Chopped Liver

After years of waiting, I finally got around to making one of my favorite Ashkenazi dishes: chopped liver. This recipe has become a sort of “catchall” dish for the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, much as other specific recipes have become “representative” of entire cuisines. It is also something that can be very controversial: vegetarians have told me that this is the last meat thing they miss, and others, including my partner, will not touch it. It is also laborious, so I wanted to make it when enough liver-eaters would be with me to share a decent quantity – something stymied by the pandemic. Finally, that moment came, punctured by a few anti-organ-meat comments from my partner.

Chopped liver on bread with tomatoes with salad on a plate on a floral tablecloth
(Photo mine, February 2021)

The history of chopped liver is quite interesting. The dish originates in the Middle Ages with goose liver – which was often consumed as a byproduct of rendering schmaltz (fat, traditionally from poultry). Though preparing liver to be kosher requires salting and broiling to eliminate blood, Jews quickly developed a taste for the rich organ. A preparation of liver chopped with onions and salt quickly became popular in medieval and early modern Jewish communities, and spread in two directions. One was into France, where it became foie gras. (Yes, it has a Jewish origin!) The other was to Eastern European Jewish communities, where the dish became popular with calf and chicken livers. Eggs and more onions were added, usually to stretch the costly and strongly flavored liver. The dish has remained popular in Jewish communities ever since, though after World War II there was some decline, just like with organ meat generally.

Chopped liver is often used as a shibboleth for authenticity or tradition. In my own experience, consuming it is sometimes seen as a sign of upholding some sort of “real” Jewish culture. Others cite it as an example of a dish lost in assimilation (whatever assimilation means), just like herring and p’tcha. I suspect that some of this attachment has to do with the way “chopped liver” is used as a Jewish symbol in Hollywood. Never mind that this narrative of dishes being abandoned is, in some ways, artificial – though it has happened for a few things.

The original chopped liver source. (Photo JD Forrester/CC)

Not everyone has to like chopped liver – it is an acquired taste. That said, I do quite enjoy it. I enjoy the deep, earthy flavor good liver has – and the way that these flavors can be accentuated by a tart rye bread, a soft challah, or crunchy matzah. Then again, I have eaten chopped liver since I was a child. Not everyone has – and if someone decides they do not like it, well then, there is more for me.

I break the tradition in this recipe in two ways. One is that I use oil instead of schmaltz for a lighter final product – though many recipes nowadays use oil too. Oil was expensive into the 19th century, so many of our ancestors would probably think of an oil-based chopped liver as more luxuriant than schmaltz – which was much more common in Eastern Europe. (The schmaltz from a large goose could last a family several months.) The other change I embrace is how I blend the final product. Though the tradition is to chop it by hand, I use the food processor for a smoother – and more quickly produced – final product. Technology can aid us in deliciousness. Be careful when making it, because liver is easy to overcook. After three and a half minutes on each side, I check the livers every thirty seconds until they are finished cooking.

If you have not had it before, I strongly recommend that you try it from someone else before you cook it. Liver is a laborious thing to prepare, and if you do not like it, you will have saved yourself the effort of preparing it (as outlined in steps 3 through 4). Delis in Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods often have very good liver to try. Feel free to ask in the comments if you want a recommendation for a particular area – I have recommendations in New York City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago.

Chopped Liver

Based on the recipe by Faye Levy

2 eggs

1 lb chicken livers

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 white onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled

