Glatt Gone Gourmet

Tiny truffles, big dreams: a revolution is brewing in the kitchen of the ultra-Orthodox moshav of Beit Chelkiya.

Miri Zorger (photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
Miri Zorger
(photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
WALKING ALONG THE MAIN ROAD OF THE ultra-Orthodox moshav of Beit Chelkiya where the only pedestrians are black-hatted men chattering in Yiddish, it is difficult to imagine this as a seat of a culinary revolution. But at the edge of town is Miri Zorger’s two-story home, fitted with an oversized freezer and a pantry overflowing with bars of chocolate, gold flecks and the tiny white name cards that poke out of each of her signature chocolate truffles.
At 43, Zorger has emerged as a coveted caterer and a celebrity evangelist for a new ethos of kosher cooking that refuses to see tradition as a restriction in the kitchen. In a cookbook and weekly radio show, Zorger urges her followers to use fresh herbs and bake French breads.
And Zorger’s rising star reflects a culinary awakening reaching full bloom that has ultra-Orthodox Israelis enrolling in pastry schools, snapping up premium kosher French chocolate, and poring through pages of glossy new cookbooks devoted to improving kosher cuisine. Israeli businesses are happy to accommodate them, offering the better products and services necessary for glatt (strictly kosher) gone gourmet.
On a Sunday evening in Bnei Brak, Zorger bustles around a floodlit stage while mixing dough for a focaccia, a fluffy flat bread reminiscent of pizza crust. Her brown hair (a wig) falls just above her shoulders.
Every now and then Zorger shakes her thick straight bangs from in front of her eyes. Her black skirt reaches her calves, her black buttoned shirt falls just as loosely. Without the stage makeup and clip-on microphone, Zorger would look like the thousands of women who have crowded the event hall, all wearing long skirts and wigs or hats.“Write quickly!” she shouts, her hands deep in a glass bowl of dough. “A kilogram of flour, 3/4 cups of oil, ten grams of yeast, a half liter of water and salt and pepper!” Zorger is on stage as the culinary advisor to “Balabusta” (a Yiddish term for housewife), a 13-hour marathon of gourmet kosher cooking that includes sales of appliances, knives, cookbooks and pastry ingredients.
But the centerpiece of “Balabusta” is the ongoing cooking demonstrations by Zorger along with a challa baker, a wine specialist and an American celebrity kosher chef, Jamie Geller. The evening’s crowning event is a food cookoff, shown live on giant overhead screens. For the nearly 10,000 women who attend the festival throughout the day, watching cooking shows on a screen is a novelty because they do not own televisions.
In the front row, Yael Nahari and Batsheva Cohen furiously scribble Zorger’s list of ingredients. They rode for more than two hours from Tiberias to land front-row seats.
“We can’t leave our chairs,” says Cohen, 40, who works in a kindergarten.
She points to a thick, blue cutting board and new chef’s knife peeking out of a plastic bag at her feet. “You can’t get these in Tiberias.”
ZORGER BEGAN HER COOKING CAREER LATE. SHE grew up in Bnei Brak and wed an arranged husband, Yehezkel, at age 18. They had four children. Zorger grew up observant but always had an eye for design. After her children were born, she began studying fashion at Tel Aviv’s Shenkar School of Design. A near-fatal car accident pushed her to reconsider her plans and enroll in cooking school at age 36.
Zorger took a year-long chef’s course at the Bishulim school in Tel Aviv, followed by another year of pastry. It is the only non-kosher cooking school in Israel, but she wanted to study at the highest level possible.
For the two years, Zorger did not taste a thing. Every day she would rush home after class and recreate the dishes in her kitchen, switching out treif (non-kosher) ingredients like pork, shrimp and gelatin and using kosher substitutes like other meats or agar agar, a messy kosher alternative to pork-based gelatin.
“It was not simple at all,” she says.
Afterward, Zorger apprenticed with the Israel-based German pastry chef Hans Bertele, and took more lessons with a French pastry chef in Eilat. As her confidence grew, Zorger baked desserts for friends and neighbors. Gradually, she began getting requests for catering. Her first event was catering a sushi dinner for a contractor in Israel. Soon after, a Swiss hotel hired her to bake kosher cakes for Passover. Outside the kitchen, Zorger wrote recipes for the Tnuva dairy company, and her reach grew further nearly four years ago when she became the host of a weekly cooking program on Kol Hai, the leading Orthodox-friendly radio station. She developed a loyal following. Zorger introduced herbs by name and instituted an annual recipe competition called “Hashefit Haba’a” – the next [female] chef.
