Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adding Meaning (and Jewish Flavors) to the Thanksgiving Table with Recipes for Pumpkin Hummus and More

Pumpkin Hummus with Za'atar Drizzle
I recently had the opportunity to speak about inviting Judaism to the Thanksgiving table.  Other folks were talking about prayers and traditions and I was to focus on the food, but it seemed to me to be a larger issue -- that what we really wanted to do was to add meaning.

My resulting presentation started off with a Thanksgiving trivia game and then I gave a number of resources to help add meaning, explanation and participation to the dinner to make it a more of a home ritual observance beyond friends, family and football without losing its all-inclusive, American nature. I've also ruminated on adding more meaning to the meal (including some suggestions) in this post.

I also developed some recipes to give the food a bit of a Jewish twist.
The Pumpkin Hummus with Za’atar Drizzle is a versatile appetizer with Middle Eastern and New World flavors. It is quick and easy to put together. Make the Challah “Stuffing” Kugel with Fresh Herbs in a shallow baking dish for lots of crusty bits or a deeper dish for lots of succulent ones. Either way, it’s a savory way to serve dressing this Thanksgiving. If the fresh herbs are not available, substitute about a third of the amount of dried, ground sage and thyme. Canned whole berry cranberry sauce is the basis of a Cranberry-Date “Charoset” with pecans and orange zest. It combines North American and Sephardic elements.

Pumpkin Hummus with Za’atar Drizzle
Makes 8 appetizer servings

7-8 oz. container of unflavored hummus
1 cup canned or fresh pumpkin puree (do not use canned pumpkin pie filling)
2 Tbs. za’atar seasoning mix (or use 5 tsp. ground oregano, 1⁄4 tsp. of cumin and 1 tsp. sesame seeds)
1/4 cup olive oil
6-8 flatbreads or pita breads

Mix hummus with pumpkin puree. In a separate bowl, combine za’atar with olive oil and stir well. Heat flatbreads or pitas in dry fry pan or griddle until warm and toasted. Either serve as a topped flatbread or dip. To serve as a flatbread, spread the pumpkin hummus on the bread, drizzle with za’atar mix and cut into triangles. To serve as a dip, stir half of the za’atar into the hummus until just combined and you can still see “streaks” of the herb oil mixture. Drizzle the remainder on top of the pumpkin hummus. Cut the warmed breads into triangles and serve with dip.

Challah “Stuffing” Kugel with Fresh Herbs
Serves 6-8

Tofurky makes an a good vegan Italian sausage. Use that and vegetable broth to make this dish vegetarian.

1 Tbs. plus 2 Tbs. oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped carrots (cut into 1/4” chunks)
1/2 cup chopped celery (cut into 1/4" chunks)
2 cups chopped mushrooms (cut into 1/4" chunks)
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 lb. turkey Italian sausage, removed from casings and crumbled
1 Tbs. minced fresh sage leaves
2 tsp. minced fresh thyme leaves
1 lb. challah, torn or cut into 1” pieces
4 cups chicken stock
4 eggs, beaten
½ tsp. paprika

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large baking dish or casserole with 1 Tbs. oil. Put remaining oil in large pan, and when heated, add onions and garlic and sauté until softened. Add carrots, celery and mushrooms, sautéing until just softened. Add red pepper, salt and black pepper and stir well. Add crumbled sausage, stirring often to break up clumps until browned. Add minced sage and thyme. Sauté for a minute.
Remove for heat. Combine with challah in a large mixing bowl. Add chicken stock and eggs, mix well. Place in greased baking dish. Sprinkle top with paprika. Bake for 50-60 minutes until top is brown and crusty and kugel is set. (Timing will vary depending on dimensions of baking dish.)

Cranberry and Date “Charoset”
Makes about 2 cups

Besides serving this as a cranberry sauce with the turkey, it makes a great topping for goat cheese as an appetizer.  Serve it with toasted baguette slices.

14 oz. can of whole berry cranberry sauce
1 cup large Medjool dates (about 8 dates)
1 Tbs. sugar
2 Tbs. minced orange zest
2 Tbs. orange juice
3/4 cup pecan pieces (1/4” bits)
1/4 tsp. ground ginger, optional

Break down sauce using a fork, being careful not to mash berries. Pit dates, toss with sugar and chop into 1/4” pieces. Combine with cranberries. Add zest, juice, pecans and ginger (if using), stir well.

