Cooking to fill others’ tables
Mere days before heading to Israel for a couple of weeks, Sara Ciacci, 90, called the Jewish Independent to make sure that I had received her new cookbook, Sara’s Kitchen: 90 Years of Devotion, 90 Recipes from the Heart (Gateway Rasmussen, 2015), and that I had all the information I needed about the Jewish Food Bank. For Ciacci, food and tzedaka are inextricably connected with life and community.
“Sara Ciacci is the beating heart of Temple Sholom’s kitchen,” reads the cookbook’s introduction. “From her kiddush lunches to the Sisterhood catering committee, second seders, women’s seders and the annual Yom Kippur break-the-fast, Sara has made a mission of nourishing her congregation since its earliest days. She is queen of all hamantashen, blintzes and latkes, and, every year, she and friend Leonor Etkin produce challot by the dozen for Temple Sholom’s High Holiday celebrations. Sara also makes the Vancouver Jewish Food Bank her priority, and all the hungry in our community will be the beneficiaries of all the money raised from the sale of Sara’s Kitchen.”
The Jewish Food Bank supports close to 400 Jewish individuals each year, according to its 2013-2014 report. Ciacci shared with the Jewish Independent an email she wrote to the Jewish Family Service Agency, which co-funds the food bank with Jewish Women International-B.C. and community donors. In it, she traces her memories of the service agency back 80 years, to the Depression era, when, like many families in the Jewish community, she writes, “my mother, two sisters and I needed help. I also remember Theresa Blumberg, the social worker who came to our home and found a reason to look in the food pantry, to talk with me and ask about school. She also found time to visit me during the 18 months that I was in the children’s preventorium for tuberculosis. It was Miss Blumberg who made sure that I had proper shoes and school supplies. My only possession from childhood is an 11th birthday book inscribed, ‘To my dear Sara, from Theresa Blumberg.’…
“My adult association with the Jewish Food Bank started in 1984 when our president, Jean Cohen, was helping a Jewish senior and found canned cat food in her cupboard. She did not have a cat. Jean brought the idea of a food bank for seniors and immigrants to our board. We then approached the Jewish Family Service Agency (JFSA) and an unofficial partnership was born. B’nai B’rith Women (now JWI-BC) would be responsible for collecting food and JFSA counselors chose the recipients. Hampers were provided based on a list that identified recipients only by a numbered card that specified their specific needs.”
Organized for a number of years by “two wonderful women who are no longer with us,” Renee Lifchus for BBW (now JWI-BC) and Isabel Lever from JFSA, “We packed the first hampers … in Safeway paper bags on the workbench in Carol Fader’s basement…. Hampers contained non-perishable food items that our members donated or collected from friends and family.”
In this tradition of community, several recipes in Sara’s Kitchen are Ciacci’s “by way of being begged, borrowed, copied, changed or invented.” The sources of these recipes are acknowledged, which adds to the community feel of this cookbook.
There are three chapters, starting with most everyone’s favorite meal: dessert. The second chapter comprises Passover recipes, the third, “and everything else.” There is an index for quick finds, a page on which to note your favorite recipes and their page number for easy reference, as well as a couple of pages to write in a few of your own recipes. Each section is headed by a full-color page of some of the treats waiting to be made.
The desserts section starts with a few tips, such as the need to chill cookie dough for at least an hour. Ginger snaps, blueberry drop cookies, and apple and honey cake bread pudding with butterscotch sauce are among the 36 pages of desserts to try after Passover.
In addition to the Passover conversion table – offering substitutes for flour and Graham cracker crumbs, for example – there is a spice guide, and pieces of advice offered throughout, such as how to ripen avocados more quickly and how to make radish roses. Appropriately, on page 90, is “Sara Ciacci’s Recipe for a Rich Full Life,” featuring nine wise ingredients.
Since I’m reviewing this cookbook in the Jewish Independent’s Passover edition, the recipes I tested are all kosher for the holiday: spinach vegetable kugel, red cabbage and almond crisps. Everything turned out according to plan, except the almond crisps, which were golden brown in about half the suggested time. I will remember this next time I make them because they are so good and easy to make, there will be a next time.
SPINACH VEGETABLE KUGEL
3 large carrots
10 oz package frozen spinach, thawed
1 medium onion
2 stalks celery
1 cup chicken [or vegetable] bouillon
3/4 cup matza meal
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat over to 350˚F. Grease an eight-inch square pan.
Cut up and grate carrots. Set aside. Chop spinach, onion and celery. Place in a two-quart saucepan. Add grated carrots and bouillon. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes until vegetables are soft.
Place the eggs and matza meal in a mixing bowl. Stir in cooked vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the mixture evenly in the baking pan. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Cut into squares before serving.
1 medium onion
1 average-size red cabbage
4 medium apples
1/4 cup canola oil or butter
1/2 cup water
3 tbsp (or more) red wine vinegar
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 or 4 whole cloves
1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
Slice onion and sauté in oil/butter until translucent. Shred cabbage. Peel, core and slice up apples. Place cabbage in a pot and top with the sliced apples. Add water and remaining ingredients. Place on medium-low heat and simmer one hour (or longer), stirring occasionally until cabbage is tender.
Adjust vinegar/sugar to taste. Some lemon juice can be substituted for the vinegar.
Perfect for Passover, these cookies also make a great gluten-free option at any dessert buffet.
3 cups sliced almonds with skins, lightly toasted
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites. at room temperature
1/2 tsp vanilla (optional)
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix (do not beat) egg whites with sugar. Add vanilla. Stir in almonds.
Using a tablespoon, make mounds of mixture on cookie sheet and flatten into thin rounds with your fingers dipped in cold water or with the back of a spoon. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Turn off the oven and leave cookies in the oven with door open for 10 more minutes.
Makes 20 to 22 cookies.
For copies of Sara’s Kitchen, contact Darcy Billinkoff at email@example.com.