Thursday evenings are meal prep nights for Elisa Gurevich.
Last week, the co-director of Chabad House at UCLA set a large stainless-steel bowl filled with bread dough onto a long wooden table in her family’s Westwood townhouse.
By 8:30 p.m., the members of the Kosher Cooking Club had entered the home and had begun to prepare for the next day’s Shabbat dinner. They quickly got to work.
Gurevich’s eighth-grade daughter transformed a softball-sized piece of dough into a lengthy braid before them, explaining along the way how to knead and braid the dough into long, pillowy loaves called challah.
Members of the Kosher Cooking Club help Gurevich prepare weekly Shabbat dinners at the Chabad House every Thursday.
Shabbat is the seventh day of the week and a day of rest in Jewish tradition, which begins at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday. Gurevich prepares challah for every Shabbat dinner the night before to streamline the cooking process the following day.
“I’m still basic in the amount of braids I can do, but people get really crazy,” said Ellie Fridman, the club’s Shabbat coordinator. “They put a lot of toppings. … It’s super fun, super versatile and I think an important part of Jewish food.”
After finishing braiding her first loaf of challah, Nazaneen Banayan tightly packed it into an aluminum tin, brushed it with an egg wash and sprinkled it with a generous topping of chocolate chips.
Gurevich said the Kosher Cooking Club began about five years ago when a group of students asked to help her out around the kitchen for the Shabbat meals.
“I’m always down to have help because then it’s not so lonely,” she said.
Fridman and the other club members work with Gurevich to put together ideas for each week’s Shabbat. Gurevich said she gets many of her ideas from Pinterest and club members but also likes to include traditional Jewish staples such as challah and matzo ball soup.
The group also prepares themed meals, including cultural ones like Moroccan and Israeli Shabbats and pop-cultural ones like Disney and “Star Wars” Shabbats, which featured creative dishes like magic carpet flatbreads and Wookie-shaped cookies.
For Friday’s Shabbat, the members gathered to put together a summer-themed meal with colorful dishes including salmon primavera, matboocha – a cooked Moroccan tomato and bell pepper salad – and mini vegetable tarts.
To make the tarts, Gurevich set out a tray of tiny pie crusts and one club member quickly got to spooning a bright green vegetable puree into the pastries to prepare them for baking.
Gurevich did not cook much growing up – it wasn’t until she got married that she started learning. A month into her marriage, she and her husband, the rabbi at Chabad House at UCLA, hosted a Shabbat dinner with family and her mother was surprised to see how much she had learned about cooking.
Fridman said she’s still getting the hang of the cooking process, as she also did not cook much growing up. The third-year biology student has tried to incorporate traditional dishes from her Russian heritage, such as borscht, an Eastern European beet soup, into the club’s menu.
Fridman first got involved with the club because it was an opportunity to connect more with her Jewish heritage, as she was raised in a fairly secular household and only recently began trying to keep kosher.
Banayan, a fourth-year gender studies student, has kept kosher all her life. Coming from a Persian family, she grew up eating and cooking soups like the herb stew ghormeh sabzi, and the Persian rice dish tahdig, at her family Shabbat dinners.
Banayan said it was difficult to bring her favorite Persian dishes to the club, however, because they require a long time to cook.
Her favorite dishes to make and eat with the club are the desserts. For one Shabbat, Gurevich prepared chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds, which Banayan said were juicy and delicious.
Banayan enjoys the intimate and homey feel of the Chabad dinners, she said.
“The door is always open here,” she said. “You’re never too far from home.”