Purple Balloons and Pickled Onions

And then in a blink of an eye, my baby turned two! For Beatrix Louise’s second birthday party we filled the playroom with two dozen purple balloons to match the purple balloons on the invitation, and set up tables topped with play dough and oodles of stickers. I served the kids pizza and a massive pot of boxed macaroni and cheese.


My father came in from Jerusalem to see his grandchildren. So, in addition to Bea’s friends and family, we also had over some of our older relatives, including Aunt Sydney, who I’ve mentioned is basically our grande doyenne when it comes to food. Although my cousins assured me I could definitely serve her pizza, I took this as an opportunity to make a spread worthy of a small bat mitzvah. We had:

It was from his weekly column in The Guardian; this one focused on quick pickled onions. I actually didn’t use his pickled onion recipe – I love my own too much to cheat on it – but followed the rest of his recipe, coated with allspice and sugar, roasted, and topped with cilantro lime salsa and goat cheese. I kept the almonds on the side, as per Aleza and Sylvie’s suggestion. Nut allergies are no joke.


The amount of cilantro salsa is small, and he recommends doing it in a spice grinder. My own grinder – a coffee grinder I picked up for $15 at Ocean State Job Lot years ago – is used so much for cumin that it reeks of the spice. To clean it, I used a trick I just read about (but can’t for the life of me remember where): grind up a piece of bread. And it worked!

For dessert we made a Princess Leia cake, per the birthday girl’s request, plus the frozen banana peanut butter pie, and Needhams, a chocolate-coconut treat from Maine that’s a little bit like a Mounds Bar. But that’s another recipe for another day. Definitely before the third birthday!

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Roast sweet potatoes with pickled onions, coriander and goat’s cheese


Pickled Onions
2 tsp sugar
Salt and black pepper
5-6 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 5cm x 3cm chunks
1/3 cup olive oil
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ cup cilantro leaves

Zest of 1 lime
¾ cup soft mild rindless goat’s cheese, broken into rough 2cm pieces
1/3 cup roasted salted almonds, coarsely chopped


Heat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes with three tablespoons of oil, the allspice, the two teaspoons of sugar, half a teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper. Transfer to a large oven tray lined with parchment paper, and make sure the sweet potato chunks are spaced apart. Roast for 20 minutes, until crisp and golden-brown, then toss in any oil left on the tray and leave to cool.

While the sweet potatoes are cooking, blitz the coriander [cilantro], grated lime zest, the remaining three tablespoons of oil and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt to a smooth, bright green salsa. Use a spice grinder to do this (don’t use a food processor – the quantities involved are too small); if you don’t have one, very finely chop the coriander and mix the salsa by hand.

Once the sweet potatoes have cooled, arrange them on a platter and dot evenly with the pieces of cheese. Drain the pickled onions, and scatter on top. Finish with a drizzle of salsa and a sprinkle of almonds.



Return Again

We lost my Great Uncle Harry this year. He really was great. He always had a fun story to tell, or a perfect song to sing. He was a vegetarian and for decades built these wonderful, multilayered Dagwood sandwiches for Shabbat breakfast. We were all lucky enough to visit Uncle Harry and Auntie Julie about two months before he died, because we went to a family reunion in London right around New Year’s. We flew in from Boston; Sylvie, Miriam and Leo flew in from DC; my Cousin Larry and Ashley flew in from New Jersey; and my dad came in from Jerusalem. It was Sylvie’s idea, really. She wanted the kids to meet the British relatives before it was too late — a good call on her part.


We were only in London for a couple of days, but we were able to score a table at NoPi. We ordered every vegetable dish on the menu, and a perfect piece of fish. I had a kumquat and passionfruit mocktail and rhubarb Eaton mess. It was everything I wanted it to be. Pro tip: They only have two high chairs in the whole restaurant, and no changing table in their amazing mirrored bathroom, so plan accordingly.

Lilli and I caught something on the plane on the way over, and because I was 20 weeks pregnant and had no immune system, I couldn’t really do much touring. Or stand. Or make conversation. But Rich did get to see a real football match with my cousin Jonah. By the time I made it to my doctor’s office on New Year’s Eve, my temp had spiked to 102.8F. But the trip was still well worth it, and I really miss my Cousin Jenny. Hopefully we’ll get to see Jonah soon; he is in Philadelphia for the year studying at Temple and drinking American beer.


It was never the right time to talk about finally eating at Ottolenghi’s restaurant, because it never felt right to talk about Uncle Harry. But it’s Day of the Dead on Sunday, and I’m looking forward to joining my friend Tania and her family for her holiday, so it seems appropriate to honor Harry, as well Rich’s Uncle Tommy and Auntie Ruthie and his professor Svetlana Boym, all of whom we lost far too soon this year.

