The Feast Goes On - a conversation with the Monday Morning Cooking Club and a recipe for Ricotta Cheesecake
'Here's a nice-sounding recipe. Take six women from mixed backgrounds and heritage, all with a passionate interest in food and cooking, and eating. Mix them all together in a kitchen once a week and give them free rein to cook the dishes they have learned from their Jewish mothers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, neighbours and family friends. And what do you get? Well, firstly you get the Monday Morning Cooking Club. And then you get a couple of wonderful cookbooks. Oh, and enduring friendships and fun.'
Renowned broadcaster, Margaret Throsby, gave the best possible description of the Monday Morning Cooking Club in her introduction to an interview with club member Lisa Goldberg recently!
Merelyn Frank Chalmers, Natanya Eskin, Lauren Fink, Lisa Goldberg, Paula Horwiyz and Jacqui Israel started meeting once a week to cook and chat over coffee in March 2006. Three words became their mantra: share the recipes, inspire people to preserve their family recipes; and give all the profits to charity. They dreamed of writing a cookbook and, using their combined skills of cooking, fressing (eating ravenously) and perseverance, they slowly grew that seed into their dream. Their first book, Monday Morning Cooking Club - the food, the stories, the sisterhood, was published in April 2011 and was for them 'like the birth of a child'. They were so inspired, excited and encouraged by the success of that book, that another was bound to follow. This time, the call went out across Australia and the MMCC were inundated with hundreds of recipes from readers all over the country.
The Feast Goes On features the best-loved and most delicious recipes and stories from the heart and soul of the Jewish community across Australia, it speaks of a community drawn together by food, telling poignant stories of sharing and survival, love and hope, friendship and family. But mostly, it's about the food.
I caught up with the Monday Morning Cooking Club by email and I'm sharing our conversation (and a recipe) with you:
Congratulations on your second book, The Feast Goes On. Just like your first book, it’s a lovely collection of recipes and a beautiful book. I am delighted to share it with my readers. You must all be so excited!
Liz we are incredibly excited!! The feedback from the book so far has been beyond our wildest dreams.
Please tell me a little about how you all met:
We came together eight years ago with a seed of an idea to write a cookbook and raise money for charity. We knew we didn’t want to do a spiral bound “kindy” fundraiser book, as much as we have all enjoyed them over the years and think they create such great community spirit. We wanted to create a cookbook that could sit in any bookstore in the world, alongside any of the best cookbooks in the world. [I think you have certainly achieved this goal!]. We then started to meet every Monday morning (thus the name!) and the project slowly evolved into what it is today - a platform for collecting, preserving and sharing the treasured recipes of our beautiful community. With raising money for charity being the icing on the cake!
To cook the types of beautiful food that you all cook, it's important to have a well-stocked larder, so what staple ingredients or whole foods do you always stock in your larder?
Merelyn: Unsalted butter, flour, eggs, sugar, povidl, sour cream for baking. Chickpeas and lentils for middle eastern cooking. Roasted almonds for snacking on while cooking! In the fridge, loads of fresh herbs, salad leaves. On the kitchen counter, lemons. I go through buckets of them.
Lisa: My aim is to be able to bake anything at any time so I always have cake essentials - butter, flours, eggs, caster and brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, canned fruit, jams, sultanas and nuts in the pantry. Chicken soup, stock and homemade tomato sauce is in the freezer at all times. Onions, garlic, tomatoes and lemons are always on my kitchen counter.
Natanya: Lots of onions, brown for frying and red to add to salads, plenty of good quality dark chocolate and loads of biodynamic eggs.
What fresh ingredients are always in your shopping basket?
Merelyn: Rocket, radicchio (a healthy addiction), flat leaf parsley, mint, coriander, lemons, skinny Lebanese cucumbers, carrots, sheeps milk yoghurt, cauliflower mopping up roast chicken juices, or roasting alone for a moroccan cauliflower salad, deep red carrots whenever I can find them.
Lisa: At the moment you will always find fennel (I am crazy about it, finely shaved and dressed with lemon juice, salt and evoo), iceberg lettuce (the tighter the better!), rocket, avocados and dozens of lemons in my basket.
Natanya: Always lots of lemons and avocado, rocket, fennel and heaps of fresh parsley, coriander and mint.
Who are your food heroes, or who inspires you the most when it comes to food and cooking?
Merelyn: Claudia Roden for her preservation of old Jewish recipes and documenting the history of so many interesting Jewish communities. Ottolenghi for making middle eastern food fresh, light, and accessible to everyone. Nigella Lawson for making the love of cooking so attractive and accessible. And I still bake from Jill Dupleix’s Old Food very constantly.
Lisa: I’m most inspired by my late Bubba (grandmother) Shendel. My father tells stories of life in Poland in the 1930s where Shendel made a beautiful and warm home for her family in quite difficult circumstances. Her cellar was a treasure trove of delight - pickling and preserving many things - and her kitchen always produced freshly baked breads, cakes and strudels. All the food she prepared was done so with much love and care, and my father’s wonderful tales still inspire me! In contemporary cuisine I am in awe of Stephanie Alexander - her Cook's Companion is really a cooking bible and her food/cooking knowledge is second to none. I think Neil Perry is amazing, not only for what he has done for Australia in the world of food but for creating the most wonderful restaurants for us to enjoy again and again.