A slightly different version of this post originally appeared in j. weekly.

Adding Meaning to Thanksgiving -- A Resource List

An America's Table reader
Here's the list of websites I found to help create readers and other materials for creating Thanksgiving home rituals.  These resources are generally non-religious or ecumenical.

• Eight different “Seders” or readers are available at the American Jewish Committee’s website at

These are readers that highlight America’s diverse roots and shared values. The readers were created after 9/11 and are endorsed by a wide variety of organizations representing the full spectrum of Americans.

• Freedom’s Feast is another approach to the same concept. The founders looked to the Passover Seder model to help bring more understanding and meaning to the Thanksgiving celebration with a service/program suitable for all Americans. The site offers extensive background and other material, including songs and crafts.

• Fifty Thanksgiving story starters to get table conversations flowing:

• Background on the Pilgrims, Native Americans and Thanksgiving myths and facts, with discussion questions and a prayer of Thanksgiving from the Iroquois people:

Photo credit: America's Table

Thanksgiving Trivia Game

Felix the Cat was no turkey

Do you know what character was the first Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon?  Who was the first woman who stepped off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock?

You would if you played my Thanksgiving trivia game.

I created this to use an icebreaker at a recent event by sticking labels on attendees' backs. They had to ask others questions about who they were.  When guests come, label their backs and pass out copies of the explanations to help with the questions and answers and add to the learning.  If you have guests who are strong on Thanksgiving facts, you could make it a trivia contest over dessert.

Thanksgiving Trivia and Name Game

Who or What/Description

Squanto/A Wampanoag Indian who traveled to England and was later kidnapped and held to be sold into slavery. He helped the Pilgrims and was a friend of the colony. He helped with food and agricultural practices as well as translation and guiding. He died in 1622. His loss was mourned by the Pilgrims.

John Weymouth/The English explorer who traveled with Squanto and later paid Squanto’s way back to the New World after Squanto was rescued from slavery

Samoset/A member of the Wabanake tribe who Squanto met in England and who traveled back to New England coast with Squanto. He made the actual first contact with the settlers by saying “Welcome.”

Massasiot Ousamequin/ Leader of the Wampanoags. He sent his tribe members back for more food during the celebration when it appeared that the Pilgrims had not realized how many Native Americans would be attending.

Myles Standish/ Military leader of the Plymouth Colony and Mayflower expedition. Supposedly asked John Alden to woo Pricilla Mullens for him. Never a Piligrim, he helped found the town of Duxbury, Mass. The Pilgrims met him in Holland.

John Alden /Said to be the first person to set foot on Plymouth Rock. A ship’s cooper. In Longfellow’s 1858 poem is said to have courted Priscilla on behalf of the widowed Standish, but there is no evidence to that. He had Priscilla have the most descendents of any Mayflower arrival – including John Adams, Jodie Foster, and Longfellow himself

Priscilla Mullens /See above. Only 17 when the Mayflower set sail, her parents and brother died during the first winter. Her marriage to Alden was the third the Pilgrims celebrated in the New World.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow/ American poet and descendent of Alden and Mullens. He based his famous 1858 poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish” on family tradition, although there is no historical evidence. A great-great-grandson of the Aldens did publish the story in 1814

Mary Chilton Winslow /First woman to step upon Plymouth Rock. She later married the brother of a Mayflower passenger, moved to Boston and had 10 children.

William Bradford/ Governor of the colony for more than 30 years. Took major responsibility for arranging Mayflower exodus. One of the founders of the religion the Pilgrims practiced.

William Brewster/ Only one of original Pilgrims to have any university training. Helped organize the separatist religion and helped win approval from the Virginia Company to settle in the New World

George Washington /Created the first “national” Thanksgiving Day in 1789

Abraham Lincoln/ Created the recurring national Thanksgiving Day in 1863 with annual observances after campaign by Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale/ Wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – Writer, editor - She campaigned for national day of Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A Carrot Cake for Mark -- A Remembrance and A Recipe

Today would be my good friend Mark Rutta’s 59th birthday. Mark passed away from a massive heart attack on April 16th so we won’t get to celebrate this birthday with him or anything else. That’s not the way it was supposed to be. We were supposed to grow old with Mark, cherishing his friendship, support and loyalty, chuckling at his foibles and occasional misadventures, appreciating his help with everything from choosing electronics and troubleshooting sound systems to dropping you off at the airport at 5 a.m. in the morning.

