An Israeli-American chef uses his influences from Bulgaria to the Big Easy
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Shavuot recipe insideLabneh cheesecake with pomegranate caramel and candied nuts!

An Israeli-American chef uses his influences from Bulgaria to the Big Easy

Alon Shaya's new cookbook is a culinary journey from his childhood through Italy and New Orleans, and features this Shavuot labneh cheesecake recipe with pomegranate caramel

Chef Alon Shaya; (Rush Jagoe) Labneh cheesecake with pomegranate caramel and candied nuts. (Penguin Random House)
Chef Alon Shaya; (Rush Jagoe) Labneh cheesecake with pomegranate caramel and candied nuts. (Penguin Random House)

Looking for a cheesecake recipe for that all-night Torah study session on Shavuot? Here’s one that includes labneh, pomegranate caramel and candied nuts.

It appears in “Shaya,” the debut cookbook from Israeli-American chef Alon Shaya. In the book, he explains how these unlikely ingredients fit together.

“The labneh makes it as light as a pillow,” while the pomegranate caramel works equally well with ice cream, yogurt and “rubbed on pumpernickel bread with butter as a late-night snack.”

As for the orange blossom candied nuts? “These give the cheesecake the crunch and texture that you’re used to getting from a crust, allowing it to sing as a choir instead of a solo performer,” Shaya writes.

Many other recipes reflect the author’s passion for unconventional combinations, such as tahini mayonnaise, “which you don’t see a lot,” Shaya told The Times of Israel. “It’s a great combination, it works really well.”

Readers will also find a chimichurri, the Argentine sauce, made with za’atar; spanakopita made with the Southern staple collard greens; and “special sandwiches” made with… well, let’s just say the recipe recommends paying attention to the local laws “so you don’t get arrested for the munchies.”

“I’d say the most daring recipe is the kugel with bacon,” Shaya said with a laugh. “It really reflects the identity crisis I’m having. I discovered my Judaism through food, but I did not want to feel limited in any way.”

Chef Alon Shaya. (Rush Jagoe)

Shaya said he created the recipe as “a 19- or 20-year-old” asking himself “What did I have at the time that would make kugel better? Bacon? Of course it would.”

The book has something for people in “any type of mood,” Shaya said, adding that “we really tried to keep the book very balanced,” with options for vegetarians and vegans, family-style dinners, and meat and seafood fans, plus room for dessert.

There’s much that is traditional in the Jewish and Israeli food he grew up with as the child of Sephardic Israeli immigrants to the US and the grandson of a saba and savta  (grandfather and grandmother) who visited from Israel.

And there are also the cuisines Shaya explored after launching a career as a chef: Southern food in New Orleans, notably the red beans and rice he served to first responders after Hurricane Katrina; and Italian food, a longtime interest of his, further enhanced by training in Italy.

Named for the cuisine of his birth that he reconnected with in a trip to Israel in 2011, the book is subtitled “An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel.”

The challenge, he said, was “how to incorporate gnocchi, jambalaya, and hummus in one book.”

Taking a bite out of Israel

With the Israeli part of the story, there were nuances.

Chef Alon Shaya’s cookbook, ‘Shaya.’ (Penguin Random House)

“I had a moment of realization that I was missing something in life,” Shaya said. “I learned how to speak Italian, I was in Italy for close to a year, I had a very popular Italian restaurant in New Orleans that was doing very well.”

But, he said, “I felt a void, back in Israel. I pushed that part of life away for a very long time.”

But in 2015, he opened his third restaurant, also named Shaya, in New Orleans to serve modern Israeli food. It joined the two Italian restaurants he already owned in the Big Easy — Domenica, and Pizza Domenica — and it added a personal note to a resume that included two James Beard awards.

Shaya’s mother, Aliza, came to the restaurant to have the lutenitsa, or Bulgarian vegetable sauce, that she used to make for her son. Now her son, who had become a husband to wife Emily, was making that recipe for his mother — life had come full circle.

Yet the narrative has an unwritten postscript. Shaya’s cookbook was released less than a year after he was fired by his employer, celebrity chef John Besh and his Besh Restaurant Group (BRG), in September 2017. Shaya told New Orleans media that he was fired for speaking out against sexual harassment, although BRG said otherwise in courtroom documents.

An investigation by NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported multiple allegations of sexual harassment in BRG restaurants — including restaurants then-run by Shaya. He ultimately lost all three of his restaurants to BRG (now BRG Hospitality).

Shaya chooses to focus on the future — his cookbook, and his two new Israeli restaurants: Saba, or “grandfather,” which opened in New Orleans on May 4; and Savta, “grandmother,” scheduled for a midsummer opening in Denver.

