On Yom Kippur: Fast, Repent, then Eat!

For some, Break-Fast means breakfast: bagels, lox, blintzes and coffee cake

When I was growing up, Yom Kippur, which this year begins on Wednesday night, Sept. 15, was definitely not my favorite holiday. Even as a little girl, I remember spending hours in synagogue with my parents, who seemed more serious and tense than usual, and grew less talkative and grumpier as the day wore on.

When we became bored with services and went outside to play with the other kids, the usual distractions weren’t available. No white linen-covered tables bearing miniature Dixie cups of grape juice and wine, platters of cookies and giant challahs awaiting blessings. No women bustling in the temple kitchen curating the goodies and shooing us away. Even the water fountains were covered and elaborately taped so you couldn’t get a drink or splash your friend.

On Yom Kippur, usually translated as the Day of Atonement and considered the most important day of the Jewish calendar, adults--by definition, those past 13, bar or bat mitzvah age--aren’t supposed to eat or drink for the whole day. When I was old enough, I was told, I would be expected to fast too--from sundown on Yom Kippur Eve until an hour after sunset the next day was the prescribed period, about 25 hours. It was part of a ritual of demonstrating to God that we had repented our misdeeds and should be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life to live another year.

Much later I learned there were other things you weren’t supposed to do-- bathe or wear leather shoes, use deodorant or perfume, or have sex. But at 7 or 8, the only thing I knew was that you weren’t supposed to eat or drink. The whole thing seemed mysterious and also a bit of a challenge.

Competitive girl that I was (that came with having two older brothers!), it wasn’t long before I also wanted to try fasting just to see if I could do what the big kids did. Eventually, I did.

Years later, the whole ritual of depriving myself of food and other worldly pleasures in order to look inward became a bit mixed up with the notion that maybe I should use the occasion to shed a few unwanted pounds and begin a self-improvement regimen. I don’t think the losing weight notion was part of the biblical reasons for the fast, but what did I know?

Why do we fast?

Since I was still a little shaky on the theological reasons for fasting on Yom Kippur, I consulted our rabbi, Joshua Kalev, of Congregation Tikvat Jacob Ben Torah.

Though not generally discussed, there are aspects of Yom Kippur that are a bit like “rehearsing for death,” Rabbi Kalev explained. We don’t eat or drink, and some people dress in a kittel, a white linen or cotton garment similar to a burial shroud.

“The idea is I’m going to remove everything from the world that usually makes me feel good,” he said. “I’m going to focus on my soul and repenting.”

“It’s about realizing that we are here for limited time,” he said. In our everyday lives, “we don’t think about our own mortality, but on Yom Kippur, we realize that we’ve been given another day and that every day is a miracle.”

A little depressing, to be sure, but honestly, after more than a year and a half of a deadly pandemic, some of us feel we’ve already been wrestling with our mortality, so this isn’t such a giant stretch.

Fasting begins at the age when a child is considered able to understand and take on adult responsibilities--around 13, bar and bat mitzvah age. Those too young or old, frail or likely to be made sick by the fast aren’t supposed to do it. When I consider this, I remember my father telling me that for Jews, actions that support life always take precedence. (Cue up “To Life!” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” a welcome respite when contemplating mortality!)

‘Look at me! I’m fasting!’

If someone is fasting just for bragging rights, but without a commitment to live a better life, the meaning of the holiday is lost, Rabbi Kalev said.

“One without the other, doesn’t make sense,” he said. On the other hand, a perfect fast isn’t required.

In the course of leading five prayer services and delivering multiple sermons in a single day, the rabbi sometimes runs out of steam himself.

“For me around 3 p.m. is when it finally gets to me,” he said. “There are years when I’ve had to have sip of Gatorade or a banana, because I’m working 24/7. I don’t feel bad. I’m being human.”

And now, let’s eat!

And finally, after all that fasting, it’s time to eat. But what?

For my friend Judy Bonn-Smith, Break-Fast has always meant breakfast--bagels and lox and sometimes a blintz soufflé, a well-known classic made with store-bought Golden Blintzes, usually either cheese or cherry, topped by an eggy sour cream mixture. In years gone by, other egg dishes were sometimes on the menu at Judy’s house, but the fare has always been light. The reason lies in family lore, she said.

My first attempt to make Judy’s Blintz Soufflé was somewhat overdone, but good with sugared strawberries and a little sour cream on the side (recipe below).

