Virtual Jewish Food Course Offers ‘A Seat at the Table’

Featuring the expertise of noted chefs, cookbook authors, scholars and restaurateurs, it’s a comprehensive guide to the Ashkenazi cuisine.
July 13, 2020

From the seder plate to bubbe’s brisket to bagels and lox at brunch, so much of Jewish ritual, history, culture and family life are tied to food. It’s also a comforting constant in these isolating, uncertain pandemic times. 

This summer, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Learning is making its vast digital collection of food-centric discussions, demonstrations, recipes, interviews and hundreds of archival objects available for free as part of its online course “A Seat at the Table: A Journey Into Jewish Food.” Featuring the expertise of noted chefs, cookbook authors, scholars and restaurateurs, it’s a comprehensive guide to the Ashkenazi culinary experience.

“Food helps to alleviate some of the anxiety that everyone is feeling in this particularly stressful time we’re in,” YIVO Executive Director and CEO Jonathan Brent said. “Food enables us to have that kind of deep experience of memory, sensory pleasure, imagination and knowledge. There’s a great deal of value in studying the history of food. And it’s especially relevant now, when people are locked indoors and searching for things to do.”

YIVO spent two years compiling assets for the course, including recipes old and new, videos and photographs. “Jewish people all over the world have a hunger to be connected to their own history. YIVO can provide that connection because we have 24 million artifacts and 400,000 books in 12 different languages in our library that people can connect with online,” Brent said. “There are recipes, discussion of the origins of different foods and the way they’re prepared in different countries and today in America. Chefs discuss the way foods are prepared in restaurants and how Jewish food has changed. There’s a linguistic component, a historical component, the recipes and the jokes that are connected to food, and all of it can be found in the class.”

Of Ukrainian Jewish descent, Brent, who also teaches Russian history at Bard College in upstate New York, has been with YIVO since 2009. “The meaning and the value of Eastern European Jewish civilization was not appreciated and largely not known. Most American Jews got everything from the kitchen table or ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” he said. “The reality is much deeper, richer, more complex and valuable. I saw the YIVO Institute as a means to make the real history of our people known to the outside world and to ourselves.”

He has fond memories of his bubbe’s matzo brei, which he tried to replicate without success “until I realized her cast iron skillet with half an inch of crud baked into it” was the secret, he said. These days, he stays out of the kitchen on his wife’s orders, but he finds that during the COVID-19 crisis, “food has become a very important part of this experience for us, as I think it has for many people.”

Cookbook author and YIVO contributor Leah Koenig “grew up eating a lot of delicious Jewish food on the holidays, but I didn’t get into cooking until college when I lived on my own for the first time,” the Chicago-born, New York-based Koenig said. “At first, I botched everything horribly. But cooking is a learning process. I like to say that writing a cookbook is the equivalent of a semester or two in culinary school.”

Her sixth and latest is “The Jewish Cookbook,” featuring 400 recipes that “go beyond the Ashkenazi/Sephardi spectrum” to include dishes from Morocco, Syria, India and Ethiopia. They range from simple (noodles and cottage cheese) to complex (babka) to personal (her mother’s latkes with homemade applesauce). Her recipe for Cinnamon-Nut Rugelach is reprinted below.


Prep time: 45 minutes, plus chilling. Cooking time: 35 minutes. 


2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour, plus more for rolling


1 cup walnut halves, finely chopped

1/2 cup pecan halves, finely chopped

3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 cup apricot jam 

For baking: 

2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water) 

Dough: In a stand mixer (or in large bowl using handheld electric mixer), beat together butter, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and salt on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes.

Slowly add flour, beating on low until just incorporated and scraping down sides of bowl as necessary until a soft dough forms.

Knead dough a few times in bowl, then divide and form into 2 round discs.

Wrap both discs in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 1 day. 

Filling: In medium bowl, stir together walnuts, pecans, brown sugar and cinnamon.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Remove one refrigerated dough disc, and on lightly floured surface, roll it into a large round 1/8 inch thick.

Using a ruler as a guide, trim dough into a 12-inch diameter disc.

Spread half the apricot jam evenly over the disc, leaving 1/2-inch border around edges. Sprinkle with half cinnamon-nut mixture and gently press filling into dough.

With pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut dough into 4 equal wedges, then cut each wedge into 4 wedges (ending up with 16 wedges).

Starting from wide side, roll each wedge in on itself up to the point. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough disc and remaining jam and filling. 

In small bowl, stir together sugar and cinnamon. Brush tops of each cookie with egg wash and sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Bake, rotating the pans front to back halfway through, until deep golden brown and the tops are crisp like a croissant, 30–35 minutes.

Immediately transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.

Makes 32.

Register for “A Seat at the Table” here.

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