The scent of oil wafting out of a room at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda on Sunday was an instant reminder of what holiday the people inside were celebrating.
There were latkes and sour cream. But that was only part of a multi-station cooking demonstration sponsored by the Conservative synagogue’s sisterhood. The cooks were congregants who contributed recipes to the Sisterhood’s new cookbook, “Eat in Good Health.”
The 30 people who attended had an opportunity to sample pumpkin latkes, doughnuts and Israeli-style couscous, among other dishes.
The pumpkin latkes, to the surprise and delight of many, contained no potatoes, only canned pumpkin filling and eggs as the main ingredients. Sheila Bellack, Beth El’s executive director and demonstration leader, explained that it is not potato that makes a latke a latke.
“The secret is really the oil,” she said. When the synagogue holds its annual latke-hamantashen debate, she said, all the latke talk is “about the lowly potato. But they forget about the oil.”
Bellack recommended a ½-inch of oil for the pan, and to brown the latkes for three minutes on each side.
“It doesn’t need to be swimming in it,” she said.
There was plenty of oil in each bite of the pumpkin latkes, but the sweet taste was closer to a breakfast pancake than a main course.
At the next cooking station, Kensington resident Shoshannah Freilich was cutting circles of dough, which were to become sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts.
As she finished placing the batch of 20 on a cookie sheet, she explained that before frying the dough must spend one-half hour rising. Then, when it’s time to add the jam, there is a crucial step.
“You can use your thumb or a syringe to stuff the jam, but you have to make sure that you seal it really tight, because otherwise the jam will leak out into the oil,” she said.
Freilich made the batch without jam. Even so, the doughnuts’ rich, oily flavor combined with the sweetness from the powdered sugar added by her husband, Michael, was enough to satisfy the palate.
Later, the cuisine took an Israeli turn when Itsik Sayag, the Beth El’s shaliach, or Israeli emissary, made his version of couscous, called Ben-Gurion Rice. Sayag turned what is usually a side dish into a meal by adding chicken broth,
vegetables, olive oil and spices.
Unlike the other cooks, Sayag did not use a recipe or measure ingredients. Everything he learned about cooking came from watching his mother, he said.
“She never really explained how she makes the food,” he said. “Each day, she would cook for my brothers and sisters and we just passed by the kitchen and remembered what she made. So I just remember. Each time it’s a guessing game.”
With the couscous, celery, sweet potatoes and chicken broth, Sayag’s soup was filling and flavorful enough to be an entire meal. Smiling through the demonstration was Bethesda resident Elizabeth Goldman. She said it was particularly special to taste an authentic dish that came from the heart.
“You think of couscous in a box, but he made it come alive because it was his tradition,” she said of Sayag.
Potomac resident Hellaine Nepo said Sayag’s demonstration made her want to venture outside her culinary comfort zone.
“I hadn’t made the Israeli couscous,” she said. “That one I might try.”
Also on Sunday’s menu was Bethesda resident Jill Rider’s roasted sweet potatoes with tahini. Rider learned how to prepare the dish when she was in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah and their family ate it at a winery.
“The secret was that it wasn’t the tahini that you buy here in the U.S. at the grocery store,” she said. “It was the Har Bracha tahini that is made in Israel.”
To roast the sweet potatoes, Rider cut them into small wedges and tossed them with salt, pepper, brown sugar and a small amount of olive oil. After putting them on parchment paper, she roasted them for 30 minutes.
The Har Bracha tahini tasted similar to peanut butter, but slightly milder, and was the necessary creamy condiment for the starchy, orange vegetable. Rider said Har Bracha tahini is available at the Middle Eastern restaurant Shouk in Washington.
After tasting Rider’s sweet potatoes, Bethesda resident Marti Asner said she is willing to go the extra mile if it means her food will taste better.
“I’ll go to Northeast D.C. to Shouk and find that tahini,” she said.