Table salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Parsley to garnish

  1. Boil the eggs for ten minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
  2. Turn on your oven or broiler to a high setting.
  3. Wash the livers under running water until the dark liquid is mostly gone. Pat dry. Then, cut off the green bits and the black bits from the liver – this takes a bit of work. These bits are a bit softer and different in texture from the rest of the liver. Place the livers in a bowl and toss with a few generous sprinkles of kosher salt. The salt draws out the blood.
  4. Place the livers on a foil-covered sheet and spread them out. Broil for 3 ½ minutes on each side, or until dark with no pink on the outside and with a smoother, more solid texture on the outside of the liver. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  5. Heat a skillet or saucepan, and then add the oil. Then, add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring regularly, for 20 minutes, or until the onions are a rich brown color and have a sweet smell and very smooth, soft texture. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
  6. While the onions are cooling, peel the hard boiled eggs and mash with a fork into coarse crumbles.
  7. In a food processor, puree the livers and onions together to your preferred consistency – my family enjoys a smooth chopped liver.
  8. Pour the liver mixture into a bowl. Add the salt and black pepper to taste – I usually add twice as much salt as pepper. Then, mix in with the crumbled eggs.
  9. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve on your chosen vehicle for chopped liver. The liver keeps in the fridge for about four days.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

A Tu biShvat Foods Chart

I decided to have a little fun, in honor of Tu biShvat this year – one of my favorite holidays, and well-suited for socially distant celebrating. Many fruits and nuts are common, but there are also many allergies and aversions. Here is a chart of some traditional Jewish things you could eat to celebrate a giant birthday party for trees.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
 All nuts and seedsNo nuts, seeds okayNo nuts or seeds
No dried fruit or nutsPomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, fruit salad with an almond-butter-based dressing, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruitPomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruitPomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No raw fruitApplesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruitApplesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruitApplesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No solid fruit*Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahini, almond milk, cashew milkApplesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahiniApplesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies

*For guidance on creating liquid cuisines for people who cannot or can no longer swallow, see this wonderful article from NPR and the cookbooks linked there.

Jewish Food, Dementia, and Inclusion

Two forget-me-not flowers
Forget-me-not: the international symbol of dementia advocacy (Photo by Ithalu Dominguez)

Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.

Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.

Trays of vegetables and fruit on a metal table
Institutional settings do not always offer choice. (Photo public domain)

We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.

Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.”  This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.

Three baked challahs
Challah: a traditional bread that can be grounding. (Photo mine, October 2016)

What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.

I strongly encourage my readers to complete the Dementia-Friendly America video series, to learn how to better support your family, friends, and neighbors with dementia.

Polenta Casserole with Spinach and White Beans

A quick corn recipe this time. Polenta has an interesting history in Jewish tradition – like other maize products, it really only became a thing after corn was brought from the New World in 1492. Polenta and similar corn porridges like mamaliga and gomi became common in certain pockets of the Jewish world: Italy, Romania, and Georgia are primary among them. Unlike rice, breads, and noodles though, there was no broad swathe of cornmeal-eaters. Georgian gomi tends to be white; Romanian mamaliga tends to be mushier, and Italian polenta tends to be firmer.

I made this casserole back over the summer when our internet was out for three days during Isaías, but had the wisdom to write this down.

casserole with vegetables and cheese on top
Casserole, as finished. Ugly but delicious. (Photo mine, August 2020)

Serves 5-8

6 cups cooked polenta (about 2 cups uncooked)

2 ½ tablespoons olive oil or butter + more for greasing

1 medium white onion, chopped

6 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped finely

1 15-oz can cannellini beans, with the fluid

Salt and black pepper to taste (I find the goat cheese adds enough salt.)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 cups frozen spinach

2 cups goat cheese crumbles

  1. If you haven’t already, make the polenta according to package directions. I use Bob’s Red Mill Polenta.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a 9×13” casserole with a very light layer of olive oil or butter.
  3. Heat a large skillet, then add the oil or melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté for a few minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
  4. Add the beans and fluid, salt, and pepper. Stir, then add the vinegar. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for five to ten minutes, or until the fluid is mostly gone.
  5. Add the frozen spinach and mix in thoroughly, until it is cooked through. Remove the skillet from the heat.
  6. Spoon the polenta into the casserole. Then, spoon the skillet mixture on top. Add the goat cheese crumbles in an even layer on top of that.
  7. Bake for ten minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown. Serve hot.

Rosemary Lemonade

Rosemary lemonade sepia picture with sprig of rosemary
(Photo mine, October 2020)

Makes ten servings

Since the news cycle right now is not exactly…slow, I won’t bore you with a long text.

