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Sweets symbolize a Happy New Year

Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana begins tonight

The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, begins tonight at sundown so it’s an ideal time to introduce one of the Miami Valley’s outstanding Jewish cooks.

In this case, we’re talking about Simone Sofian, who works as a community grant writer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. Simone, the wife of Temple Israel’s Rabbi David Sofian , has become well-known for her yummy cooking and baking. Each spring, she cooks a four-course Passover meal for the Temple congregation on the second night of the spring holiday.

We’ve asked Simone to talk about her love of cooking and share a recipe for honey cake, the traditional Jewish New Year dessert that brings wishes for a sweet new year.

How did you become interested in cooking? Who taught you to cook?

I grew up in a family where good food and good cooking were important. My family ate together every meal, with few exceptions. Every meal was carefully prepared and included a great variety of different foods.

My mother and her sister, who were born in France, married two brothers. They moved from France to Springfield, Mo., in the Ozarks. To this day, at the ages of 89 and 90, they still live a block apart, continue to cook and bake, and eat dinner together almost every evening.

My mother and aunt grew up in Nancy, France, the capital of Lorraine. My maternal grandparents were Polish Jews who immigrated to France right after World War I. My mother and aunt learned to cook from their mother who made primarily traditional Polish Jewish foods. Growing up in France, they also absorbed the French attitude toward food and learned to eat and make French dishes, especially from Alsace-Lorraine.

Coming to live in the Ozarks gave them the opportunity to broaden their repertoire. From my paternal grandmother, they learned Russian-Jewish dishes. Because she wanted to become an American, she learned to make some of the foods eaten in the region, especially how to bake pies. She then passed this on to my mother and aunt. She also taught them how to pickle meat and vegetables and how to make jam.

My maternal grandmother also moved to Springfield and lived with my parents. Every Thursday and Friday, she baked challah, babka (a yeast cake filled with cinnamon, chocolate or poppy seeds) and kaese kichel (sweet cheese filled rolls). She also made butter cookies and fresh noodle dough that she cut into soup noodles or filled to make pirogen. For Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, she cut the dough into small triangles, deep fried them and covered them in sugar. We call these fritlach.

What early memories do you have of meals and cooking. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t cook. My brothers and I were all expected to help in the kitchen. I was probably two or three years old when I started washing fruits and vegetables and learned how to do things like shell peas. I was using a knife by the time I was six to cut up vegetables and fruit, helping my grandmother knead dough and rolling out little pies from left over pie dough. I started to cook and bake around the age of 10 and haven’t stopped. When I visit my mother and aunt, we still sit down with a cup of coffee, talk about food and then cook together.

How does cooking tie you to your Jewish heritage?

People assume there is something called Jewish food or Jewish cooking. Jews have lived all over the world, and the foods they cook reflect that diversity. Even the traditional holiday foods reflect the countries and regions where Jews have lived. Since the great majority of the Jews living in North America came from central and eastern Europe, what is assumed to be Jewish food is actually Russian, Polish, Romanian, German or Hungarian Jewish dishes.

Jews adapted the local cuisine to fit the laws of Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. This meant no pork, no shellfish and no mixing of meat or milk products in the same dish or at the same meal. For example, Greek Jewish recipes for Moussaka have only meat or only cheese and custard sauce.

Another influence on Jewish cooking was the prohibition of cooking on the Sabbath. This led to the development of a one-pot meal that could be left at a very low temperature to cook overnight for lunch on Saturday. Most of the recipes have meat and/or poultry, a grain, beans and a starch.

What ingredients are most important in Jewish cooking and how are they used?

The only food that I can think of which is universal to all Jews is matzo, unleavened bread, that we eat on Passover. Since matzo is only flour and water, and there are strict rules about how it is made, matzo is basically the same everywhere. There are also traditions such as eating foods made with honey at Rosh Hashana, the New Year, or frying foods in oil at Hanukkah. But the specific recipes depend on the country. Jews also adapt their traditions as they move to a new culture. In Eastern and Central Europe, it is traditional to make apple cake for the New Year. When my paternal grandmother moved to the Ozarks, she learned how to make apple pie which then became traditional for Rosh Hashana. Along with honey cake, I also make apple pie every Rosh Hashana.

What are your favorite Jewish dishes?

When I lived in Israel as a student from 1972-73, I was exposed to Jewish food from all over the world for the first time. It was an eye opening experience. Just the variety of salads was amazing. I decided to learn how to cook all these different kinds of Jewish food and how to use the huge variety of spices, herbs and vegetables. One of my favorites in Moroccan Jewish cooking.

Did you cook with your children, grandchildren?

I cooked with my three children who are all grown up and married. Every summer they spent two to three weeks in Springfield — they cooked, baked and made jams and pickles with my mother and aunt just as I did. My children are all very good cooks and the two who have children cook with them.

I also cook with my grandchildren when they come here or I visit them. It is a way of passing down the heritage of taking pride in providing good food to the next generation. My grandmother taught me how to knead bread dough when I was very young, and I now bake challah with my grandchildren.

About 10 years ago, I put together a family cookbook which I revised recently. In it are recipes from my family, from my husband’s family and from friends. Included are stories about many of the recipes and the people who gave them to me. I also included some of my own favorite recipes and some that I developed.

How has cooking been tied to your synagogue?

I grew up working in my hometown synagogue kitchen with my mother and aunt. I truly believe that people cooking and eating together are integral to building community and that is why I do it.

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