Not long ago, Jewish food in the US had an image as being dreary, declared Jayne Cohen in a talk on Jewish cuisine and culture at the Pasadena Central Library earlier this month. Cohen, the author of Jewish Holiday Cooking - A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, said this was partly due to over reliance on convenience foods, but it was also because of a stereotyped perception of what is Jewishness. She argues that women who "looked Jewish" were not considered beautiful in the US, and "it was rare until recently for artists to celebrate their Jewishness in their work." A similar concept, she continued, applied to food, so that good Jewish cooks would use their talents to prepare dishes from other cuisines. Cohen noted that tastes often change with time, and traditional foods need to taste good by today's standards. With the cookbook, Cohen wanted to preserve Jewish culinary roots to create Jewish food memories for her daughter, but was determined to also make the dishes exciting, fresh and inventive. She found justification for doing just that in Jewish customs. "Potchkehying [Yiddish for fussing] with tradition is the Jewish way" she said. Cohen elaborates in her book: "Jews are constantly encouraged to question and reinterpret the accepted, as no one who can read the Passover Haggada can forget. There the learned rabbis argue over the number of plagues God visited on the Egyptians... Among Jews there is always yet another way to see things." According to Cohen, multiculturalism in America was the impetus for making Jewish cuisine more imaginative. As an appreciation of minority cultures became more important, Jews became more interested in their own roots, including culinary ones, and well-known chefs began featuring Jewish dishes on their menus. "Today, Jewish chefs around the country express their Jewishness in their dishes," Cohen said, mentioning a handful of non-kosher restaurants that host trendy Seders like superstar Los Angeles chef, Wolfgang Puck's Spago Beverly Hills that served leaf-wrapped gefilte fish, and Tabla, a New York restaurant celebrated for its New Indian cuisine, where Indian-spiced matza balls are served. Before Cohen's talk, we were treated to a cooking demonstration and tastes of her delicious sautÃ©ed apple cake. Most recipes for Jewish apple cake call for batter layered with sliced apples, but sautÃ©ing the fruit made the cake much richer in flavor. "It's the oil that identifies this old-fashioned cake as Jewish in both synagogue and church cookbooks alike... But truth to tell, the cake is not really about oil at all, it's all about the apples. And the more apples you can fit into the cake, the better the flavor. So I take the extra step of sautÃ©ing them, which greatly reduces them in volume and, at the same time, brings out all the caramelly goodness of the fruit's sugars," she wrote. I share Cohen's predilection for this technique. I have been sautÃ©ing apples to make apple noodle kugel since I learned in the 1970s in Paris how to make the fabulous tarte tatin. Although sautÃ©ing does add an extra step to both the cake and the kugel, it is well worth the effort. Jewish Sauteed Apple Cake From Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen. Jayne advises using a balance of sweet and tangy kinds of apples or a single well-flavored variety. "Forget Red Delicious and go for big flavor and the freshest fruit you can find. This is a great make-ahead dessert: the flavor deepens, and the taste actually improves the next day." FOR THE APPLES 2 to 3 Tbsp. avocado, canola, or other mild oil, plus additional for greasing pan 8 cups tart and sweet apples, peeled and sliced 1 cm. thick 1â„2 cup packed brown sugar 1â„2 tsp. salt 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice 2 tsp. ground cinnamon FOR THE BATTER 21â„2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 2 tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1â„4 tsp. salt 1â„8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg 3 large eggs 11â„4 cups sugar 3â„4 cup avocado, canola, sunflower, or other mild oil 1â„2 cup unsweetened applesauce 2 tsp. vanilla extract Generously grease a 25-cm. springform pan. Prepare the apples: heat the oil over medium-high heat in a very large, heavy skillet with steep sides (avoid nonstick here; it won't caramelize the apples well) until it is hot, but not smoking. SautÃ© the apples in batches over medium-high heat until they are golden brown on both sides, transferring them to a large platter as they are done. When you have finished sautÃ©ing, put them all back into the pan, sprinkle with the brown sugar and salt, and cook, lifting and turning them, until the sugar dissolves and the apples are very tender and lightly caramelized. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and cinnamon, and cook for about 3 more minutes to mingle the flavors and evaporate any pan liquid. Set the apples aside to cool. Preheat the oven to 175ÂºC and then make the batter: stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg in a large bowl. In another large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Beat in the oil, applesauce, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the dry ingredients and continue beating until the batter is smooth. Pour half the batter into the prepared pan. Cover with half the apples. Spoon the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the rest of the apples on top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean; begin checking at 11â„2 hours, but because of the moist apple layer in the middle, the cake can take up to 2 hours or more. Let the cake cool on a rack before you remove the sides. Makes 10 to 12 servings Note: The cake will take considerably less time to bake if prepared in a 33 x 23-cm. pan, with a single layer of batter, topped by a single layer of apples, though the presentation will not be quite as attractive. Test it for doneness after about 45 minutes. CINNAMON-SCENTED APPLE NOODLE KUGEL Rich, meltingly tender sautÃ©ed apples form a layer in the center of this nut- and raisin-studded baked noodle pudding. I sautÃ© the apples to give them a rich taste and delicate texture instead of adding them raw as in most apple-noodle kugels. Serve this kugel as a dessert, as a slightly sweet accompaniment, or as a supper or brunch dish with yogurt or sour cream. In the unlikely event you have leftovers, they can be cut in portions, wrapped in foil and heated in the oven; or they can be microwaved in a covered dish. 400 gr. medium egg noodles 700 gr. Golden Delicious or other sweet apples (about 3 large) 5 or 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil, butter or margarine 6 Tbsp. sugar 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1â„2 cup pecans, walnuts, or almonds, coarsely chopped 1â„3 cup dark raisins 1 tsp. grated lemon zest 1 tsp. vanilla 4 large eggs, separated Pinch of salt Pinch of ground cloves (optional) Preheat oven to 175ÂºC. Grease a 33 x 23 x 5-cm. baking dish. Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water until barely tender, about 5 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl. Separate noodles with your fingers. Peel apples, halve, core and slice. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add half of the apples and sautÃ© over medium heat 5 minutes, turning once. Remove with a slotted spoon, add the rest of the apples to skillet and sautÃ© them. Return all apples to skillet. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar, the cloves and and 1â„2 teaspoon cinnamon and sautÃ© another minute, tossing apples to coat them. Transfer to a bowl. If using butter or margarine, add the rest to the skillet and melt it over low heat. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons oil or melted butter or margarine to noodles and mix well. Stir in nuts, raisins, lemon rind and salt. Whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Beat in remaining 4 tablespoons sugar and whip at high speed until whites are stiff but not dry. Stir egg yolks and vanilla into noodles. Stir in one fourth of whipped whites. Fold in remaining whites. Add half of noodle mixture to greased baking dish. Top with sautÃ©ed apples in an even layer and sprinkle them with any oil remaining in bowl. Top with remaining noodle mixture and spread gently to cover apples. Sprinkle with 1â„2 teaspoon cinnamon, then with remaining oil. Cover dish and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 to 20 minutes or until set. Serve hot. Makes 8 servings. The writer's latest book is Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.