“My grandparents got married after sundown on Yom Kippur, and they served a huge meal. Everybody got sick because they ate too much on an empty stomach. That’s the story. I don’t know if it’s true or not.”

Like Judy, Rabbi Kalev says he’s “a bagels and lox kind of guy” when it comes to Break-Fast. Instead of a large gathering, as there sometimes are for other holidays, he dines with his wife, Selilah (also a rabbi), his two children, Noa, 14, and Jacob, 12, and his mother Vivian. Sometimes his mom will bring a kugel or her rugelach, both family favorites.

Our congregation often serves a small Break-Fast repast following Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur, but, with the second year of services delivered via Zoom, that isn’t happening in 2021, according to Executive Director Tamah Kushner.

“It’s just too complicated this year,” she said. “I tried to get people do it on Zoom, but for some reason people don’t like eating on Zoom.”

I kind of get that. Eating together on screen just isn’t quite as communal as breaking the fast shoulder to shoulder. Besides, it might be a little inhibiting to have to worry about minding your table manners on screen when your stomach is screaming for food.

Maybe by this time next year--5783 on the Jewish calendar--things will be different. We can only hope.

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A few recipes

One thing it’s hard to do on Yom Kippur, especially if you’re fasting, is cooking. It’s almost impossible not to snatch a few mouthfuls or a gulp when you’re chopping and pouring. The best solution is to make as much as you can in advance.

I made the six-blintz version of the Golden Blintz Soufflé from a recipe Judy took from the back of the original package. I used the cheese blintzes and tried to lower the fat quotient with low-fat sour cream.

Later I doubled the recipe, using both blueberry and cheese blintzes, and used full-fat sour cream. Instead of mixing the eggs and sour cream by hand as I had the first time, I used the blender, as called for in the recipe, with a much better result.

Notes from Judy (and one from me):

  1. To double the recipe, use two packages of the blintzes (six spread out on either side) to fill a 9-by-13 inch baking dish. The dish should be about half that size for six blintzes.

  2. The large T’s in the recipe are tablespoons and the small ones are teaspoons, so 2 tablespoons melted butter, 4 tablespoons orange juice, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and 4 teaspoons sugar.

  3. You can mix and match fruit and cheese blintzes if you double the recipe. Just remember which side is which (unless you don’t care!).

  4. Whipping the egg mixture in a blender seems to be key to a light soufflé effect. And use full-fat sour cream for the best result.

I was also intrigued with a deconstructed blintz casserole recipe from a new book from Beth A. Lee called The Essential Jewish Baking Book: 50 Traditional Recipes for Every Occasion. Instead of making individually rolled blintzes (you can find my blog about making those here), Lee’s recipe calls for baking a layer of batter, covering it with cheese filling, then more batter, and baking it again, creating a kind of giant blintz. Who wouldn’t love that?

And then there’s coffee cake, a perennial at our Break-Fast when I was growing up, along with a pot of tea (my mother was a Scottish lass after all!) and small bowls of beef consommé that she made from boiled marrow bones. All were supposed to break the fast in the gentlest way possible.

Multiple sour cream coffee cake recipes also make an appearance in Mom’s dilapidated little marble notebook, which is filled with handwritten recipes, sometimes all but illegible. Here’s the one I picked, with a few modifications and suggested variations:

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Grated zest of one orange (optional)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups all-purpose flour (I think 1/4 to 1/3 whole wheat would work well.)

Topping:

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (or pecans, almonds or hazelnuts, if you prefer)

1/2 cup sugar (I used half each of brown and white)

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (I used 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 each ground ginger and cardamom)

Directions:

Grease a round tube or Bundt cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Chop nuts and mix with sugar and spices in a small bowl.

Cream butter and sugar in a mixer or by hand. Add eggs one at a time and beat until light. Mix in vanilla and orange zest, if using.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Mix by hand into the wet ingredients, alternating with the sour cream. Take care not to over-mix.

Spread half the batter evenly on the bottom of the pan with a spatula. Sprinkle on half the topping. Then gently smooth the remaining batter on top, followed by the rest of the topping.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a tester comes out dry. Cool on a rack.

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Are you fasting for Yom Kippur? Do you fast for other reasons? How do you break your fast? I’d love to know. And, if you’re observing Yom Kippur, please stay safe and well. Wishing you--and all of us--another healthy year. L’chaim!

