Since a number of readers might not be familiar with Jewish cuisine, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief introduction. After all, what makes a food Jewish? It’s not like Jews have had a country of their own (at least for the majority of written history), so the fact that they developed an independent cuisine may be a bit surprising. Why did they not just adopt the cuisine of the lands in which they were living?
In fact, to a very great extent, they did. For thousands of years, Jews have been scattered all around Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and even parts of Asia. Two major factions of Jewish culture arose, probably in the Middle Ages, based on geographic location. These were the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews were those who settled in Spain, the Middle East, and North Africa. Ashkenazi Jews settled in Germany and Eastern Europe. The two groups developed very different cuisines, styles of dress, and language. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardi foods are heavily influenced by local cuisine as well as readily available ingredients in that area. However, the foods are not identical to local foods due largely to the Kosher laws, biblical restrictions on what can and can’t be eaten. For example, Jews do not eat pork or shellfish and don’t mix milk and meat. Some traditional Jewish foods are clearly just kosher replicas of the local cuisine; others probably originated from local dishes but over time changed enough as to be uniquely Jewish. Many Jewish foods developed to fulfill the religious dietary requirements of certain holidays – the development of foods from matzoh for passover or the dairy dishes designed for Shavuot.
The recipes I am presenting this month are all going to be Ashkenazi, since that is my family’s background. If you’re american, when you think of Jewish food you most likely think of Ashkenazi dishes. These are the things found in deli – matzoh ball soup, lox and bagels, borsht, gefilte fish, egg bread. They tend to be quintessential “peasant food” – made of inexpensive locally available ingredients. Ashkenazi dishes are often rich and fatty but not overly spiced. Preserved foods are used often; salty and sweet-and-sour are pretty traditional tastes. What I will diplomatically term the “scraps” of food preparation are used to great effect in condiments like schmaltz and gribenes.
Dairy ingredients are a huge part of the Ashkenazi diet, so it’s important to have vegan cream cheese and vegan sour cream around if you want to re-create these recipes. So today, I’m bringing you a recipe for cream cheese, which can be easily adapted to make sour cream! It’s nut free and can be made soy-free if you substitute hummus for the miso. (I’ve previously made the sour cream recipe with hummus, in a pinch, and it turned out pretty tasty, but I can’t vouch for the texture in the cream cheese). I suggest you mix in some of yesterday’s lox recipe, finely chopped, to make your own lox spread.
I usually keep a few cans of coconut milk in the refrigerator in case I want to make sour cream or whipped cream. You do have to refrigerate the cans for at least 24 hours to get the cream to separate out. You will notice when you open the can that there is a thick layer of coconut cream that rises to the top and a lower layer of slightly viscous liquid. If you open the can upside down, you can easily pour off the liquid. If you are going to strain the coconut cream anyway, it works just fine to pour the whole can into the strainer. (I cannot vouch for this working with a room-temperature can that has not separated.)
I got the idea for using coconut milk as a sour cream replacement after making coconut whipped cream for the first time. The texture seemed much more like real dairy than the sour cream made from cashews or the pre-packaged replacements. It does have a mild coconutty flavor, but unless you rabidly dislike coconut I don’t think it will bother you too much. I wasn’t sure if I could get the thicker texture of cream cheese, but draining the coconut cream and adding a bit of tapioca starch produced a spreadable product similar to whipped cream cheese. It firms up in the refrigerator but does tend to soften at room temperature, so this might not be the best thing to use in, say, vegan cheesecake, where texture is more important. It will also melt on freshly toasted bread, so give your bread some time to sit before spreading on the cream cheese.
- 1 can of coconut milk, refrigerated
- 3-4 tbsp of white miso
- 2 tsp rice vinegar
- 1-2 tsp tapioca starch (optional)
- Drain the coconut milk in a fine mesh strainer over a small bowl for 24 hours.
- After 24 hours, you will have a thick coconut cream in the strainer and a cloudy liquid in the bowl. Discard the liquid or reserve it for later use (e.g., for smoothies).
- Pour the coconut cream into the bowl of a stand mixer with a whipping attachment. Add the miso and the rice vinegar. Mix on low speed until blended. Taste; add a bit more miso or vinegar if needed. Then beat on high speed for 2-3 minutes until thickened and forming peaks.
- If the mixture doesn't seem thick enough, add 1-2 tsp of tapioca starch and blend on high for a few more minutes to thicken.
For sour cream, you will still want to separate the coconut cream from the water; this will happen naturally in a refrigerated can of coconut milk so all you have to do is scoop it out. However, you don't have to strain it further. In the sour cream, I recommend using only 2 tbsp of miso and increasing the rice vinegar to 3 tsp, or using 2 tsp of stronger cider vinegar.