Paula Shoyer Wants to Make Jewish Holiday Food a Little Healthier

updated May 24, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Welcome to Kitchn’s series Kitchn Crush, where we highlight some of the coolest, most inspiring people in food you need to know about right now.

Rosh Hashana (the celebration of Jewish New Year) begins at sundown on Sunday, September 9, and from now until then Paula Shoyer‘s phone is going to be ringing off the hook.

There’s a reason Paula is in such high demand this time of year: She’s a trusted authority on traditional and contemporary Jewish recipes and has written four cookbooks on the subject, including The Kosher Baker, The Holiday Kosher Baker, The New Passover Menu, and her latest, The Healthy Jewish Kitchen. Paula has made it her mission to take the calories out of comfort foods, and show that lighter takes on traditional favorites can still be delicious.

When we caught up with Paula, she had a brisket in the oven and was in the middle of cooking her second (out of three) complete holiday meals in the span of one week: “I cooked a whole Rosh Hashanah meal for an event yesterday in New Hampshire, came home, made another entire meal for a TV segment tomorrow, and now I actually have to cook for the holiday,” she tells me. “It’s non-stop holiday food around here — the good stuff.”

We asked for some of Paula’s best tips — and how she plans to celebrate the Jewish holiday season (aside from cooking around the clock).

What are some of the most popular questions people ask you about holiday food?

I really do get phone calls and emails like crazy. Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. someone’s going to call me with a question, I’m telling you. I’m like the brisket, babka, challah hotline. A big question I get asked is how to slice brisket across the grain. It’s all about trial and error. If you slice it with the grain, it will look long and stringy, which is fine for pulled barbecue, but if you want to eat it in slices you have to slice across the grain.

People also ask me a lot of baking questions and for help with troubleshooting challah recipes. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that every oven is a little different. You should subtract baking time from any recipe, check it early, and then leave it in longer if you have to. You can’t turn back time if it’s already overdone.

People also call me for help with figuring out how to plan their holiday menus.

Holidays aren’t usually the time to focus on wellness. How do you keep the holidays light?

Yes, I wrote an entire cookbook about taking traditional Jewish recipes and holiday-appropriate recipes and making them lighter. I really believe that it can be done. The first thing I tell people is to start with natural ingredients. Don’t use jarred sauces — make your own marinades and sauces using natural ingredients. I try to cook with less salt, sugar, and fats, and in my book I have a whole section of whole-grain desserts like whole-wheat challah, rugelach, and babka. It’s delicious, and it’s just better for you.

People can be really protective when it comes to traditional recipes. How do most people respond to your healthful swaps?

As soon as they taste them, they know they’re delicious. People knew me as a baker, so I think my following trusts me. But I still meet people who say that a healthy Jewish kitchen doesn’t exist. I say, ‘Well it does in my kitchen!”

A lot of people have family recipes where even the savory dishes have a lot of sugar in them — like salad dressings, roasts with brown sugar, marinades and what not. I tell them to take sweeteners out of your savory food and use a little bit of honey. Save your sweet calories for desserts and don’t waste them on the food!

What is on your Rosh Hashanah menu this year?

Years ago, when my kids were really little, I was always looking to make the trendiest food for my holidays because I wanted to impress everyone. But I realized that as my children were getting older, they weren’t associating certain foods with the holidays. I wanted them to have food memories and to have something to hold on to. Now we have some of the same things every year.

This year I’m serving my matzo ball soup, pretty classic recipe, but I often make chicken meatballs instead which are gluten-free. I’m also making borscht from my new book because I have a group of vegetarians coming on Sunday night. I’m also going to serve gefilte fish — I’m not sure how I’m preparing it yet though! Of course, I’m serving brisket, but mine is brisket Osso Buco. [Ed. Note: Osso Buco is an Italian dish that’s usually made with veal. It’s braised in white wine and garnished with parsley and lemon.] I’m also making a sage and shallot rubbed turkey. I love making traditional foods with a new twist. There’s also always going to be babka and rugelach, but now mine are healthier versions of my original recipes.

How many people are you hosting?

The first night I’m up to 23 and the second night is 14. My youngest sons (they’re twins) are already off at their first year at college, but if either of them tell me they want to come home, I will book them a flight in a second.

Yom Kippur is right around the corner as well (September 18 to September 19). What are some of your traditions?

So Yom Kippur is a fast day, so we typically have a meal before Yom Kippur starts. I put chicken soup in my freezer a month ago, so I already have it ready to go for our pre-fast meal. I try to keep the food pretty simple. I usually do a roasted chicken, lentils and rice, roasted carrots, and homemade challah. Nothing too fancy or complicated — just a very simple meal.

How do you break the fast?

We have a recipe that my grandmother always made — a noodle kugel. Most people know me as the anti-kugel. I criticize kugel often and take a lot of heat for it! But my one exception is this dairy noodle kugel with cottage cheese, sour cream, butter, cream cheese, and sugar, baked in the oven. I will always have that after my fast, no matter what. When I published the recipe, I almost felt like I was violating my family because it is so beloved.

No bagels?

I’m not a bagels-and-lox kind of girl. I love to do a lot of lighter options and have a lot of side salads! But there will be room for dessert. Since the holidays are so early this year, I’m going to make a giant slab pie using fresh berries since there are still so many. It’ll feed a crowd!

Interview edited for length and clarity.