Plum Crazy

A fruit obsessive turns her passion into dessert

There’s a certain plum that sometimes turns up at the market at this time of year—if you’re lucky. It’s the Italian prune plum, also called the Empress plum. I have always associated this egg-shaped red-purple fruit with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that in 2021 begins at sundown on Sept. 6, ushering in the year 5782 on the Jewish calendar. It’s a time of prayer and introspection that culminates in a fast 10 days later on Yom Kippur. But, as with all Jewish holidays, food is central. For me, those hard-to-find plums—and the desserts you can make with them—are key.

If the plums are available at all in Southern California where I live—and sometimes they aren’t—it’s for an extremely short window of time, maybe two or three weeks, and perhaps only in one or two groceries or farmers markets.

When I discovered them recently at a Whole Foods in Redondo Beach, I immediately raced down and purchased four pounds. The next day, I went back and bought another three. As I write this, I’m realizing that the plums I didn’t turn into the plum tart in the photo above, or into an ill-fated batch of plum butter (more on that later) will soon turn to mush unless I make them into something. So I’m plotting more plum butter (hopefully with better results) or possibly some jam or another dessert—and maybe another run to the market for more fruit, assuming it’s still there!

In my immigrant German-Jewish family, some version of a plum cake or torte—which among my relatives was usually called a Zwetschgenkuchen, but in some parts of Germany is referred to as a Pflaumenkuchen—almost always turned up at the table during the High Holidays. Luisa Weiss, author of Classic German Baking: The Very Best Recipes for Traditional Favorites, from Pfeffernüsse to Streuselkuchen, says the Zwetschgen are actually a slightly drier plum than the Pflaumen, making them better for cake.

In the U.S., the small Italian prune plums or somewhat larger Empress plums are the ones to get—and they are central to this tart (or torte or kuchen—please note: I’m using these terms interchangeably, though a kuchen, meaning “cake” in German, is usually simpler than a torte, which often includes fancy layers of cream, ganache, and/or fruit, while a tart is basically a single-crust pie).

As Weiss says in her book, “Definitely don’t substitute regular round plums for prune plums … as they have less flavor and far more moisture and are not as delicious when cooked.”

Okay, there are alternates if you can’t find this elusive fruit; the dessert won’t be quite the same—these plums when cooked have a delightful blend of acid and sweetness that’s hard to duplicate—but it will be delicious. I imagine that fresh mission figs, also in season right now, would make an excellent substitute, as would apples.

Of course apples hold a special significance at Rosh Hashanah. They’re the fruit that’s traditionally served at the beginning of the meal, sliced and dipped in honey to symbolize our hope for a sweet New Year. (See my 2020 post, Apples & Honey Cake.)

In another story I wrote in 2020, Muerbeteig for Mom, you can read about two versions of the tart—plum and apple—that combine elements of old family recipes, plus others from tattered editions of The Settlement Cook Book and Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.

Shortcrust vs. Yeast Dough

Although the family recipe I grew up with uses a shortcrust pie dough, yeast doughs are customary in Germany. The Paris-based chef and author David Lebovitz adapted an excellent recipe from Weiss, a Berlin-born American-Italian food writer, for Yeasted Plum Tart, adding some sliced almonds to the streusel topping. Again, the key ingredient is those hard-to-find plums. I was intrigued enough to attempt this version also, since I still had some of those plums and wasn’t going to let them go to waste.

I was pleased with the result, particularly the addition of the streusel topping, a simple mixture of flour, butter, sugar (both white and brown), cinnamon and almonds, but I think I prefer the shortcrust version because it’s a bit crisper and sweeter. Because of the crumbly topping and sturdy crust, I think the yeasted version might just tolerate a juicier fruit, although I could be wrong. In any case, I’ve got a lot of leftover streusel to use up, so more tortes (or tarts) may be on the way!

The New York Times Classic Plum Torte

One of the reasons I got so deeply into the weeds on this somewhat obscure plum this year is that I wanted to try a popular New York Times recipe for Plum Torte by Marian Burros that the New York Times published every September from 1983 to 1989 until the editors decided it was time to stop.

When outraged readers bombarded the paper with angry letters, the higher-ups relented and pledged “that every year, as summer gives way to fall, we will make sure that the recipe is easily available to one and all.”

The internet has obviously made that easier, and the Times has also offered helpful variations of the original recipe, including replacing the plums with other seasonal fruits, such as apricots, apples or cranberries; subbing different flours for part of the all-purpose flour the recipe calls for; and experimenting with the spices and extracts.

