It’s not surprising that the women of the Monday Morning Cooking Club finish each other’s sentences. After 11 years of cooking, sharing recipes and (probably) much of their lives, there isn’t much they don’t know about each other – or Jewish food.
The five women: Lisa Goldberg, Merelyn Chalmers, Natanya Eskin, Jacqui Israel and Lynn Niselow have been meeting every Monday morning for the last 11 years (the first four right from the start and Niselow for the last two years). During that time, they have collected, curated and tested recipes of their community, producing two cookbooks, with the third, It’s Always About The Food, to be released at the end of this month.
“It’s like part marriage, part girlfriend, part work colleague – it’s unique,” says Goldberg. “I can’t think of anywhere else that’s it’s like that. We argue and we debate and we laugh and we cry.”
“And there’s such respect,” adds Israel. “Respect for each other’s ideas and respect for each other.”
Niselow agrees. “It’s an adult relationship – you can have a discussion, you can agree to disagree and it’s fine. There’s nothing that’s held over and really that’s part of what’s really special.”
Chalmers says they aren’t competitive at all. “Imagine 11 years of women together in a kitchen and cooking and making decisions. We don’t fight.”
Then Eskin interjects. “We do roll eyes a lot.” Laughter.
Because, as the title of their new book puts it, Monday Morning Cooking Club is always about the food. They see themselves as culinary custodians, preserving their community’s history, as passed down from mother to daughter – and even mother-in-law to daughter-in-law.
The process is rigorous.
“We test them obsessively,” says Goldberg. “We collect and we curate. We select and then we test like mad.”
“Then we eat,” adds Eskin.
“And then we argue about everything and then we choose,” says Goldberg. “And we make a selection on a few different criteria. It’s got to be a great recipe – we have got to eat it and we have just got to go ‘yum’.”
Eskin adds that because the recipes often come to the group of women from home cooks, many never haven’t been written down before – and none have really been tested properly.
“Before we cook and taste it, most often a recipe comes to us in a very basic form, where it’s missing measurements, missing oven temperatures, missing tin sizes and we actually have to recognise if it could be a great recipe,” she adds.
Chalmers stresses that they never change recipes that they collect; they see themselves as recording the culinary history of Jewish culture. “Even if we are adapting and interpreting we are trying to keep it as close to the original as possible and aim to get the taste that person has and respect the history of the dish,” she says.
Sometimes this can be a challenging task, the women admit. The words only tell part of the story. They share the background behind the recipes for malawach and olive and pistachio stuffed chicken, provided by Sydney cook Nava Levy, as they share a sneak peek of the new book ahead of its release.
Malawach is a Yemenite bread that the team was finding difficult to replicate, so ultimately the women went to Levy’s kitchen and learnt first-hand the recipe that her mother-in-law had taught her.
“And then we came back to the MMCC kitchen and managed to replicate it and we were so thrilled,” says Goldberg. “The chicken is one of the recipes that was made in her family in Israel and that she recreated when she moved to Australia.”
The five women are all Ashkenazi Jews, meaning their people were originally from Eastern Europe. The first two books - Monday Morning Cooking Club and The Feast Goes On - reflect their culinary heritage, but this time they have collected recipes from Jews all over the world.
The recipes for kakas and babas by Rachel Dingoor were collected “when Rachel came to our kitchen with her granddaughter Orit,” says Goldberg. “We love that that beautiful generational link where granddaughters want to share their nana’s amazing recipes and ensure they are recorded for the future generations. These biscuits are traditional Sephardi biscuits (another group of Jews, originally from the Middle East).”
This book has continued a wonderful journey of discovery that started with their first book, says Goldberg.
“We started because we wanted to write a cookbook and we knew nothing about it. All we knew was how to cook and how to eat and we’ve learnt together and we have been through this roller coaster journey together, which has been unbelievable and exciting and challenging and disappointing and thrilling and all of it. And together. And now we’re here, the third book.”
It’s Always About the Food by the Monday Morning Cooking Club (Harper Collins, hb, $49.99), on sale March 27.
Cook the book
Rachel's Sephardi community – who settled in India from Baghdad – make these at various Jewish festivals throughout the year. We think it’s really great to have a recipe for one dough that makes both a savoury and sweet biscuit. ~ Natanya, MMCC
Not sure what we’re more excited about – a chook with a gluten-free stuffing or a dish that is a main and a side all in one. Either way, this dish is finger-licking good. ~MMCC
It was so special for me to spend the morning with Nava, in her Bondi Beach kitchen, learning the disappearing art of making malawach from scratch. Back in our kitchen the next Monday, we were beside ourselves when our dough stretched to translucent. We rolled and folded it over with buttered hands – as she did – and then burnt our tongues eating the hot, flaky bread straight from the frying pan. ~ Lisa, MMCC
This spicy spread is great with malawach. If you like it less fiery, the recipe gives options for toning down the heat.
This bake comes from Jacqui's grandmother.