Today, Zorger caters about four events a month. She moved from Bnei Brak to Beit Chelkiya in the southern coastal plain six months ago for the bigger kitchen and for some quiet away from the bustle of her public cooking life.
“Gourmet comes from kosher because it is meticulous food,” she says. “Who is as meticulous as haredim when it comes to things like removing insects, or making sure everything is clean?” That attention to detail translates into precisely formed miniature chocolates, which Zorger dusts with gold powder, or dressing she serves in test tubes inside delicate, tiny salad bowls.
“I like everything in cups with small forks,” Zorger says. “It’s important that the table should be clean, that the buffet not look like a war zone, and that the food be good.”
Zorger’s growing name was enough to convince haredi publisher Malchut Waxberger to invest in its first cookbook, “Simply Gourmet,” released in 2010 in Hebrew. Co-owner Yoel Waxberger says the book was timed for Rosh Hashana; more than 7,000 of the first 10,000 copies have sold. Waxberger says Zorger’s exacting style grabbed him from their first meeting, when she brought a tray of cakes.
“She put them on the table and no one touched them, they looked like plastic,” he says. “Little desserts, pralines with chocolate and a bit of pomegranates and pistachio. We thought it was just decoration until she told us to eat it.”
The kosher kitchen is the ideal place for a revolution, Waxberger says.
“There are no problems with the rabbis. Everything is kosher, and the photographs are of food,” he says.
PASTRY CHEF ILAN NIV IS TRADITIONAL, NOT HAREDI, but he worked in Jerusalem’s Sheraton Plaza hotel, now called Leonardo, which keeps the strictest kosher certificate. He says kosher hotels fueled demand for specialty products, including balsamic vinegar. Now observant cooks can buy organic flour or specially ground flours for pasta, bread and cake.
“The amount of products and variety of raw ingredients is just astounding,” he says. “Today, the kosher kitchen is absolutely not a restriction. Ten or 15 years ago, there was a shortage in good quality ingredients with the right kosher seal.”
Those new ingredients feature in a growing body of new recipes. Ten years ago, the haredi daily “Mishpacha” [Family] newspaper began running a small food section in its weekend edition. Marketing Vice President Tzipi Amitai says that after readers raved about the section in the newspaper’s audience polls, “Mishpacha” launched a food magazine called “Teimot” [Tastes] two years ago. Now the magazine delivers 8,000 copies to its regular newspaper subscribers, along with another 4,000-7,000 customers who buy it separately.
Amitai says three ultra-Orthodox chefs run the magazine. February’s edition focused on fresh fruit in time for the Tu Bishvat holiday; the cover featured a luscious tart with sliced kiwi. Other issues have covered wine pairings and how to make hearty bean soups.
“As the world advances, haredi women are developing careers,” Amitai says. “But for a haredi woman, one of the main measures of a woman, how good a housewife and mother she is, is her cooking.”
Magazines are just one resource. There is also a growing list of glattkosher gourmet cookbooks, according to Moshe Erlanger, marketing director for Feldheim Publishing. Feldheim publishes about a dozen Hebrew cookbooks and another 20 in English. Last year they sold more than 20,000 Hebrew cookbooks in Israel, and the number is on the rise.
“The cookbook buyer can be a woman who wants to spoil herself, it can be a husband buying a gift for his wife or a bride getting the book as a wedding present,” Erlanger says. “It was always like this, but in the past there was only one book.”
Erlanger says in the last ten years the publishing house has begun pouring investment into photography and formatting for its books, when in the past they were black and white. The cookbooks show tightly packed sushi rolled alongside glistening Yiddish classics like jellied calf’s foot. The best-selling author is Jamie Geller with her simple recipes for vegetable quiches and chocolate-covered matza.
In February, Feldheim released its latest offering, the Hebrew “Efrat Megisha” (Efrat Serves), penned by ultra-Orthodox Israeli pastry chef Efrat Libfroind. It will soon be translated into English for distribution in North America, where she frequently tours. Libfroind, 38, teaches baking and cooking courses for about 200 women a week and writes regularly for the American haredi press.
“I was at an exhibition in Paris last year,” she says. “They showed all kind of different things made by a gentile chef. I said, ‘Listen, we do nicer things. The frum [ultra-Orthodox] ladies do not do anything differently from the very good chefs.”