When I made the torte, I subbed a quarter-cup of cornmeal for some of the flour and added some vanilla extract. The torte, though somewhat yellow, had a pleasant crunch from the cornmeal.

When I forgot the eggs on another attempt at the plum torte, it came out as you see from the above photo. I had added streusel from the David Lebovitz recipe and the brown sugar and almonds melded into the crust to make a kind of caramelized plum candy/cookie bar. My neighbor and favorite taster Susie said it was the best tart I made this year! Sometimes happy accidents lead to new recipes!

Meanwhile, after spending weeks obsessed with obtaining the scarce Italian prune plums, I noticed that the New York Times recipe just calls for “pitted purple plums,” no particular type specified. Go figure.

As for my favorite tart—the one I would make again and again? Aside from the “happy accident” of the forgotten eggs, I love the recipe I wrote about last year that’s a mashup of old family and cookbook favorites. It has a butter crust and could be a base for just about any fruit, though I do love those plums! Here’s a link to that post: Muerbeteig for Mom. Play with it and make it your own. Then, please tell me about it!

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Plum Butter—an experiment gone awry

To use up the surfeit of plums I’d bought out of sheer joy at finding them, I decided to make some plum prune butter—basically a puréed jam with the consistency of butter, sometimes called lekvar and used as a filling in cookies and cakes. It’s often made from dried prunes or apricots and used in a number of popular Jewish recipes. I love to put lekvar in hamantaschen and rugelach. (Please click the links to find my posts about these recipes.)

Unfortunately, I found a recipe that suggested cooking the plums, sugar and spices in an open-top cast-iron pot in the oven instead of on the stove, as I usually do when I make jam. All proceeded well, with the fruit thickening up nicely after about three hours in a moderate oven. I puréed the cooked plums with my trusty immersion blender, poured the hot mixture into sterilized jars and turned the jars upside down to help seal them, said to be a good method of adding to the longevity of jams and preserves if you don’t want to go the laborious water-bath canning route.

A few spoonfuls of plum butter were left in the pot, so I sampled the jam and mixed it into some yogurt. I thought the taste was slightly metallic, but figured it must be my imagination. But then I happened to glance at myself in the bathroom mirror; my teeth had turned a scary dark gray. Totally freaked out, I brushed my teeth hard with baking soda and they returned to their pre jam-tasting off-yellow hue.

I took another look at the pot I’d cooked the plums in and realized that some of the black surface of the pan may have flaked into the jam, gotten onto my teeth and now was probably coating my stomach. I felt just fine, but…

Long story short—I decided I’d go back to my usual way of making jam—in a stainless steel pot—and make some plum jam, not lekvar this time around. I had to purchase a few more pounds of plums for that, but the results (see above) turned out quite well.

Meanwhile, since I’m a cast-iron devotee and often cook meals in an array of frying pans made of the sturdy metal, I checked the maker’s website, Lodge Cast Iron, after failing to reach them on the phone.* The site claimed the occasional black flakes that come off Lodge pans aren’t harmful and are a result of heating the pans too rapidly and unevenly. I’m not convinced, especially because of the off-flavor of the jam. However, I’ve never tasted it in other food cooked in cast iron. But sadly, that plum jam is (ahem) toast.

*Note: Later, after I published this, I did receive an email from Chastity P., a Lodge customer care associate. Here’s what she said: Foods that are very acidic (i.e. beans, tomatoes, citrus juices, etc.) should not be cooked in Seasoned Cast Iron until the cookware is highly seasoned. The high acidity of these foods will strip the seasoning and result in discoloration and metallic-tasting food. Wait until cast iron is better seasoned to cook these types of foods. Lodge Enameled Cast Iron is not affected by acidity and can be used with all foods. 

Do you cook in cast iron? I’d love to hear about your experiences, positive or negative. Also, if you celebrate the High Holidays, do you have a favorite recipe that always turns up at your table? Please let me know. And l’Shana Tova—I hope 5782 will be a honey of a year—and I mean that in the best sense. May good health, happiness and sweet things, culinary and otherwise, bless you and your loved ones.

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Tales of a Coffee Geek

Crafted with care, a good cup of Joe may be the secret to a happy marriage

☕ I love a good cup of coffee as much as the next person. Who doesn’t? Okay, my husband Jeff won’t touch the stuff, not even when it’s in mocha form blended with one of his favorite foods, chocolate, or flavoring another of his delights, ice cream. But for many people, their day cannot begin without it. And there are some for whom the ritual of making it—including the devices and careful steps used to turn roasted, ground beans into a dark and magical elixir—borders on obsession.

