"I didn't want to waste the one piece I had left," said the Woodland Hills housewife and mother of two grown children.
It turned out to be a good move for Rosenthal, whose whitefish and potato knishes in lemon horseradish sauce took one of two first-place spots at the Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off Western semifinal at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa earlier this month.
The veteran of cooking challenges competed against nine other California amateur chefs at the last of three regional contests sponsored by the nation's largest processed kosher food manufacturer.
She and co-winner Andrea Bloom of Long Beach, who earned accolades from the judges for her savory pea and fennel soup, will fly to New York in February to compete in the finals for a $20,000 grand prize package, including a GE Profile kitchen and cash.
The first-ever national kosher cook-off is intended to demonstrate to consumers the flexibility, speed and convenience of kosher cooking, while showcasing the Manischewitz label.
"When people think of kosher, they think of a slow process, like briskets," said David Rossi, Manischewitz vice president of marketing. "We wanted to break that mold and give our core Jewish consumers new ideas about how to use our products."
Thirty recipes were selected from more than 1,000 entries to compete in semifinals in New Jersey, Florida and Costa Mesa this fall. To qualify, recipes had to be original, kosher, limited to eight ingredients, including at least one Manischewitz product, and preparable in one hour or less. A panel of food experts, including Cooking Light magazine's executive chef, Billy Strynkowski, selected the semifinalists.
Maintaining Manischewitz's strict standards of kashrut for the multivenue event was no small task for the Secaucus, N.J.-based company.
"A lot goes on behind the scenes in a kosher cook-off," Rossi said. "We essentially set up 10 kosher kitchens in the ballroom."
"All stages of preparation for the event and the actual event itself were in accordance with traditional Jewish law," said Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who supervises kashrut for Manischewitz.
Cook-off co-sponsor GE provided 10 stove-top ovens that were kashered and transported cross-country for the semifinals. New utensils and cookware were cleansed in a mikvah and labeled dairy, meat or pareve, and all ingredients were purchased and supervised by local mashgichim. Judges tasted the dairy offerings first and then the pareve and meat ones.
Inventiveness was on the menu, with offerings ranging from modern twists on traditional favorites, like almond milk-infused simcha sweet potato soup served up by Redondo Beach's Terry Gladstone, to Mexican-influenced dishes, such as Los Angeles resident Ellen Burr's "zesty Mexi chicken and matzah ball soup." Organizers and judges got a literal and figurative kick out of the local zest.
"I love the spirit of the contestants and the creativity we're seeing," said Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of the R.A.B. Food Group, which owns Manischewitz. "We're seeing different flavors out here than we saw in other parts of the country, more heat, more jalape?os. 'Zesty Mexi chicken soup,' you don't see that in New York."
Another south-of-the border-inspiration was Lowell Bernstein's "matzah-males," a creative take on traditional tamales. The education consultant and only male competitor developed the recipe after mastering Mexican cooking, because he was looking for something "bready" to eat at Passover.
"I substitute matzah meal for corn meal and wrap it in a banana peel, instead of a corn husk. It's glatt kosher and kosher for Passover. It's where a matzah ball and a taco meet."
Bernstein's creativity was not lost on the judges.
"Tamales made of matzah is close to brilliant," said OCR Magazines publisher Chris Schulz.
Joining Schulz on the panel was an eclectic group of foodies and nonfoodies, both Jewish and non-Jewish, including cookbook author and Jewish Journal contributor Judy Bart Kancigor. Some, like Cooking Light magazine's Kyle Crowner, had limited experience with kosher cuisine but were impressed.
"This food is much lighter for the most part," Crowner said, noting the consumer trend toward flavor without added calories. The contest was further proof that kosher cooking has become mainstream, she added.
While contestants said they had been making their recipes long before they knew of the cook-off, some admitted having tweaked their ingredients to feature more Manischewitz products.
"After I saw the ad for the contest, I added the lemon horseradish sauce," Rosenthal said. "It went 'click' and all fit together. I'll be serving it with the sauce from now on."
Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off Western Semifinal Winning Recipes:
Michaela Rosenthal's Whitefish and Potato Knish
2/3 cup instant mashed potatoes
2/3 cup boiling water
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 can (2.8 ounces) french-fried onions
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
1 jar (24 ounces) Manischewitz whitefish, drained and patted dry
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 box (17.03 ounces) frozen puff pastry, defrosted
2 teaspoons Manischewitz fish seasoning
8 teaspoons Manischewitz creamy horseradish sauce with lemon
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a large, rimless cookie sheet with parchment paper or grease with butter. Place instant potatoes in a medium bowl. Add boiling water and stir to combine.
Measure two teaspoons of the melted butter and set aside. Add remaining butter to potatoes and mix well. Stir in fried onions and parsley.
Mash fish and add to potato mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Remove both pieces of puff pastry onto a floured board. Unfold and cut along natural folds to form six equal rectangles. Remove two rectangles for another use. With a floured rolling pin, roll remaining four rectangles slightly to flatten.
Spoon one-quarter of potato-fish mixture onto each of the four rectangles and level to within half inch of the edges. Fold edges of dough and roll each piece into a log (like a jellyroll). Pinch seam lightly to seal. Trim unfilled dough ends.
Place logs seam side down on a baking sheet and brush with reserved melted butter. Sprinkle with fish seasoning. Using a serrated knife, cut each log into eight equal pieces and place them half inch apart. Bake until golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes.
To serve, arrange knishes on a serving platter. Garnish each piece with a quarter teaspoon of creamy horseradish sauce with lemon. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes 32 pieces.
Andrea Bloom's Pea and Fennel Soup
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced white potato
1 leek (white part only) diced
1 fennel bulb (fronds removed) diced (save thin slices for garnish)
2 pounds frozen or fresh peas
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cans (10.5 ounces each) Manischewitz chicken broth
1/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
In a 10-quart stockpot, heat two tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add celery, potato, leek and fennel and sauté, stirring often, until soft, three to five minutes. Add peas, season with salt and pepper and continue sautéing for three minutes. Add chicken broth, brown sugar and two cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered, until vegetables are soft, 20 to 25 minutes.
Puree the soup in batches in a blender. Season with salt and pepper. When ready to serve, stir in remaining olive oil. Garnish with fennel slices.
Makes six to eight servings.