That’s so cheese-y!

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelery and gefilte fish. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. An expanded version of this article first appeared the Detroit Jewish News and it is reprinted with permission. (Part of the article dealt with making kosher cheese—a whole other dimension—and so the article bore the creative title “Jews for Cheeses.”)

Where does cheese come from?

The supermarket, obviously. It comes in neat plastic-wrapped packages.

David Barth of Oak Park, Mich. says he has “long had an interest in how people used to do things for themselves, things that we buy in a store. Once upon a time, people made them at home for themselves.”

When he retired after serving as in-house counsel for Consumers Energy for 33 years, he finally had the time to indulge that interest.

“My brother bought me a book of one-hour cheese recipes,”he says. “They all looked doable. I just followed the recipes and, with one exception, got what I wanted.

“The exception: I bought some goat’s milk for one recipe and then noticed that it was ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk. The chemistry is fascinating. You need the natural bacteria to help curdle the milk, as the experts warn, and ultra-pasteurized milk has no live bacteria.”

Ready in almost an hour!

Barth says that “one hour” in the book’s title amounts to a bit of gimmickry. Many of the recipes take a bit longer, but they are worth the effort. Guided by the book, Claudia Lucero’s One-Hour Cheese, Barth produced:

  • A very successful mozzarella. “I use it in all Italian recipes, like lasagna and pizza.”
  • A cheddar. “Not a true cheddar because it is not aged, but it tasted pretty much like cheddar you could buy in the store.”
  • A halloumi. “This was the one that did not turn out exactly right. I made it half from the ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk and half from cow’s milk. It was pretty good, but it did not have the texture of a halloumi.

  • A farmer cheese. “I recommend that anyone who wants to start with cheese-making start with farmer cheese. It is extremely easy; it takes 15 minutes and it’s perfect, crumbly and with just the right taste.”

Soft cheeses are easy

You make these soft cheeses by adding coagulating agents to milk. Add vinegar, lemon juice or the sap of fig trees, and the milk solids (curds) promptly separate from the liquid (whey). That, according to Barth, constitutes the most exciting moment in cheese making.

“Seeing it happen…seeing the liquid milk, and adding a coagulating agent, and watching it turn solid has an ‘Oh, look at that!’ factor. You might feel like this is produce you pay money for in the store. It needs an expert to make it. Seeing that you can do this at home is thrilling.”

(Note: This recipe features farmer cheese. It’s similar to cottage cheese but drier and denser. If you don’t want to make your own and can’t find it, you can substitute small-curd cottage cheese, but drain it first; wrap it in cheesecloth and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. If you do want to make it, here’s a recipe adapted from one I found online:  Pour a gallon of milk into a large pot, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the juice of one lemon. The milk will curdle within 5 to 10 minutes. Line a sieve or colander with a cheesecloth and pour the milk through the cloth. Gather the cloth around the curds and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. What remains in the cloth is farmer cheese. Wrap in plastic or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)


The great gefilte fish fight


Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopf and celery.

Gefilte (pronounced guh FILL tuh) fish is a Jewish delicacy that’s eaten year-round, but it’s popular at Passover because we celebrate the holidays with festive meals. Those who make gefilte fish from scratch don’t often do so for an ordinary meal–it has to be worthy of the considerable bother.

Gefilte fish literally means stuffed fish. Originally the European Jews who developed this dish would take a whole fish, scrape out and debone the meat and chop it (often adding chopped vegetables), put it back in the fish skin and bake it.

These days, few bother with the fish skin, instead forming balls out of the ground fish mixture and boiling them. You can get gefilte fish in jars and cans in supermarkets in Jewish areas–but it doesn’t hold a candle to home-made. Recently stores have also started selling frozen “gefilte fish” loaves that you can boil whole and then slice. These products are tastier than the canned or jarred products–but home-made still reigns supreme.

