Author Joan Nathan tells of her five-year ‘Search for Jewish Cooking in France’

By Diane Stoneback, Of The Morning Call


Joan Nathan's father sowed the seeds for her 10th cookbook decades before she would write it.

The famed Jewish cookbook author, at Lehigh University to talk about her latest book, "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France," says "My father spoke French to me at home, made sure I was tutored in French and insisted I visit our relatives in France when I was a teenager. He was determined that I'd speak French fluently.

"By the time I was your age" she said to students who crowded into Lehigh's Sinclair Auditorium with members of the community to hear her, "I'd also spent my junior year of college at The Sorbonne."

Nathan says she needed her language skills and the help of her many French relatives to research this book, which was named one of the 10 best cookbooks of 2010 by National Public Radio, Food and Wine and Bon Appetit.


The culinary authority was the final speaker of a semester-long program called Food for Thought, sponsored by Lehigh's Berman Center for Jewish Studies.

Nathan's talk spanned 2,000 years and French versions of foods from Jewish Apple Cake served for Hanukkah in France to Sabbath stews including Alsatian Choucroutes and Pot Au Feus, Moroccan Adafinas and Eastern European Cholents.

"France is where Ashkenazic food began, resulting from geographic differences in the foods available to them," she says.

She described the influxes of Jews to France during those 2,000 years, from Africa, Spain, the Middle East and Eastern Europe and how they helped shape its cuisine.

"Jewish traders brought the seeds of eggplants to France. They introduced chocolate as a drink and became the country's first chocolate-makers," she says. Fougasse, a ladder-shaped bread, and macaroons also have Jewish links.

Nathan, who searches for good stories and good recipes for all of her books, has packed 200 of each into this book. In the process, this culinary anthropologist has created much more than a mere Jewish cookbook. It's a good read for anyone interested in Jewish history or in France itself.

The book opens doors to people's homes and lives — something ordinary tourists will never see. She observes, "Older generations still tend to keep quiet about their beliefs, carrying the fear of the Holocaust in them, while younger ones want to know who they are and all about their backgrounds."

"I'm trying to find connections between food and people in the remote and not-so-remote past. Breaking bread with a person and having tea starts the stories. Once we talk about recipes, they'll open up about their families," Nathan says.

A young woman approached Nathan in a hotel lobby. "I overheard you. My mother won't even talk to us about being a hidden child during the war and she won't share her recipes, either. Will you talk to her?"

Nathan visited the woman's mother, Danielle Fleischmann in Monmartre. The pair talked about her Hanukkah version of a Jewish Apple Cake and other recipes. Then Fleischmann told Nathan how she was sent to a Christian family who agreed to hide her until the war ended. Her parents visited her from time to time, but only at night.

Fleischmann told Nathan, "When I finally could join my family, I clung to my mother. I was always afraid she would go away again. Maybe that is why I make her food today."

Another of the book's dramatic stories comes from Caroline Moos, Nathan's cousin. Her recipe for tomato-cheese quiche was one of those highlighted at a reception following Nathan's speech at Lehigh.

Caroline's parents and 14 other family members were hidden in La Brutagne, a village near Limoges. Just days after the Normandy invasion, German soldiers arrived at the next village and demanded hostages to use in finding a stash of weapons. The mayor refused to give anyone up. The result: all of the town's men were shot; the women were shepherded into a church that was then torched, and the baker, who had given flour to Jews in both villages, was burned to death in his own oven.

Nathan shared fond recollections of her first visit to France. "As a teenager visiting my French cousins in Annecy for the first time, we started eating what I thought was the entire meal. It was just the first course. I fell in love with French food and have been ever since. In those days, however, I was not thinking Jewish food in France."

That would come years later, after she wrote "Jewish Cooking in America," "The New American Cooking," "Foods of Israel Today," "Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook," "The Jewish Holiday Baker" and more, besides hosting the PBS series "Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan" and appearing as a guest on numerous programs including "Today," "Good Morning America," "The Martha Stewart Show" and National Public Radio.

"I'd never thought about the link between ancient Israel and modern France. When I talked with my editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, she said, 'There's nothing on the subject. Why not? Go and make a little visit to France.'"

Jones, who had been Julia Child's editor, triggered what would become a five-year project for Nathan.

"Our food may have started in ancient Israel, but it is a wandering or roaming cuisine that's rooted by dietary laws, rather than localities. It is a part of who we are," Nathan said.