Among that number is Peter August, who is married to my cousin Margalit. I became privy to his devotion to the process of turning out a perfect cup of Joe on a recent visit to the couple’s Bay Area home when Peter asked if I’d like him to make me a coffee like the one he crafted each morning and served his wife in bed. He made mine in their sunny kitchen while I recorded the details on my iPhone.

It turns out that Peter not only uses a hand-held espresso-type device to make the coffee—he also roasts green coffee beans in a countertop electric coffee roaster; grinds the beans in a custom-made, hand-operated burr grinder, and whisks a batch of foamy milk to float on top. But, he insisted, as he poured the hot water onto the grounds, he’s not a true geek.

“A geek would tell you much more about extraction,” he said. “And a real geek would use a timer.”

I suppose those residing in the top tier of coffee geekdom might wax rhapsodical about time, temperature, beans and grind necessary to deliver the perfect cup of coffee (the National Coffee Association has some helpful tips on the subject), but after talking to Peter about his method and tasting the results, his coffee geek credentials seem beyond reproach.

The one-to-three-cup coffee maker he uses from AeroPress, is deceptively low-tech—two translucent cylinders of plastic that fit inside of each other, with one functioning as a kind of plunger to press hot water through coffee grounds out a filtered opening at the end of the second cylinder into a cup—and voilà: coffee!

The device was dreamed up by Alan Adler, a retired Stanford engineering instructor and inventor of the Aerobie, a beloved flying ring with some similarities to the frisbee. It holds the Guinness world record for the longest throw in history—1,333 feet.

The AeroPress site claims its relatively simple hand-held device delivers coffee that’s smooth, with little bitterness and acidity—superior to coffee made via drip, pour-over (my preferred method), pod or French Press. I will say it was remarkably good, especially when mixed with foamed milk, a tincture of vanilla, cardamom and other spices (crafted by Peter and Margalit’s son Tal), and sprinkled with cinnamon and chocolate.

It was Peter’s love of strong coffee that first led him to the AeroPress—other methods just never made a brew to his liking. This technique makes “the most delicious cup of coffee that you can get without buying an expensive espresso machine,” he said. He bought his first AeroPress about 10 years ago for about $20; these days they sell in the $30 range.

Is making a delicious cup of java the secret of a happy marriage? It certainly doesn’t hurt. The couple are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary this year, and for most of that time, Peter said, he’s been making Margalit her morning latte.

Margalit said she likes her coffee “just the way Pete makes it,” but she admits to occasionally drinking instant when he’s not around.

“But I always add a whole lot of extras,” she said.

And now their sons, Alon and Tal, both in their 20s, have followed in their father’s footsteps, making coffee for their respective mates.

“Alon got an espresso machine for his girlfriend for her birthday,” Margalit said. “He makes a really good cup of coffee now. He steams her oat milk and drizzles honey on the top.”

I’m sure making a fine cup of coffee isn’t the only secret to a happy marriage—Peter and Margalit are professional psychologists with great interpersonal skills, proud parents of three accomplished children, and excellent cooks. Margalit is also passionate about her garden (a trait that reminds me of her late mother, my Aunt Gerda). But there’s a certain magic in the ritual of coffee making that binds people together and never gets old.

“It’s kind of like cooking,” Margalit said. “It’s familiar, it’s a process, and then you have this thing that’s comforting.”

After watching Peter make coffee, a friend told him that the multi-step process reminded him of a Japanese tea ceremony.

“To make one cup of coffee there are like 5 or 6 steps. It takes 5 minutes per cup,” Peter said, and he puts thought into each step.

He stirs the coffee, but not too many times. When he pushes the plunger into the coffee grounds and hot water to extract the liquid, he avoids bending his shoulders, which he says would be bad yoga.

“I picture the Earth sucking my feet and pulling my whole body to to Earth,” he said.

“And you’re not a geek?” I asked.

“I don’t think this is geek-ness. I don’t know what it is.”

“Pete-ness?”

“Yes, Pete-ness.”

Whatever it is, the result is delightful. I’m tempted to order one of these devices, but I will probably stick with my trusty pour-over Hario single-serve drip method, at least for now.

“I think pour-over coffee sounds super cool too,” Peter said diplomatically. “It’s its own tea ceremony. I think the only thing I would say is do something that you enjoy doing. Do something that you can pay attention to because that’s what it’s about.”

I think he’s right. Slow down and pay attention. And make sure to take time to smell the coffee—and drink some too!

What device do you use to make your coffee—or does somebody make it for you? Please let me know in comments or via email. And thanks for reading this edition of Ruth Talks Food. Please become a subscriber if you aren’t already. See you next time!

Grilled Cheese: A Comfort Food Classic

Toasted or pan-fried, open-face or closed, it's always in style--at our house anyway!

On one of our first dates, my husband Jeff wooed me by serving up an open-face grilled cheese sandwich: cheddar cheese on toasted rye bread, one of his favorite snacks. I was duly charmed. Many guys had taken me out for dinner, but none had actually cooked for me. Little did I know that this dish and one other—lemon chicken, which he also concocted in his small kitchen in Tiburon—represented the full extent of his culinary prowess at that time. (These days he makes a mean veggie burger!)

Decades later, grilled cheese is still one of Jeff’s favorite foods, though he usually orders it in restaurants rather than making it. His favorite is from a dining establishment called Local Grill & Scoop in Cannon Beach, a picturesque town on Oregon’s coast. Their version includes lots of butter and several kinds of cheese oozing out of the center, but the distinguishing feature is a great deal of parmesan melted into a sumptuous crust that clings to the outside of the bread. Tied for first is Sherman’s Deli & Bakery in Palm Springs, with their crinkle-cut cottage fries vying for the main attraction! Though the sandwiches are delivered in traditional grilled cheese style, with cheese smooshed between two square slices of toast and cut into triangles, my husband insists on separating the pieces. His explanation:

“Grilled cheese is so incredible. If you eat it open face, you get four pieces instead of two and get to enjoy the experience even longer.”

With that in mind, I decided to do my own take on grilled cheese this past week. This gave me the excuse I was looking for to make bread—and tomato soup, which I thought was a must with grilled cheese. It also would make good use of several pounds of ripe tomatoes I’d brought back from a trip to the farmers market.

The question I had when I first thought of writing about this topic was: What’s the best bread to use for a grilled cheese? For that matter, what’s the best cheese? It’s clearly subjective. What’s your opinion? Please let me know!

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The ones I remembered from lunches around Formica kitchen tables at my friends’ houses when I was a kid were probably made on Wonder Bread with Velveeta or American cheese.

My mother’s grilled cheese was an open-face version fashioned with whatever bread she had on hand—most likely rye, sourdough or challah—topped with cheddar and melted under a broiler. Usually the dish arrived with a black-brown crust that you would peel back to reveal a molten orange mass underneath. .

I dug up a copy of a book that some friends had given to Jeff years ago as a jokey birthday gift, knowing his passion for superheated bread and cheese.

In the book, Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Innovative Recipes for Stovetop, Grill, and Sandwich Maker, author Laura Werlin suggests the origins of the American idea of grilled cheese might be linked to a mid-18th Century recipe for “Savoury Toasts” from Eliza Action, an English writer and cook.

“This may well have been the precursor to America’s grilled cheese sandwich because she recommends frying cheese-topped bread in a pan,” then completing the melting process by placing the bread and cheese by the fire. The resulting open-face sandwich would have made my husband very happy!

Werlin’s repertoire of recipes range from the Original American Grilled Cheese with white bread, butter and American cheese to more modern variations such Grilled Cheddar and Broccoli with Cayenne Butter, or Grilled Ricotta and Shrimp with Cilanto Pesto; desserty dishes such as Chocolate-Hazelnut and Goat Cheese Melt, and Grilled Brie with Apricot Jam (on a baguette). Even quesadillas make an appearance, with tortillas standing in for bread. And “grilled,” according to Werlin, could really mean using a toaster oven, stovetop, sandwich maker, waffle iron—or the backyard grill.

But when it comes to making grilled cheese, at my house we opt for the classic no-frills version, though usually it’s made with cheddar rather than American cheese.

After friend Kelly Bevan said that her son’s favorite grilled cheese was one she was inspired to make from a favorite mac and cheese recipe from Bon Appétit, I decided to give the recipe’s combo of cheeses—Fontina, Gruyère and sharp white cheddar—a try.

On some homemade Japanese Milk Bread (a fluffy white bread that incorporates a paste of milk and flour called tangzhong to increase bread’s tenderness and shelf life), it was miraculous!

