South Orange resident and food writer Shannon Sarna, editor of the popular Jewish food blog The Nosher, just published a cookbook. And it’s here just in time for the holidays.
In Modern Jewish Baker, Sarna shares master recipes for seven iconic baked goods – challah, babka, bagels, rugelach, hamantaschen, pita bread and matzah – giving each its own section. The classics are all there, but she blends new into old by adding creative flavors and unexpected fillings and toppings.
Traditional Breads Mash-up Creative Flavors
Her babkas, for example, come in traditional chocolate or cinnamon, or contemporary versions that taste like birthday cake or pair goat cheese with fig jam. The bagel chapter boasts both rye and jalapeno cheddar. Banana bread chocolate chip challah, a nod to the sweet treat she once baked with her mom, joins pesto parmesan rugelach. “It’s a little bit of a mash-up,” Sarna said describing her style. She also provides ideas for leftovers and complementary sides like gravlax or chopped liver, hers a hybrid of Jewish and Italian cooking methods.
Inspiration and Instructions Make Recipes Easy to Follow
In each chapter, Sarna intentionally spells out her process. Step-by-step photos show how to fill and shape the different doughs and make it seem easy. She also explains how things should look and feel at different stages, guiding cooks in the kitchen. “I want people to walk away empowered and confident that they can do it,” she said. “I want them to feel like ‘there’s a place for me to come’ and it starts with babka.”
Sarna, who lives in South Orange with her husband and two young daughters, said food was a big part of her upstate New York upbringing. Her parents, who she described as “hippie musicians,” came from different cultural backgrounds. Her dad, a fan of the Food Network from the very beginning, is Jewish. Her mom, an Italian-American Catholic, introduced her to eggplant, meatballs, and fettucine alfredo.
Sadness Pulled Her into the Kitchen
While Sarna started baking as a child, it was a family tragedy that truly pulled her into the kitchen. When she was 16 years old, her mother died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and her family fell apart. Seeking comfort and stability, she reached for James Beard’s classic Beard on Bread and made her first challah. “I had to do it all for myself,” she said, explaining that she gained strength learning to care for her younger siblings. Her baking turned into a weekly ritual that allowed her to experiment and perfect her recipes.
From a Facebook Page to 400,000 Followers
Years later, she started documenting her cooking adventures on a Facebook page that would eventually evolve into The Nosher and draw 400,000 followers. It started is as a hobby while she worked in communications for NYC non-profits. Seven years later, she now works full time on the website, managing Jewish writers and food stories from around the world.
With work, family and promoting her book keeping her very busy, what’s Sarna making for the holidays? “Nothing,” she said laughing at her packed schedule. Then, she paused for a moment. “Or, maybe challah” she added.