Kim Kushner's Moroccan Orange Sponge Cake
The cookbook author and chef retains some of her mother’s Moroccan food traditions for the holidays.
This year as most years, the days before Rosh HaShanah found Kim Kushner, the cookbook author, private chef and recipe developer, perched in the kitchen of the Montreal home where she grew up. Her mother still reigns there, turning out the seemingly endless lunches and dinners of a multi-day holiday and yet somehow, still finding time to tutor a neighbor on the intricacies of a holiday dish.
“Just today, I came downstairs and found a bag of rice and eggplants on the table,” said Kushner, 33. “My mom was teaching a neighbor how to make a stuffed eggplant dish for the holidays. The neighbor put her own timer out so that she wouldn’t forget to go home and take her own cake out of the oven.”
Such is the world Kushner came from, a traditional household in the most delicious sense of the word, headed by an Israeli mother of Moroccan descent who brought her family’s ways with food and hospitality to Canada — and then expanded on them.
“She never stuck to only the traditional Moroccan dishes; she always tried new combinations and flavors and spices,” Kushner said of her mother, who met Kushner’s Ashkenazi father during a visit in the 1970s to Montreal, where her brother was living. “She reads cookbooks. She watches shows. She is self-taught, always watching and learning.”
The mother’s daughter met an American, the real estate developer Jon Kushner, at a wedding in New York; she dated him long-distance and then moved to New York the day after her own Montreal wedding in July, 2003. As a newlywed, she started cooking her mother’s Shabbat and holiday repertoire right away for friends made at Kehilath Jeshurun, the couple’s Upper East Side synagogue.
But as a recent immigrant bound by a student visa, and a recent graduate of Montreal’s McGill University, she also decided to continue her studies, taking Spanish at the 92nd Street Y, for example, and signing up for a tour of the Fulton Fish Market offered by the Institute of Culinary Education. Hooked, she decided to pursue a degree at the ICE, the cooking school in Chelsea that has also produced Top Chef judge Gail Simmons and Rick Mast, founder of Brooklyn-based bean-to-bar chocolate maker Mast Brothers. There, she forged an ambition to build a career in the food world that enabled her to assume her mother’s position: queen of the kitchen.
“I grew up in a food-loving family helped by a mother who expressed all of her hopes and dreams through her food,” Kushner reflects in the introduction to her book.
Not for her, then, was the glamorous, ruthless world of restaurants.
“I knew right off the bat I didn’t want to work in a restaurant or own a restaurant. You have to be there in the nights and on the weekends,” she said. “I always envisioned I would have a family.”
The result, after earning a degree in 2004 from ICE’s Career Culinary Arts Program: stints developing recipes at such publications as Food & Wine, and a thriving home-based business as a cooking teacher and private chef.
She has three children: Milan, 7, Emanuel, 4 and Rafaela, a year and a half. And in March, she published her first book, “The Modern Menu,” a collection of the recipes her students — she’s taught Sisterhood classes as large as 40 and also does a lot of one-on-one teaching in her own airy kitchen — loved most.
“I didn’t write the recipes for the book. I created the book for the recipes,” Kushner told a crowd gathered one Tuesday night in August at a Jewish Week literary evening featuring both her and Einat Admony, the Israeli restaurateur and author of the forthcoming cookbook “Balaboosta.”
Kushner’s book, published by Gefen in March, makes ample use of white space and striking, minimalist photography, echoes her own elegant personal style. And like many books useful to the busy kosher cook churning out several meals in advance of holidays where cooking is forbidden, the recipes are relatively simple; few have more than 10 ingredients, and while some call for the creation of an accompanying dressing, most are one-pot dishes.
But unlike many of those books, which encourage shortcuts like the use of packaged ingredients, “The Modern Menu” takes a page from the stripped-down California cuisine celebrated by such chefs as Alice Waters in “The Art of Simple Food.” Kushner similarly sees the process of cooking primarily as a means of enhancing the glories of good ingredients. Also, like Waters, she’s a fool for vegetables, especially when they are combined in their raw state into abundant salads like “Kohlrabi and Cabbage with Maple Lemon Dressing” and “Spinach, Haricots Vert and Avocado Salad” — not dishes typical of mainstream kosher cuisine.
“To my mind, less is more simple is always best, and food should look as good as it tastes and tastes as good is it looks,” as she writes in the book’s introduction.
Of course, the book is not without its Middle Eastern and North African influences. Recipes like “Crunchy Curry Cauliflower with Tahini and Pomegranate” and “Cumin-Spiced Beet Salad” allude to the roots of Kushner’s own cooking.
During the break-the-fast meal, Kushner serves an orange sponge cake called “La Pasta,” a simple delicacy beloved by Spanish-speaking Jews from Morocco. The name is a corruption of “pastel,” the Spanish word for cake.
Kushner’s mother would serve a traditionally heavy, meat-based Moroccan meal for the break-fast, but it didn’t appeal to her husband’s relatives, typical North American Ashkenazi Jews. So she gave them what she wanted, but insisted on maintaining La Pasta’s pride of place. It gets served first — this is how her mother does it, too — along with mint tea made by steeping fresh mint sprigs in hot water.
“My husband’s family didn’t want all the hot dishes I cooked: they just wanted bagels, cream cheese and lox,” she said. “But first, mint tea and a piece of dry cake, that’s the first thing. Just to settle your stomach first.”