There are as many variations as there are European towns where Jews once lived. The biggest dividing line seems to be sweet vs. non-sweet. Sugar in a fish dish may sound weird, but trust me, the end result is delectable!

Here is a link to a delightful 14-minute film about three generations of women and their relationship to gefilte fish.

By Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

My grandparents made the big family seder at their apartment in the Bronx every year. When Grandma could no longer do all the preparation, other women in the family, including my mother, teamed up to clean and cook.

When Grandpa died, my father took over the role of leading the seder. When my mother fell ill and could no longer prepare for the seder, my sister Miriam (Mimi) took a few days off from work to get the house ready, and to help get Dad ready to host the seder each year.

This was a declaration, not a proposal to discuss.

The first seder without Dad

And so my sister came to visit us in California a few days before Passover, in time to help with the planning and cooking to get us ready for the seders. My wife, Marilyn, and my sister Mimi did the work together, to prepare; other relatives would come later, to join the celebration.

But it would be a bittersweet celebration. Dad had died in November. The seder would be in California, as he had foretold, but he would not be there.

By 1993, my wife and my sister had known each other for 24 years.  They had become friends almost immediately after they met, good friends. By 1993, they might have even been best friends to each other. On the rare occasions when they disagreed, they talked things over and decided together. They even worked together smoothly in the same kitchen.

And so preparation for the 1993 seders went smoothly, as everyone expected.  Marilyn and Mimi planned the menus, shopped together, assigned each other tasks, and cheerfully worked together preparing festive meals. Until they had a fight, their first real fight ever.

It had to do with who would prepare the gefilte fish.  My sister – who generally does not insist — insisted that she would prepare the gefilte fish. My wife – who generally decides in an instant what is important and what is not important – refused. This was important; she was going to prepare the gefilte fish. They could not talk this one over; they could not break the impasse. Neither of them could do any more cooking that day.

My wife suffered a night of interrupted sleep.  How could she sleep well, in the middle of a fight with her best friend? And why did they have to fight over a pot of fish?

Why did it matter?

By morning, Marilyn had figured out why who made the gefilte fish mattered, and why it would not matter anymore. Either recipe would taste fine, but the fish had a back story, or rather, two back stories.

My wife learned her recipe from her Grandmother Keanig. Her grandmother did simple cooking, only a few foods she learned to cook the old-country way.  Grandma did not work from written recipes – who knows if she had learned to read in any language? – but her hands knew what to do.

The last decade of Grandpa Keanig’s life, Grandma had stayed right beside his sickbed every single day.  After he died, Grandma Keanig flew out to visit us. During that visit, she taught my wife her recipes by showing her and cooking with her. My wife would recite her grandmother’s instructions out loud, and my daughter – then a first-grader — sat in the kitchen with a pencil and a notebook writing down those instructions in a childish hand.

Every year, in a ritual telephone call before Rosh Hashanah and another before Passover, Grandma would want to know how the fish came out. And every year, before Rosh Hashanah and before Passover, my wife would report, “The fish came out good, but not as good as yours.”

In my family, Grandma did just about all the preparations for the seder herself.  Grandpa made fresh grated horseradish with fresh-squeezed lemon juice,  touch of sugar and fresh grated beets. Grandpa made haroshes, a sauce of apples, nuts and sweet red wine. But Grandma did the cooking.  She had daughters and daughters-in-law, whom she loved and appreciated, but who were not allowed in the kitchen when Grandma worked.

Also unwelcome in the kitchen were the granddaughters, except for my sister. Grandma appreciated the way Miriam, even as a young girl, got things done, efficiently and quickly, with a minimum of fuss, cleaning up as she worked, taking instruction easily. Making gefilte fish was among the many skills Miriam learned in Grandma’s kitchen.

The question did not really hinge on the difference in flavor between the two recipes. My grandma, originally from Zlotopol in Ukrainian Russia, made a peppery version, perhaps in the Ukrainian style, or perhaps just because Grandma liked pepper. Marilyn’s grandma, from Brisk in Byelorussia, used less pepper and more sugar.

