(JTA) – Panettone, the fluffy, fruit-speckled archetypal Christmas cake, is this holiday season’s “it” dessert — and the creator of perhaps the most coveted version in the United States is an Israeli-American Jew.
The New York Times this week credited baker Roy Shvartzapel with spearheading “the American panettone revolution” through his business From Roy.
Shvartzapel has dedicated the bulk of his career to the airy Italian cakes, training under Iginio Massari, the undisputed master baker in Italy, and obsessing over each ingredient and step in the 40-hour production cycle. After a flurry of coverage in his company’s early days in 2016, and especially since being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey in 2018, Shvartzapel’s business has grown dramatically. Last year, he said he expected to sell nearly 300,000, at $75 a piece, both in stores and via mail order. This year, the price is $85, and preorders sold out by — without, Shvartzapel said on a podcast last year, any spending on marketing.
While Shvartzapel’s goal of turning panettone into a year-round treat means he has several non-traditional flavors in his repertoire, From Roy only offers a few at a time — and the company plans to keep it that way.
“There’s lots of pastry items that I love that I will never be making for my business,” Shvartzapel said on the podcast, with the chef Chris Cosentino. “I’m a big believer that less is more, generally speaking, in most things.”
Shvartzapel declined to comment to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this month, explaining through a publicist that he was too busy before Christmas to speak. But in public comments and social media posts made before this year’s panettone “gold rush,” as the New York Times put it, he has offered details about the intersection of his Jewish identity and his Christmas baking.
Born in Karmiel, Israel, where a statue modeled on his mother holding him as an infant stands in a park, Shvartzapel was raised in Houston and now lives in California’s Bay Area with his children and Israeli-born wife, who also helped launch From Roy. A devoted athlete as a teenager, he played collegiate basketball and spent time on Karmiel’s Maccabi team but realized he would never make the NBA.
“Like every good Jewish boy,” Shvartzapel told David Chang, the Momofuku chef, on a 2019 podcast interview, he considered becoming a lawyer before realizing that cooking played to his passions and strengths.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2004, Shvartzapel began looking for work in New York City. It was a cookbook by the Jewish baker Dorie Greenspan that indirectly led to his first job: He spotted a lemon tart in a new cafe that looked like one she had photographed by the master French chef Pierre Hermé, then talked his way into a job working there, at Bouley Bakery, under Hermé’s former executive chef. Ultimately, that led to him working in Paris, where he had the panettone that changed his life.
“The texture, the aroma, the chew,” he said in 2018. ”I tasted it and it was like one of those meditative lights-off moments. The crazy love affair began.”
Shvartzapel has spoken extensively about his intense work ethic, his struggles with depression and, of course, what sets his panettone apart from low-cost supermarket varieties. He has said less publicly about himself as a Jew. But last year, on Facebook, he wished his friends a happy Passover with a picture of a cheesy omelet and a side of chopped liver — both prepared with attention to the holiday’s prohibitions on leavened bread (such as panettone) but, together, not a kosher meal.
“Modern jew … I mean, gotta combine the dairy and the meat to make it particularly kosher for Passover,” he wrote, adding laughing emojis.
Although panettone is often mentioned in the same breath as its Jewish enriched-dough cousin, babka, its history is rooted in the Catholic Church. Legend has it that it was created by accident on a 15th-century Christmas Eve, and was served to Catholic students and even the pope by the 1500s, according to records from the time.
Still, it makes sense that America’s most prominent panettone maker is Jewish, according to Debbie Prinz, a food historian and author of the forthcoming book “On The Bread Trail,” which grew out of her exploration of Jewish celebration cakes.
“It’s not surprising that there’s this interchange, especially today, since the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews are even fewer than they used to be,” Prinz said.
But while Shvartzapel’s panettone path may be modern, historic patterns of cultural collision have often cut the other way, sending traditionally Jewish foods onto the Christmas table.
One notable example appears to be lebkuchen, a fruit-studded spice cookie popular in Germany. While the origins of the treat are not clear, one theory is that lebkuchen entered German cuisine through lekach, a honey cake eaten by Italian Jewish traders passing through during the Middle Ages, according to researchers at the Leo Baeck Institute, a German Jewish institution. (German Jews fleeing the Nazis imported contemporary lebkuchen recipes and, in several cases, became successful lebkuchen purveyors in New York.)
Meanwhile, in panettone’s home country of Italy, traditional Christmas menus include a host of dishes that are likely to have originated in Jewish kitchens: pezzetti fritti or mixed fried vegetables; bigoli, or buckwheat noodles, with onion and anchovies; spongata, a cake imported from Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition; and nociata, or nut bars.
Many of those foods were historically Jewish because they made use of ingredients such as eggplant that were considered distasteful by non-Jewish Italians, or of ingredients such as anchovies that Jews used because they were not permitted to access higher-quality fish.
“There are a number of recipes that we call Jewish that came out of the fact that the Italians were really nasty to Jews,” said Benedetta Jasmine Guetta, author of “Cooking all Guidia: A Celebration of the Jewish Food of Italy.”
“Most of the time, actually I’m going to say 100% of the time, people don’t know” that the dishes were originally Jewish, Guetta added. “This is a common problem and the reason why I wrote my book.”
But while Guetta’s focus is on the Jewish foods of Italy, in December, she often turns to that famous domed Christmas cake.
“I have definitely grown up eating a great deal of panettone. My parents checked the ingredients to make sure it didn’t contain pork fat,” she said. “It’s a yummy seasonal treat.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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