The Monday Morning Cooking Club first began in 2006, when two friends came together to write a cookbook to raise funds for a local charity.
Right from the start, the duo knew they wanted to create something special. They set about making a book that could sit on any bookshelf, next to any cookbook in the world, that brought together recipes from Sydney’s Jewish community, Lisa Goldberg told HelloCare when we caught up recently.
“We wanted to collect the recipes that were part of our heritage. We wanted to include the recipes that nurtured us when we were growing up,” Ms Goldberg said.
Alongside the recipes, the couple wanted to share stories, so the book could be a “snapshot” of their community at that time.
“It isn’t really a book of Jewish food, it’s more a book of food from Jewish kitchens,” explained Ms Goldberg.
Nearly fifteen years – and four books – later, the initiative is still going strong.
The team is now a “sisterhood” of four, consisting of Lisa Goldberg, Merelyn Frank Chalmers, Natanya Eskin and Jacqui Israel, all from Sydney’s Jewish community. They come together to collect, test, curate, publish and share the best recipes from the best cooks in Sydney’s “food-obsessed” Jewish community.
Their books often create an emotional response. “One reader wrote to us to say that when they received the book, they sat in their car and read it, crying because it reminded them of their grandmother who is long gone.”
The books also tell stories of the Jewish community. “It’s a history lesson in a way,” Ms Goldberg said.
A simple recipe with a rich history
Ms Goldberg said the ‘egg and onion’ recipe, which she contributed to the books, holds special meaning for her. (See recipe at the end of this article.)
“I’ve contributed the recipes that I grew up with. Egg and onion is like a dip, a dip that you would serve on Friday night with challah, the classic bread.
“It’s made with golden fried onions that are cooked for a good half an hour, and boiled eggs that are grated and mixed together with the fried onion. It’s very salty and peppery and just delicious. I’ve been eating it my whole life.”
The recipe comes from Ms Goldberg’s grandmother on her father’s side. “They came from Poland in the mid 1920s. When they were living in Melbourne, a lady by the name of Pat used to help in the household with my grandmother and my father’s four sisters. My grandmother taught Pat how to make egg and onion, so Pat started making it.
“Then Pat came to help my mother in our household in the 1970s, and she taught my mother how to make it.
“And then my mother and Pat both taught me how to make it, and I make it every second Friday that I have dinner here.
“And my kids will make it when they move out,” Ms Goldberg said.
“It’s such a taste of the old world. People are now making it all over the world, and it makes me laugh that this very simple dish with two ingredients has such a history.
“I’m sure it hasn’t changed since they used to eat it back in Poland, back in the early part of the 20th century, but who knows.”
Recipes come full circle…
Ms Goldberg said her mother contributed a recipe that she now refers herself to in the Monday Morning Cooking Club book.
“My mother always did this amazing brisket with potato cakes on the side. It’s like a giant hash brown,” Ms Goldberg explained. “It’s in the first book as ‘Paula’s calf brisket’. She’s been making it forever. She learnt it from her mother, and she taught me, and I’ve been making it for years.
“One year, when I went down to see her in Melbourne for Passover, I saw her opening our cookbook to see her recipe that she’d given me. So she now uses our cookbook for her own recipe.”
A link to the past…
Ms Goldberg said her cabbage rolls recipe brings back memories of her Aunty Moona.
“I was very close to her. She was the most amazing cook,” Ms Goldberg philosophised. “Now when I make cabbage rolls, I think of my Aunty Moona and she stands beside me in the kitchen.”
“Cabbage rolls are a dish where you have mincemeat and rice in a cooked cabbage leaf that you roll up and cook in a tomato sauce that’s sweetened with Heinz tomato soup. That’s what they used to eat when they first arrived in Australia. I don’t know if the tomato soup is an Australian inclusion when they moved here, or whether they had some other thing back in Poland. No one knows the answer,” Ms Goldberg said.
