(August 26, 2022 / JNS) It’s been a scorcher of a summer, so when a friend suggested a trip to the Berkshire Mountains, this Northeasterner was ready for some cooler weather. Not quite a “staycation” (it was about a five-hour drive during less trafficked hours), it was far less expensive than flying right now.
The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts is rustic and rural, offering the feeling of really getting away from it all. Little towns and villages are nestled in the mountains, a skier’s attraction come wintertime. In July, verdant greenery and clean air—coupled with thriving arts and cultural history—draw thousands of visitors.
For my particular group of travelers, the highlight of our mini-vacation was a visit to the National Yiddish Book Center, about an hour away. On the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, the center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, a 24-year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature. Unable to find such books to study, he launched a campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books. Along with like-minded volunteers, they picked up texts from the homes of Holocaust survivors throughout North America, even rescuing volumes tossed in dumpsters on the streets of New York City.
I stood in awe in front of the sprawling 49,000-square-foot complex. The low wooden roof echoes the lines of a European shtetl, albeit clean and trim. Inside a building filled with natural light are stories, powerfully documented, showing how so many of our ancestors braved the unknown in search of a better life for their children so that visitors like me could live in a free country filled with opportunity. One room is dedicated to a collection of early 20th-century postcards and illustrations of the destroyed synagogues of Europe—the only remnants of once-vibrant Jewish communities. An interactive exhibit celebrates Jewish identity through personal stories and photographs. The Yiddish press was crucial to immigrants who only spoke that language. A recreated Yiddish print shop houses a Yiddish linotype machine. In 1997, with a grant from the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library digitized and cataloged more than 12,000 Yiddish titles. And they’re still discovering more. Just recently, a wrinkled brown paper bag filled with hand-written recipes in Yiddish and English was found in a corner of a storage closet at the center. Excited to know more, I’ll be going back.
The gilt edge of our stay was as guests of longtime friend Lisa Ekus, who is the foundering partner of the Ekus Group, a full-service culinary Literary and Talent agency now run by her daughter, Sally, who grew up in the business. Lisa has now turned her many talents to create the Cooks Chateau, a sparkling, comfy, well-appointed Airbnb attached to a 250-year-old farmhouse. Stocked with everything one could possibly desire, guests can cook, relax, write or meander through her gardens and down the local country roads, where you might come upon a farmers market. After only six months instead of the usual 12 months, the Cook’s Chateau was awarded Super Host status.
Towns are only a few miles apart, so you can be in Lenox or Amherst in minutes. We mingled with families at the Norman Rockwell Museum, which houses the largest collection of his work. His paintings, created for The Saturday Evening Post, reflect American culture as it happened for nearly five decades. I was drawn to the home of Edith Wharton, the American Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction writing, who with insider’s knowledge of the upper class described the lives of the Gilded Age. The saying “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her socially prominent Jones family, who made their money in real estate. Which brings me to Naumkeag (pronounced Nomkeeg), one of the Berkshires’ hidden jewels. The 44-room “cottage” set on 48 acres served as a summer retreat for New York City lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate and his wife, Caroline, a women’s activist, and their five children. In 1894, he argued that the Supreme Court strike down the income-tax law—and won! Although 15 years later, it was overturned.
And wherever I go, there’s always the quest for good food. Nudel, a tiny, unpretentious restaurant at 37 Church St. in Lenox, is worth the wait. Two young talented chefs, work out of an open kitchen. Nabbing two ringside seats, we watched as fresh, local ingredients were transformed into irresistible dishes, deftly cooked with care and dished up with flair. They wouldn’t part with their chocolate-pudding recipe, except to say it’s made with the very best chocolate. Inspired and recreated in my kitchen, the recipe below is close. And under clouds of softly whipped cream or raspberries, what can be bad?
On the way home, we loaded up with mushrooms, corn and blueberries. Fresh white mushrooms, browned in butter and topped with a fried egg, were my day-after-trip breakfast. Soup, prepared with summertime corn, is sweet and creamy, and delicious whether served warm, chilled or at room temperature. And there’s no reason not to combine summer fruits and vegetables in a salad as in the suggestions below. Serve as a starter or dessert, and use whatever is freshest. Memories of picking buckets of blueberries in Michigan, at Grand Beach along the lake, bring to mind Aunt Hanni’s Blueberry Torte—berries bursting with sweetness spooned over a melt-in-the-mouth Muerbe Teig, a European buttery crust (originally published in my own The Art of Cooking).
