Monday, April 2, 2012

The Brisket Bake-Off

I recently had the enormous good fortune to judge the Sisterhood's 3rd Annual Brisket Bake-Off at Temple Beth Emeth, Ann Arbor's Reform synagogue, at which I probably ate four days' worth of food - really, I'm not exaggerating!

Remember, there's always a lot of food at Jewish events, because everyone is afraid there will never be enough.  And we all know that while other people are social drinkers, I'm a social eater - I'll happily and heartily sample everything when I'm at a party, a buffet, or other gathering ... I'll often sample multiple times, too!  So I'd known that there was no need for me to cook a corned beef on St. Paddy's Day, because I would be feasting on brisket and many other dishes that evening.

I was one of three judges to sample 10 different briskets that had fame, prizes, and pride all riding on them.  My compatriots - Justin Hiller, of Hiller's Markets, and Lisa Saulles, who won top honors last year and thus earned her spot at the judges' table - and I all sat in front of the expectant audience.

After being introduced by charming emcee Jesse Bernstein, we were presented with samples of each brisket, one at a time, and asked to rate them on a scale of 1-5 (low-to-high) for aroma, appearance, texture, flavor and the all-important "Jewish Factor."

There were very traditional offerings, some prepared with Lipton onion soup mix - the classic that everyone remembers from childhood.  There were unique and updated entries, featuring olives or oranges or dates.  There were several that rounded out the dish with potatoes or yams or carrots.  I was truly impressed with the variety of flavors that had been offered to me, as well as the respect for tradition that was still clearly in evidence while each dish was given a personal flair.

Brisket, as you may or may not know, is a very serious business in the Jewish community - reputations are staked upon it!  It is as essential to be able to make a good brisket as it is to make matzah balls that will float, rather than sink, in chicken soup.  And I must note that each of the 10 samples was fork-tender; when given an opportunity to comment on the tasting, I noted that I had not once picked up my knife.

So there was significant anticipation as the votes were being tallied, and great joy when the winners were announced:

1st Place: Liz Wierba (who won in 2010, as well)
2nd Place: Sally Brieloff
3rd Place: Jennie Lieberman
4th Place: Susan and David Gitterman

(I apologize that I didn't get to the buffet table with my camera until after everyone had eaten; so I don't have a grand and glorious photo of each entry or of the winners' dishes, or even a definite idea whose fabulous offering is pictured above.  But I spent 13 years in Catholic schools and am essentially a secular Jew - trust that I'm suffering more than sufficient guilt for my lapse!)

And then, because 10 samples - just one bite each, but still 10! - of brisket apparently wasn't enough, there was dinner.  My friend Elaine once told me that, for someone who obsesses about food as I do, I "should have a little more schmaltz on (my) bones."  Well, I've got plenty of witnesses to attest to the amount I ate at this party, so I won't wither away any time soon!

It was a fabulous meal, offering a buffet filled with salad, green beans, a lentil-barley salad, and kasha varnishkes (a classic Jewish buckwheat and bow tie pasta dish that I adore).  Colcannon - an Irish mashed potato and cabbage dish which I also love dearly - was served in honor of St. Paddy's Day, and was a perfect brisket accompaniment because its primary ingredients are also integral to Jewish cuisine.

At the end of the long buffet table, there were 11 briskets - one extra had been provided by Hillary Handwerger, cheerfully genial hostess and one of the event organizers, because, as I mentioned before, there's always the fear that there won't be enough food!

Everyone, of course, wanted to taste the winning entries.  I had planned to simply satisfy myself with vegetables and dessert, having already eaten well during the judging.  But I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by snubbing them, and I didn't want folks thinking that I was "brisket-ed out."  I didn't want people watching as I preferred one option and neglected another; and really, I don't know how I would have selected only a few tastes, given how much I truly enjoyed everything.

So after the first round of vegetables and side dishes, I took small samples of each of the 11 briskets - my second plate was filled - and I enjoyed it all immensely, much moreso when I could really relish the individual qualities and flavors without having to think intently about specific criteria.  Truly, I didn't need to eat again until the next afternoon.

But there was a piece of rich, moist, decadent chocolate cake calling to me, insisting that it needed to accompany my after-dinner coffee.  I succumbed to its charms.  Remember, a Food Floozie can be seduced by virtually any food ....

As though all of this schmoozing and noshing hadn't provided sufficient entertainment, there was also an amazing concert in the Sanctuary to conclude the evening.  Balkano (rhymes with "volcano"), according to its own website, "is a Chicago-based sextet that melds the soul of traditional Klezmer, the energy of Bulgarian wedding music, and the melodies of Turkish Gypsy music into an exciting original mix."  Its lead singer is Ann Arbor's and the temple's own Diana Lawrence, and the group put on a powerful, emotional, vibrant performance.

I'm very happy to say that 3% of the Bake-Off's proceeds were donated to Mazon [mah-ZOHN], "a national non-profit organization dedicated to preventing and alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds."  (Mazon means "food/sustenance" in Hebrew.)  Profits remaining after this donation were dedicated to the YES Fund (Youth, Education, and Special Projects), which "represents the collective financial efforts of our member sisterhoods and donors to strengthen the institutions of our ... Movement and ensure the future of Reform Judaism."

So, you can see that I had an exceptionally wonderful evening with the Sisterhood and the members of Temple Beth Emeth!  Congratulations to the winners and many, many thanks to everyone who put the event together and who spent so many hours lovingly preparing brisket and all the other dishes.  I was thrilled to be invited to the party, and to have such an important role at the Bake-Off.

I'm already anticipating next year's event, and all the great food that awaits.  I may even be hungry again by that time ... :)

For today's recipe - Miriam Shaw's Easy Braised Brisket, one of the Bake-Off entries - go to the Food and Grocery page of ....


Unknown said...

Brisket is serious business period! And trust me, I've figured out why. I have made brisket before and there is a thin line between perfection and crap!! lol What a great honor to get to be a judge at such an important contest! You always get the cool gigs!!!

Andrea the Kitchen Witch said...

A brisket contest?? And my parents moved me away from Michigan all those years ago because...????? LOL sounds like a delicious event, how cool that you got to judge it! I want to be a judge for a cooking contest, what's your secret Mary?

Chris said...

I'm used to my briskets being smoked or corned then smoked but I bet even the baked ones taste great!

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