This blog has nothing to do with the Jewish Greeting card business. Jewish tea towels perhaps, but not Jewish greeting cards. I’m going to discuss my very first experience of cooking Shabbat Dinner for 80 guests. I'm lying in bed on a Sunday evening rather shattered but thought I'd write something of the experience.
My middle step son is the head of a Jewish Youth Group called Bnei Akiva. Every week he dedicates some of his time to organising workshops and games for the Youth at our local synagogue that take place on a Shabbat afternoon (Saturday/Sabbath) He spends time chasing down parents and children to grow the attendance numbers to make sure each week is better than the last. Since he started his role as Rosh BA he has steadily gained a loyal following and a regular show of over 20 children week on week.
In today's modern secular society, I think this is no mean feat. When we have so little time during the week due to the demands of modern day living, the weekend has fast become precious time for some to prepare for the week ahead, shopping, cooking, working, schlepping kids to extra-curricular pursuits and managing homework amongst other things. I am proud that my step-son has taken it upon himself to play his part in keeping the youth of our synagogue keen and interested.
Every year Bnei Akiva youth group run what is known as Shabbat Ha’irgun. The team prepare a whole weekend of activities starting with a family Shabbat Friday Night Dinner and ends motze Shabbat (Saturday night post Shabbat) The head of all the individual Youth Groups also comes to help deliver the weekend activities so it’s quite a big deal and a lot of pressure to make everything special and run smoothly.
I offered to help my step-son make this happen.
One might think I am a glutton for punishment and maybe that is true however I believe that whatever I can do to support his positive endeavours to inspire the Youth of our community is only to be encouraged.
I can’t afford to fly in a Kosher Michelin star chef from Israel and I would if I could believe me, as cooking really isn’t my forte, especially for 80 people. Nevertheless, sometimes you just do what you must do and what surprised me the most is how utterly calm I was throughout the whole process!
I believe that planning is the key for almost every occasion. ‘what if’ ‘just in case’….
On Wednesday morning I set out on a journey to buy a disposable dinner service for 80. I opted for black square disposable plates, bowls and matching cutlery because it looked quite sophisticated! I wanted to make sure the kids felt valued and wanted to make sure the dinner setting looked the best it could for them on the budget we had allocated (less than £10 per head for 3 course meal)
When I started on the menu for the Friday night, I did the only thing I was able to do with my limited culinary skills – keep it simple!
This was the menu:
Chicken Soup with loction and mandels
Marinated sweet and sour chicken breasts with peas and carrots
Green beans in tomato sauce
Mini new potatoes with garlic and paprika and Persian Rice
(stuffed peppers for the vegetarians)
Fresh fruit platters
Balls of ice-cream sprinkled with chocolate and strawberry sauce, caramel & chocolate chips and marshmallows
Thank heavens I managed to rope in two friends to help.
Firstly, my chief Chicken Soup maker, who made the biggest and tastiest schissel of Chicken soup I have ever seen. His soup is legendary and there was enough soup for 100 people. I have a mantra that I never ever turn anyone away on a Shabbat, so we always make more food than we need ‘just in case’
Next up I have an Israeli Persian friend who can basically cook anything. Her food is some of the best I have ever eaten so I volunteered her myself to help me 😊 with her eyes shut she can cook enough food for an army and it would taste delicious. With her guidance I managed to pull off the chicken for the main course myself along with the desert and the vegetarian main whilst she made her famous persian rice and potatoes.
Cooking for 80 in a Shul kitchen on Shabbat comes with many other hurdles including making sure that any cooking is finished well before Shabbat comes in and that all ovens and electricity has been switched off. At 4.45pm there was a herculean effort to get every industrial sized foil dish onto the hot plates I had neatly set up during the day. Each dish was neatly stacked and then covered with a special blanket to keep the heat in and the food warm.
After we made Kiddush as a community and sang the Shabbat songs all together an army of friends helped me to get all the food out of the kitchen and on to the tables in the most organised and professional way we could. Chicken soup was served in glass jugs, one on each table, with a separate bowl of location and mandels that you could self-serve from.
Clearing down wasn’t too bad because we used disposables… so there was a lot of black bin bags being filled behind the scenes! Next my friends were up out of their chairs again helping to serve the main course. Again, I opted for filled bowls and trays being placed on each table for people to help themselves and it worked well. PHEW. Same went for desert…. And all in all, the meal went smoothly. There were no dramas, everyone ate plentifully with enough left over for the extra 20 people in case they needed a Shabbat meal.
It took me the best part of two days to do all the shopping, setting up, cooking and clearing up. I slept for 13hours on Saturday night and woke up at 11.30am on Sunday. It was such hard work and physically exhausting, but I would do it again in a heartbeat for my step-son and the children of my community if it encouraged them to spend Shabbat together and observant.
Apparently I have now been given a somewhat potentially fitting title...
THE UNDISPUTED QUEEN OF THE FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER ;)