This lemonade was one of my favorite things to drink this summer. You can probably make this lemonade with other herbs; I would like to try it with thyme sometime.

2 sprigs fresh rosemary*

10 cups water

½ cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Juice of three lemons

Ice

  1. Place the rosemary in 2 cups of water in a shallow pan and bring to a boil.
  2. Add the sugar and stir in until dissolved. Turn off the heat and remove the rosemary.
  3. Pour the syrup over ice in a large pitcher. Add the zest and lemon juice and stir well.
  4. Add the rest of the water to the pitcher. Let sit for one hour before serving.

*Different herbs will probably require different amounts – it should add up to a tablespoon or two for each time.

A Little Project of Mine

notebook and pad
(Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com)

Shana Tova! I hope you are well and safe in this time. Though I am going to continue to spend much less time on social media, I feel ready to come back and make some blog posts, and some food- and planning-related posts again. I want to do things that I enjoy – without affecting my mental health.

There’s more content forthcoming: a lemonade recipe, a polenta recipe, and a post about dementia among them. But first, I want to talk about a little project that has helped me process this time.

Every day, I write whatever I’m thinking about food into a diary. Often, it is a recipe, with some thoughts about what I made or how I served it. For the first two months, each day was about an ingredient or a method. Later, I started tying food to the politics of the time: to the fight for black lives and racial inequities in food systems,  the way fights over the food industry during COVID tied with political assumptions, and how food reflected how reactionary some left-wing claims were. Sometimes, it was just how I was feeling, with a food-related tinge. Disorganized as this may sound, I now have about 28,000 words worth of diary entries from the past six months.

This food diary has helped ground me through the bizarre evolution of this plague. Through it, I am able to track how things have changed – sometimes for the better, sometimes not as much. Furthermore, it’s helped me realize once again the connection between what and how we eat to our political, social, and economic realities. I wrote in April and June about how coronavirus has changed our cooking habits. This diary has given me a glimpse into that on a personal level.

I’m not planning to share more than one post here – the writing is far too raw, and the recipes are written telegraphically. (To give you a sense, I literally wrote “LMFAO it’s going to be sticky” as a transition in one recipe.) But what I will say is that it has helped me – and is likely to be the basis of some future writing. Watch this space.

Food Sharing in a Pandemic

I was originally going to write a long resource post about how to share food safely and what to make in this time of cautious life. I hold by an ethic of harm reduction: I take it as given that you will socialize and that food will be a part of that, and not always “bring your own.” How to do that safely is something that is useful to know.

I dithered on this post, which was handy, because other resources came out! So in this brief post I will share a few resources, a few foods, and then the blog’s first ever video: a sharing mechanism.

Good Resources

Yes, it is probably safer to “stay home” or to not share food, but realistically, I know that that is not going to happen. So do public health departments. I found the Washington DC guide for cookouts to have a lot of broadly applicable information:

Also, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance here. (Yes, I know they got some things wrong early on. But many epidemiologists have said the same things as this.)

Today’s guidance on outdoor cookouts (and travel) is good!

Some great highlights: centralize serving, use individually portioned things, and of course, wash your hands.

Tasty Food to Share

Here are some blog recipes that I find are easy to share in outdoor settings and portion well individually.

A Serving Video

Here is an awkward video I made with two of my friends to demonstrate a safe way to serve and share a food at an outdoor picnic. The food is chocolate babka. Thank you to Joe Jeffers and Hannah Cook for starring, and to David Ouziel for filming! The video is captioned. A transcript with or without descriptions of what is on the screen is available on request.

If you prefer a text description of what to do, here it is:

  1. Have one person serve the food. Let’s say it’s you.
  2. Wash or sanitize your hands.
  3. Put on your mask. Wash your hands again.
  4. Put on gloves if you wish – it is helpful for reducing anxiety, and for avoiding things other than COVID.
  5. Set out your serving tools – knife, cutting board, etc.
  6. Cut/make a serving and place it on a plate or napkin.
  7. Step 6 feet/2 meters away.
  8. The other person should come and take it.
  9. Step back. Repeat steps 6-8 for each person.
  10. Remove gloves, wash your hands.
  11. Remember to wash your hands between removing your mask and going back to serve any more food. Don’t reuse gloves!

How Are Cooking Habits Changing?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about food during this time. Some of it is because, well, I am always thinking about food. Some of it is because dreaming about food helps me deal with the wildness of the outside world – as I told Ruby Tandoh for a piece in Food52. And some of it is because, well, there is a lot to say. I’ve been keeping what has become a fairly lengthy personal diary themed around food and food systems since the onset of the pandemic, with tons of materials and recipes and thoughts. I am also working on a piece about food sharing in socially distant ways (with video!). Beyond that, though, I have been noting observations I have made – both in my professional work in local government and urban planning, as well as the cooking habits I see in my away-from-the-desk life.

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

A lot more people are cooking, for sure – even as various places “reopen”. Many of these people were far more reliant on restaurants, takeout, and prepared foods before the pandemic; which, though not always leading to restaurants’ closure, certainly made a takeout-centric lifestyle a lot more difficult.  So folks turned to the kitchen, and new trends blossomed: sourdoughs, jam-making, homemade pastas, and complex dishes. Others cooked because they were bored; still others cooked their grief away. And even consummate cooks like me, now with more time to cook complicated things we saved for chagim and birthdays, branched out in new directions. (I mastered khachapuri.) For those new to cooking, the sudden imposition of more time, and time at home, provided an opportunity to actually learn some new skills. Some liked the cooking, some did not. But two months in, a lot of new habits might be sticking. That is curious to me, though I’m always happy when more people find joy, solace, or simply something in cooking.

Of course, the consequences from this change are not always positive. For the millions of people who rely on kitchen work, serving, and other food work to pay their bills, the shift to cooking at home can be catastrophic – no matter how virtuous the intent. Then, of course, there is the question of who is doing the cooking at home. Women are still doing far more chores than men in shared households, and that extends to cooking. Increase cooking time without addressing patriarchy, and that’s increasing women’s work. (Cooking is hard!) Then, of course, we should also remember that food safety problems can come from improperly made home-cooked food – not ideal in the time of a pandemic. One is not, actually, necessarily staying safe at home. That said, some people are now cooking more, or cooking differently.

Some of these changes will “stick” for a while. People may cook at home because going out makes them anxious. People may cook at home because that is what they are used to now. People may cook at home because they feel pressure to do so from peers or social media. People may cook at home because that is what they can afford. People may cook at home because they like it. Perhaps it is all of these things. And for those of us in Jewish communities, cooking at home may also happen because all the other wonderful parts of semachot – happy occasions – are so much harder in a physically distant world.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

But I have been wondering about what these things mean long-term. One is that I think we will see some of a shift in what kind of cooking is celebrated in social media and popular discourse. The 2010s saw a lot of cooking as a showpiece: the cookies, the stews, the perfect open-faced sandwiches. (Too often without honoring marginalized creators and contributors.) But when people have spent much of a formative moment in their lifetimes cooking for themselves and those in their households, or closest circles, showpieces begin to mean much less. I think, across cultures, that we might see more “home-style” cooking – as loaded and historically complex as this idea is – in which the process and the comfort take a much more central stage. Sure, you will have centerpieces, but cooking now sits in a very different place in many people’s brains.

Cooking is work! And I sense that there is greater appreciation for that now. When you have to cook, for work, or for a family, or for yourself, you start to learn shortcuts and tricks because you know that you do not have the time, energy, or space for the “real thing” – as bullshit as that concept is anyway. A lot of new cooks are coming in, and I think they are coming in with a perspective that is not about cooking something that shows status or looks good – though that is always part of food. Rather, it’s about trying to eat and enjoy it – and the process – even as the world seems to fall apart, and even when the energy to cook isn’t fully or really there.

