, each story was one of overwhelming positivity and the conviction that we all had the opportunity to take part in something that was truly special.

Saturday evening jam sesh

Saturday evening jam sesh

Livnot U’lehibanot, to build and be built, is a non-profit organization operating entirely on the generosity of others. Before each program, they attempt to find a sponsor in order to ensure that the cost for participants is no more than $150. In some cases, programs have been cancelled if there was no sponsor, in others, such as our own, the program is run despite this, and the search for a sponsor continues after the fact. If you have yet to solidify your summer plans, Livnot is running a 6-week program in conjunction with Masa Israel, with whom they hope to develop a long lasting partnership, as they are not currently recipients of government funding like other Masa programs. I would very much encourage other young, Jewish adults to consider participating in one of their programs, especially for those who are seeking a way to inject some more heart and soul into their spirituality. It’s designed to be a personal journey for people from all backgrounds and Jewish experiences, lead by three of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. For those of you who are out of Livnot’s age bracket, considering sharing this piece with your children, grandchildren, friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, etc, and for those of you with the means, please consider making a donation to help keep Livnot running.

As we sang throughout my week at Livnot (and in this case complete with hand gestures), “kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, ve’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal” or “the whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.” I feel like this song, out of all the songs we sang sums up Livnot’s message, as well as encapsulates my experience with them. Reach out to others, connect with those around you, and most importantly, take that leap.

Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 2)

And so the story continues:

The next morning saw our Pesach preparations shift into full gear.  We started the morning by burning the chametz collected the night before in a wood burning oven, discovered in one of Livnot’s many excavation sites.  In addition to pieces of bread, we each wrote out on a piece of paper a personal Egypt we were looking to escape, which we then burned alongside the bread.  Afterwards, everyone was given a task that was integral to our seder experience for later in the evening. About half of us prepared the ritual foods featured in the seder, such as chopping apples to make charoset, washing lettuce, cooking potatoes and eggs, all while having a kitchen dance party.  I somehow ended up with an entire half of the kitchen to myself, which I naturally turned into my own personal lettuce washing dance studio.  In the meantime, the other half of the group readied the living room for the seder by setting up low tables and cushions on the floor, so we could adequately recline during the meal.

It was also necessary for everyone to take an active role in the Livnot seder, meaning that at some point everyone would have to get up in front of everyone else and either perform a bit of the hagaddah, or as in the case of one group, lead us through a Pesach meditation.  Being entirely fixated on working dance into my performance, I was first on the list of participants to make a skit of the Pesach story.  Acting alongside me were four guys, putting me in the familiar position of being the only girl in the group.  Our preparations started by me matter-of-factly informing two of the guys that they could do whatever they wanted, but I wanted to dance.  Being really awesome people, they agreed that dancing would be a necessary part of our story telling.  Now, I had a lot of incredibly fun experiences during this week, but putting together this skit is definitely one of my top picks.  Somehow, we had the perfect blend of outrageous personalities, and managed to completely unselfconsciously put together a semi-improv of the Passover story, held together by a line of purposely austere narration.  Within the retelling of the story, I was somehow featured as: a kvetching slave, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, the Egyptian beating the slave (where I stage kicked a guy twice my size…in a skirt), Moshe’s wife, the burning bush (which is the only part everyone remembered, due to my “modern dance” interpretation) Pharoah’s thug, pretty much all of the plagues or a recipient thereof, the ballerina angel of death, and Moshe tap dancing through the red sea of two guys doing the worm.  Even better than all of that silliness, was the fact that out of our skit came the legacy of a program-wide inside joke, which I would repeat here, only the written word couldn’t possibly do the joke justice.  Other skits performed at the seder included commercials for Pesach, Maztoh, and Maror, our favorite of which featured a catchy jingle and a line of Australian slang spoken completely out of context (which we all laughed at, partially out of sheer confusion).

Seder Table (photo courtesy of Tifferet Weinberg)

Seder Table (photo courtesy of Tifferet Weinberg)

The seder itself was lead by Tifferet’s family, who introduced some of their traditions to us, such as receiving chocolate chips for asking questions, and bargaining with the afikomem thief to receive the stolen piece of middle matzah.  I, in a stoke of genius, stole my own table’s afikomen, with the intention of preventing another table from stealing it.  To my delight, I was able to negotiate a free Shabbaton at Livnot before I leave Israel in June.  Our seder was more meaningful and thought provoking than most seders I have experienced, where we rush through the ritual only to end at the meal, without finishing up the important second half.  Though I was in the throes of extreme fatigue by the time we neared the end, I was intent on staying up until we got to “L’shana Haba’a” (Next Year in Jerusalem), making this my very first experience in twenty-three years that I not only completed the seder, but completed the second half in its entirety.