MEIR DANON IS THE PROFESSIONAL DIRECTOR OF Bishulim, the school where Zorger studied. He says that five of the 300 pastry chef students each year at his school are ultra-Orthodox. Unlike Bishulim’s regular cooking courses, which feature pork and mix meat with dairy, pastry school tends to feature kosher ingredients. Danon says that in the last decade, kosher top-notch thick French butter and velvety, world-renowned French Valrhona chocolate have become available. Fish gelatin, rather than the old pork version, has also become prevalent, even in France.
Bishulim teaches pastry on separate dishes to encourage more observant students to enroll, but Danon says there are few haredi students because in other classrooms students work with pork steaks. Danon says his school is launching a three-day workshop for professional pastry chefs for making high-end pareve desserts, which are neither meat nor dairy and can be eaten after a Friday evening roast chicken.
“This is the latest demand in the area,” he says. “This doesn’t exist in Israel, and it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
Other cooking schools are seeing a more pronounced rise in haredi interest. At Dan Gourmet in Haifa, marketing manager Roni Bernat says that since 2008, the cooking school has offered three womenonly courses a year, each lasting for two and a half months with about 15 students.
“There is a big demand, especially among haredi women,” Bernat says. “They really love it because it gives them a chance to learn more professional cooking than what they were doing at home.”
Dan Gourmet plans to open a Tel Aviv branch by the end of the year, and Bernat says this school will also try to open haredi-friendly courses. Bernat says the school will also soon offer a professional 10- month haredi men’s chef course funded by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor.
Besides cooking schools, other Israeli businesses are taking note.
Dov Lublinsky & Sons has sold imported knives in Israel since 1940, and always had a stable of haredi men buying blades for circumcision and slaughter. But in the past six years, ultra-Orthodox women have come to Lublinsky’s knife skills and food décor workshops held in Tel Aviv, says marketing director Rachel Adler. These women urged Lublinsky to open a stand at “Balabusta.”
As dozens of women watched, Adler plunged a metal skewer whose end was wrapped in a thin curled blade into a potato at the exhibition.
She turned it, and the potato core emerged in a spiral. She estimates half the attendees bought potato curlers. Now the company is consulting focus groups and planning to directly market knives and high-end kitchen equipment to Haredim.
“Women in the sector really invest in decorating their meals, if it’s for the holidays, or a Friday night, or even just for the kids,” Adler says.
“We are taking polls, conducting focus groups and looking for the best ways to reach them.”
The Osem industrial food giant is also eyeing the Haredi kitchen. For the last three months Zorger has been the face of Osem in the haredi public; even her mobile phone answering machine announces, “If you wanted to ask what kind of soup powder I use, yes, I use the onion powdered soup from Osem.”
At “Balabusta,” Zorger used the Osem powdered soup to make five soups in a half hour. It was a controversial move for the audience.
“Our mothers didn’t use soup powder,” said Dvora Morad, a Jerusalem bakery owner. “It doesn’t fit tradition.”
But Sara Greynman, a teacher from Bnei Brak, says working means less time for women to spend in the kitchen.
“There are people who put soup powder into their cholent,” she says, referring to the slow-cooked Sabbath stew of beans, meat and eggs, among other ingredients; Sephardim refer to it as chamin. “Once, women didn’t work,” says Greynman, 57. “Today, people can’t invest as much time in food.”
The ultra-Orthodox food revolution is not complete.
Home cooks and professionals eagerly wait for new products to get the kosher seal of approval as if it were the new iPad. Nahari and Cohen, the two women from Tiberias, are waiting for a new sprayable whipping cream and tubes of powdered milk. Chef Niv, who runs a meat restaurant in Herzliya, says new kosher salting techniques have made for better, less salty meat but that cooks have not caught up.
“There is place for more smoking of meat, of better treatment of meat,” Niv says.
Zorger says “Balabusta,” the first exhibition of its kind, will most likely become an annual institution with sister events in Jerusalem. For now, she is working on her second cookbook, to be released later this year. She also hopes eventually to open a restaurant serving vegetables and herbs grown at home.
For all the innovation, some things never change. Zorger says her most requested recipes continue to be those of Eastern European Jewish cooking.
“People have good memories from home, and that’s what they are interested in,” she says. “When a housewife wants to be called a balabusta, she has to be able to make gefilte fish and potato kugel. Cholent is not a big deal, but for gefilte fish to be exactly right, it turns out there’s a lot of work behind it.”