Paula Shoyer, “the kosher baker,” is the author of The Healthy Jewish Kitchen,The Holiday Kosher Baker, The Kosher Baker and The New Passover Menu. Paula graduated with a pastry degree from the Ritz Escoffier in Paris, and does cooking and baking demos, talks and workshops across the United States and around the world. She focuses on taking the calories out of traditional Jewish recipes and creating recipes for people on special diets.Paula competed on Food Network’s Sweet Genius and has appeared on TV over 36 times, including in Israel. She is a freelance writer for several publications including The Washington Post and Bnei Brith Magazine. She has been honored by Jewish Women International as a “Woman to Watch” and by Jewish food media community as a “kosher food pioneer.” Paula lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband and four children.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I grew up in Long Beach, New York. I went to college to become a doctor and ended up in law school. I practiced law for several years and then moved to Geneva, Switzerland where I worked as a legal advisor to a Jewish organization. After my daughter was born I decided to leave that job. I enrolled in a pastry program at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris – just for fun – and ended up starting a catering business in Geneva and a whole new career. I returned to the U.S. and started teaching classes in my home kitchen. I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland and am married with four children who are all solid cooks.
When did your passion for cooking begin?
As a child, I would sit at the counter in my grandma Sylvia’s kitchen in Brooklyn watching her bake, measuring everything with her hands and cook everything without a recipe. I started with my Easy Bake Oven and always cooked for friends throughout high school and college. Once married, I was always hosting Shabbat meals that I would cook on Thursday night until about 2 am every week to get all the cooking and baking done. My college year abroad in 1984-1985 opened up my eyes to a whole new world of food.
You have written an array of cookbooks. What gave you the inspiration to write them?
When I returned to the U.S. from Geneva, I started teaching cooking classes in my home, converting the French dairy recipes to parve ones and developing other recipes for my students. While editing two cookbooks for Susie Fishbein, I realized that I had enough recipes to write my own book. After living abroad and seeing the quality of parve desserts in Switzerland and France, I knew that American Jewish bakers could do better than the dry sponge cakes and cookies that were served at every Kiddush. My first book, The Kosher Baker, was my gift to a community long starved for quality desserts. The Holiday Kosher Baker is basically Part 2 to The Kosher Baker with more interesting recipes organized by Jewish holidays with 45 Passover recipes. My publisher asked me to write The New Passover Menu, which is a collection of the recipes that were all in my head that I cooked for my family all the time. The Healthy Jewish Kitchen was created out of the grief of losing both of my parents in a short period of time. That book helped me lose the grieving weight and lightened my spirits as it gave me purpose and hope. My tribute to my parents is that I took many childhood family recipes and made them easier and healthier.
How long did it take you to write each of your cookbooks?
The Kosher Baker was written over a few years, but it took 5 years to get it published, which was accepted by Brandeis University Press after every publisher said “no.” The Holiday Kosher Baker was about a year of work. The other books I wrote in about 6 months each; when I am writing a new book, I am basically a hermit and test up to 10 recipes a day. The challenge now is that I am an empty nester so I have to find people to eat the food.
What do you enjoy most about writing a cookbook?
I love the science and creativity and the challenge of making dishes as healthful, delicious and easy as possible. I especially enjoy creating recipes for people on special diets who still want to eat what everyone else is eating. I love tasting dishes on my many travels and then recreating them for my audience. I know that what I am creating brings joy to so many people. I work hard to put myself in the shoes of home cooks and figure out how many steps they want to follow and dishes to clean.
Of all the recipes you have published, which one is your favourite?
My classic challah recipe. It was originally published in The Kosher Baker and The Holiday Kosher Baker, but my website now has the latest recipe, that makes 6 challahs, so you can freeze some. I love it because I have never tasted a challah that I Iike better than mine; the dough is soft and stringy, sweet but not too sweet and every bite makes me so happy. Eating challah also connects me to every Shabbat table around the world. There is nothing like homemade challah and I would take mine to a dessert island.
How did you decide which recipes to include?
There are so many recipes out there so I always try to share recipes that add something new to the food world. I test recipes multiple times and have at least two outside testers for each recipe. Only ones that are perfect make the cut.
Are there any ingredients you are particularly excited about?
These days it is coconut oil. I had relied on parve margarine for years to create delicious parve desserts but when I wanted to bake healthier I was delighted to discover how versatile coconut oil can be. So many diets today recommend coconut oil as a more natural alternative to overly processed fats such as margarine. My trick is that I add extra vanilla to the recipe, which masks the sometimes strong coconut taste.
Which dish would you recommend to someone who has never tried traditional Jewish cuisine before?
As a baker, I would have to say chocolate babka. I have taught babka classes to non-Jews who start making it for their holidays. The classic recipes go back to Poland and Eastern Europe and are a great representation of the Ashkenazi Jewish baking tradition. It is also one of my most popular recipes and I have published recipes for babka bites, cupcakes, apple pie, cranberry and other flavors as well.
Where can we find your cookbooks?
Links to buy books: