Za’atar kebabs with vegetables from “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen” by Faith Kramer. (Photo/Clara Rice)
Za’atar kebabs with vegetables from “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen” by Faith Kramer. (Photo/Clara Rice)

‘52 Shabbats’: Our columnist’s cookbook takes you around the world for a year of Friday night dinners

Shabbat dinner fare has come a long way since the days when roast chicken graced most tables, right alongside the challah and Manischewitz. For some people, of course, such traditions are not to be fussed with, but others are much more flexible and willing to experiment.

Cover of "52 Shabbats"Faith Kramer is one of the latter, and she’s out with a new book that illustrates her point: “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen” (Collective Book Studio), available now for preorder through local booksellers

It will come as no surprise to readers of her J. column, which she’s written for the past 12 years, that she offers multitudes of ideas for chicken substitutes, such as pulled turkey with pomegranate molasses, Ethiopian spiced pot roast, or Friday night tamales stuffed with beef tzimmes. Vegetarian entrées might include sweet and tart silan (date syrup) roasted carrots with lentils, or mushroom and cheese strudel.

Kramer wants her book to be an access point for any kind of Shabbat practice. While she has an adventurous palate and likes to try everything, especially when traveling, all of the recipes in the book are kosher. Many of them incorporate international flavor profiles.

Cookbook author and J. columnist Faith Kramer. (Photo/Clara Rice)
Cookbook author and J. columnist Faith Kramer. (Photo/Clara Rice)

“If you already have a strong Shabbat practice, come for the recipes, because they are kosher,” she said in an interview. “But if you don’t have a strong Shabbat practice, or if it’s different than the mainstream, I want this to be a welcoming entry point for you. Shabbat is a holiday that happens every week, whether we notice it or not. We can have the intention which honors the holiday, whether it’s pizza or an elaborate meal or somewhere in between. We can stop and acknowledge this holiday that happens every week.”

A New York native who began her career in journalism and then later worked in public relations, Kramer was always interested in food. Though by her own account her grandmother was a terrible cook — the only flavor in her brisket came from the burned onions, she joked — she instilled in young Faith an appreciation of the beauty of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Her mother was a “fearless and adventurous cook, who didn’t so much teach me, but really loved diving into different cuisines,” she said.

On her father’s side, she had a step-grandmother of Italian and Hungarian Jewish descent, so even though Kramer is Ashkenazi, she learned from firsthand experience that the Jewish diaspora is vast and not as monolithic as many others seemed to think.

She taught herself to cook starting in college, using a hot plate in her dorm room and a recipe for mushrooms in a white sauce she clipped out of the New York Times Magazine.

Roast salmon with citrus-honey sauce from "52 Shabbats." (Photo/Clara Rice)
Roast salmon with citrus-honey sauce from “52 Shabbats.” (Photo/Clara Rice)

When Kramer had her children, she left the workforce for the early years and then worked alongside her husband. But as her children grew, she began to think about what might be next for her. She started writing a column about Jewish food and sharing her recipes in her synagogue bulletin, and that later turned that into a food blog: blogappetit. When an editor at J. found her and asked if she wanted to be a recipe columnist, she accepted.

“The J. column has been my laboratory, where I take a lot of my theories about Jewish food history and tradition and symbolism and play with them and share the foods that I feed my friends and family,” Kramer said. “They’re not transcriptions, necessarily, of exact dishes that different communities’ ancestors might have made, but they take the spirit, ingredients and techniques and translate them into the kind of food we like to eat today.”

Along with the book’s 80 recipes are suggestions for Shabbat dinner menus, combining dishes that work well together.

It was about a decade ago that Kramer started thinking about the modern Shabbat dinner and what a long way it had come since the days of roast chicken. Her interest was piqued by seeing what her friends and family made.

Mushroom and cheese strudel from "52 Shabbats." (Photo/Clara Rice)
Mushroom and cheese strudel from “52 Shabbats.” (Photo/Clara Rice)

Her friend Dawn Margolin of Oakland, for example, likes to keep the focus on her guests and makes sure the food isn’t a stressor, which is why she always makes the same thing for her Shabbat table: a Moroccan spice-rubbed chicken with vegetables, challah and a one-pan banana bread for dessert. She asks guests to bring salad. (Kramer included Margolin’s chicken and banana bread recipes in the book.)

As Kramer continued writing her column over the years, she began to think bigger. She said she is incredibly grateful to J. for giving her the opportunity, but also realized she had so much more to say than could fit in the space of a column.

“The thought of sitting down and writing a cookbook was always in the back of my mind,” she said, offering the freedom to explore a more expansive idea of what Shabbat dinner could be.

The book also explains the Shabbat rituals, but in a concise way, with some suggested Jewish websites offered for further reading.

Kramer, an Oakland resident who belongs to Temple Beth Abraham, met the publisher of the Collective Book Studio, Angela Engel, through synagogue and shared her idea for the cookbook. When Engel showed immediate interest, Kramer was inspired to go forward, which is how she came to write her first book at age 67. She completed much of the manuscript while staying in London for a few months during Covid, awaiting the birth of her first grandchild.

Falafel pizza with feta and herbs from "52 Shabbats." (Photo/Clara Rice)
Falafel pizza with feta and herbs from “52 Shabbats.” (Photo/Clara Rice)

The book is a totally local and largely Jewish affair, including the images by photographer Clara Rice. The food styling and design were also the work of local artists. Rabbi Mark Bloom and wife Karen (Kramer’s rabbi and rebbetzin) offered their commentary on the manuscript.

Kramer and her husband have traveled widely in their retirement, and the flavor profiles of many Asian cuisines are in the book. Kramer marinates flanken, a traditionally Jewish cut of meat, with ginger and lemongrass, inspired by her trip to Cambodia. She also was introduced to some international flavors right at home. A frequenter of the Ethiopian restaurants in Oakland, she fell in love with Berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix, which she uses to season pot roast. Middle Eastern ingredients such as tahini and pomegranate molasses make frequent appearances as well.

The book is organized seasonally, and Kramer helps the reader navigate beyond just Shabbat with recommended dishes for all of the Jewish holidays. She writes about her Hanukkah favorites in this week’s recipe column.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."