You wouldn't think you'd find a Chinese Jewish chef from Chicago on a North Dakota farm, but that's exactly where you'll spot Molly Yeh these days.
"Getting to know people in a small town has a very different pace and rhythm than getting to know people at, say, a Purim party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but I've adapted," said Yeh, who has authored two cookbooks, Molly on the Range and Short Stack Yogurt .
The new mama, who gave birth to her child-Bernadette Rosemary-in March, seems to adapt to home wherever she goes. At 18, the Glenview native relocated to New York to attend the prestigious Julliard School, where she majored in percussion. It was in New York that she discovered two great loves: food, and fellow Julliard classmate Nick Hagen, a fifth-generation farmer from North Dakota.
Yeh, who rose to celebrity chef status through her blog "My name is Yeh," is nominated this spring for two big accolades. She's up for a James Beard Award--the crème de la crème of honors in the food industry--and she's nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for best culinary host for her popular Food Network show Girl Meets Farm. Now in its third season, the show features Yeh's cuisine from her husband's farm, influenced by her Jewish and Chinese roots.
Yeh's childhood home was filled with food, music, and a blending of cultures. Her love for music came from her Chinese father, who plays clarinet in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But her affinity for food was passed down from her Jewish mother, who she praises as an "amazing cook and baker."
No matter where she lives or what success she has found, both her Chinese and Jewish heritage have always played key roles in Yeh's life. Yet, she says she has invested more energy into her Jewish identity. She's a Camp Chi and Birthright Israel alum, and while she didn't have a bat mitzvah as a tween, she said she hopes to become an adult bat mitzvah one day.
For most of her life, Yeh had lived in the Jewish metropolises of Chicago and New York, but after marrying Hagen in 2014 and moving with him to his farm on the North Dakota/Minnesota border, she found herself culture-shocked and isolated Jewishly--with no Jewish deli in the vicinity.
"I suddenly found myself, for the first time, in a place where I wasn't surrounded by Jews," she said. "So, that meant if I wanted to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions, and eat Jewish food, I needed to take charge. It's been challenging not to have Zabar's down the street, but it's been so rewarding to take charge of the holidays, create our own traditions--brisket hotdish on the tractor--and learn to make all of my favorite [Jewish] comfort foods."
Her North Dakota neighbors, though unfamilar with Judaism, are curious about Jewish culture and ask Yeh questions. Their curiosity drives her even more to keep her Jewish cultural identity thriving on the farm.
And she is sure to transmit that love of Jewish culture to her baby girl--one that probably started in utero. "I craved matzah throughout my entire pregnancy," she said. "I seriously think my baby is made up almost entirely of matzah."
But her love for Jewish food goes way beyond matzah. Many of her recipes are inspired by Jewish culture, always with an intriguing twist, including marzipan mandel bread with cacao nibs and sea salt, apples and honey pizza, blueberry cream cheese hamentaschen, chickpea matzoh ball soup, and brussel sprout latkes with balsamic dijon sour cream.
While Yeh loves cooking Jewish all year round, her two favorite Jewish holidays correspond to prime times on the farm-Rosh Hashanah falls near harvest season and Passover around spring-planting time.
"Sometimes celebrating Rosh Hashanah means eating brisket on a tractor while my husband harvests. I love using things that we grow around the farm for our feasts," she said. "[We] make matzah with our wheat, use apples from our trees, honey from my brother-in-law's bees, challah with eggs from the chickens, and cook with everything in our garden. It's the best."
For recipes and to learn more about Yeh, check out her blog at MyNameIsYeh.com.
In honor of the dairy-inclined upcoming Shavuot holiday, check out Molly's cheesecake recipe!
Mini Ricotta + Parmesan Cheesecakes
Makes 22 cheesecakes
**These will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
- 18 large rectangles (that is, 36 squares, or 2 full pouches, or just under 10 oz) of graham crackers
- A good pinch of kosher salt
- 10 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
- 1/4 c flour
- 1 c sugar
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 c shredded parmesan
- 30 oz whole milk ricotta
- Zest of one lemon
- Juice of 1/2 lemon (or of a whole lemon, if you like it extra lemony)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- 4 large eggs
- 1 c jam
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line 22 cupcake tins with paper liners, grease them, and set them aside.
In a food processor, process the living daylights out of your graham crackers. Add the salt and process a little more. We want a nice fine crumb. With the processor running, drizzle in the melted butter and process for a few seconds until the mixture clumps together. Spoon the mixture into your cupcake tins (roughly two tablespoons of the mixture per tin) and then use a glass or spoon to press it down firmly and evenly. If the mixture is sticking to your glass or spoon, spray it with a little cooking spray.
Set the cupcake tins in the fridge while you make the filling.
To make the filling, you're gonna use your food processor again. Don't worry about cleaning it out, it just has butter and graham cracker residue in it and that is ok.
Add the flour, sugar, salt, and parmesan, and pulse it a few times to combine everything and break up the parmesan. Add the ricotta, lemon zest, lemon juice, and extracts, and process it until smooth. two minutes-ish.
With the processor running, add the eggs one at a time, processing a bit after each one.
Spoon the mixture into your cupcake tins. it can come up pretty high, up to about 1/4-inch from the top of the tin. bake for 20 minutes, until the outer edges are set but the centers are still a little jiggly. Turn the oven off, open it about halfway, and let them be for about 45 minutes. Remove them from the oven and let them cool completely at room temperature. Chill them for an hour or two, or overnight.
Spoon on your jam.