Instead of butter, Kelly uses a thin slick of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread slices and cooks the sandwiches in a cast-iron skillet. I love using cast-iron also, but you have to watch the sandwich with unremitting concentration since it goes from golden brown to charcoal black in the blink of an eye.

Since there are so few ingredients in a classic grilled cheese—basically bread, cheese and fat—the quality and taste of each makes all the difference. I used Werlin’s recipe for “The Best Grilled Cheese” as my template, varying the bread and cheese choices. I’ve tried lowering the fat content by using a nonstick spray, but it affected the taste—and the sandwich tended to burn even more readily. Clearly, folks, this isn’t diet food!

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One grilled cheese I didn’t try is another “classic”—a sandwich made with American cheese. Here’s a Food Network recipe for Classic American Grilled Cheese that looks perfect. I’ll be giving it a try very soon.

Three Loaves

I made three types of bread to pair with cheese, all from recipes from King Arthur Baking, my go-to source for baking inspiration, advice and often ingredients and tools. (Just FYI: I get no kickbacks or favors for touting this employee-owned company—I just happen to like them!).

What I made:

Sourdough from a recipe for Rustic Sourdough Bread.

Jewish Rye Bread, a recipe I wrote about in a previous post. It’s a bit dense and doesn’t have an enormous rise, but it’s another great pairing with an aged cheese. I also think it would make an excellent base for a Reuben sandwich.

Japanese Milk Bread, a great choice for the classic grilled cheese look—and a delightful toasting bread!

The Bottom Line

Grilled cheese is probably not something you should eat every day, but it’s a great snack, a perfect road food and connects many of us with happy childhood memories. Pick any bread or cheese you like (and, yes, store-bought bread is just fine!), and, whether you eat it open-face or in sandwich form, you may find you agree with Jeff on the subject of grilled cheese, at least for the length of time it takes to finish eating it:

“Life is about grilled cheese, laughs, love, having fun, and TV theme songs. There’s nothing else that matters.”

Thanks for reading this edition of Ruth Talks Food. Please let me know how you like your grilled cheese. Open-face or sandwich-style? Sourdough, rye, white or wheat? Ciabatta? Cheddar, Jack or Swiss? I’d love to hear from you! And, please don’t forget to subscribe to receive future newsletters. Thanks again for stopping by!

Art, Song, Food--and Ukulele Lessons!

A modern day 'Renaissance Woman' does it all

A perfect strawberry dipped in chocolate to celebrate a milestone birthday. A complicated cake that overflows the pan, but is rescued and made beautiful. A delightful honeydew-watermelon sorbet accented with cayenne.

These are some of the illustrated posts that first drew me to Jean Mann on Facebook via “Who’s In The Kitchen?” It was a group started by Beth Marlin Lichter during the pandemic as a way for folks who were stuck at home and cooking a lot more than usual to connect and share recipes and mouthwatering pictures of whatever they were eating.

I found myself commenting frequently on Jean’s whimsical watercolor pictures, created in small notebooks and accompanied by recipe notes and comments written in a spidery black scrawl. Almost every day, there was a new post—sometimes the artist was just musing on what she was eating for breakfast:

Or it might be a picnic of tofu banh mi, potato salad and fruit on her front porch:

“Today's lunch, brought to you by what's in the fridge,” she wrote in one post.

“When are you going to write a cookbook?” I asked on one post.

After talking to Jean for an hour on Zoom recently, I figure the book deal won’t happen right away. The girl is likely to be just too darn busy juggling multiple creative pursuits: music (guitar, ukulele, songwriting, singing, teaching, performing and touring); cooking (private home chef, meal planner and cook); art (recycled glass art lights business, watercolorist). Based on 300-plus drawings from her latest project, I’d say she’s a memoirist/graphic artist as well.

“I’ve been accused of being a Renaissance woman,” she told me. Sounds like an apt description to me. In the conversation from her historic cottage near Lake Washington in Seattle, which she shares with her small white pooch, Sunny, a 12-year-old mixed terrier, Jean talked about the many facets of her life and career. It was just a few days after a freak heatwave had sent temps in the Emerald City soaring to a high of 110 degrees.

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Her cottage, more than 100 years old, has almost no insulation and no air conditioning, so Jean and her fellow cottage dwellers, mostly creative types like herself, suffered. Jean was thankful for a cooler basement, which is where she offers ukulele lessons via Zoom, turning to the online platform after in-person teaching—along with almost all her other pursuits—became impossible.

