‘Modern mensch’ cooks for Hillel JUC
FoodNew York Times-bestselling author

‘Modern mensch’ cooks for Hillel JUC

Jake Cohen visited with the campus community on May 6 via Zoom — delivering a lesson on how to make the perfect quiche, peppered with Jewish wisdom

Jake Cohen (Screenshot by Justin Vellucci)
Jake Cohen (Screenshot by Justin Vellucci)

Jake Cohen, an Ashkenazi Jew renowned for his New York Times-bestselling cookbook, “Jew-ish: A Cookbook — Reinvented Recipes from a Modern Mensch,” looked at a Pittsburgh audience via Zoom and smiled as he prepared a quiche.

“A lot of people are afraid of pie — you shouldn’t be!” laughed Cohen during the May 6 event, as he offered tips such as freezing butter then grating it, rather than bringing it to room temperature when making a crust. “Pie dough is something that’s really about technique … the main thing is you don’t want to overwork the batter.”

During a virtual event hosted by the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, Cohen, who lives in New York City, elicited smiles, laughs and lots of questions from an audience nearing 100 that packed the Zoom call to see him work his magic.

With Cohen sporting a black T-shirt, Apple AirPods and a red-and-white apron, most of the talk centered around a signature dish, “Kuku Quiche” — a variation on Kuku Sabzi, a Persian herbed frittata that Cohen’s Iraqi-descended Jewish husband loves.

“It’s a classic quiche, mixed in with a lot of Persian flare,” Cohen told the group.

Cohen said he studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Michelin-starred restaurant DANIEL in Manhattan before working for eight years in test kitchens, preparing various dishes for food magazines and websites.

In Cohen’s able hands, a golden-brown quiche pie crust was filled with parsley, cilantro, dill and four scallions — as well as water and yogurt to inhibit gluten development and encourage a crust with tender flakes.

“Always use your hands — you can’t be too precious when it comes to your dough,” Cohen instructed. “And here is the deal: Do what you want. You could do chives. You could do tons and tons of spinach. The sky’s the limit. You just want lots and lots of greens.”

Cohen peppered his instructions on making “the perfect spring quiche” — a real treat for Mother’s Day, he added — with observations about Judaism and Jewish life.

Quiche made by Aaron and Amy Leaman (Photo by Aaron Leaman)

“I am a big, big, big fan of Passover — I think matzah ball soup is the top,” Cohen said. “Great holiday, a really great message and something that’s really important to Jewish values and that idea of tikkun olam.”

And he was refreshingly irreverent, at one point making light of people who stick too closely to recipes in books.

“I’m a big fan of doing whatever the hell you want with my recipes,” Cohen said. “The book is full of something truly for everybody and every celebration. And every recipe was tested at a Shabbat dinner.”

Cohen then responded to a litany of questions, shooting from the hip with rapid-fire responses.

Favorite pasta? Right now, fusilli. “I just love the coils, anything that’s going to catch the sauce,” Cohen said.

Favorite cheese? He’s “partial to Gouda.”

Favorite food hot spots in NYC? Sunday In Brooklyn, a neighborhood restaurant; Miss Ada, for Mediterranean and Israeli food; and Gramercy Tavern.

And, of course, there were questions about challah and kugel.

“I love sweet noodle kugel,” Cohen said, noting his husband preferred the savory variety.

And how many braids is his preferred number for a home-baked challah? Six.

“There’s something poetic about it,” Cohen said. “It’s the conduit of breaking bread with others. Two, six-braid challahs also have to do with the 12 offerings in the Temple [and] even-strand challahs are prettier.”

The Zoom event honored volunteers David and Susan Friedberg Kalson, who spoke to close the evening. Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO, praised the program, noting how it mirrored the kind of cooking shows that are de rigeur with young college students today, and how it was the perfect setting to celebrate the two honorees.

“This is an opportunity to gather together friends, students and supporters of Hillel JUC to enjoy a fun and meaningful event,” Marcus told the Chronicle. “It’s an opportunity to honor and thank David and Susan Kalson — this was the opportunity to give them the public honor they so richly deserve.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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