The next day was spent relaxing, recovering from the previous night, reflecting, and enjoying an afternoon barbecue.  As we moved from yom tov to chol ha’moed, we finally cleaned up the mountain of dishes (also complete with a dance party) and then were given a free night to enjoy Tzfat.  Our adventures resumed on Wednesday, where we completed a day long hike through one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen.  While I once again fell victim to my unfortunately and chronically weak and injured ankles, making the hike extremely difficult for me, I was determined (through the immensely kind help of my new friends, who may or may not have carried me piggy back for a good half of the hike) to make it all the way to the end.  If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to see the natural rock formations that served as part of an ancient monastery, nor the wild bulls lumbering through the countryside, nor would I have had the experience of swimming in a cool, dark well.  One of the things I noticed in particular, was that the epic nature of the land lent one the feeling of being in a movie, or as several of us discussed, in Game of Thrones.  Our conclusion was that if we were indeed in Westeros–one of the mythical continents on which A Song Of Ice and Fire takes place–we were most likely on the edge of Dorne and the Reach, or straddled between the desert, and the lush, green bread belt of the continent.

The Edge of Dorne and The Reach aka The Golan Heights (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

The Edge of Dorne and The Reach aka The Golan Heights (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

During one of our breaks on the hike, we set about doing some Jewish learning in “chevrutas” or learning pairs.  We were each given a set of quotations from Jewish thinkers, as well as a series of questions reflecting on these words.  The discussions we were tasked with dealt with the intersection of individual and community, as well as the juxtaposition of being at once extremely special and yet also insignificant.  Each group spent time discussing whether they thought individual or community was more important and why, which I understood as balance is the key.  The other quotation, in which was stated that everyone should carry a piece of paper with the words “I am but dust and ashes” and another with the words “The world was created for me” lead me to the realization, that in my own life, I have carried around both a symbol of all that is special in my world, as represented by a piece of crystal that someone important once gave me, as well as a reminder of the brevity of life, in the form of an Israeli dog tag with my name engraved on it.  Later in the hike, we were once again reunited with our chevrutas in order to make each other lunch, once again reinforcing the idea of giving to others, but also of receiving.  During our lunch, we were given the opportunity to ask questions of the founder of Livnot, Aaron, who first explained what he felt the organization’s mission was.

Philip (or Bill. or maybe it was Charlie) our friendly hiking companion.

Philip (or Bill. or maybe it was Charlie) our friendly hiking companion.

He explained to the group that his intent was to give the many young people traveling to Israel a place where they could have a genuine Jewish experience.  It wasn’t about becoming orthodox, or observant, but it was about connecting to Judaism in a personal, spiritual way, which many of the programs in place around the country lack.  For example, a large number of our group are participants on Masa Israel programs, where we get to experience life living, working, and studying in Israel, but not necessarily connecting specifically to Judaism.  Our programs on Masa center around Israeli history and culture, such as celebrating holidays central to the Israeli state like Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day, or Independence day (both of which were special experiences in their own right, but not necessarily spiritual in nature, even if they are very much tied to the Jewish people).  The experience of Judaism on Livnot helps to provide us with a new understanding of our religion, which we can take with us wherever we go, whether it’s back to our home countries, or somewhere else in Israel. We spent one afternoon split into groups discussing our memories of the role Judaism played in our lives growing up, and how we connected to it, both as a religion, and as a culture.  Many of us did grow up in homes steeped in Jewish ritual, and noticed how connected our parents were, and some even marveled at how disconnected they felt, despite attending Jewish day school, or how they somehow remained deeply connected to Judaism, while their siblings were more apathetic.  The way I always saw Judaism, at least in terms of my life, is that we follow Jewish traditions because they are our cultural traditions, but that spirituality and belief is up to the individual.  I don’t feel it is necessary to unilaterally believe in the Torah, and even in the Rabbinic teachings that follow, but that it is necessary to develop an individual belief system that can be fit into a Jewish framework, because without that tie to our history, who are we anyway?  Additionally, I feel that in this day and age, where we have the ability to be our own people, and practice as we chose, it’s important to uphold traditions that our ancestors were persecuted for trying to fulfill, in part as a way to honor their memory.  In all of our discussions of kabbalah and Jewish connection, I felt very strongly that Livnot is striving to preserve this connection, both to our collective past, as well as to each other as a common people.