A Summer Mushroom Breakfast
Sweet Corn Soup
Soft Fruits and Vegetable Salad
Aunt Hanni’s Blueberry Torte
Silky Chocolate Pudding
Summer Mushroom Breakfast (Dairy)
Makes 1 serving
*For more servings, just multiply the ingredients.
*Rinse mushrooms in cold salted water and dry in a salad spinner.
*In the winter, use boxed supermarket sliced mushrooms. A 10-ounce box of sliced mushrooms serves 1.
*To make pareve, substitute nondairy margarine.
1 tablespoon butter
½ medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 cups sliced white mushrooms, rinsed
1 egg, fried
In a medium, nonstick skillet, melt butter over high heat.
Add the onion and mushrooms. Lower heat to medium-high.
Cook until onion is softened and mushrooms are beginning to brown. Cook 1-2 minutes longer.
Transfer to a serving dish. Keep warm while frying the egg to desired doneness.
Slip over mushrooms and enjoy.
Sweet Corn Soup (Pareve)
*For dairy, use butter instead of margarine and stir in a tablespoon of sour cream before serving.
*After removing kernels from the cob, cut the cob in half and add to the soup. At the end of cooking, discard the cob.
*Chop green bell pepper in a food processor.
2 tablespoons pareve margarine
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup diced sweet potato
3 cups fresh corn kernels
3 cups vegetable broth
1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan, melt the margarine over medium heat.
Add the onion and sweet potato. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, or until onion is softened. Do not brown.
Add the corn kernels and vegetable broth. Lower heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes or until sweet potato is softened. Cool.
Purée cooled soup in blender or food processor. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, pour into bowls and top with spoonfuls of chopped green pepper.
Summer Fruits and Vegetable Salad (Pareve)
Serves 4 to 6
*Any combination of summer fruits and vegetables may be used, such as stone fruits like peaches and plums, and vegetables like grilled endive and cucumbers.
*Prepare the fruits and vegetables ahead, cover and chill.
*Belgian endive is a small, cigar-shaped (4 to 6 inches) head of tightly packed, cream-colored leaves.
*I use Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute Blend.
2 heads of Belgian endive, split lengthwise
salt and freshly ground pepper
Bibb lettuce, washed and spun dry
4 figs halved lengthwise
6 apricots, stones removed and halved
4 purple plums, stones removed and halved
½ English cucumber, seeds removed, sliced ¼-inch thick
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Spray a cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Brush the endive on all sides with olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange on a prepared cookie sheet, cut sides up. Place in preheated oven and roast for 15 minutes or until beginning to brown. Turn over; roast 10 minutes longer. Cool.
Line a salad bowl with Bibb lettuce. Place the cooled endive in the center. Arrange the remaining fruits and cucumbers attractively around. Pass a pitcher of balsamic vinaigrette to drizzle over.
Simple Balsamic Vinaigrette (Pareve)
Makes 1 cup
*Use a well-aged balsamic vinegar.
*Make a double batch and store it in the fridge.
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey, warmed
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Place all ingredients in a tightly lidded jar. Shake vigorously for 25 to 30 seconds until ingredients are smooth and combined.
Use at room temperature.
Silky Chocolate Pudding (Dairy)
*Make ahead; cover with wax paper and chill in the fridge.
*When ready to serve, top with fresh raspberries or softly whipped cream.
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
small pinch salt
1½ cups whole milk
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
¾ cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped coarsely
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder and salt.
Pour in the milk and beaten eggs.
Whisk constantly over medium heat until the mixture is barely boiling and has thickened. Remove from heat.
Whisk in the chocolate, butter and vanilla until the mixture is smooth.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Aunt Hanni’s Blueberry Torte (Dairy)
Makes 8 servings
*In winter, use frozen berries with a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice added.
*Use a deep pie dish if you don’t have a springform pan.
*Cool beans or rice and store to reuse.
For Meurbe Teig:
½ cup butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup water
4 cups blueberries
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spray a 10-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Cut the butter into 8 pieces. Place in a food processor with sugar, egg and ½ cup flour.
Pulse 2 to 3 times to mix. Add remaining flour, pulsing to form a ball.
Press dough into the bottom of the pan and 1 inch up the sides. Prick all over with a fork. To keep the bottom of the pastry from rising, cover with aluminum foil weighted down with 2 cups of dried beans or rice.
Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges are beginning to brown. Remove beans and foil.
Cool on a wire rack.
Prepare Filling: Combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt and water in a large saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Gently stir in the blueberries and ginger. Cool slightly before pouring into baked shell. Serve at room temperature.
Ethel G. Hofman is a widely syndicated American Jewish food and travel columnist, author and culinary consultant.
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