If I find my blanched almonds in time, I’ll be making this horchata for the occasion. It’s a traditional Mexican sweetened rice drink, and it has become my litmus test of whether a Mexican restaurant is worth my time. Aleza introduced me to the beverage when we stumbled into a real hole in the wall in Williamsburg. This was in 2002, back when there were still holes in walls in Williamsburg.

mirrored bathroom

This particular recipe is from the Ultimate Nachos cookbook, also the cookbook for these pickled red onions I use all the time. The drink is vegan, and you need a blender and an overnight to make it work. Sure, it’s really meant for a hot summer’s day, but I think it will also work at the ofrenda.

Horchata from Ultimate Nachos by Lee Frank & Rachel Anderson


1 cup long-grain rice, rinsed and drained

1 cup blanched almonds

4 cinnamon sticks

1 quart water

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups ice cubes

Ground cinnamon, to taste


Put the rice, almonds, and cinnamon sticks in a blender. Blend the mixture into a powder.

Add the water, sugar, and vanilla and blend for 90 seconds.

Chill the mixture overnight in the fridge.

Strain the liquid into glasses over ice cubes and serve, sprinkled with ground cinnamon to taste.

For A Sweet New Year

I originally wrote this piece for Combined Jewish Philanthropies to help get word out about their Fast to Feed initiative. A number of people contacted me offline for the plum cake recipe, so I’ve decided to also share the post and the recipe here.

Recently, Prism asked me to teach a class on how to bake plum cake for Rosh Hashanah. So what qualifies me as a plum cake expert? I guess I have to credit my Mom’s family. They are  German – yekkes, as they would proudly say – and my Oma would always bake a zwetschgenkuchen (or some say pflaumenkuchen), a traditional plum cake, for the holiday. Someone recently asked me about the looming symbolism of the plum for Rosh Hashana, hoping to find some sort of sweet correlation as with the apples and honey. Well, to be honest, as far as I know, late August and early September was when the Italian plums were ripe and hung heavy on the trees of the German and Alsatian countryside. So plum cake for Rosh Hashana made sense. And was always delicious.

A few years back I made a zwetschgenkuchen to bring to my mom’s for the holiday. I used the pitch-perfect plum torte recipe from the New York Times archives. The plums were wrapped in soft pillows of batter, and topped with cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Just splendid. But when Prism asked me to lead the plum cake baking class, my mom jumped at the chance to share a genuine kuchen recipe with me.

It turns out my Oma, along with millions of other Germans Jews before her, based not just their plum cakes, but their general baked goods, on a mürberteig, a  “shortcrust dough.” This morning I took the recipe for a test run, cutting the butter into the flour, making pebbles of dough that eventually formed a ball to kneed and roll out.

We hosted friends for the taste testing that afternoon. As it happens, they are Mormon and, as strange as it sounds, we actually understand the choices we’ve each made through our respective religious outlooks. My not eating pig and shellfish is similar to their choice of not drinking alcohol or coffee.

When I told them about Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Fast to Feed program, they got it. As I explained, Jews observing Yom Kippur abstain from eating and drinking. Why not take the money you’d be spending on food during that day, and donate it to a program that feeds one of the 700,000 people that go hungry every day? Well, it turns out that Mormons have a fast on the first Sunday of every month, and the money they’d be spending on food is donated to feed the hungry. No kidding.

The plum cake was fantastic, and I’m thrilled to be teaching my family’s tradition on Thursday night.

 Zwetschgenkuchen: Traditional German Plum Cake

This sweet dessert starts with a Murberteig, a mellow or short dough, which is the basis of many German baked goods. Simply, it’s a shortbread dough.

For this recipe, you will need a pastry cutter, a large bowl, a rolling pin, a dough scraper, and a tart pan.


2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ cup sugar

Pinch of salt

¼ lb. butter

1 egg, beaten


Cube the butter and place in freezer while you gather and measure out the remaining ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix them together with a whisk or a large spoon.

Sprinkle the chilled butter cubes over the flour and begin working them in with the pastry blender, using it to scoop and redistribute the mixture as needed so all parts are worked evenly. Soon enough, all of the butter pieces will be the size of tiny peas.

Make a well in the center of the bowl. Add the beaten egg and using a spatula, mix thoroughly. Soon enough, the dough will come together. Knead the dough on a breadboard/hard counter.

This dough has a very high butter content, so refrigerate it while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Plum topping

2 lbs. of plums

¾ cups sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup chopped almonds

Halve and pit the plums. Slice the fruit into quarters. Set fruit aside.

Chop the nuts. Place in bowl with the sugar and cinnamon. Stir.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator. Flour your counter, the dough in the middle and the rolling pin. Start rolling your dough lightly from the center out. You’re not going to get it all flat in one roll or even twenty; be patient and it will crack less. Roll it a few times in one direction, lift it up and rotate it a quarter-turn and repeat. Re-flour the counter and the top of the dough as needed to avoid sticking.

Roll the dough out to a little more diameter of your tart pan, enough to cover the entire the inner sides of the pan. Using the dough scraper, gently move the rolled-out dough onto and press into the pan. Don’t worry if you get a crack or hole; just use some of the excess from the edges to patch it up!

Starting with the outer rim, arrange the sliced plums in a circle on dough.

Evenly sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon and nuts on top of the plums

Bake in a preheated, 375-degree oven for 30 minutes.