A spoonful of irony mixed with the tasty dishes featured at Congregation Etz Chaim’s first matzah brie cook-off last week.
Although it wasn’t intended to coincide, the event April 16 fell on the first yartzheit of the honoree and impetus for the contest, Ron Bachenheimer, who died about a year ago. Also, the winning recipe was his, re-created by his wife, Iris.
“Ron loved a good party, so I hope you all enjoy,” she said before becoming the champion cook.
The moist dish, dubbed Team Tzipporah to mask the contestant, was also my personal favorite, with its sautéed mushrooms and onions and the secret ingredient Iris revealed to the assembly: pareve chicken consommé.
For the contest, she said she substituted gluten-free matzah for her daughter, who came from the family’s hometown in Chicago for the event. Iris disclosed after the contest that her husband’s recipe was crispier, but the judges – everyone who attended got two votes – didn’t seem to mind.
Apparently, I voted with the majority because my next pick was the second-place Sisterhood recipe, Team Yochevet, a sweet variety with chocolate chips, jam and cream. Third place was Stefan Pollack, Team Aharon, who used blueberries and strawberries along with sugar and vanilla in his recipe.
About 100 people attended the event, inspired by a bragging contest that began years ago when Bachenheimer challenged Rabbi Shalom Lewis to a Passover-time cook-off.
Delores Restivo Lazerson, the contest organizer and co-chair of the synagogue’s adult education program, read Lewis’ Passover greetings from Israel, in which he shared memories of the good-natured cooking duel between a “Yekkisha,” German Jew, Bachenheimer, and a “Litvak from Lithuania.”
“Over the years, as Passover approached, Ron boasted of his talent in the kitchen in the preparation of matzah brie, as did I. Our Pesachdik braggadocio ultimately ended up in a friendly competition one fateful yontif many years ago surrounded by hungry friends.”
With the two friends “shvitzing and laughing” in the kitchen, “folks in the dining room hollered for the next round,” Lewis recalled. “As the evening drew to a close, with the kitchen reeking of oil, we shook hands, embraced and called it a draw, to the applause of those assembled.”
The rabbi said he’d love someone to freeze leftovers from the modern-day re-creation of that memorable cook-off for him to taste when he returned. “Chag Sameach from Yerushalayim.”
Also addressing the crowd, Bachenheimer’s daughter Dena said her “larger than life” father, with his big personality and gregarious nature, would have loved being the center of attention.
About the origins of the contest, she said, “There was not much else to eat if you kept kosher.” Late at night, her father would whip up his savory Passover dish with its base of eggs and matzah, combined with mushrooms and onions for pareve meals and salami for fleishig ones. “There was a lot of mingling, yelling and sweating,” she recalled of the competition between her father and the rabbi. The winner was more likely a result of personal connections than a superior taste, she said.
Tearing up, she told the congregation she appreciated the cooking contest in her father’s memory. “It’s about an old tradition brought to life in a new manner. I can hear my Dad now, ‘Oy, I would be in heaven.’”