Perhaps we will shift to a food culture that is less precious – and hopefully, less racist. A lot of this picture-perfect food culture is built on a narrative and process that steals from the work of people of color, and masks the risks and labor of cooks of color across the food industry. I hope that these changes lead some white folks to have greater empathy – and pay more attention to whose food stories are told, and who gets the money from them. I also hope that cooking habits lead people to glorify aspirational cooking a little less, and the fact that food should be for everybody a little bit more. I also hope that, now that some have experienced cooking labor for the first time, that there is more weight and advocacy for the millions of kitchen workers that feed America – few of whom have the luxury to eat the way white pundits tell them to.

But who knows if these hopes will come true? Like the virus, food habits are often unpredictable.

Rainbow Chard for Shavuot

A very simple chard recipe in honor of Shavuot, which is coming up in just under two weeks’ time. It is quite traditional in many Jewish communities to eat plenty of greens on Shavuot, in honor of Northern Hemisphere bounties and the giving of the “Tree of Life” (Torah). I hope you enjoy this recipe, even if the current situation has cancelled other communal traditions.

rainbowchard
(Photo mine, April 2020)

Rainbow Chard with Lemon and Garlic

Serves 2-4

1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 pounds rainbow chard
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
juice of one lemon
salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons water

1. Chop the rainbow chard as follows: chop the stems into small slices, and then the leafy bits into wider strips and squares.
2. Heat a wide skillet, and add the butter. When the butter is melted, add the onion, garlic, and stem slices. Saute for four to five minutes, or until the onions and stems are soft.
3. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper – I use about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper. Saute for 30 more seconds.
4. Add the leaves and mix in thoroughly, then add the water. Saute for about five minutes, or until the leaves are completely wilted.
5. Serve warm as a side dish.

Chocolate Cake Means You Made It (and a Recipe)

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table
Chocolate red wine cake with homemade ice cream. (Photo mine, April 2020)

It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”

Text reading "Rebecca Gomez has for sale at the chocolate manufactory no. 14, upper-end Nassau Street between Commissary Butler's and the Brick Meeting, Superfine warranted chocolate, wholesale and retail, white wine Vinegar by the cask or single gallon at 4 s., Spermaceti oil and common Lamp citto, Fig Blue, soap starch etc. etc. Also a few gross Mogul and Andrew playing Cards, at a low rate and by the dozen"
A Jewish merchant woman’s advertisement for chocolate and other goods in 18th-century Rhode Island. (Document found in Library of Congress archive)

Chocolate has a long history in Jewish cooking. Of course, cacao and the chocolate it comes from originated in what is now Mexico, and only reached Europe after the Spanish conquest. Despite the Inquisition, Sephardi Jews were involved in the chocolate trade from almost its beginning in Europe, and well-off Jews in the Netherlands were already making and consuming chocolate in the 17th century, and in Italy and the Americas in the 18th. New developments in cocoa processing and production gave us eating chocolate and cocoa powder for baking in the 19th century; Jewish people in Europe and the Americas were involved in early manufacture of both. By the late 19th century, chocolate was still a luxury good, but widespread across Europe, especially in cities; Jewish merchant families and better-off Jewish communities began to incorporate chocolate into baked goods. As a result, the consumption of chocolate quickly became a status symbol. Incorporating a bit of chocolate, even as a paltry glaze or with store-bought candy was a sign of the times and living large. Contemporary recipe books from the United States, Germany, and Lithuania all contain recipes with chocolate in holiday food sections.

Yiddish-book with food images on cover, reading "Krisko resepies far der idisher baleboste/Crisco recipes for the Jewish housewife"
This Yiddish-language cookbook was distributed by Crisco to sell their products to Jewish communities – and like many others of its time, it included chocolate cake. (Image from Yiddish Book Center/CC)

One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.

Chocolate cake on a plate
Chocolate red wine cake cooling (photo mine, April 2020)

This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authenticper se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tcha probably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
Chocolate babkas – another new application of chocolate in the 19th century (Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

Chocolate cake is a mechayeh – something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.


And now, a cake.

I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”

Chocolate Red Wine Cake

Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade

Serves 8-10

6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)

⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

⅔ cup white sugar

¾ cup red wine

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

Oil or butter to grease the pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
  2. In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  5. Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  6. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
  7. Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
  8. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
  9. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.

Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.