Chatting with Miriyummy: Varda Epstein

Meet Varda Epstein.  Varda and I are landsmen.  That means our families come from the same area in Eastern Europe.  In fact, we share a cousin, Judy, who is the keeper of my family tree.  Varda and I met on the Internet, in the Israelfood group.  We email each other back and forth, yatter on Facebook and have even met once for breakfast. The two of us have a lot in common, a love of food, a love of family and a love of playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.  It’s a family addiction, apparently.

Introduce yourself.  Who are you, what are you, why are you?

Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini, but I am so many people; or perhaps many things to many people, even to myself. 

First of all, there’s the issue with my name. I grew up as Barbara, evolved into Bobbi, and then into Varda. The final change was forced on me by my husband Dov, who insisted that only the Hebrew name reflects the soul of a Jewish person. He’s right, but it took me awhile to feel comfortable using my Hebrew name, especially since my sister use to tease me when I was little by calling me “Farta.”

I’ve come to really like my name because it’s unusual, even for Israelis. If you google Varda Epstein, you’ll find there’s only one of me. Varda is an old-fashioned name that has been replaced in the main by Vered or Vardit. The name also reflects my love for growing things, herbs,flowers and heirloom vegetables. One final reason my name suits me is that I’m a redhead, as was the woman for whom I was named. Varda means “red rose.” The reference to that color seems apt.

My parents meant to name me after my paternal maternal great-grandmother Raizel. Most people who name after someone with the Yiddish name Raizel will choose to give their kid the Hebrew name Shoshana, but my parents didn’t care for that name. I’m glad, because it’s not an accurate translation. Shoshana is a lily, whereas Varda really IS a rose. A red rose, to be exact. Don’t let anyone tell you any different: A rose by any other name is NOT really a rose.

As I reacquainted with friends from the old times via Facebook (didn’t we all go through that heady, airy time?), they found it really difficult to call me anything but the name by which they knew me in the old days, so I try to be flexible: You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay…

I referred to having multiple personalities. Unlike Mirj, who hosts this terrific blog, and who is ONLY interested in food (and sometimes John Lennon), I have multiple interests. Don’t get me wrong: I am a dyed-in-the wool foodie. But so many other things as well.

I am a genealogist and have researched my family tree back to 1736 on one branch. I am a mother of 12 children and a grandmother of eight who bakes cookies. I am a serious hausfrau who runs a very tight, very clean household. My husband never has to hunt for clean socks or look at other women. I am a writer who has published editorials, human interest stories and short stories. I am a singer/actress who performs with a local summer stock troupe. I am a loving daughter and a caring friend. I am addicted to reading books and cereal boxes and have a fine collection of cookbooks I mostly read, rather than use for the recipes therein. I am moody. I am a political animal/activist. I am passionate about the flavors and textures (more than the flavors and smells) of food. I am all these things in like measures and no one component seems to define me more than any other.

I see myself as someone who will one day be famous. But I’m not sure in what discipline or how this will play out. My astrological chart is in the shape of a perfect Magen David. Laugh if you like, but I think this means something about my potential. Living up to that potential is something else altogether. I see myself as struggling toward a finer future. Meantime, I just turned 50 and lost my dream job–the company went bust (anyone in need of an editor content/writer??). I produced all the content here and you can contact me at:

Where do you live, and why?

I live in Efrat, once a settlement, now a town. I live here because Yehuda (Judea) has the best weather in all of Israel. Sunny days, cool breezy evenings, no humidity. The scenery reminds me of my old hometown, Pittsburgh, because of the rugged terrain and hills, and it looks, well, biblical here. I really feel like King David might have stepped where my feet step. I like the continuum. I believe that Judea protects Jerusalem from harm by dint of being a mountainous ridge that overlooks the holy city. That feels like an honor and a responsibility. I am very attached to Yehuda. I don’t want to live anywhere else. I love this land.

What is your family like?

My family is meshuggeneh (crazy) like most/all Jewish families. Seems to be part of the DNA. We have a good time making wisecracks and have a bad time getting into passionate arguments about anything and everything. We love babies, all of us, and they always come first. My husband is a secret unsung hero who is always saving people. I could tell you stories…

What is your relationship with food?  Do you like to cook?

I love, love, love food. My palate is extra extra sensitive to flavors. A pan of brownies that tastes wonderful to someone else, will reek of artificial vanilla to me and I won’t be able to eat from it at all. But when something is delicious and complex, I make um, um moaning noises. It’s very primal for me. But like I said, it’s all about the tastes and textures and much less about the smell and appearance. It’s about eating a paper thin slice of really amazing Stilton and feeling sweet/salty blue mold crystals dissolving on my tongue surrounded by creamy soft innocent white cheddar-tasting unctuousness. Add a thin, thin slice of anise-flavor-tinged sugar-dripping yellow pear and I’m gone to another planet for at least 15 minutes.

What is your first food-related memory?

Stealing bits of raw ground beef out of the hamburger mixture or grabbing a piece of grieben from the strainer whenever my mom turned her back. I was four.

How would you describe yourself in the kitchen?  As a host/hostess?

I am methodical and very ADD. I can’t multitask. I hyperfocus. I will make one thing really well from start to finish, clean the entire kitchen and then do the next task (I’m the same way with my writing/work assignments). I despair at ever having a full-course meal on the table at one time–unless it’s stuff that can be made in advance, which is my favorite/chosen way to cook. Yet, I like to imagine myself with an audience as I cook. So call me a narcissist.