 

GATEAU DE HANNOUKA (POLISH HANUKKAH APPLE CAKE)

Danielle Fleischmann bakes this apple cake in the same beat-up rectangular pan her mother used. Known as a "Jewish apple cake" because oil is substituted for butter, it is called gateau de Hannouka in France. When Danielle makes the cake, she uses very little batter, and half sweet and half tart apples, a combination that makes a really tasty version of this simple Polish cake. Although her mother grated the apples, Danielle cuts them into small chunks. I often make it in a Bundt pan and serve it sprinkled with sugar.

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan

5 apples (3 Fuji and 2 Granny Smith, or any combination of sweet and tart apples), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 6 cups)

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/3 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped

1 1/2 tsps. ground cinnamon

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/8 tsp. salt

2 Tbsps. chopped almonds

1 1/4 cups plus 2 Tbsps. sugar

4 large eggs

1/4 tsp. almond extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a Bundt pan or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

Toss the apples in a large bowl with the zest and juice of the lemon, the walnuts and the cinnamon.

Pulse together the flour, baking powder, salt, almonds, and 1 1/4 cups of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. With the food processor running, add the eggs, oil and almond extract, processing until just mixed.

Spoon 1/3 of the batter over the bottom of the pan. Scatter the apples on top, and cover the apples with the remaining batter. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar (you'll need less if using a Bundt pan).

Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until golden and cooked through. The cake will take a shorter time to bake in the shallow rectangular pan than in the Bundt pan.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

QUICK GOAT CHEESE BREAD WITH MINT AND APRICOTS

When I ate dinner at the home of Nathalie Berrebi, a Frenchwoman living in Geneva, she served this savory quick bread warm and sliced thin, as a first course for a dinner attended by lots of children and adults. For the main course, Nathalie prepared rouget (red mullet) with an eggplant tapenade on top, something all the children loved. The entire dinner was delicious, but I especially liked that savory bread with the unexpected flavor combination of goat cheese, apricots and fresh mint. Now I often make this quick bread for brunch or lunch and serve it with a green salad.

1/3 cup olive oil, plus some for greasing

3 large eggs

1/3 cup milk

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 oz. grated Gruyere, aged Cheddar or Comte cheese

4 oz. fresh goat cheese

1 cup chopped dried apricots

2 Tbsps. roughly minced mint leaves or 2 tsps. dried mint

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with some of the oil.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and beat well. Add the milk and oil, whisking until smooth.

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper in another bowl, and add to the wet mixture, stirring until everything is incorporated and the dough is smooth.

Spread the batter in the prepared baking pan, sprinkle on the grated Gruyere, Cheddar or Comte, crumble the goat cheese on top, and then scatter on the apricots and the mint. Pull a knife gently through the batter to blend the ingredients slightly. Bake for 40 minutes. Cool briefly, remove from the pan, slice and serve warm.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

QUICHE SAVOYARDE A LA TOMME (SAVOYARD TOMATO AND CHEESE QUICHE)

After getting reacquainted over a game of ping-pong with Caroline and Philippe Moos, cousins I had not seen in many years, I joined them for a dairy dinner with four of their nine children in their house in Aix-les-Bains. The meal was delicious, consisting of a vegetable soup, an apricot tart for dessert, and this Savoyard tomato-and-cheese quiche as the main course. This is one of those great recipes in which you can substitute almost any leftover cheese you may have in your refrigerator.

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

2 tsps. baking powder

Pinch of salt, plus more to taste

6 Tbsps. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

2 large tomatoes (about 1 lb.)

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

8 oz. sliced Tomme de Savoie, Cantal or Cheddar, crumbled goat cheese, or cubes of feta

A handful of black Nicoise olives, pitted and roughly chopped

2 Tbsps. olive oil

1 tsp. dried oregano, or 2 Tbsps. chopped fresh oregano leaves

2 Tbsps. grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Put the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the butter, and pulse in short spurts until crumbly. Drizzle in 1/3 cup ice water, and continue to pulse until the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Cut the tomatoes into 1/8-inch-thick rounds. Remove the seeds, then put the tomatoes in one layer on a large plate, and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Let sit for a few minutes.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 10 inches in diameter. Gently lay it in an ungreased 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing the dough into the sides and trimming off any excess.

Using a rubber spatula, spread the mustard over the bottom of the crust, and put the cheese on top.

Drain and discard any liquid that has seeped out of the tomatoes, and then blot them dry with paper towels. Arrange the slices on top of the cheese, and scatter the olives over. Drizzle the olive oil over all, and sprinkle with the oregano, Parmesan cheese, and more freshly ground pepper to taste.

Put the tart in the oven, and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

Makes 6 to 8 servings