The root of the question

The real question hinged on whose traditions would go into making this seder. Which style of fish got served, and which person made the fish, really stood for whose seder we would have.

Of course in practice, the seder would have elements from both families. The fight was over. Mimi made the gefilte fish that year. The next day, Marilyn summarized the experience with the observation that she and her friend Mimi could manage “one fight every 24 years.”  I hope that does not mean they have another fight coming up next year.

As for the recipes, the notebook with Grandma Keanig’s gefilte fish recipe showed up a few years ago as we packed for a move. We gave the notebook to our daughter, who has become quite an accomplished cook.

A recipe in my wife’s card catalogue reads “Grandma’s Gefilte Fish.” It does not specify whose grandma, but it has sugar and not much pepper.

Note: Buy fresh fish and ask the person at the counter to fillet it for you and give you the skin and bones in a separate bag.


Stalking the ordinary celery

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.

Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?

Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.

My growing affinity for celery

I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.

This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”

American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.

I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.

Appearance over substance

In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.

When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.

Editor’s note:  A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor. 

What I Learned from the Yeasts

A Note from Your Host, Bobbie Lewis: Today’s post is by guest blogger Louis “Eli” Finkelman, a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer in the Detroit area. He is also a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home. He previously wrote about his father’s rumtopf and making pickles.

I wanted a recipe that includes white wine vinegar to go with this story. The recipe for Crispy Cauliflower with White Wine Vinaigrette comes from a fairly new cookbook, Balaboosta, by Einat Admony. Balaboosta is Yiddish for housewife, but it has the connotation of a woman who keeps an immaculate home and is an excellent cook. To call someone “a real balaboosta” is high praise! The author called it “Cauliflower Everyone Will Love,” and she spoke the truth! I don’t love cauliflower, but this recipe was a hit at a company dinner where the guests included four children; in fact it was the only one of many dishes that was devoured completely.


Late in the summer of 2010, I happened to gain possession of a few ounces of not-very-appetizing grape juice.  Give me a while to get around to telling you how that happened.  For the moment, let it suffice that it took some effort to get the juice.

I had a bit more than I needed, and I did not feel like just throwing that extra juice out. So I kept it in a Mason jar. Someday, I thought, I might think of what to do with this; until then, I can keep it someplace in my closet, where it won’t get in my wife’s way.

A few weeks later, I had another few ounces of fresh grape juice, and nothing to do with it. By now, however, I had a plan. I added it to the juice in the Mason jar in my closet, where no one would notice a bit more juice.

Yeasts at work

A few weeks later, I remembered to loosen the cover of the Mason jar. Grape juice ferments, even if you do not add yeast. Wild yeast will grow in grape juice, and, as the juice ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. If I had not remembered to release the pressure, the Mason jar in my closet might have exploded. A few weeks later, I tightened the cover. Yeasts do not need oxygen to work. Who knows, I thought, maybe the grape juice would turn into wine.

I must have gone though this cycle of loosening the cover and tightening the cover a few times. Eventually, I forgot all about the jar of grape juice in my closet. During the next three years, the jar just sat in my dark closet, undisturbed and unloved. It waited there.

This might be the right time to tell the story of how I got the juice in the first place.

Recreating medieval recipes

My wife likes to reconstruct medieval recipes from Europe and the Middle East. Many of these recipes call for the juice of unripe grapes, called verjus, and we had no supply of verjus. That summer, our neighbor offered us the grapes that grow in her yard, but said, “do not plan to pick them just yet; they’re not quite ripe.”

With our neighbor’s permission, we dashed over and picked a load of unripe grapes.

Pressing unripe grapes takes more effort than pressing ripe grapes because they are not as juicy.  When we had pressed the grapes, we felt tired of the whole project, but we had a pitcher of verjus. We poured it into little freezer containers, ready for the next medieval reconstruction recipe.

