Every family has a dark culinary secret. A certain dish that must be served at every festive meal, but hidden away when there are guests who haven’t been prepared for it beforehand. Usually it’s something that originated in a distant land and comes with a tale of poverty in the ghetto or luxury in the Sultan’s palace. Sometimes it looks appetizing and sometimes its appeal is hard to fathom, but there’s no doubt that such dishes keep the family together.
I am talking about treats like calf’s foot jelly, cow udder, brain patties, tongue and even gefiltefish. In our family we have pipelklach. Pipelklach consists of belly-buttons. Chicken belly-buttons – though some say they are gizzards. But what does it matter? The idea is revolting either way. To this main ingredient you add lots of soup powder (chicken and mushroom), fried onions and tinned mushrooms. You can also add a few cubes of chicken liver or other internal organs, but the basic ingredient is plenty as it is. You cook it for several hours at least, because this meat never becomes really tender, and the result: culinary heaven. A combination of greasy textures and flavors that together form a dish you just can’t stop eating.
At our house, it’s served as a first course, alongside the gefilte fish. New significant others and guests have to be carefully briefed before this dish is placed on the table and all the family members pounce on it as if they haven’t seen food for years. You have to explain that it only sounds disgusting, but is really delicious, that it’s not really made with chicken belly-buttons, and that as soon as they see how much everyone is enjoying it, they’ll understand that it’s a delicacy not to be missed.
I was reminded of pipelklach when I received a copy of Efrat Libfroind’s new book “Efrat Presents Shabbat,” a collection of recipes for the Shabbat table. I wondered if our pipelklach made the cut, and if not that, at least the calf’s foot jelly. I thought the book would transport me straight to the shtetl. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Libfroind, I learned, is the high priestess of the religious culinary scene, and has gained fame largely for the pastries and desserts she creates – pareve and dairy desserts to suit every occasion, as her website informed me. There I also found recipes for things like “chocolate nougat and sesame ‘sushi’” and “delectable chicken nuggets.” Libfroind says her new book came about after she received many requests from readers for Shabbat dishes that taste good when reheated on a hot plate, for pareve desserts and dishes that don’t require lengthy preparation. I set out to see whether the readers’ demands had been met.
Craving more chraimeh
Like the author’s website, the book bears no resemblance whatsoever to the shtetl. Anatoly Michaello’s photographs and Keren Barak’s styling present these Shabbat dishes as if they’d been created in a three-star Michelin restaurant. The desserts look like something you might see in the window of a boutique patisserie in Paris. But at first glance, it’s obvious that these are not desserts you can whip up easily.
Among the first courses, pipelklach was nowhere to be seen, alas. So I started with the baked chraimeh. The chraimeh sauce is cooked in a pot on the stove, then poured over the fish and put in the oven for exactly 14 minutes. I’m happy to report that this was the tastiest chraimeh recipe I’ve ever made. So yummy that the next day I made another batch of sauce without the fish – I ate some with a pita, some with schnitzel, and spooned a little of it right into my mouth. The combination of ingredients somehow added up to the most wonderful taste, of which I instantly craved more.
I tried another fish recipe, grilled trout with walnuts and maple. A very simple dish – fish fillets with a little maple syrup, oil, soy sauce, garlic and walnuts. A basic dish with a basic flavor. It tasted okay, but there was no wow factor. And I’m rather doubtful that this fish would maintain its juiciness on a hot plate. From my experience, it’s very hard to keep fish from getting dried out in the oven, and if it’s juicy when done, the chance of it remaining that way even after brief reheating is next to nil.
For the main course I made chicken patties in eggplant and silan sauce, which the book described as “a rich dish with a unique aroma of chestnuts, eggplant, silan and chicken that merge to form an Oriental treat.” You combine all the ingredients for the patties and fry them. They turned out to be extremely tasty, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. I immediately put 15 of them into a plastic container to save in the fridge, and then I started on the sauce.
As I was making it, I began to worry that it was going to be too rich and too Oriental. Eggplant and chestnuts and a half-cup of silan? And indeed, for me it was a bit much, and a bit too sweet. So I added a whole cup of water before I added the patties to the sauce. It helped, but if I hadn’t diluted it, the flavors would have been overpowering – to my taste, at least. Either way, the only possible accompaniment for this dish is plain white rice.
Then I started working on the potato and onion gratin, mostly because I was curious about what a gratin made with coconut milk instead of cream and butter would taste like. It came out fine as a potato and onion dish, but coconut milk is not a good substitute for cream and butter here. In any case, the patties were so rich and filling that it didn’t matter all that much.
Libfroind’s desserts look amazing in the photos, but every one of them was so complicated and involved so many stages that they were far from being the simple Shabbat recipes readers had requested. Two entire pages (without pictures) to make a chocolate-caramel mousse atop meringue puffs; or a page densely crammed with text for a chocolate cake with “million-dollar frosting.” In a rush to get ready for Shabbat? All these desserts look like they would take an entire day to prepare.
In conclusion, I actually enjoy it when the Friday night meal or Saturday lunch have a more traditional basis. I don’t feel these are occasions to experiment with million-dollar frostings. Friday night dinner should be chicken soup and pot roast, unless, of course, someone has a birthday, and then it’s tongue and pipelklach.
Finally, a few words for Efrat: Many of the recipes are wonderful and the pictures are lovely, but repeating your name or your first initial throughout the book gets to be a bit irritating. To quote some words of wisdom from the French humorist Philippe Bouvard: “Modesty is the art of letting others say all the good things that we think about ourselves.”
“Efrat Presents Shabbat: Perfect Recipes for the Shabbat Table,” by Efrat Libfroind. Photos: Anatoly Michaello. Danny Books, 143 pp., 88 shekels