Adapting to COVID-19
The Monday Morning Cooking Club team had to cut a book tour short when COVID-19 struck earlier this year.
“But out of every bad situation, there’s often a silver living,” Ms Goldberg said. “We’ve had the opportunity to engage with thousands of people on Zoom, cooking and talking.”
Every week the Monday Morning Cooking Club hosts online sessions. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk to all these people (without COVID-19).
“This morning we made a cinnamon apple cake for 300 people online who are making it in their own homes. There are so many in Melbourne who are in lockdown who had an hour of distraction and entertainment.”
During the Jewish festival of Shavuot, when dairy products are eaten, one of the Jewish schools sent cheesecake packages out to all members of their grandparents club.
“Then I did a video. They were all online, 75 of them. I did it with Lauren, one of the co-authors from the first book, and we looked at each other and we said we have 150 people here. We are connecting the grandmother or the grandfather and we are helping that happen.
“It was so special.”
Ms Goldberg said there is much we can learn from the older contributors of recipes to her books.
Often the recipes are for huge batches. For example, cake recipes might be enough for eight cakes. In times gone by, they would make one cake but put the other mixture in the freezer, ready to be taken out when someone dropped by for afternoon tea.
“They thought ahead. If you had a couple of hours notice you could pull something out of the freezer and make it,” Ms Goldberg said.
There was also a more laid-back approach to cooking.
“From some of the interaction I’ve had with the older ladies, if the butter’s not that soft it doesn’t matter. If the butter melts in the microwave when they’re making the pastry, it doesn’t matter. If the egg yolks have gone a bit hard from staying in the fridge, it doesn’t matter, put it in.
“I think perhaps we get too caught up in the details which aren’t really necessary sometimes.
“A lot of these people cook with love. They have followed a recipe, but a cup was a teacup. There weren’t the precise measurements and weights that we have now.
“I think it was a bit more easygoing.”
The older contributors also spoke of hard times.
“A lot of people told stories through the books of really hard times, whether it was through the Holoacaust, or in a camp in Indonesia. There are all sorts of stories. And then they come to Australia and they have a new life, but often they’ve left behind the recipes, and they don’t know how to recreate the tastes of their youth.
“And they’ll meet someone who makes something that reminds them of home, and they’ll make that recipe and then they’ll build up their recipe collection of tastes of home. There are so many amazing stories of people who are searching for that reminder of home, their heritage.
“We learn from speaking to the older members of the community, that the human spirit is so resilient. That’s the biggest lesson from the generations who went through such hardships. We also learned that food is so important and connected to memory, and people, and family, and it says so much in a cake, or a dish, or the way you roast a chicken.”
Egg and Onion
4 whole onions (brown) chopped
185 ml vegetable oil
12 whole eggs
Put the onions and oil in a large frying pan and fry for about 20 minutes on a medium to high heat, until golden brown and very soft.
Meanwhile, boil the eggs for 8 minutes until hard-boiled. Remove the pan from the heat, drain and then cover the eggs with cold water. When just cool enough to handle, peel the eggs and grate into a large bowl using the coarse side of a grater.
Spoon the onions onto the egg, leaving most of the oil in the pan. You may need this oil so don’t discard yet. Season generously with salt and pepper, and combine the onions and egg with your hands or a wooden spoon, tasting as you go. If too dry, add a little oil from the pan. The mixture should stick together if pressed with your hand, but should not be overly oily.
Until ready to serve, cover with plastic wrap, pressing it onto the surface of the egg and onion so it doesn’t dry out. Keep at room temperature and serve with challah or bagels. It is also delicious eaten on crackers or Matzo at Passover time.
Republished with permission from the Monday Morning Cooking Club website.
You can find out more about the Monday Morning Cooking Club, including a link to buy their books, by visiting their website.
Lead image: Nan Babes (Zina Komonski) making her famous pastilla, prune and walnut log, supplied.