Transforming a flaky, butter-rich pastry into a nondairy delicacy that is still flavorful and textured — without using margarine, the trans fat-heavy spread that has been the default option of kosher cooks for the last century — is a formidable task.
But pastry chef and cookbook author Paula Shoyer, the new doyenne of kosher bakers, is up to the challenge.
“Coconut oil, yep, I’m working with it,” said Shoyer, on a recent tour of bakeries in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda. “The trick is to use it without having everything taste like coconut.”
(To accomplish this, add one teaspoon of vanilla to any recipe using coconut oil, she said.)
Shoyer, a one-time lawyer from Washington, DC who now calls herself the Kosher Baker, has learned how to use the world’s best flavors, from Asia’s green tea powder in hamantaschen to tropical doughnuts made with soy milk and filled with passion fruit puree. Wherever she goes, she translates what she tastes into viable recipes for the kosher home chef.
“When I’m in Paris or Tokyo, I’m in every pastry shop,” she said. “I can bring the latest trends to the community. They watch ‘Food Network,’ but they want to know how to make what they see. You can guess how to make a black sesame and jasmine mousse tart, but I know what it’s supposed to taste like.”
Shoyer’s audience is pretty much anyone in the American Jewish community, from Reform Jews and JCC members to members of Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad synagogues.
“I write for my people,” said Shoyer, who just finished her third book, “The New Passover Menu.” “I walk them through everything, and give them everything they need. People want to know right up front what they need.”
And Shoyer gives it to them, including imperial units and metric measurements, as well as whether the recipe is gluten-free, dairy or pareve, and on Passover, made with gebrokts (wet matzah, which some people choose not to eat) or not.
Today’s kosher home chefs are not all that interested in healthful cooking, Shoyer confided. So while she develops recipes like whole wheat babka (a sweet yeast cake) and fruit cobbler made with chickpea flour and a pecan and cardamom topping, following the global health and gluten-free trend, her readers are “all cooking with white flour. They’re still kugel-ing every week” — a reference to traditional egg- and oli-heavy casseroles that are a throwback to Eastern European cuisine.
That may be true, but they’re also a loyal audience, said Shoyer, who says she answers every email she receives, even if it’s just an hour before a major Jewish holiday. She has an intimate relationship with some of her readers, who are counted among her recipe testers.
“I don’t believe in professional testing,” said Shoyer, while noting that she does have one full-time tester. “My people are cooking in St. Louis or Toledo or London and in this oven or that oven and I want to see how it comes out.”
Friendly, disarmingly honest and always energetic, Shoyer has figured out how to appeal to the broad swath that is the American Jewish community.
Her current career started when she was living in Switzerland 20 years ago with her attorney husband and newborn daughter. After quitting her job working for the local Jewish community, she decided to train as a pastry chef at Paris’s Ritz Escoffier pastry program. For months, Shoyer and her baby daughter would “schlep on the train” to Paris, where she learned the basics of buttercream and dough work.
“It’s the same story as Julie Child, it’s so funny,” she quipped, referring to the renowned chef’s training at Cordon Bleu in the 1950s.
Back in Geneva, Shoyer would whip up desserts for synagogue events and community members, ending up working as a caterer and teaching classes from home. “In French, for these ladies!” she said.
When she and her young family returned home to DC, she began teaching there. She translated her French recipes to pareve versions, and worked as a recipe tester for Susie Fishbein, the wildly successful Kosher by Design cookbook series writer.
She figured that if Fishbein could turn her home cooking achievements into a profitable empire, she could do the same.
Shoyer published her first cookbook, “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-Free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” in 2010 with Brandeis University Books. Her second was the “Holiday Kosher Baker,” with 37 gluten-free recipes and 45 Passover desserts.
Now she’s on book number three, about Passover cooking, her first departure from baking. Her publisher is now Sterling Press, owned by Barnes and Noble, and Shoyer’s books are selling in kitchen stores Crate and Barrel, Williams Sonoma and wholesaler extraordinaire Costco.