The green verjus in the top of the pitcher looked somewhat clear and attractive; it had a sharp, sour taste, just as the medieval cooks said it would.

Using the dregs

When we had filled all the containers, a few ounces of muddy-looking unripe grape juice from the bottom of the pitcher remained. I did want to throw that out, but it looked too ugly to use. So I put it in my Mason jar.

A few months later, when local grapes ripened, my wife and I picked enough grapes to put up a year’s supply of wine in our fermenter. After we had filled our fermenter, we still had a few cups of grape juice, the muddiest grape juice from near the bottom of the pail. I could have thrown that out, but I did not want to. Instead, it went into the Mason jar in my closet.

And it stayed there, more or less undisturbed, for three years.

I finally paid attention to the Mason jar again this summer. The bottom of the jar held a layer of repulsive brown opaque stuff, and the top had a few fragments of whatever, but in between was a perfectly clear, yellow liquid; it looked like a delicate white wine. I had a wine bottle ready to store that middle liquid.

I loosened the cover of the Mason jar, and smelled the heady aroma. I thought I recognized that bouquet. Then, bravely, I sipped a bit of the liquid.

No doubt about it.

An unanticipated treasure

It was vinegar.  I had a wine bottle filled with delicious, delicate, lovely, white wine vinegar.

When my wife had a chance to smell it, she agreed. A few days later, when we had emptied a vinegar bottle and relabeled it as homemade wine vinegar, we filled it with the new wine vinegar.

That gave me an idea. I threw out the muddy dregs from the bottom of the Mason jar, and put just a few ounces of the clear wine vinegar back into the jar. Then, after an evening of celebration, the last few ounces from a nearly empty wine bottle went into the Mason jar.

When I bottled this year’s wine, at the bottom of the fermenter I found a few ounces of imperfectly clarified white wine. That went straight into the Mason jar, too. If all goes well, I should have more homemade vinegar one of these weeks.  I may have learned how to make vinegar at home.

The moral of this story

So what else have I learned from this experience?  Only this: While I was not paying attention, unseen forces were busy at work, patiently turning my muddy remnants of grape juice into clear, delicious vinegar.

I did not need to direct the project.  I did not need a recipe. I did not need the illusion that I could control the process. I just needed to set up conditions where the unseen forces could work their magic, and then, patiently, let them be.

We had the word “yeast” long before Louis Pasteur discovered that yeasts are little living creatures, hard at work turning sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Yeast” meant the froth on top of the fermenter. Vintners, brewers and bakers knew that the froth helped the invisible forces ferment their wine and beer and raise their bread.

Vintners, brewers and bakers knew how to treat these unseen forces to let them work. Pasteur discovered why we cannot see them–because the living creatures are so tiny.

The invisible forces that turn wine into vinegar also have a name, a wonderful  one: “mother of vinegar.” Like yeast, “mother of vinegar” turns out to be a different bunch of Pasteur’s little creatures, hard at work making a product that we value, so long as we let them be.

Here’s the moral of the story:  If I pretend that I have control, and can get to a certain goal directly, I often fail. If I let the right conditions obtain, and have patience to let them be, sometimes humble tiny unseen forces, undisturbed and diligent, bring about the change I desire.

Sometimes the change they bring is not the wine we expect, but vinegar we can use–if we have the courage to taste it and the wisdom to recognize it when it appears.

Still Life With Brandied Peaches

A NOTE FROM BOBBIE LEWIS: In the mid-1970s, it seemed like everyone had a big glass jar of brandied fruit on their kitchen counter. It looked so pretty: yellow pineapple chunks, orange peach slices, maraschino cherries. And it tasted so good as a topping for pound cake or ice cream!

