There are two general camps of cookbooks: the kind that you keep on the coffee table and the kind that you keep in the kitchen. The former are big, sumptuous, glossy numbers, usually full of exotic ingredients and complicated recipes. The latter are often less pretty but functional, stained by sauce splatters and muffin batter. It’s rare to find a volume that serves both purposes, but Deb Perelman’s wonderful The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is one of them.
Perelman, who based the book on her popular website of the same name, describes herself as “an obsessive home cook,” and her recipes certainly reflect that. She tinkers, she recreates, she attempts to cajole people. Her buttered popcorn cookies, for instance — salty-sweet umami crunch-balls that should replace Rice Krispie treats in your next holiday platter — were an effort to convince a friend to see the merits of buttered popcorn. She updates old recipes, because, she admits, “my curiosity gets the better of me, and it’s usually worth the blasphemy. Her fig, olive oil, and sea salt challah for example, takes a classic and adds notes of herbaceous savoriness to the sweet and supple bread. She uses honey instead of sugar to leaven the yeast, and tucks a fig and orange zest paste into the braided dough. The result is something heavenly, and fairly simple, even if you’re not a seasoned baker. (Though, I confess, I abandoned her braiding technique in favor of a simpler one.) A dear friend of mine, asking after what I was baking, was the first to proclaim “heresy!” about the addition of salt and figs. He was also the first to ask for the recipe once he tasted it.
Fridays meant one thing to me growing up: the smell of my mother’s challah. Sometimes I would come home from school, ready for the weekend, and it would already be there — that comforting aroma of bread and honey. I would quickly run to the oven where the bread was baking and check to its color. When it turned the perfect shade of golden brown, I would remove it.
Other times my mom waited for my triplet sisters and me to get home from school before she started baking. We would run upstairs to change, trading our school clothes for t-shirts that would soon be caked in flour. We would pull up benches to the island in the kitchen, and get to work.
My parents grew up in Israel, but they immigrated to the United States in their late teens and had me when they were 20. So they have spent most of their adult lives here and raised me and my two sisters in a place very different than the 1960s Israel where they were brought up (their families lived a few blocks from each other in a suburb of Tel Aviv and my father and mother first met at age 14 in the neighborhood pool).
One of the biggest adjustments for them when I was born was figuring out how to pass on Jewishness. It was never something they had thought about before. They both came from fairly secular Israeli families in which being Jewish was part of the air they breathed. It wasn’t anything they did. Judaism, for my father, was the intense quiet that permeated the streets of Israel on Yom Kippur. They knew that this was not going to be my world and they would have to do something to pass on a sense of connection. So they started celebrating the Friday night arrival of Shabbat.