“I would say a path cleared for me just like throughout my entire life,” Shaya said. “The trajectory continues. You learn from the past, you learn how things are going to be different in the future.”

Food as benchmark

Learning from the past is a theme of Shaya’s cookbook, which uses recipes to spotlight key moments in the author’s life.

“I did not know how to incorporate all of the recipes I came to love and know in one cookbook,” Shaya said, adding that he decided that the best way to “get the story across” would be to share “the thoughts behind the recipes.”

And, he said, the book “morphed into a memoir.”

“Food, to me, has always been an emotional thing,” Shaya said. “I’ve always kind of leaned on it for emotional support for myself.”

Writing about growing up as the child of divorced immigrant parents in Philadelphia, he found himself discussing “what roles food played in these memories for me. It ended up one of the most important and emotional things I’ve ever done.”

Lutenitsa from Chef Alon Shaya’s cookbook, ‘Shaya.’ (Penguin Random House)

The book’s recipe for lutenitsa, then, is far more than a sauce; it evokes the author’s maternal grandparents Nissim and Matilda, Bulgarian Jews who each emigrated to Israel and provided some stability to the author with periodic visits during his turbulent early years.

“There’s a lot of Bulgarian influence in cooking in my family,” said Shaya, who was nourished by his savta’s bourekas, leek patties and of course lutenitsa, which his mother also made and which he called his most important recipe.

He recalled coming home from school and seeing his mother roasting peppers and eggplant over an open flame.

“I’d fall in love with food,” Shaya said. “It sealed the deal as a child. I could relate food to normalcy, happiness, comfort. … There are definitely many stories there that tell of our background and do it through food.”

Other stories share pivotal moments in Shaya’s life after he escaped his demons and made good on his potential. Encouraged by his high school home economics teacher, Donna Barnett (whom Shaya said remains a huge influence), Shaya went on to study cooking at the Culinary Institute of America and follow his longtime curiosity about the American South by becoming a chef in New Orleans, the venue for his Food Network idols Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.

But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck. Shaya’s cookbook describes how he left before the storm but returned to help feed the first responders doing vital work in the beleaguered city. For them, he made a New Orleans mainstay, red beans and rice — a recipe replicated for readers.

Tabbouleh from Chef Alon Shaya’s cookbook, ‘Shaya.’ (Penguin Random House)

“Katrina, when it hit, I was reminded why I fell in love with cooking in the first place,” Shaya said. “It grounded me. It was much bigger than just me. [Serving] red beans and rice just after the storm to people on the streets of New Orleans, I was reminded that food [brings] comfort, normalcy, happiness” — the same “strong food memories” once evoked by the peppers and eggplant roasting in his childhood home in Philadelphia.

But there would be a bitter aftertaste to these memories with his firing by the Besh Restaurant Group, the loss of his three restaurants and the allegations of sexual harassment at BRG reported by the media.

On October 21, 2017, as #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment were raised against prominent men in the US, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune published the in-depth look at the accusations against the Besh Group.

A female former employee claimed that she had been in a “long-term unwelcome sexual relationship” with chef Besh; in all, 25 employees or former employees reported sexual harassment from colleagues or supervisors.

Asked about the allegations against Besh, Shaya said, “I don’t have any comments. I’m moving forward. I have plenty of other things to worry about. We’re creating our company now, doing the right things.”

Shaya told The Times of Israel: “I would say this industry is a constant learning opportunity. We’re focusing on a constructive way to continue to look to do things better, healthier, safer.”

As for his cookbook, he said, “I hope it sells a lot of copies, that people get the book not so much because they want another cookbook on their shelf, but that they read about how someone finds themselves, and in my case through food.”

ALON SHAYA’S LABNEH CHEESECAKE WITH POMEGRANATE CARAMEL AND CANDIED NUTS

Alon Shaya’s labneh cheesecake with pomegranate caramel and candied nuts. (Penguin Random House)

YIELD: 6 TO 8 SERVINGS
½ cup sugar
Grated zest of 1⁄2 orange
1 pound cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup labneh (page 38) or Greek yogurt
¼ cup heavy cream
2 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Water, for a hot water bath
¼ cup pomegranate caramel (recipe follows)
1 recipe orange blossom candied nuts (recipe follows)

After all those hours staring directly at the cakes above my station at Sonoma, I developed an affection for them. We made a cheesecake there that, in typical 1990s fashion, was served surrounded by geometrically arranged dots of strawberry sauce. I thought that was pretty classy back then. Now I’d much rather have this one, which keeps the focus on the tangy, creamy cheesecake itself and wastes no time with crust, instead getting its crunch from orange blossom–scented nuts.