I am a nervous wreck as a hostess. I just never feel really comfortable. I feel like I’m on trial. People hear my foodie ramblings and expect too much from me. Or, I want them to know I’m a foodie but my food doesn’t come out to my perfectionist standards and I find myself apologizing–the cardinal sin of hostessing.

What is your favorite comfort food and why?

Potato chips. It’s the salt,the thinness and the crunch.

Desert island picks, name three foods you could not live without:

Rare/raw beef, potatoes and cheese. Not together at the same time of course, since I keep kosher.

Is there any food you hate?  Why?

Eggplant and brussels sprouts. Eggplant is slimy and smoky, two qualities I dislike in a vegetable. Brussels sprouts smell like a plumbing problem. I can feel my gorge rising.

What is your favorite Miriyummy post and why?
Any Miriyummy post that refers to Ju-Boy. That just cracks me up, every single time. It gets to me. Mirj is FUNNY. I like funny 🙂
Do you have a food-related story you would like to share?
Varda sent me a few recipes, but I have to say I think this one is my favorite:
Varda’s Sourdough Challoh (Based on Maggie Glezer’s Recipe)
Time: About 20 hours (about 8 1/2 hours on baking day)
Makes four challohs.
Recipe synopsis: Make the sourdough starter and let if ferment overnight for 12 hours. The next day, mix the dough and let it ferment for 2 hours. Shape the dough and let it proof for 5 hours. Bake the breads for 15 to 40 minutes, depending on their size.
For the starter:

  • 4 tablespoons very active, fully fermented firm sourdough starter, refreshed 8 to 12 hours earlier
  • 2/3 cup warm water
  • About 2 cup bread flour

For final dough:

  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 6 large eggs, plus 1 for glazing
  • 1 Tablespoon table salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup Silan (date molasses)
  • 2 cups rye flour mixed with:
  • About 6 cups bread flour
  • Fully fermented sourdough starter
  1. Evening before baking – mixing the sourdough starter: Knead starter into water until it is partially dissolved, then stir in the flour. Knead this firm dough until it is smooth. Remove 2 cups of the starter to use in the final dough and place it in a sealed container at least four times its volume. (Place the remaining starter in a sealed container and refrigerate to use in the next bake.) Let the starter ferment until it has tripled in volume and is just starting to deflate, 8 to 12 hours.
  2. Baking day – Mixing the dough:
  3. In a large bowl, beat together the water, the 6 eggs, salt, oil, and silan (measure the oil first, then use the same cup for measuring the silan — the oil will coat the cup and let the silan just slip right out) until the salt has dissolved and the mixture is fairly well combined. With your hands or a wooden spoon, mix in the bread flour all at once. When the mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto your work surface, add the starter, and knead until the dough is smooth, no more than 10 minutes. (Soak your mixing bowl in hot water now to clean and warm it for fermenting the dough.) This dough is very firm and should feel almost like modeling clay. If the dough is too firm to knead easily, add a tablespoon or two of water to it; if it seems too wet, add a few tablespoons flour.
  4. The dough should feel smooth and very firm but be easy to knead.
  5. Fermenting the dough:
  6. Place the dough in the warm cleaned bowl and cover it with a wrung out damp linen towel or plastic wrap. Let the dough ferment for about 2 hours. It will probably not rise much, if at all.
  7. Shaping and proofing the dough:
  8. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut the dough into 12 portions with a Chinese knife. Braid loaves as desired, position them on the prepared sheets and slip the cookie sheets into garbage bags. Tie the bags so that they billow like balloons and don’t come into contact with loaves as they rise. Let proof until tripled in size, about 5 hours. Loaves are ready when, if you poke one gently, the indentation remains.
  9. Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange the oven racks in the lower and upper third positions if using two baking sheets or arrange one rack in the upper third position if using one sheet, and remove any racks above them. Preheat the oven to 350°F. If desired, preheat one or two baking sheets to double with the baking sheet(s) the loaves are on. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt for glazing the breads.
  10. Baking the loaves:
  11. When the loaves have tripled and do not push back when gently pressed with your finger but remain indented, brush them with the egg glaze. Bake loaves for 25 to 35 minutes until very well browned. After the first 20 minutes of baking, switch the loaves from front to back so that they brown evenly. When the loaves are done, remove them from the oven and let cool on racks.

About Miriyummy

All I want to do is live happily ever after.

Posted on 11 July 2011, in Challah, Chatting with Miriyummy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hi Varda, nice to see you! Mirj, this is such a great series – way to go!
    And I have to just mention: you can almost almost see my house in Varda’s photo, but not quite. So close to stardom, and yet so far 🙂


  2. I like your tales about your name. I had two friends named Varda as a child – I didn’t know it was an unusual name.

    The weather in Efrat does sound nice – I don’t care for humidity. And the challot look delicious.


  3. Leora, so come for a visit. I’ll serve Challoh. Hey back, Toby 🙂


  4. This was just sent to me from my dear friend Ida, who taught me Yiddish for a few weeks, just before I made Aliyah, and was one of the editors on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica:
    “Dear Varda,

    Landsman is masculine. Landsfroy is feminine. Landslayt is plural. Meshuge is the word you want for “My family is meshuge. Meshugene is feminine singular. I loved your interview and learned a lot about you I never knew. I am very different as my desk would indicate – piled high with things to do that sometimes never get done.


    Your ancient teacher,

    Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz”


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