Natanya: My first cooking bible was Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion from which I learnt so much.
When it comes to the cookbooks you cook from, do you prefer to keep the pages pristine or do you like it when they’re well used and the pages are just a little splattered?
Merelyn: I love annotating cookbooks, my little notes become a history of the kitchen I’ve been cooking in. I note if my current oven is running hot or cool, and therefore does the recipe need longer or shorter to bake. I note my adjustments to ingredients in savoury dishes, I sometimes note what my family think! I also have a notebook where I document visitors for dinner and what I’ve fed them.
Lisa: I like nothing more than a splattered cookbook. This tells me the book has been used and loved. It makes me so happy with I open a book I haven’t touched in years and there is that pasta sauce recipe with tomato splodges all over!
Natanya: You can easily tell which are my favourite and well used cookbooks from the state of the pages and all the sticky notes attached.
Do you have an all-time favourite recipe (either in the book or on your blog)?
Merelyn: That’s like choosing your favourite child! My mother’s chiffon cake recipe in our first book is a clear winner, and my aunty’s chocolate prune cake from the second book takes me back to my childhood in Perth.
Lisa: It really does change all the time and you would probably get a different answer in a month’s time. From ‘The Feast Goes On’ it is my aunty Myrna’s cabbage rolls because they are SO delicious, immediately take me back to my childhood, and remind me of my much-missed aunty. On the blog, my favourite recipe is the salmon with tahini dressing. It is a superb dish for home or entertaining (impressive and do-ahead!) and we love the fact that Greg Malouf’s tarator salmon, via MMCC’s stint on SBS Food Safari, became an MMCC staple.
Natanya: Favourite recipes change with the seasons and over the years. I have had many from both our books but one that I always come back to is Lena Goldstein's Kindlech. The light and flaky pastry is unbelievable!
What's on the agenda for the MMCC for the rest of 2014?
Merelyn: We’re busy promoting the Feast Goes On, and hopefully launching it overseas later this year. Any left over time will be spent feeding our families and starting to formulate our third book.
Lisa: Lots of fun in and out of the kitchen. We’ll be promoting ‘The Feast Goes On’ across Australia for some months, and then hope to take it overseas. We will then continue with our greatest and most enjoyable task - collecting, preserving and sharing recipes from our wonderful community across Australia - which involves many delicious and unforgettable hours in the kitchen - testing, tasting and writing.
What’s for dinner tonight?
Merelyn: Carrot and fennel soup and slow roasted lamb
Lisa: It’s a big Friday night (Shabbat) for my son’s birthday so I am making egg and onion (a staple Friday night starter at my place, from our first book, recipe on our website), slow cooked beef with ras el hanout and maple soy ocean trout (both from ‘The Feast Goes On’). My sister in law Kathy is making the birthday cake - a Celebration Chocolate Cake... with 23 candles!
Natanya: Nanna's chicken balls (from The Feast Goes On) to feed a house full of kids and a huge pavlova (from our first book).
And, finally, is there a recipe you would like to share with Good Things readers?
MMCC: Yes, Suzanne Goldberg's ricotta cheesecake from page 278 of The Feast Goes On. This cheesecake has been a family favourite for over 30 years and originated from a relative in Israel. It's a large cake and is great for feeding a crowd. We normally eat it on the day it's baked, but it sets beautifully overnight in the fridge and becomes easier to slice. Sometimes we fold through a jar of pitted cherries. We hope you and your readers will enjoy this cheesecake as much as we do.
May our recipes fill your homes with heartwarming and luscious dishes. May you, and your friends and family, feel nurtured, nourished and loved just from the eating. May our stories inspire, engage and move you, and give you a unique insight into our extraordinary community.
[Thank you ever so much!]
Ricotta cheesecake from The Feast Goes On...
290 g (11/4 cups) cups caster sugar
1 kg fresh ricotta cheese, drained if wet
250 g sour cream
3 tablespoons custard powder
1½ tablespoons cornflour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 28 cm springform cake tin or a 24 cm square cake tin. Using an electric mixer, whisk the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cheese and beat until smooth, then add the remaining ingredients and beat until well combined. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 1 hour, or until golden and puffy. The cake will rise during baking, then fall once cooled. Serves 12-16.
The Feast Goes On by the Monday Morning Cooking Club, $49.99, HarperCollins. All MMCC profits from the book will go to charity.
Thank you again very kindly to the Monday Morning Cooking Club and the publicity team at HarperCollins for giving me the opportunity to review The Feast Goes On and catch up with all of you. There is much to cook from here and I can barely wait to splatter, annotate and cover the pages of this delicious book with sticky notes! Starting with this cheesecake!
Tell me dear readers, are you a fan of the Monday Morning Cooking Club? Which of the books do you have on your shelves and what is your favourite MMCC recipe? (I know, it's hard to choose!).
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.