Following the Livnot trail (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

Following the Livnot trail (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

This theme of connection pervaded the experience at Livnot, in a very positive way.  I think a large part of the program’s impact was due to the fact that we were constantly encouraged to break down barriers by getting close and connecting with one another, whether it be through a hug, dancing together in a circle, or even singing together, where everyone was at once connected by touch, but also by the spirit of the songs.  After the program ended, I joked with some of the participants that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that we weren’t singing and dancing every thirty minutes or so, but while it may have seemed that we were just having fun at the time, most importantly at core of it, we were exposing ourselves to one another.  We also openly discussed the idea of connection through human touch, and how powerful of an experience it can be, especially given that our three bnot sheirut were all shomer negiah–meaning they won’t touch a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative until they are married.  While the girls withheld from hugging or high-fiving the boys, they were still extremely loving and affectionate towards everyone, constantly encouraging us to go a little further, dig a little deeper, and connect a little more.

It’s only natural then that the most powerful experience I had on the trip was during our visit to the old age home, where we spent the morning singing and spreading joy to the residents.  While some of the participants were moved to sadness by the final chapter of life, I knew we were there to brighten the day for these people.  Being someone who constantly has some thought or another running through my head, no matter if the task at hand is related or not, for me to be so unilaterally focused on one task was indeed an incredibly unique experience.  As we sang and danced for these people, all of my energy was focused on sharing happiness, whether it be through the sound of my voice, the clapping of my hands, or even most simply through my smile.  The experience of bringing happiness to others was so overwhelmingly positive in a way that merely focusing on personal happiness could never be (though I strongly believe it’s up to each of us to actively seek and create personal happiness, even if it’s through the most trivial of things).  The feeling in each room as we sang was electric, filled with this tangible sense of joy that could carry you through the rest of your day, if not longer. Here we were, once again, connecting to each other, and to a previous generation through song and dance, some of which were first sung long before our time, and which we can only hope will continue to be sung long after we’re gone.

The thrilling final installment will be released shortly. 

Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of posts about the program I did during Passover in April.

For Pesach this year, I was lucky enough to not only have the good fortune to celebrate the holiday in the holy land itself, but more specifically, to celebrate it in the mystical, mountain city of Tzfat. My previous experiences in Tzfat had been limited to say the least. We stopped there for an afternoon on my Taglit-Birthright trip in 2010, quickly making our way through all of the hot spots, from an artist whose work is influenced by gematria, to crashing a bar mitzvah at one of the local synagogues. Then in March of this year, I returned–twice even–but for no longer than half a day either time.

It was on the first trip this March with my mom, who was in the midst of her first visit to Israel, that we stumbled upon the Livnot visitor’s center. She was searching for a map that would help us decipher the circular, old city roads. Sitting at the desk, was Rachel, a cheerful girl with a big smile, who helpfully gave us a map, highlighted a few points of interest for us, and chatted with us about our trip around the country. When she heard I was a Masa participant, and currently living in Tel Aviv, she handed me a flyer for their weeklong Passover program, which was advertised as being “generously subsidized to only $150 per week.” We thanked her, and I said that I’d think about it, while actually planning to toss the flyer and forget about the suggestion entirely. But the price definitely hooked me. I thought there had to be some catch, and figured there was no way it could only be $150. Besides, the description on the flyer was something vague along the lines of, “hike and volunteer in Northern Israel.”  Not exactly the most intriguing of tag lines.

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

I’ve never been the type to seek adventure exactly, rather preferring to enjoy it if it came my way rather than making it an active pursuit. But this year has been a turning point for me. I took a big leap in moving to a foreign country–albeit with a program that has helped eased the transition– took a pit stop in Russia on my own on the way over here, and I’m planning on a solo trip to Europe for the summer. As we left the visitor’s center through one of their 16th century excavation sites, I began to think that maybe this program would be a good opportunity for me. Maybe I could finagle a way to finance it, and further, I would have a place for Passover where I wouldn’t have to fight in order to keep a kosher for Passover kitchen. I shared these thoughts with my mom as we exited onto the cobblestone streets of the old city, and she responded, “I’ll pay half if Dad pays half.” Now, I’m no expert, but a trip to ease my Pesach woes sponsored by my parents? Sounds like an exceedingly good bargain.

