When Paula Shoyer’s publishers asked her to write a cookbook of healthy Jewish recipes, it could not have come at a worse time.
She had recently lost her mother. “I knew I needed something to do, but I wasn’t sure what.
“I’d been eating badly and not taking care of myself. In the book’s foreword she confesses: “I had been grieving for months, which meant bad weeks and worse ones. Bad weeks meant more naps and eating a lot of popcorn.’ On the really bad weeks, she says, she would eat her children’s supply of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Before her mother became ill, the French-trained pastry chef, the author of three kosher cookery books had submitted other ideas to publisher Sterling Epicure.
“I’d pitched a few books to them, but they were not keen. I was so busy caring for my mother I’d put the idea of another book to one side,” she says.
Despite the timing, when they asked her to write the healthy book she decided she would take on the challenge. “Writing cookbooks is something I know how to do, and that I enjoy, so I said yes.”
It also seemed an appropriate time for the Washington DC-based mother of four, whose children range from 18 to 23 years old, to look at healthy eating, as she’d been suffering from her poor dietary habits. Her goal was to create recipes that used only natural ingredients, and she banished margarine, frozen puff pastry, soup stocks and most processed sauces from her kitchen.
“I took recipes that I’d grown up with and loved but were really bad for me, and updated them to give them a fresh spin.”
She didn’t want to exile traditional favourites from our tables. “It’s important to keep a connection with your family and their recipes. It would be sad if we said we couldn’t eat matzah balls or challah ever again, so I’m trying to preserve them.”
Over the course of nine months, she set about converting some of her favourite recipes into more healthy versions — a baked not fried schnitzel and an onion -flavoured challah — “It’s 100% wholewheat and is really soft”.
“I used two recipes my late grandmother taught me when I was first married: meat-stuffed cabbage and cheese blintzes. She had visited me in my first marital home, when she was 88 years old, and showed me how to make them, step by step. I watched her cook whilst I was furiously writing everything down and converting her ‘handfuls’ and ‘pinches’ of ingredients into actual measurements.”
The stuffed cabbage is now filled with brown rice and turkey instead of the white rice and beef her grandmother used; and the blintzes are made with buckwheat flour — rich in protein, iron and antioxidants. Shoyer says they were inspired by the crèpes she’s eaten in northern France.
She and husband lived in Europe for four years when he worked for the US Trade Representative’s office in Geneva, and have travelled widely there and the rest of the world. It was during that time she took a series of pastry courses at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris. “I had trained and worked as a lawyer and took the cookery courses so I could learn to bake better, really.” When she returned to the US she started teaching cooking classes from home, which led to her editing cookbooks for friend and kosher food writer, Susie Fishbein. “I realised I could do this myself and wrote my first baking book.”
With her background in bread and pastries, Shoyer has included traditional desserts like rugelach, babka and strudel. “I’ve made each of them with between 40 and 60% wholewheat flour and reduced the sugar content. They’re not that sweet but you can taste the chocolate. Here in the US, bakeries make things so sugary that cakes tend to be all sweetness and no flavour. People who try my versions are shocked at how different they are.”
Has the book changed the way she cooks? “I’m normally tired of the recipes by the time I finish writing a book, but I’m still loving these. I make the dry-rubbed salmon almost every week.
“For me though, healthy eating is all about balance. I describe myself as a healthy chef who loves pastries. If I know I’m going to have dinner out, I’ll try to eat healthily during the day. There’s no such thing as all or nothing — it’s not sustainable.”
The Healthy Jewish Kitchen is published by Sterling Epicure.