Teaching ukulele to students who come to her from across the state and even out of state, occupied her, along with her daily notebook musings about food and life when the lockdown shut down music touring, in-person lessons and her recycled glass lights business.

When she turned 60 the day after the worst heatwave in Seattle history, Jean mused about how a person of her age should dress. She opted for colorful bell bottoms. “I don’t know what age I’m supposed to be,” she told me.

As for the art that first caught my attention, Jean began doing it on Sept. 1, 2020 as part of an artistic challenge (Art365 or #art365 on Instagram) to do something creative every day for a year—without any expectation of commercial gain. She found some watercolor crayons, a paintbrush and a tiny sketchbook with some empty pages—and that’s how it began. When we spoke, she was on Day 302 and had filled up five cell-phone-sized notebooks. She’s not sure what will happen after Day 365!

She never tries to draw exactly what she sees, but rather what she feels, tastes, loves or remembers. Sometimes it’s just an impression she had of someone she cared about who passed away suddenly or a wonderful ritual she repeats each birthday—dipping a ripe strawberry in sun-melted chocolate.

Roots, Food and Music

Born in Bellingham, WA, the sixth of seven children, Jean is mostly a self-taught cook (the “self-taught” label describes almost all her creative pursuits). She picked up a few cooking tips helping her mother and grandmothers prep for Sunday dinner and learned more about nutrition when she became a vegetarian at 12.

Her real passion for cooking started in the early 1980’s when she moved out of the family home. Around that time, she discovered Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook.

“It changed my life,” she said. And not only the creative vegetarian recipes. “[Katzen’s] wonderful handwritten recipes and illustrations influenced some of my early food sketches.”

As an Interdisciplinary Arts major at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Jean was able to satisfy her multiple interests in music, art and dance without having to pick just one. To support herself post-college, she created a career as a home chef for private clients, something she said didn’t exist at the time. She would plan menus, pile the groceries into a trunk on the back of her Vespa scooter, head for her clients’ homes in Seattle or elsewhere, cook the meals and leave them in the fridge with instructions for reheating.

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One day at age 35, while housesitting for a client, she picked up a Gibson guitar and rediscovered a passion she had put aside some years earlier. Three years later, she was inspired to write a song about a lost love, the first she’d ever written. She played it for her mother, who lay in hospice. It was a kind of art-as-therapy, she said, and it helped trigger a new career as a songwriter and performer.

“My mom happened to be just about twice my age at the time she died. I thought, ‘If this happens to be my halfway point, what do I want to do with the other half of my life?’ ” The resounding answer? Art—or, more specifically, every creative endeavor she felt like pursuing.

At age 60, Jean has turned out eight albums mostly filled wth her own songs, plus a few cover tunes like “My Funny Valentine” and “Moon River.” She describes her music as “an eclectic alt-folk jazz-tinged” mix. “It’s kind of poetry set to music.”

You can hear her latest album, “Feast of Days,” on her website, jeanmann.net. The site includes a video of a beautiful song she wrote called “Nothing in the Way” that describes “what a life of creativity means to me,” she said.

As for the recycled glass lights biz, that was also somewhat inspired by her mother’s passing as well. As she sat by her mom’s bedside, she brought some materials to create lights—multicolored remnants of recycled glass fitted onto strings of clear lights—and put a string above her mom’s bed. “I would sit there and look up. You could see this beautiful big circle of colorful, sparkly, almost circus-like lights. So that’s what she passed away seeing.”

Her partner in the glass business for the past 21 years is a 92-year-old woman who lives in one of the cottages. “She’s incredibly vibrant. You’d never know she was 92.”

All her businesses, including the glass business suffered during the pandemic, though, with restrictions lifting, Jean is contemplating returning to touring—but she’s taking it slowly. She does her own booking and her favorite venues for putting on concerts are people’s homes or gardens. Sometimes they’re multimedia events, like one she did in Belgium, which included a cooking demo and recycled-glass lights stringing, plus a concert for a group of women at someone’s home.

“It was so amazing! It was my complete happy place,” she said.

If I like, she said, she’ll put on a concert/workshop/cooking event at my house sometime. She might even make that chocolate croissant bread pudding she was describing. I may take her up on that!

Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy those posts for the next 45 days. Then I hope she decides to go on for another 365!

Thanks for checking out this edition of Ruth Talks Food! If you’re not a subscriber, please join to see future posts. Stay cool and I’ll see you next time!

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