While I still took a little more time to think about it (and check to see if my dad would agree), a few weeks later, I found myself completing the application and participating in a phone interview, which involved questions regarding my Jewish background and community involvement. I began to worry just a little bit when the response to the enumeration of my involvement with university Jewish life was that Livnot is designed for people who generally have had less experience with Judaism. I assured my interviewer that I firmly believed we can learn from everyone, and that despite my 8 years of twice weekly religious school study, there is so much about Judaism that I still have to learn, whether it’s from trained rabbis, or someone who’s only begun to engage with their spirituality. After two weeks with no word, I really began to worry that maybe my prior experiences were in the way of my acceptance to the program, but at long last, an email arrived congratulating me on my acceptance to the 2014 Passover program. As relief washed over me, I settled back into the mundanities of job hunting, ulpan, and vegan cupcakes.

Livnot's front door

Livnot’s front door

When I arrived in Tzfat with another friend from Tel Aviv, I still didn’t really know what to expect. As a fairly constant worrier, my thoughts were mostly concerned with the cleanliness of my accommodations, for reasons unbeknownst to myself, but most likely because at my heart, I’m a city girl who is definitely afraid of getting dirty (once I’ve already gotten dirty I can then proceed to let loose and have fun). We were housed in a refurbished 16th century village, in rooms made of large stones with arching ceilings, and, as in the case of my room at least, only a suggestion of the warm sun outside. Upon entering the room, I tried and failed to picture what this village originally looked like, how the families lived, and what purpose each room possibly served. While there was ample time for reflection during this week, it was definitely not focused on the distinct history of my particular room. The rest of the Livnot campus is comprised of a large living room/common area, a kitchen separated into a meat side and dairy side, as well as a large upstairs room that is under construction, and a balcony, which allows for a stunning view of the neighboring mountains.

Peering down at the campus

Peering down at the campus

We began the program as it would end, by sitting in a circle and singing a song with a kabbalist named Shlomo (and until very recently, known as Doron). While it may be hard to believe given my verbose nature, when it comes to meeting new people, I still suffer from a small amount of social anxiety, and it’s definitely a push to say hi, introduce myself, and ask questions about my fellow participants. Likewise for enthusiastically singing a song I only vaguely remembered right off the bat. Following the song, we were given a run down of the rules and regulations involved in being a Livnot participant, and then taken on a tour of the old city, which ended at the citadel at the very top of the mountain. Our tour was lead by the engaging bat sheirut Tifferet, who insisted that her descriptions of Tzfat were the only time she would spend that much time talking. In fact the whole program was run by three truly incredible bnot sheirut (plural of bat sheirut)–Tifferet, Rachel (the girl I met at the front desk), and Nina–who are literally ‘service daughters’ which denotes one who is completing her national service in place of the standard army service. We began our citadel experience by walking through a very dark passageway that lead into a slightly more illuminated cistern. Tifferet urged us to even close our eyes as we entered the gloom of the cistern passageway, and only once situated inside did we open them to assess our surroundings. She then taught us a song brought to Israel by the Ethiopian Jews, which we again sang hesitantly (well for some of us at least) as we gained familiarity with a melody that would carry us through the rest of the week. We then also took a moment to take advantage of the brilliant acoustics of the domed cistern by participating in a screaming meditation, where we clear our mind by literally shouting it out. As I’ve already mentioned, my trust in the program and participants was still building, and I felt rather silly singing and shouting with people I barely knew. That’s the true brilliance of programs like these. By bringing together so many people with different backgrounds (though I think the overwhelming majority of us were actually raised in New Jersey), our different strengths and weaknesses balanced out, so while I hesitated at first to sing and shout with all of my might, there were those who helped ease my worries by immediately throwing themselves into these tasks, thereby creating a cushion of safety and encouraging others to fully participate. Of course, my fear in and of itself was most likely rooted in the idea of “well what if no one does it, what if I throw myself in but I’m the only one, and everyone laughs at me?” Being a kid that didn’t fit in very well with the social hierarchies of public school, this is a fear that has followed me for a long time, and that I’ve slowly been working to let go of as I’ve aged. This has mostly been achieved through the opportunities I’ve had to engage in not one, but many fresh starts, including programs like Livnot. As we exited the cistern, back through the unlit passageway, the group noted how much easier it was going back. While the first time around we couldn’t help but notice the darkness, on our second passage, we could only see the light, symbolic to say the least. We ate dinner in the surrounding park, joined by Tifferet’s family, who lead us in a second introduction, as well as our first discussion of Pesach.

