Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
To call “Eat Something” a cookbook would do it a disservice. It is much more than that.
Subtitled “A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews” and co-written by Wise Sons co-owner Evan Bloom and S.F.-based freelance writer Rachel Levin, the book includes recipes from the local Jewish deli, founded as a pop-up in 2010. But shining next to the 60 or so recipes is a collection of essays about Jews, Jewish rituals, holidays, culture and the oversize role food plays in all of that.
As someone very Jewishly identified, I had many moments of instant recognition while reading this book. A double-page spread called “We Found It in Grandma’s Pocketbook” shows typical miscellany found in said older Jewish woman’s purse, such as hard candies and packets of Sweet’N Low, which made me think “How did they get inside my grandmother’s pocketbook?” At the same time, I think this would be a wonderfully entertaining primer for those who want to know more about Jews.
No doubt some readers will find the shtick factor a bit over the top, but I kept coming across passages that made me laugh out loud, like the essay “On Jews & Drinking” in which Levin begins: “My mom went through a fleeting Cosmopolitan phase, meaning she had one once, at my sister’s wedding,” and an essay called “The L Word,” which opens with, “I once witnessed what looked like a drug deal at a Yom Kippur break-the-fast” — the “drug” in question was Lactaid.
I also was surprised at how much I learned — that eating favorite foods during last meals before leaving for Jewish summer camp is a thing, and that despite the ubiquity of bagels served at bris ceremonies, it turns out we’re doing it wrong because the Talmud commands us to serve meat at a bris. (That’s in the chapter titled “On Pastrami & Penises.”)
The chapters are broken down into all the holidays, yes, but so many other aspects of Jewish culture are covered as well, for example the Jewish love for Chinese food, especially on Christmas. And the “Dinner with the Goyim In-Laws: So, You Didn’t Marry a Jew” chapter includes a recipe for “Intermarriage Meat Loaf with Melted Onions.”
Fans of Wise Sons will find their favorite recipes, such as chocolate babka (in the “Are You Pregnant Yet?” chapter) and Chinese Chicken Salad.
One thing missing, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that while Wise Sons pastrami is featured in at least 10 recipes, in everything from burgers to breakfast tacos to pastrami fried rice, there is no recipe for the pastrami itself. Having made pastrami from scratch myself once, I know that having a slab of meat in brine for a week without a walk-in fridge at home is a commitment that goes beyond the scope of many home cooks. However, I think it would have been wise to leave it up to the home cook to decide, as store-bought pastrami will never be as tasty as one made by an artisanal deli or at home.
“Eat Something” is more than slightly reminiscent of the 2005 instant classic “Bar Mitzvah Disco: The Music May Have Stopped, But the Party’s Never Over” by Roger Bennett, Nick Kroll and Jules Shell, a coffee-table book full of dated b’nai mitzvah photos of awkward adolescents. Fourteen years later, it’s high time for a new generation to have its own book with its own dated photos of awkward adolescents, along with grandparents in their Boca finery.
That’s by design, as Bloom and Levin explain in the introduction, admitting that they looked to that earlier book for inspiration. They sum it up this way:
“Our lives, as Jews, revolve around food in a way that’s at once fanatical, logical, and comical, and to be honest, kind of pathological. Especially when family is in town. Meals are plotted with the care and calculation of a presidential campaign. While spreading the cream cheese on our bagels, we discuss where we should go for lunch; while the Russian dressing drips from our Reubens, we ruminate over dinner reservations; while arguing over the best way to get to the airport in the morning, we wonder if we’ll have time to pick up egg-and-cheese sandwiches on the way. (We won’t.)”
Published by Chronicle Books, “Eat Something” features food photos by Maren Caruso and illustrations by George McCalman, a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. He and Levin have a sporadic column together called “The Regulars,” in which they profile regulars at their favorite restaurants.