The Passover book is based on how she, her husband and four children eat on a regular basis, with lots of salads, stews and roasted vegetables. “I look like this because I eat just one piece of mandelbrot with my coffee,” the slim Shoyer said at a recent appearance in a private Jerusalem home. “Otherwise, I eat lots of salads.”
Ditto for her audience, who constantly tell her that they’re on diets or don’t eat a lot of desserts.
In “The New Passover Menu,” Shoyer measured out all her soups and salads, including the Seder Plate Salad, which is made with all the items on the traditional Passover centerpiece. Another salad of greens is tossed with roasted chunks of pumpkin and beets.
But baking is still her passion. Shoyer loves the science and art involved in developing recipes. She experiments a lot, for example with different flours. She’s found that most recipes can use one-quarter whole wheat flour in place of white flour, but that most spelt and whole wheat flours are too dry for a complete swap. She doesn’t spend too much time on breads too much, apart from her challah recipe, because she finds that her “people” don’t make bread.
And for those home cooks who would rather take a shortcut to homemade baked goods, Shoyer is busy developing a babka business, preparing a recipe for frozen chocolate babka that can be bought in the supermarket and popped into the oven for a fresh, home-baked scent.
There is much that is familiar about Shoyer and her books, and much that is tweaked and teased for the modern palate. Cases in point: whole wheat babka, green tea hamantaschen, and Pizza Ebraica, a fruit and nut-studded mandelbrodt straight from the Jewish ghetto in Rome.
Shoyer is generous and nonjudgmental when offering tips, reminding readers when to use a Silpat silicone mat rather than baking paper, recommending rubber gloves or sandwich bags for peeling a roasted beet, and advising bakers to keep their margarine (if that’s what they’re using) in the freezer for a flakier feel that’s more similar to butter.
There are no shortcuts in her recipes, but they are thorough and fairly mistake-proof. Here, the recipe for green tea hamantaschen for Purim.
GREEN TEA HAMANTASCHEN (Makes 3 dozen)
When I was visiting Paris in 2011, I saw macarons, chocolate candies, and even cakes made with green tea powder (matcha). Green tea is an antioxidant and believed to reduce the risks of cancer and heart disease, so this is a hamantasch that is also good for you. I fill these with apricot jam, but you can substitute any flavor you like. You can find kosher-certified green tea powder (matcha) online. (Editor’s note: Green tea powder is available in most Israeli health food stores.)
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup (200g) sugar
- ½ cup (120ml) canola or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons green tea powder
- 3 cups (375g) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- dash salt
- 1 cup (320g) apricot preserves
- In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, sugar, oil, and lemon juice and mix well.
- Add the green tea powder and mix well. Add the flour and salt and mix until the dough comes together.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for one hour to firm up.
- Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Line two or three large cookie sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats, or plan to bake in batches. Divide the dough in half.
- Take another two pieces of parchment paper and sprinkle flour on one, place one dough half on top, and then sprinkle a little more flour on top of the dough. Place the second piece of parchment on top of the dough and roll on top of the parchment until the dough is about ¼ -inch (6-mm) thick. Every few rolls, peel back the top parchment and sprinkle a little more flour on the dough.
- Use a 2- to 3-inch (5- to 8-cm) drinking glass or round cookie cutter to cut the dough into circles. Use a metal flat-blade spatula to lift up the circle of dough and place it on another part of the flour-sprinkled parchment paper.
- Place up to 1 teaspoon of jam in the center of the dough circle and then fold the three sides in toward the middle to form a triangle, leaving a small opening in the center. Pinch the three sides together very tightly. Place on the prepared cookie sheets.
- Repeat with the remaining dough and roll and cut any dough scraps, making sure to sprinkle a little flour under and over the dough before you roll.
- Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, or until the bottoms are lightly browned but the tops are still light. Slide the parchment onto wire racks to cool the cookies. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to five days or freeze for up to three months.