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

After dinner, we participated in the ritual of searching for chametz (leavened bread) by candle light, before being taken on our second trip of the day to explore caves that were remnants of the Bar Kochba revolt. In order to reach them, we walked through a dark path off of the main road, where we were given the option of not entering the caves should we so desire, though I think everyone chose to give it a shot. As we wriggled through the dust to reach a large subterranean cavity, our guide began to tell us the story of the caves. Each cave was once a cistern serving several houses of the Jewish community, but when it came time to revolt, the memory of Massada 60 years prior was still fresh in the minds of many. Rather than hiding in a mountain fortress and committing mass suicide (though the prospect was discussed), the Jewish people decided to try a different method of hiding from the Romans. The cisterns, except for a select few were dried out and sealed, and were then connected to each other by a series of small twisting tunnels, giving the advantage to the defenders. The Romans, whose gear was not only loud–which easily gave away their position–but also cumbersome, found it difficult to maneuver through tunnels with the purpose of rooting out the Jews. We returned to our recurring theme of the week, that of leaving Egypt and seeking freedom, and what it meant to these Jews in particular. After our initial background discussion, we split into two groups, and crawled into a second smaller chamber. Some of the tunnels were so narrow that the only way to pass through was by literally slithering flat against the ground. In this second smaller chamber (also once a cistern) we discussed some of the miracles of the revolt, such as the fact that children and babies were somehow trained to be quiet, but even more miraculous, was the story of two Jewish women who gave birth inside the caves in complete silence. Before exiting the small chamber in order for the second group to take their turn, we spent two minutes sitting in complete silence, with the darkness pressing in and around us, in order to gain just a little more understanding of what it might have been like during a Roman attack. As we afterwards exited into the brisk, night air, each of us had yet another experience of the word freedom: freedom to breathe, freedom of movement, the ability to use our eyes and to see light etc. Of course, that night was extremely cold, so while we had the opportunity to go take our own space after being crammed together in the tiny caves, banding together to share body heat proved to be a little more important, at least for someone like me who was cold even with two pairs of pants and three sweaters.

Part 2 coming soon!

 

 

 

Earl Grey Chocolate Buttercream: Made for the Stage!

Earl Grey Chocolate Buttercream: Made for the Stage!

Still from the show as Mary (Mimi Tanaman) carries a chocolate cake to a table

Still from the show as Mary (Mimi Tanaman) carries a chocolate cake to a table

My recipe for Earl Grey chocolate buttercream was featured on the English On Stage facebook page today!  What does cake have to do with theatre you may ask? Well, a frosted chocolate cake was a very important prop for our new musical.  Given the number of gags that precipitate on the cake being real (like licking the frosting and blowing out birthday candles), it was important that we have a real edible cake to use during the show. Of course I volunteered for the task, not only ensuring the cake was beautiful, but also that I could eat it myself afterwards!  It also meant that I could have some secret fun with flavors, while still making it look like plain chocolate.

The cake recipe I used was the regular Earl Grey cake recipe I posted several months ago.  One of the things to remember when baking for the stage is that you have to ensure that your props will not only hold up under the lights, but also won’t go rancid in the amount of time it sits on stage (just another reason to avoid dairy!)  In this case, it’s best to use shortening, rather than a melty margarine like Earth Balance (or ya know the margarine that’s really bad for you).

With another show coming up soon, I’m already planning what cool flavors I can slip into our next chocolate cake.

For more information on Tom’s Diner the Musical, click here!  It’s really a fun new show, featuring all of your favorite music from the 1950s and 60s.

And with that shameless plug, I bid you goodnight (and promise to post some new recipes soon, as well as a post all about being in Israel).

Thanksgivukkuh Recap!

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Almost the whole gang!