We got a “starter” cup from a friend. We added fruit and sugar, waited a week or so for it to ferment, then dug in. We needed to “feed” it every couple of weeks with more sugar and fruit. The idea was that when the jar was full, we’d  give some to a friend so they could start their own pretty glass jar full of brandied fruit. This was the pyramid scheme of desserts. It didn’t take long to run out of friends—because all the friends we’d already given it to now had growing quantities of brandied fruit that they needed to foist onto their own friends! And there’s only so much boozy pound cake and ice cream one can eat.

After about six months, we euthanized our brandied fruit by eating it all up. I thought of those happy days when I read this lovely essay by guest blogger Eli Finkelman, who last instructed us about making pickles. He is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home.

By Louis “Eli” Finkelman

He loved the United States of America. After all, he had come here as a teenager, alone in a strange land, and had found opportunities to raise the money to bring just about his whole birth family to America. He worked hard and planned efficiently, so that after his brothers and sisters came here, he continued to bring other relatives. He had to. His people had no future in Europe.

He took one job after another here, whatever people would pay him to do. At one point he even had a little kosher butcher shop, but he had little aptitude for butchery. His wife saw him try to handle a meat knife and after that would not let him cut the meat. Eventually he earned enough to move his young family from Harlem. He bought a new house in the farmland of the Bronx. He immediately arranged to join the other homeowners in buying land for a synagogue.

Summer in a tent city

Soon he could afford to take his family to the tent cities of Orchard Beach for their summer vacations. The tent cities divided by ethnic group. He could have chosen to live in a Jewish “neighborhood,” but he preferred an integrated one so that his children would see that non-Jews in America were decent people, and the non-Jews would see that the Jews were good neighbors, dependable people. He saved enough money to buy some rental property elsewhere in the Bronx, but even before the official start of the Depression, he earned very little. His tenants could not always afford to pay their rent. He would sometimes take his precocious middle daughter to ask for the rent. If his tenants could not pay, they would not take out their frustration against a little girl. He believed in observing American law scrupulously, both because he was an honest, law-abiding man, and because he owed a great debt to America, the land that had allowed him to rescue his family. One American law, though, he could not take seriously. Prohibition made no sense to him. He planted grapevines in the backyard in the Bronx, so he could have homemade wine for Kiddush: a glass of wine should always accompany the prayers that introduce festive meals. Even the law of Prohibition allowed a person to make sacramental wine at home.

A still in the basement

Not quite as legal, he had a still in the basement, for making overripe fruit into brandy. He knew someone who had a fruit store, so there was always a source of fruit. After synagogue every Saturday morning, and every festival morning, he would invite the people from the synagogue over to his house to share huge pieces of cake or great oblong fruit pies, and one small shot of brandy each. He understood that in America there were men who drank the rent money, who came home drunk and beat their wives, or who got drunk and did not come home at all. But he could not understand how those poor women would be helped by a law that prevented the folks who visited his home in the Bronx from having their one shot each of fruit brandy. The still lasted longer than Prohibition. He lived to see the beginning of World War II, and the beginning of the realization of his worst fears about what Europe meant for Jews. He would read the newspapers, in those days, and say one bitter word: “Civilization.” After he died, his youngest son took the still apart and got rid of all those copper pipes. So I never saw the still; I saw only the ceramic crocks that once held homemade wine and brandy, made by my grandfather, Elias Hirsch Lang, who died before I was born. I know these stories because I heard them, more or less in these words, from my mother, the precocious little girl who tried to collect rent in the Bronx.

An elixir called Rumtopf

The following recipe is for an elixir the Germans call Rumtopf. They use layers of fruit as they come into season, so they get a mixed fruit liquor as a result. The Joy of Cooking calls it Tutti-Frutti Cockaigne, the name for an imaginary country where people have enough to eat. (It is also the name of the authors’ country home;  they append the word to their favorite recipes.) I like the single fruit model. The alcohol and sugar should keep the mixture fresh indefinitely. Make it now, and sometime in the winter, open up the crock and enjoy a taste of summer! (For more about spiked fruit, see this terrific article from the New York Times.)