Seder whetted Leah’s appetite

PICTURE: Zivar Amrami

FOOD writer Leah Koenig was always neutral to food growing up in Chicago.

Despite releasing her third book — The Little Book of Jewish Appetizers (Chronicle Books, £13.99) — the 35-year-old only really became a fan of cooking in her senior year at college.

“I never had a strong desire to learn to cook, despite having a mum who was a wonderful home cook and who made family dinners a priority”, recalled Leah, who has a son called Max.

“My passion for feeding others was sparked in college while I was living in a coop with 17 people.

“Making dinner for the housemates was one of the weekly requirements of living there. It was sort of a ‘trial by fire’ cooking situation.

“I learned to cook for a crowd before I cooked for individual people.”

New York-based Leah’s watershed moment was when she was asked to make a seder in her senior year.

She recalled: “It was empowering to take these traditions that had been given to us and make them our own.

“I was doing it in rural Vermont so there were a lot of local foods and sweet touches that I wouldn’t have had growing up.”

The latest book, which features 25 recipes, is the first in a three-part series.

She explained: “The idea is that the books are highly-curated snippets of the best of a particular category of Jewish food.

“The second will be holiday foods with a global framework — there’s really an Ashkenazi bias right now, but it’s been fun to extend beyond that.

“The third book will be baking, sweet and savoury.

“I wanted to do something small and gifty, that was a sweet little snippet. Everyone has so many cookbooks that take up so much real estate in the kitchen.”

Appetisers, Leah points out, are very much a forgotten part of Jewish cuisine.

Leah, who is married to American Jazz musician Yoshie Fruchter, said: “They make up such a large portion of the meal, especially in Sephardi tradition.

“You can just go and fill up on the salads before anything else is brought to the table. I’m always discovering new dishes and things that I haven’t considered before.

“A lot of the ones in the book, I had made a note of over the years, but then there are the ones that I knew had to be in there, such as chopped egg and onion.

“There are also some unfamiliar ones like the Albondigas, which I first ate in a restaurant here that is run by an Argentinian Jewish lady — I knew I had to re-create that for the home cook.”

The future of cookbooks is often discussed, with many often turning to the internet for a recipe.

Leah concurred, saying: “The traditional cookbook is certainly having to make room for the other types of food media that are out there.

“I think a lot of people buy books but mostly cook from the internet. There is an appeal to a cookbook that goes beyond a recipe. It’s not dying, but it is evolving.

“Smaller books are a nicer way to go as you don’t have to commit to an expensive book.”

Although Leah loves writing cookbooks, she admitted that it “doesn’t pay the bills”.

She explained: “I really like staying up to date on what’s happening both in and outside the food world.

“That’s why I do freelance writing as well.

“Jewish food in general has seen a shift of interest into something worthy of exploration beyond the deli culture.

“I don’t think we’ve hit the peak with that, and over the next few years we will see a mix and match of the strains of Jewish food — I call it the Yotam Ottolenghi effect.”

THE Jewish Telegraph has three copies of The Little Book of Jewish Appetizers to give away.

To enter, tell us what your ideal appetiser is — not including chicken soup or chopped liver!

Send your answer to Koenig competition, Jewish Telegraph, 11 Park Hill, Bury Old Road, Manchester M25 0HH or email by July 14. Please include full name, address, phone number and, where applicable, email address.

Sweet Cheese & Fig Strudel

FOR centuries, strudel was considered the national dish of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it continues to maintain its powerful hold over Central European palates today.

Enjoyed by the wealthy and humble classes alike, the process of hand stretching the dough to impossible thinness, then rolling it with sweet (apple, cherry, poppy seed) or savoury (cabbage, mushroom, potato) fillings became a regional art form.

According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, “the ultimate quality of a housewife’s culinary skills was judged by her ability to make strudel ausgezogen (pulled by hand)”.

Strudel travelled to America with German Jews in the mid-19th century, where it became a staple at Jewish bakeries and restaurants. Today, many strudel recipes, mine included, swap in store-bought filo for DIY dough. If you have the time and inclination to try your hand at making your own dough, go for it! But I find filo to be a worthy substitute.

While not difficult to make, this dish takes a bit of advance planning. But the combination of cinnamon-perfumed cheese and wine and honey-poached figs encased in crackly, butter-rich filo makes it undeniably worth the effort. Serve the strudel as is or with a dollop of sour cream and an extra drizzle of honey.


  • 240g ricotta cheese
  • 85g cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt
  • 130g dried mission figs, stemmed and finely chopped
  • 35g black raisins
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • ½ cup dry red wine
  • 165g unsalted butter
  • 16 sheets of thawed frozen filo dough


Spoon the ricotta into the centre of a clean dish towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the cream cheese, egg yolk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Refrigerate until needed.

Combine the figs, raisins, honey, orange juice, and red wine in a small saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally and gently mashing the fruit with the back of a wooden spoon, until the figs are tender and liquid mostly evaporates, for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 200°C and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Melt the butter in a small pan set over low heat. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a flat surface and place one piece of filo on top. Using a pastry brush, brush the sheet of filo all over with a thin layer of melted butter. Top with another sheet of filo and brush with butter; continue this pattern until you have a stack of eight sheets of buttered filo. Reserve the remaining eight sheets of filo.

Spoon half of the cheese mixture in a thick line along one of the short ends of the filo stack, leaving about ½ inch of space along the edge.

Layer half of the fig mixture on top of the cheese mixture. Use the parchment paper to help roll the dough around the filling, tucking the filling inside and ending up with a long, stuffed cylinder.

Brush the top with more melted butter and carefully transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining eight sheets of filo and butter, and the remaining cheese mixture and fig mixture.

Bake strudels until golden, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool to the touch, then use a serrated knife to cut into thick slices. Serve at room temperature. Serves eight to 10.


Muhammara is one of the crowning jewels of the Middle Eastern mezze spread. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, and popular throughout the region, it purées roasted red bell peppers with walnuts, pomegranate molasses, bread crumbs, and cumin into a textured spread with a flavour as vibrant as the dish’s sunset colour.

Pomegranate molasses, which plays a starring role in muhammara, is made from pomegranate juice that gets boiled down into a tangy condensed syrup. It is possible to buy pomegranate molasses, but if you need to go the DIY route, simply simmer about 120ml of bottled 100-percent pomegranate juice in a saucepan set over medium heat, stirring often, until it reduces and coats the back of a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Any molasses not needed for the dip tastes wonderful drizzled over baked fish, grain dishes and cheese.


  • 55g walnut halves
  • 200g jar roasted red bell peppers, drained well and coarsely chopped
  • 2 spring onions, white and green parts, coarsely chopped
  • 40g unseasoned dried bread crumbs
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 tsp dried mint, plus more for garnish
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
  • 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • ½ tsp kosher salt, or more to taste
  • 75 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • Fresh pomegranate seeds for garnish


Place the walnuts in a small skillet and set over medium heat. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned, for five to seven minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a chopping board to cool. When cool enough to handle, coarsely chop.

Combine the walnuts, roasted peppers, spring onion, bread crumbs, garlic, mint, red pepper flakes, cumin, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and salt in a food processor and pulse until a chunky paste forms, scraping down the sides of the processor bowl as necessary.

With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil and process until combined. Taste and add more salt, red pepper flakes, and lemon juice, if desired. Be careful not to go overboard as the flavours will continue to develop while the dish rests.

Transfer the muhammara to a wide serving bowl or plate and make a shallow well in the centre with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds and a little dried mint in the well, then drizzle a little more olive oil over the top. Serve immediately.

Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.


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