First off, I need to apologize for how long it took me to get this written. I’ve been in the throes of opening a show ever since Thanksgiving (which entails quite a bit of craziness), but I’ve wanted to give an update as to how everything went, especially given the complexity and breadth of the menu I’d planned. Most fortunately for me, we got an oven and stove in my apartment a week before the holiday, so I no longer had to worry about where to cook everything. Really the most important piece of advice I can give when it comes to serving large holiday meals is to plan and cook in advance. While I’d written a shopping list and plan of action far in advance, when it came to the week before Thanksgiving, my planner was no where to be found…so I ended up frantically rewriting both my shopping list and action plan on a napkin in a cafe (how J.K. Rowling of me…also, I did end up finding my planner, after the fact).

Original action plan and list compared to make shift action plan and list.

Original action plan and list compared to make shift action plan and list.

I started my week off by taking a long, late afternoon trip to the shuk (the outdoor market, where produce prices are best). After experiencing the absolute craziness that is the shuk on a Friday, it was delightful to be able to go on a Monday afternoon and meander up and down the stalls, looking for the lowest prices. While this dinner was not exactly cheap, I was still amazed at the sheer amount of produce I could get for a relatively small amount of money. Two boxes of mushrooms for example cost about 10 NIS. I think potatoes (or maybe onions) were 4.50 NIS per kilo. After loading myself with as many kilos of produce as I could carry, I (foolishly) walked home (which was about 2 km, not a bad walk, just not when you’re carrying your weight in veggies), and resolved to get the rest of the produce the next day.

Balagan in the kitchen as meal prep begins

Balagan in the kitchen as meal prep begins

So many mushrooms and onions!

So many mushrooms and onions!

I started out, as I usually do by making the cornbread. I also caramelized onions for as many dishes as I remembered needed them (aka I forgot and had to caramelize more the next day), baked the sweet potatoes, and roasted the huge hunk of squash I got for the pumpkin baked ziti. Because my beautiful, new Vitamix had to remain in the US, I didn’t have a blender or food processor of my own, which did make preparations a little tricky. A friend of mine had an immersion blender with food processor attachment, which she kindly let me borrow, so I spent the better part of a day making anything and everything that needed blender, from soup, to the pumpkin, to the french onion dip, the cashew ricotta, the sweet potatoes, hazelnuts, and caesar dressing. Unfortunately, this blender wasn’t exactly what you’d call powerful, so I had to take breaks quite frequently in order to not kill the motor (and then be completely out of luck). This definitely put me a little behind schedule because despite all my planning, I woke up bright and early Thursday morning, only to cook literally until the last moment, with maybe an hour break.

Massive bowl of butternut squash soup

Massive bowl of butternut squash soup

Wednesday night prep complete: all components for the ziti, plus soup and sauces

Wednesday night prep complete: all components for the ziti, plus soup and sauces

Due to time issues, I decided to bake off the stuffing, rather than attempting to fry it while I had hungry guests over, which I think turned out for the best. I also decided to make broccoli instead of brussel sprouts, because I could only find those in the freezer section, and nobody wants frozen brussel sprouts on Thanksgiving. I also couldn’t find fresh or frozen cranberries anywhere, so I used dried cranberries in the apple sauce (as detailed in the soufganiyot post). The last thing I had to coordinate was the reheating of all the food. I live too far from where the dinner was being hosted to have food stay warm, but two of my friends live closer and graciously warmed food in their ovens. I cooked the tempura at my friend’s place in order for it to be hot and crispy when I served it.

Beautiful kale and argula Caesar salad with cashew based dressing and pecans

Beautiful kale and argula Caesar salad with cashew based dressing and pecans

A lone fried string bean with onion dip in the background

A lone fried string bean with onion dip in the background

Cranberry apple sauce isn't very photogenic.

Cranberry apple sauce isn’t very photogenic.

As I expected, literally everyone was running late (we’re on Israeli time after all), but it gave us a chance to complete some last minute preparations. Our guests were a nice mix of Israelis, Europeans, and Americans. I was so happy to be surround by such wonderful, caring people. From my friends who insisted on helping and got the food set up more quickly than had it been just Cathleen and I, to the friends who made me drink, and the friends who made me sit down and eat. Quite a few jokes were tossed around about me actually being a Moroccan mother (whereas in the US we would just say Jewish mother), or else asking me if I thought I made enough food (there was a tray and a half of ziti leftover and I was still worried). In fact, the only thing we actually finished that night were the latkes, though the soufganiyot came close.

