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Is There Room in Tradition for the Somewhat Untraditional?

by Nanci Levy | Jun 11, 2019

Shavuot Dessert - 2019When dessert was served at our Shavuot Festival meal this year, there were a few murmurs of “where's the cheesecake?” Our amazingly creative Executive Chef at Handmaker tried to do something somewhat untraditional. She served Fig Jam Palmiers (also known as Elephant Ears), with cheesecake filling instead of cheesecake. (see photo above) After a few initial murmurs of discontent, the residents and guests tried this delicious looking dessert. The vast majority gave nods and sounds of approval. Some others… well, cheesecake is pretty hard to compete with. And, after all, it is very traditional to eat cheesecake on Shavuot. They were kind of expecting it.

But if you look at many of the modern Jewish recipe websites, you will see recipes for Jewish holidays that seem traditional, but border on the untraditional with their presentation or additional ingredients. For example, there were many recipes for unique fillings for Hamantaschen floating around this past Purim. Fillings like lemon, peanut butter and jelly, or goat cheese. I personally prefer poppyseed, also known as mohn.

It seems that many of the younger generation of Jewish cooks out there want to experiment a bit. Not quite snubbing their nose at the traditional foods, but giving them a little bit of a twist. Our creative chefs at Handmaker are no different. They are trying to provide traditional foods for our residents, but they also enjoy the opportunity to add a little spice to their cooking, and introduce our residents to some new flavors. And how is this received? Well, it depends on who you ask.

At our Shavuot meal, for example, the blintzes in the appetizer were savory rather than sweet. This satisfied many, but a few missed having a sweeter version. The entrée was a choice of either Baked Halibut with a caramelized onion and date bruschetta topped with goat cheese and arugula, circled with a saffron crema, or Pasta Shells Stuffed with Cheese and a fresh tomato sauce topped with a rolled parmesan crisp and fresh basil. Both sound like descriptions at any fine restaurant, but neither choice was all that traditional for Shavuot. There was cheese in each, a prerequisite for foods on this holiday, and the stuffed or rolled parts are reminiscent of the Torah, which we received on Shavuot. Both were definitely thoughtful and in the holiday spirit, but not quite the stuffed cabbage that many are used to. Needless to say, everyone who had the stuffed shells gave it rave reviews, with no complaints.

So, the question is, should we be strictly traditional or push the envelope a bit here? Which way to go? Serving only traditional foods would make the majority of our residents happy most of the time, but would they miss out on a tasty adventure? There have been many studies and articles written that show that changes in routine encourages your brain to make new connections, which can be good for brain health. Does tasting a new or unexpected food or flavor qualify as changing up a routine? I would say, maybe.

Our chefs really try to balance out serving mostly traditional foods, which most of our residents like, with the option of  serving up something a little different now and then. We can all agree that some things should not be messed with...no funky spices in our matzah ball soup, please…but sometimes trying something new can introduce you to a new favorite dish or flavor.

Our new sandwich special of the month, which was started last month, has introduced many of our residents to Fish Tacos and Chicago Style Vegan Hot Dogs. Not everyone tried these monthly specials, but most of those who did, really liked them. In addition to our traditional potato latkes on our dining menus, we now also have confetti latkes as an option, made with a variety of vegetables. They are not exactly traditional, but have been a big hit.

A choir director friend of mine recently mentioned to me that at her concerts she likes to choose mostly music that she knows her audience will love, with one or two pieces that are a little different that she loves and wants to introduce them to. That sounds like a perfect formula, or recipe, for success.

Hoping that you and your families had an enjoyable, and tasty Shavuot.