Colorful sprinkles shimmy across the floor of Shannon Sarna’s New Jersey kitchen, the sweet fallout of a cupcake-baking session with her girls, 7-year-old Ella and 3-year-old Billie. Shannon, a longtime reader of Taste of Home and author of the Modern Jewish Baker cookbook, doesn’t mind a few strays. She considers the time she spends in the kitchen with her children, including her infant son, Jude, to be particularly precious.
That time in the kitchen is a tradition she’s carried on from her own childhood. “I remember baking a lot of banana bread, zucchini bread and pudding pie with my mom, and those are very cherished memories,” Shannon says.
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Learning to Bake
When her mother passed away, Shannon was just a teen. She began to cook for her younger siblings, and that’s when she started thinking about connecting to her Jewish heritage—particularly when it came to making Jewish food. The first recipe she tried baking on her own was challah, the traditional braided Jewish bread.
Since then, she’s come to love the tradition and precision that go into Jewish baking. That’s what inspired her to write Modern Jewish Baker. “I wanted home bakers, and those who had never made challah or babka before, to feel empowered and confident that they could make it at home.
Baking for Passover
Today, variations on challah account for a hefty portion of the Jewish cooking website The Nosher, where Shannon is editor. She notes that challah is not served during Passover, however, because everything on the table must be free of wheat and yeast. When it comes to Passover recipes, she says, they’re “basically gluten-free baking.”
Although matzo meal can be substituted for flour in some recipes, Shannon is partial to making flourless cakes, candies and other sweets for Passover. “And I like to make desserts with nut flours or nut butters,” she says. As with all baking, Shannon can’t stress enough that “ingredients matter and precision is everything.”
“The taste and quality of your bake is improved greatly by better ingredients,” she says. “Don’t buy cheap chocolate and don’t buy cheap flour.”
A Family Favorite
She puts that special care into her family’s most beloved dessert, rainbow cookies. Traditionally served in synagogues and at Jewish celebrations, rainbow cookies (see Shannon’s recipe below) are actually an Italian confection. That’s what Shannon likes about Jewish baking and cooking—they are influenced by many cultures.
“Jews are from all over the world, but there’s also a universality,” she says. “Jewish baking looks like so many things.” In the ethnic melting pot of New York’s Lower East Side, Jewish cooks and bakers have adapted dishes from Eastern European, Italian and Irish kitchens. Those recipes were handed down to new generations, just as her family’s kitchen traditions are being passed along to Ella, Billie and Jude. “My husband, Jonathan, loves to cook, too,” Shannon says. Shannon believes cooking and baking help kids grow in confidence and independence, while also drawing the family closer.
“There are a lot of demands on parents,” she says, “but being in the kitchen—talking and baking side by side—is a time you can slow down a little bit.” Even if that means sweeping up a few sprinkles.
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How to Make Passover Rainbow Cookies
To make these pretty layered cookies, you’ll bake three thin cakes, spread jam between them and coat with smooth melted chocolate. These are a great dairy-free cookie, but if you’re not keeping kosher or avoiding dairy, you can substitute unsalted butter for the margarine. The recipe makes about three dozen cookies.
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 oz. almond paste, cut into small pieces
- 1/2 cup stick margarine, softened (we used Earth Balance Buttery Sticks)
- 1/2 cup almond flour
- 1/2 cup matzo cake meal
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 6 to 8 drops red food coloring
- 6 to 8 drops green food coloring
- 1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
For the glaze
- 1 cup dark chocolate chips
- 1 Tbsp. shortening
- Dash salt
Step 1: Prep the batter
Preheat oven to 375°. Line bottoms of 3 greased 8-in. square baking pans with parchment; grease parchment. In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar until thick and lemon-colored, 2-3 minutes. Gradually add almond paste; mix well. Gradually add margarine, almond flour, cake meal, salt and vanilla.
Step 2: Dye the batter
Divide the batter into thirds. Tint 1 portion red and 1 portion green; leave remaining portion plain. Spread each portion into prepared pans.
Step 3: Bake the layers
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the edges begin to brown, 10-12 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes before gently removing from pans to wire racks to cool completely.
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Step 4: Stack them up
Place red layer on waxed paper; spread with 2 Tbsp. jam. Top with plain layer and remaining jam. Add green layer; press down gently.
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Step 5: Make the glaze
For glaze, in a microwave, melt chocolate chips, shortening and salt; stir until smooth. Spread half over green layer. Refrigerate 20 minutes or until set. Turn over onto another piece of waxed paper; spread remaining glaze over red layer. Refrigerate 20 minutes or until set.
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Step 6: Cut the cookies
With a knife, trim edges. Cut into 4 rows; cut each row into 1-in. slices.
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