2nd night of Hanukkah.

2nd night of Hanukkah.

Pumpkin baked ziti, soup, stuffing and gravy pictured

Pumpkin baked ziti, soup, stuffing and gravy pictured

Friend peruse their options

Friend peruse their options

I do think the soufganiyot trifle was the surprise hit of the evening. Initially I’d planned to fill some with apple sauce and some with a macadamia nut creme, but due to my makeshift filling equipment (ziploc bag with the corner cut off), the creme wasn’t cooperating as a filling. In a stroke of genius (aka great way to salvage dessert mistakes), I decided to turn it into a trifle (pulled the same stunt last year when I had an excess of chai cake). I cut each soufganiyah in half, arranged them on the bottom of the bowl, and proceeded to layer the soufganiyah halfs with the macadamia creme. Right before serving, I dusted the whole thing with powdered sugar. It was so good, some of my friends even went back for thirds! All in all, it was a wonderfully successful meal, with great company, a mix of traditions new and old, and last but not least, I made it all vegan!

Last but not least: soufganiyot macadamia trifle!

Last but not least: soufganiyot macadamia trifle!

The Perfect Breakfast Muffin

Tower of muffins!

Tower of muffins!

These muffins were created as a twist on my new favorite breakfast: quinoa porridge. For whatever reason, I was never into quinoa porridge in all the years I worked at Peacefood. Not that it wasn’t good, it just wasn’t my thing. When it came to having breakfast there, I generally opted for the tofu scramble with roasted potatoes if I wanted something warm (either that or a fresh baked pastry). In the few weeks since I moved into my new apartment here, however, I’ve been craving something warm for breakfast, and being a little too lazy to go out and get oatmeal, I settled on quinoa as my breakfast grain of choice. Generally, I like to cook it in a combination of water and soy milk, though if I’m out of that, I add a little nut butter to add some richness while it cooks. The real secret I find to good quinoa, is to make sure you add salt while its cooking, regardless of whether you are intending the grain for a sweet or savory application. The salt will remove any lingering bitterness that is sometimes present in quinoa, which is especially important for a sweet application such as this. In keeping with Peacefood Cafe’s quinoa porridge, I also add a touch of coconut oil and cinnamon while it cooks. This is where I deviate, and make my breakfast just a little more Israeli. I top the porridge with a tablespoon or so of silan (date syrup) and tehina, which adds a perfect amount of sweetness, as well as a richness of flavor. It is delicious and perfect for this Israeli winter thing.

Israeli quinoa porridge

Israeli quinoa porridge

The only problem with my porridge is that I do have to have time to cook it in the mornings. As my schedule gets more and more hectic with the approaching premiere of the show I’m working on, I’ve spent an increasing number of mornings stopping for a pita and coffee on my way to work. I needed a way to save time and have breakfast ready in advance, as well as to make it portable, so today I decided to make it into muffins.  These muffins are really hearty, packed with rich rolled oat, crunchy quinoa and soft apple bit.  They’re also wonderfully flavored with the slightest hint of sesame and some caramel undertones from the silan.  They really are the perfect breakfast muffin.

Fresh from the oven

Fresh from the oven

Quinoa Apple Oat Muffins

  • 1 1/4 c flour (I used all purpose because that’s what I had, but whole wheat or spelt or even a gf mix would be great)
  • 1/2 c quinoa
  • 1/2 c rolled oats
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 small apple, chopped
  • 3/4 c nondairy milk
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp ground flax
  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 c silan (date syrup)
  • 1/4 c melted, unrefined coconut oil

Preheat oven to 350F degrees and fill a muffin tin with liners (or alternatively, grease the muffin tin).

Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, including the diced apples.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the non dairy milk and lemon.  Let sit for a minute, then add the flax, whisk again, and set aside again (this is a great time to melt the coconut oil).  Add the remainder of the wet ingredients to the flax mixture.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add the wet mixture to the dry.  Mix until just combined.  The batter will be very thick and lumpy, but that is perfect!  Fill the liners about 3/4 of the way full and bake for about 22 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.  Let cool.

The quinoa adds a lot of texture to the muffins, because it stays pretty firm, and slightly crunchy. If you would like it softer, I would recommend soaking the grains in warm water for about 10 minutes, then draining before adding to the batter.