The Gefilte Variations

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Readers of Jayne Cohen’s The Gefilte Variations should prepare themselves for many surprises. For example, Cohen offers four different matzoh brie recipes, ranging from the savory (Savory Artichoke Matzoh Brie) to the sweet (Cinnamon Matzoh Brie With Toasted Pecans and Warm Vanilla Maple Syrup). As the author explains in her introduction, her potchkehing, or playing with, recipes for familiar Jewish foods follows Judaism’s inclination to reinterpret tradition.

Cohen’s call to religious tradition in a cookbook is not at all farfetched, particularly in a kosher cookbook like this one. Kashrut, or Judaism’s dietary laws, scrupulously detail food selection and preparation. Cohen educates readers about such traditions not only in her introduction but also in chatty prefaces to the book’s 200 international recipes. Alternatively, these prefaces supply food lore and personalize recipes with sentimental autobiography. Cohen’s recipe for Pastrami-Style Salmon, for example, begins with a memory of bringing her hospital-bound grandfather a hot pastrami sandwich fresh from the deli.

Substituting fatty meat with more healthful salmon is just one way Cohen lightens an often heavy cuisine for more contemporary tastes. While Cohen also challenges the assumption that Jewish gourmet cooking is an oxymoron, her recipes are sufficiently step-by-step to not intimidate a novice. Plus, she provides a generous helping of cooking tips. Adding to the book’s informational quotient is a section on pantry and procedures as well as suggested menus and a glossary of useful terms. Indeed, Cohen comes across as an ideal teacher and coach: experienced, enthusiastic, and endlessly improvisational.