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A Conversation with Jane Breskin Zalben, Author of a Cookbook with Recipes for Jewish, Christian and Secular Holidays

Reprinted with permission from

Many cookbooks offer recipes for various Jewish holidays. Some even add suggestions for some American secular holidays, allowing Jewish cultural influences to creep into Thanksgiving dinner or Fourth of July picnics. Now we have To Every Season: A Family Holiday Cookbook, written and illustrated by Jane Breskin Zalben. What distinguishes this collection of recipes from other holiday cookbooks is that Zalben includes recipes for a wide variety of occasions, including Jewish, Christian and secular holidays.

 Zalben acknowledges that the cookbook will appeal to many interfaith families, although she denies that this was the impetus for the book. “We live in America, and this is an American cookbook. These are the holidays Americans celebrate.” To identify the holidays to feature, Zalben went back to the roster of holidays celebrated in elementary school. “I thought about the crafts and activities I enjoyed from my childhood, which holidays were featured on the classroom bulletin boards. There’s Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and April Fool’s Day. These are the holidays Americans learn about. I decided that since Americans come from all over, I would investigate where these holidays come from.”

The recipes all come from Zalben’s own kitchen. “I love to cook,” she reports. “I know how to make all different kinds of ethnic food–sushi, Indian food, Mexican food. I believe cooking is an extension of art. It is very aesthetic with all the various colors and smells. I also believe food is a means for children to see the world in a very nice way. Food is connected to the history of people. Just look at the spices different groups use; it is a window into their culture.”

Designed as a family cookbook, Zalben hopes parents will take the opportunity to try the recipes with their children. “I believe people want to give their children real food, not a lot of sugar and water. I always cooked with my children, and it was a very positive thing. It is just one more way of passing on values to your family. Even if you don’t explain each step to a child, it comes through a child’s pores what goes on in the house. My grandmother came up to visit in the summer. I must have been about eight years old. She made her stuffed cabbage and blintzes, and I watched her at eye level. As an adult, I just knew how to make them even though I have few memories of being in the kitchen with her.”

Zalben’s idea for this book grew from her overlapping interests in art, cooking, and people and their cultures. Having written and illustrated the children’s series of Beni books for nearly twelve years, a period which overlapped with her Pearl series of children’s books, Zalben found she liked fiction that looked at other backgrounds besides the Jewish background she generally featured in her books. “When I wrote Pearl Plants a Tree,” she explained in a recent interview with Jewish Family & Life!, “I found that there were also tree-planting holidays in other cultures. I went to Ethiopia and Egypt and was fascinated by the art history represented in the mosques. This piqued my interest in Islam. When I traveled to Morocco during Pesach–the Hebrew word for Passover–and Ramadan-a Muslim holiday, I saw a mix of Judaism and Islam and was intrigued by the connections between the civilizations.”

Zalben grew up in a Jewish home in a neighborhood that had a mixture of Jewish and Christian families. She recalls, “I grew up in a very tolerant household. My mother was very interested in other people and cultures.” After writing Beni’s Family Cookbook, Zalben decided to pursue this interest further. “I wondered where various American holidays came from. I decided to research them and tell their stories in simple language for children.”

Fans of Zalben’s children’s books will be delighted with Zalben’s illustrations in the cookbook. “After doing the Beni and Pearl series for over a decade,” Zalben explains, “it was a pleasure to draw all different animals. Unlike in a picture book where the same characters are drawn over and over, in the cookbook, each page is a story. Kids have been e-mailing me, suggesting different animals, and I finally had the opportunity to draw them.”

Here are some recipes for upcoming holidays from To Every Season.

For Passover

 Fanny’s Flourless Chocolate Cake

This cake is a nice change from the typical macaroons and sponge cake usually served at Passover. Note: Passover cake meal is different from matzah meal.

1 cup unsalted margarine
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
6 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/3 cup Passover cake meal
1 cup light brown sugar
Pinch of salt (optional)
4 extra large eggs, separated
1/3 cup walnuts or hazelnuts, crushed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cocoa powder

1. Preheat oven 375.
2. In a double boiler, melt margarine and chocolate. Stir in sugar to dissolve. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.
3. Beat egg yolks in mixing bowl, adding vanilla, cinnamon, and cake meal. With electric mixer at high speed, add chocolate mixture.
4. In a separate bowl with clean beaters, beat egg whites and salt until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into batter with a spatula, slowly adding crushed nuts.
5. Grease 9-inch round springform cake pan with margarine and dust with cocoa powder. Pour in batter and bake 30-40 minutes.

Yields 1 9-inch round cake which is pareve-containing neither meat nor dairy products-and kosher for Passover).

For Easter

 Sunday Roast Lamb

The tradition of lamb at Easter has its roots in the story of the Exodus. God sent the Angel of Death to kill the firstborn sons of Egypt when Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrew slaves leave. Moses told the Hebrews to mark their doorways with the blood of a newborn lamb so that the Angel of Death would pass over their homes. For centuries after, there was a yearly sacrifice of paschal lambs. To the early Christians, this became associated with the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus, often depicted as the Good Shepherd, carrying a staff and a baby lamb, is also referred to as the Lamb of God.

7-pound leg (or shoulder) of lamb
20 new potatoes (red or white)
2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 dozen baby Belgian carrots
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 Macintosh apples, peeled, cored and quartered
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons rosemary (or 3 sprigs)
1 jar or 8 fresh artichoke hearts
1 bulb garlic, cloves peeled
1 small jar mint jelly

1. Preheat oven to 400.
2. Put lamb in large roasting pan. Brush lamb with mixture of mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, and water. Season meat by rubbing it with rosemary and garlic. Roast 30-45 minutes in a covered pan.
3. Rotate lamb, and add to roasting pan potatoes, celery, carrots, apples, and artichokes. Continue to roast in uncovered pan an additional hour.
4. Display lamb on a platter outlined with vegetables. Served sliced with mint jelly on the side for dipping.

Serves 8

For April Fool’s Day

 Oatmeal Raisin “Ant” Cookies

Pretend the raisins in this recipe are large ants. (There are people who actually eat chocolate-covered ants as well as crickets, worms, grasshoppers, beetles and other insects!) For variety, mix a cup of dark and a cup of light raisins. They might be less crunchy than your local insect, but I’d rather go with the raisins. If you like crunchiness, add chopped walnuts!

1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt (optional)
2 large eggs, beaten
3 cups uncooked oats
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup raisins
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1cup chopped walnuts
2 cups unbleached flour, sifted

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Cream butter and both sugars with an electric mixer. Add eggs, vanilla, and maple syrup into mixture
3. In another bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Add to batter mixture. Stir in oats, raisins, and walnuts.
4. Line cookie sheets with parchment baking paper. Drop a tablespoon of batter for each cookie, about 1 dozen drops on each cookie sheet.
5. Bake about 15 minutes or until the edges are a light golden brown.
6. Cool 2 minutes on a rack. Place on dessert plate or in cookie jar.

Makes 4 dozen 

Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.