Evan Bloom and Rachel Levin will appear at three upcoming events:
March 4, 7:30 p.m. at Green Apple Books, 506 Clement St., San Francisco. greenapplebooks.com
March 15, 10:30 a.m., pop-up brunch and book talk/signing, including latke bar and pickle demo. Tickets must be purchased by March 10, no tickets available at the door. $36 adults, $61 includes cookbook. $15 for ages 3-12. Free for children under 3. Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto. paloaltojcc.org
April 4, 12 p.m., book talk, signing and cooking demo w/ CUESA at S.F. Ferry Building. Free. cuesa.org
Wise Sons’ Chocolate Babka
Reprinted from “Eat Something” by Evan Bloom and Rachel Levin with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020
Pastrami may have been the reason we started Wise Sons in 2011, but our babka instantly became a signature. This was long before Bon Appétit magazine compared babka to a young Taylor Swift, “a niche figure ready for the crossover to mainstream star.” Leo and I argued for days over what “authentic” babka was, both having our own ideas from childhood, as deli customers do. Eventually, we agreed on this refined version, swirled with 72 percent bittersweet chocolate covered with a thick layer of brown sugar streusel. — Evan Bloom
Makes 2 loaves
- 1 cup [240 ml] whole milk
- 1 package (2¼ tsp) active dry yeast
- 4¾ cups [665 g] all-purpose flour
- 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp [250 g] unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 3 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
- 1½ tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1 cup [200 g] sugar
- 3¾ Tbsp [19 g] unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1½ cups [330 g] unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks
- 3 Tbsp water
- 1¼ lb [570 g] bittersweet chocolate, chopped to pea size, or use chips (we use 72 percent chocolate)
- ¾ cup [105 g] all-purpose flour
- 2½ Tbsp granulated sugar
- 2½ Tbsp golden or dark brown sugar
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- ½ cup [110 g] cold unsalted butter, cut into 1 in [2.5 cm] cubes
To make the dough, warm the milk for 30 seconds in a small microwave-safe bowl. The milk should be warm, but not hot. Transfer to a medium bowl, and whisk in the yeast. Whisk in 1 cup [140 g] of the flour and let the mixture sit for 20 minutes, uncovered.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and the sugar. Beat on medium speed for about 4 minutes, until well blended and pale yellow. With the mixer running on medium speed, add the eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, waiting until the first egg is fully incorporated before adding the next, and scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl occasionally. Add the vanilla, and then the remaining 3¾ cups [525 g] flour.
Add the yeast mixture and mix on low speed for 1 minute.
Add the salt and continue to mix until the dough starts to look ropy and the color is uniform throughout, about 2 minutes. When you pull the dough with your hands, there should be wide strands of dough that come away cleanly from the bowl. Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
To make the filling, whisk the sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, and salt together in a medium heatproof bowl. Combine the butter and water in a medium saucepan over low heat and cook until the butter has melted and is beginning to foam.
Pour the melted butter over the dry ingredients and mix well. Let cool until thickened.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into two equal pieces. On a well-floured work surface, roll out one piece of dough into a 12 by 20 in [30.5 by 50 cm] rectangle. Cover edge to edge with half of the chocolate filling, and sprinkle on half of the chopped chocolate in an even layer.
Starting from the long edge farther away from you, roll the dough toward you tightly like a jelly roll. Fold the entire rolled log in half (it should be about 10 in [25 cm] long), and then twist a few times to make figure eights. This will create more swirls and reduce bready pockets. Repeat with the second piece of dough and the remaining filling.
Place each log in a well-buttered 9 by 5 in [23 by 12 cm] baking pan and let rest for 1 hour, until the dough rises just over the edge of the pan. Preheat the oven to 325°F [165°C]. While the dough is proofing, make the streusel.
To make the streusel, combine the flour, white and brown sugars, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl. Add the butter and mix with your hands until well blended and crumbly, with butter pieces the size of peas. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Cover the proofed babkas with streusel. (We like to cover them completely.) Gently press the streusel into the dough if you are having trouble getting it to stick. Bake the babkas for about 1½ hours. The babkas will be a nice light brown color and pullaway slightly from the edges of the pans when done. When tapped with your knuckle on the bottom, the cake should sound solid.