The labneh makes it as light as a pillow, which is why I recommend serving it out of the same pan you cook it in (it won’t hold the shape of a neat slice)—just give everyone a spoon, and dig in. If you need a more buttoned-up way to serve, it can be baked in individual ramekins. And don’t be shy about making the two additional components. They’re both incredibly simple, with rewards that way exceed your effort, and come together in the time it takes for the cheesecake to cool. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Directions:
Heat the oven to 300 ̊F with a rack in the center of the oven. Dig up a casserole dish or roasting pan that has enough space to hold your pie plate plus a water bath.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar and orange zest, and rub them together with your fingers to release the orange’s natural oils.

Whip the cream cheese with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer on high speed until it’s smooth. Beat in the labneh and cream, on medium speed at first and working your way up to high; keep at it for 6 or 7 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally, until the mixture is not only smooth but also soft and airy, like a cloud made out of buttercream.

Decrease the mixer’s speed to medium, and add the eggs one at a time. Stop the mixer, and add the vanilla and orange sugar. Beat for another minute or two, just for good measure, and then scrape the custard into a 10-inch pie plate. It will be thinner than the cheesecakes you’re used to—the custard will be about the consistency of cake batter.

Set the pie plate inside the roasting pan. Pour water, hot from the tap, inside the roasting pan so it comes about three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pie plate.

Bake the cheesecake for about 1 hour. You’ll know it’s done when the center looks soft and dry but feels pillowy under your fingertips. It should still be pale, and may have tiny little cracks all around the edges; this is totally fine. Let it cool completely before pulling the pie plate out of the water bath. Proceed right away, or cover and refrigerate.

To serve the cheesecake: Make sure it is completely room- temperature for maximum airy softness. Pour the caramel all over it, letting it spread to the edges, and scatter the nuts on top. Dive in.

POMEGRANATE CARAMEL

YIELD: ABOUT 2 CUPS
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup pomegranate molasses
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/3 cup water

Caramel—the deep, dark kind, with a little bit of burnt veneer over a heart of butter and sugar—is intense but simple, like each of its component parts taken to the logical extreme. Pomegranate molasses is the same way, syrupy yet not at all sweet, one of the few ingredients that can match the edge of burnt caramel. It’s not just good on cheesecake: try it on ice cream, swirled into your yogurt, or rubbed on pumpernickel bread with butter as a late-night snack.

Melt the cream, molasses, and butter together in the microwave or in a small saucepan over low heat. When the butter is fully melted and the sauce is hot, pour it into a heatproof bowl and set it aside. You’ll want it still to be quite warm when you add it to the caramel.

Add the sugar and corn syrup to a small saucepan, and pour the water evenly over them to moisten. Use short, shallow strokes to incorporate the ingredients without tracking sugar up the sides of the pan, then set the pan over medium-low heat and, without stirring, let it melt and turn amber; this should take 15 to 20 minutes.

As it bubbles and darkens, you’ll be tempted to stir, but I’m serious—don’t. Otherwise, the sugar may crystallize. If you feel the need to mix them, just swirl the pan a couple times. You can multitask with this, but keep an eye on the pan and never stray too far— caramel tends to change slowly, slowly, and then very quickly the second it’s neglected.

When the sugar is amber and bubbling like molten lava, immediately remove it from heat. Slowly and carefully—it’ll bubble and hiss at first—whisk in the pomegranate molasses mixture. Don’t worry if it seizes up at first; just keep whisking and it’ll pull itself together.

Let the caramel cool completely before using it. Leftovers can be stored at room temperature for about a week,
or for much longer in the fridge, then brought back to room temperature or briefly heated on the stove or in the microwave until it’s easily pourable.

ORANGE BLOSSOM CANDIED NUTS

YIELD: 3⁄4 CUP
1⁄4 cup walnut pieces, toasted
1⁄4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1⁄4 cup whole pistachios, toasted
1 1⁄2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1⁄4 teaspoon orange blossom water
3 tablespoons turbinado or Demerara sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon baharat (page 387) or pumpkin pie spice
1⁄4 teaspoon Morton kosher salt

These give the cheesecake the crunch and texture that you’re used to getting from a crust, allowing it to sing as a choir instead of a solo performer. (Make sure to use a very coarse sugar like turbinado, because regular brown sugar melts too easily to be a good substitute.) But don’t limit them to that: they’re great on yogurt with berries, or on their own as a snack, and they make perfect little gifts around the holidays.

Heat the oven to 350 ̊F, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.
Coat the nuts with the butter and orange blossom water, then toss in the sugar, baharat, and salt.

Spread the nuts in an even layer on the parchment, with a little space between them all so they don’t stick together, and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, rotating the pan every 5 minutes; you’re looking for the sugar to be caramelized and crisped all over the nuts. Cool completely before using, and try not to eat them all in one breath.

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