Let's Eat

Sesame, spice and all things nice: a world of Jewish bakes

From the East End to Costa Rica and Jerusalem - communities worldwide inspired Anne Shooter's delicious new book


Anne Shooter was always going to publish a book of recipes, but a chance meeting with Nigella Lawson, finally got the ball rolling.

"I was having dinner with friends at the London restaurant Balthazar when I was introduced to Nigella, who was also eating there," recalls the food writer, recipe columnist and former Savvy Shopper for the Daily Mail. "I had previously dressed up as her for a journalistic assignment so it was pretty embarrassing, but she was very friendly.

"The next day on the school run, I was thinking about what Nigella's next book might be and concluded it should be Jewish and Middle Eastern baking."

As a food journalist and all-round foodie, Shooter had noticed a rise in interest in Jewish food and Middle Eastern food, here and in New York.

"I had recently been asked by friends for recipes for challah and rye bread as well as for a New York-style cheesecake.

"It dawned on me I could write that book myself. So that's what I started to do."

Another chance meeting led her to book agent Felicity Rubenstein, who loved the idea and immediately took Shooter on.

"Felicity's mother, Helga Rubenstein, was a former chef, whose sacher torte recipe ended up in the book."

That was two years ago, and at the end of last month, Sesame and Spice, Baking from the East End to the Middle East, hit the shelves. She had spent six months researching and writing it.

Inspiration was taken from communities worldwide.

"I did masses of research; my husband Dan's family live in Israel, so when I visited them while working on the book, we went to as many bakeries as we could find. From the Bakery Said Abuelafia in Jaffa - a tiny bakery run by Christian Arabs, where they make thousands of pitta breads - to a halva stall in Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem, to the really trendy high-end bakeries in the coolest parts of Tel Aviv - a real cross section. I did the same thing in New York, and every time I went anywhere, I found the Jewish bakeries."

She even found inspiration on holiday in Costa Rica. "The bakery I found there wasn't that different to one you'd find in Golders Green. The Costa Rican community is an Ashkenazi one - made up of mainly Polish and Russian immigrants - not at all what I was expecting."

What struck Shooter was that the story of Jewish baking mirrors the story of the Jewish journey.

"'Every ingredient tells a tale about where the Jews lived and how they fared."

But she also believes there is an underlying menu that binds us no matter which part of the world we hail from.

"It's why we are all eating similar food, wherever in the world we live. We have all come from the same communities but travelled to different places, taking the same recipes with us. So although there are variants, many of the dishes we eat are similar to other Jewish communities. We mostly have the same pool we dip into."

Shooter, who is so passionate about food, took a career break to train as a professional chef at Leith's School of Food and Wine a few years ago. It took her cooking up a notch or three.

"Dan said that even Friday night dinner became something you'd find in a restaurant."

Her new cooking skills plus a dip into her own foodie gene pool helped when recipe writing, and she cites her mother, grandmothers and aunts as her inspiration.

"They were outstanding cooks and used recipes passed from generation to generation."

It was not just the women. Grandfather, Teddy Gold, was an East End poulterer.

"His butcher's shop, Gold's Poulterers, was so popular, he counted the Krays as customers. He used to swap meat for West End theatre tickets from actors like Miriam Margolyes - we'd call them the 'wurst tickets'."

Shooter recalls maternal grandmother Freda Gold was an amazing haimische, cook - "Her apple cake was the best and is in the book" - while her father's mother, her booba, who was from Dutch aristocracy, "spoke like the queen, wore pearls and had weekly manicures" was the more adventurous cook.

"She used ingredients like avocados and pineapples ages before anyone else."

Shooter concurs with a view common in Jewish food writing that today, Jewish food is as much about hummus as it is about salt beef. And her recipes reflect that, with bagels and pletzels alongside laffa bread; while Hungarian monkey bread and chocolate orange babke, share a chapter with Sephardi bimuelos and (yeasted cake) bola.

For traditionalists there is challah, honey cake, mandelbrot (flecked with cranberries and pistachios) and kichels - credited to booba. More adventurous cooks will love the little twists. A chocolate biscuit fridge cake is given a Middle Eastern flavour with halva, pistachios and Turkish delight.

"Fridge cakes are really trendy in Israel. And so what I thought was 'why not do a Middle Eastern fridge cake with all the things that I love about Israel?'"

Even a pizza gets a Middle Eastern slant:

"Shakshuka is my favourite breakfast ever. I thought I wasn't going to be able to include it, but then had a marvellous idea." What followed is a cheese-less pizza topped with all the components of a shakshuka - even the eggs. Genius.

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