Instead of sharing his favorite carrot cake with him today, we – his sister, partner, family and friends – are still processing his death. This is not how it was supposed to be.

I wanted to write this post after his death and found I couldn’t. I wanted to write it after his memorial service and found I couldn’t and even now this post isn’t going how I planned. That was kind of the way it was with Mark, being with him was a journey that you’d never quite knew where you’d end up, but you knew he’d be there alongside you.

Mostly I am still angry that he is gone. I think many of us are. Mark met my husband, Gary, in college, and later they were roommates. He was one of the best men at our wedding. We’d call him to join us for dinner when I made too much or something special we wanted to share. He loved to hold our babies, never minding if they cried. He wouldn’t pass the screaming infant back to us; he just figured the child needed to cry and that was part of the experience of holding him. He babysat for my toddler son so we could go to Lamaze classes before the birth of my younger one. He was a beaming uncle as they grew up, taking time to really get to know each one. He was there for us during the good times and the bad no matter what else was happening in his life.

I like to think we were there for him, giving him support, guidance, love and friendship, but I don’t think we could ever accept him as unconditionally as he accepted us. That was really a gift. He was never critical, never impatient, never judgmental. How we are and how we wanted to be were one in the same to him. Knowing Mark made me a better person because, well, because that’s how he saw me.

I – we – feel so cheated that he left us just when he had found in Karen a life partner and when we felt we had years to have Mark’s companionship and love to savor. Mark died during a bike ride, a sport he dearly loved. Some sought to ease our souls by remarking that at least he died doing something that he loved, but, too me, that was scant comfort. Art, another ex-roommate, close friend and the other best man at our wedding, put it best at the memorial service.

“I rather Mark lived a long live and died doing something he hated,” Art said. “That way we’d still have him in our lives.”

Part of me still can’t believe I can’t invite Mark to dinner or see if he wants to go to a movie or concert or just call him up to talk. Every time I walk on the street where he used to work, see his photo or have a random memory of him, my eyes still tear up, my throat begins to ache and I feel the loss all over again. I guess I’m still sad. But I’m also so angry. Maybe in time I won’t be sad, won’t be angry, won’t feel cheated, but certain things will always be true. I’ll always love him, value the time we had and miss him.

Happy Birthday Mark. I love you.

About the carrot cake:

Mark didn’t cook many things, but the recipes he made he made well and often. He was famous for his carrot cake and justifiably proud of it. The recipe originated with his sister, Elaine. Mark would make it for his birthday, other’s birthdays, potlucks, office parties, pretty much whenever he felt it was appropriate or requested. It has become the standard all other carrot cakes must meet for quite a number of people. The recipe was even included on his memorial program.

After he passed, his sister, partner and the friends all agreed we need to make the cake for the reception after the memorial service. I not just volunteered, but pretty much demanded that I be the one to make that cake, but everyone asked me to please lighten it up and make it less sweet. I don’t know if we couldn’t bear to have Mark’s exact carrot cake without Mark or if we had all grown older and our taste buds, waistlines and cholesterol levels had changed and we needed the cake to change with them. Below is my adaptation of Mark’s carrot cake. If you make it, please don’t forget to season it with love, kindness, friendship, loyalty and a smidgen of amused exasperation. And share it with someone special.

A Carrot Cake for Mark
Serves a Lifetime of Friends

To know Mark was to eat his carrot cake. Here is a version of it. The original in his sister Elaine’s handwriting is in the photo below.

2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves, optional
1 cup sugar (use 1 1/2 cups for sweeter cake)
1/2 cup oil
1 cup apple sauce
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups grated carrots
8 oz. can crushed pineapple
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 9x12 inch baking pan. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt. Mix well. Add sugar, oil, apple sauce and eggs. Mix well.

Add carrots, drained crushed pineapple and nuts. Mix well. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes or until cake is firm to the touch and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool and serve from the pan if desired.

Cream Cheese Frosting

The cake is delicious without this frosting, but Mark traditionally served the cake with it. Be sure the cake is completely cool before frosting. Mark's recipe calls for the full pound of sugar.  I've found the recipe works fine with half that amount.

½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
8 oz. cream cheese
1 tsp. vanilla
8 oz. confectioner’s sugar

Have butter and cream cheese at room temperature. Cream together, gradually adding vanilla and sugar until smooth.

Photo by Mark's friend from the Oakland Yellow Jacket's Club Steve Wedgwood