By Diane Barnett
As told to Liz Ison
My first memory of food was as a very young child during the Second World War when rationing was in place. There wasn’t much sense of “Jewish food” then. My mother, pregnant with me, her first child, had moved down from Hull to live with her parents in Wembley whilst my father was away in the RAF.
I was of the generation where, because of the rationing, we didn’t have the luxuries that we are used to now. To a certain extent, people cooked better then, with fewer fresh ingredients. Our neighbour owned chickens so we had a good supply of eggs and I would have a boiled egg for breakfast every morning. My grandfather grew raspberry and gooseberry bushes in the garden. I remember clearly the day during the Blitz that my grandparents’ front door was blown in by a nearby bomb.
After the war, mothers spoilt their children when they could, although rationing continued for several years. I was the envy of all my friends when I had ice-cream for my fourth birthday party. My mother would also make indulgent puddings, like golden syrup tart and steamed chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce, which really felt extravagant when we had been used to chocolate as a very special treat to be had with the four ration points you needed to buy a bar of it.
In later years, my daughter Harriet loved her grandmother’s Sunday lunches. There would be “best end of lamb” followed by my mother’s idiosyncratic version of apple charlotte, which was actually apple with a topping of breadcrumbs and sugar.
For me, a love of cooking started when I married Neville fifty years ago. My cousin gave me some sound advice: “there’s no mystique to cooking. Just read the recipe carefully, and follow what it says exactly. If you like it, then you can make changes after that.” This has always worked for me, and I have loved cooking since then.
I would try out traditional Jewish recipes, like chopped liver, chicken soup and fried fish. We still love a bowl of chicken soup with matzah balls – throughout the year – made from matzah and bound with ground almonds. But my cooking influences are wider than that and I wouldn’t say I brought up my children Andrew and Harriet exclusively on traditional Jewish dishes.
Like many other Jewish brides of the 1960s, I was given a copy of Florrie Greenberg’s Jewish Cookbook for a wedding present. I still make her Passover almond pudding, and like to have a look through my well thumbed copy though now I also enjoy the recipes of Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Gary Rhodes and especially Claudia Roden. Claudia Roden’s latest book, the Food of Spain, has a very interesting chapter on the history and influence of Jewish cooking on Spanish cuisine.
I want to mention two particular family recipes. First there is my mother-in-law’s signature dish: beef with pickled walnut. The walnuts can be bought in a jar. They are then mashed with some flour, stock and two tablespoons of vinegar. The meat is then braised in the mixture and has a lovely, rich flavour.
I also make fried fish, like my mother and grandmother. The fish is coated in flour, then egg, and finally breadcrumbs before frying in oil. We usually eat it cold with salads. Cold fried fish prepared in this way originated amongst the Portuguese Jews in the Middle Ages and the method was brought to England by the Marranos (crypto-Jews) in the sixteenth century. As Claudia Roden explains in The Book of Jewish Food, Joseph Malin – an Eastern European immigrant – founded a fish business in 1860 in the East End of London, selling fried fish with chips. This winning combination of fish (eaten hot) and chips went on to become the British national dish.
I make this with chicken soup. Usually, I have roast chicken for one meal, then use the chicken carcass to make the soup. I skim the fat off the surface of the soup and use it for frying the onion for the matzah balls, which gives it a special flavour. Alternatively, olive oil can be used.
Makes about 7 medium matzah balls
- 1 medium onion
- A little chicken fat (or olive oil)
- 4 matzahs
- 1 egg
- About 2 tablespoons of ground almonds
- A few slivered almonds (optional)
- Salt & pepper
- Matzah meal (for coating)
Finely chop and sweat a medium onion in chicken fat (or olive oil).
Meanwhile soak 4 matzahs in cold water. Drain into a sieve and press out the water. Put them in a bowl and add the onions, one egg, salt and pepper and stir. Add enough ground almonds to bind the mixture, and a few slivered almonds to add crunch if you wish.
Roll them into balls (I make them the size of a golf ball) and then roll in fine matzah meal. Drop into simmering chicken soup, for five or ten minutes. Or you can freeze them and just drop them into chicken soup next time you make it.
I serve two matzah balls for each bowl of soup.
Dona Maria’s Gazpacho
Dona Maria gave me this authentic recipe for gazpacho when we were staying with her in Spain in the summer of 1963, the year the Pope passed away. My father-in-law’s business was to import the sherry produced from her family’s vineyards to England. Every morning, Dona Maria would go into the kitchen where the servants would be waiting for instructions on what to assemble and cook from the fresh ingredients they had gathered.
