Macaroni and cheese. Noodle kugel. Each dish features winding noodles bound by egg and soft cheese, the best iterations of both featuring golden crunchy tops. Of course, the two baked pastas have their differences: one tends toward saltier, more orange varieties of cheese, and the latter toward softer, sweeter noodles and, to the dismay of some, perhaps a golden raisin or two. While noodle kugel predates macaroni and cheese, the crunchy topping that has become popular on the Jewish baked noodle dish was inspired by its mid-century American counterpart. These two historically entangled casseroles, then, are quite obviously bashert. The ingenuity of the American-style Velveeta is wonderfully grounded by the sweet and earnest quality of the Ashkenazi dish’s signature egg noodles, making for a subtly different but wholly new, Frankensteined dish. And so, it is to our good fortune that we have the shadchan Shannon Sarna around, offering a recipe for this winning match in her warm hug of a cookbook, Modern Jewish Comfort Food.
When I first sat down to peruse Modern Jewish Comfort Food, it was after a long day of work and, honestly, I was not sure how I would react to the book. Worn out and sitting next to what is already a teetering stack of Jewish-themed cookbooks, I was pretty sure this one would not have me itching to get into the kitchen and give yet another kugel/latke/challah recipe a spin. However, I am happy to say that this is far from true. Sarna’s book both soothed my tattered seven p.m. nerves and indeed had me breaking out my apron. The book’s serene and undramatic images, coupled with whimsical and indulgent takes on classic fare (see: funfetti mandel bread), make for the perfect pairing. Sarna’s recipes are familiar but enlivened, perfect for someone hoping to spice up their standard Jewish holiday menus.
Many of the recipes in Modern Jewish Comfort Food are sexier takes on classics: sweet potato and sage knishes, for example, and summer corn zucchini latkes. Other recipes sit comfortably in the many food traditions that make up New York – area Jewish palates, binding non-Jewish and Jewish flavors: the corned beef and cabbage kreplach, for example (although, as Sarna notes in the recipe’s headnote, corned beef and cabbage — known by many as an Irish dish — actually came into the Irish diet during the early – twentieth century on the Lower East Side when Irish immigrants tasted the flavors of home in the Jewish deli staple). I found it wonderfully gratifying to see these iconic flavors come together, and the book is ripe with similar moments.With whole chapters dedicated to schnitzel, latkes, and chicken soup, Shannon Sarna’s Modern Jewish Comfort Food is a culinary survey of both coziness and fun, making it the perfect addition to any cook’s collection this new year.
Hannah Kressel is a current fellow at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She holds a Masters in Art History from the University of Oxford and a Bachelors in Art History and Studio Art from Brandeis University. Her research examines the intersection of contemporary art, food, and religion. She is an avid baker and cook.