It is best to make this in a liquidiser, or a food processor.
- 1 pound of tomatoes (no need to skin or deseed)
- 1 whole red pepper (from a jar or tin of roasted peppers)
- 5oz bread, crusts cut off
- ½ wine glass of olive oil
- ¼ – ½ glass of (malt) vinegar
Liquidise the tomatoes and pepper. Soak the bread in water, then squeeze out the liquid. Whilst the processor is running, add the bread, a little at a time. With the liquidiser still running, add the oil and vinegar slowly. Then add as much water as you want, depending on whether you want a thicker or thinner consistency. Chill. When the weather is very hot, I like to make the soup thin and serve it as a drink.
To serve, spoon some of the following into the bottom of your bowl: diced green peppers, cucumber and tomato, chopped hardboiled egg, chopped avocado, croutons. Then pour the chilled soup over the top.
Florrie Greenberg’s Almond Pudding
This is a lovely Passover dish using just three ingredients. I make it every year, and it is delicious accompanied with stewed fruit.
Flourless almond Passover cakes can be traced back to the Sephardim of Spain. Claudia Roden, in her Food of Spain, describes an almond cake (with citrus flavours) that is sold today in the pastry shops of the pilgrim town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The cake sold there is dusted with icing sugar showing the Santiago cross in relief. Roden guesses the cake would originally have been a Passover one.
- 4 eggs
- 150g (5oz) sugar
- 110g (4oz) ground almonds
Mix the eggs and sugar in a food mixer until very white, thick and fluffy. Then fold in the ground almonds, either by hand, or on the lowest setting of the food mixer. Pour into a well-buttered pudding dish. Bake 175(c) for 45-50 minutes. Serve cold.
My Sultana Cheesecake
When I first got married, I tried all sorts of cheesecake recipes, till I came across this one. For the last forty years, I just use this one and don’t vary the recipe – it is always popular. This should be made the day before you want to eat it to allow the flavour to mature.
- 180g or 12 digestive biscuits, finely crushed
- 3 eggs
- 4 tablespoons of caster sugar (plus a little extra for beating with the egg whites)
- 150ml (¼ pint) soured cream
- 450g (1 lb) of soft cream cheese
- 1 tablespoon of sultanas
- 1 heaped tablespoon of cornflour
Pre-heat the oven to 170(c) fan or 190(c) regular
Line a round 9inch tin with a white fluted paper lining (I buy mine from Lakeland) or line with baking parchment. Press the crushed biscuits into the base.
Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks with the sugar. Add the cream cheese and beat again till smooth. Add the sultanas, cornflour and sour cream and incorporate. Beat the egg whites with a little sugar till stiff and forming peaks. Fold the whites into the cheese mixture and then spoon on top of the biscuits.
Bake in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes. Turn off the heat, open the oven door and leave for a further 15 minutes. Cool completely.
Elizabeth David was one of the first great food writers after the last war. She is famous for a number of cookery books including French Provincial Cooking. Once you have tried her chocolate mousse you won’t need to find another recipe for it.
- 110g (4oz) dark chocolate
- 4 eggs
- 25g (1 oz) softened butter
Melt chocolate either in a bowl over simmering water or in a microwave – about 2 ½ minutes but be careful if using the microwave.
Separate the eggs and stir the yolks into the melted chocolate until well incorporated. Add the butter and stir well
Whip the egg whites until they hold their peaks. Fold into chocolate mixture and then stir vigorously. This is important so as to get a lot of air into the mixture.
Refrigerate for two or three hours before use.
I use 6oz(175g) to 6 eggs and 1 ½ oz(40g) butter as what used to be a half pound bar of chocolate is now only 7 oz (200g). For parties or family gatherings scale up the amount of ingredients. For larger families who love chocolate, use 12 oz. chocolate etc
Chani Smith’s Avocado Dessert
Chani Smith is the wife of our former Rabbi, Danny Smith. Among her many accomplishments, Chani produced many delicious recipes. Until she gave me this recipe I had not thought of avocados being used in a dessert. The recipe works with medium to large avocados and with or without the liqueur.
- 2 avocados
- 1/3 cup caster sugar
- 1 tbl lemon juice + 1 tbl liqueur – cointreau is ideal or 2 tbls lemon juice ¼ pt double cream (if you want a very creamy result use ½ pt)
Process the avocado, sugar, lemon juice and liqueur, if used, until smooth and lump free. Beat cream until it forms soft peaks and fold into avocado mixture. Cover tightly with cling film and refrigerate
It’s important to cover the dessert tightly with cling film or the dessert will lose its vibrant green colour.
Photos by L. Ison