A quick recipe for you, right before Rosh HaShanah, for a classic favorite: marble cake. This cake was originally German, and shows up in the 19th century with a mix of gingerbread and vanilla cakes. The chocolate version came a little later in the same century, when cocoa powder became available on the mass market. German Jews brought the cake to both the United States and Israel – where it became a fan favorite in Jewish communities. For many Jews of my generation, marble cake is a quintessentially Jewish dessert, consumed at synagogues, semachot, and other events.
It seems hard, but this cake is actually quite easy to make. I hope you enjoy it, and Happy New Year! Shana tova umetukah!
Marble Cake (Marmorkuchen)
Makes 10-18 servings, depending on how big you cut
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened, plus more to grease the pan
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp sour cream
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups white flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Grease a 9 inch/23 cm loaf pan.
Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy – you can use a pastry knife , spoon, or hand mixer.
Add the eggs, sour cream, milk, and vanilla, and mix until thoroughly combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix until you have a smooth, thick, consistent batter.
Reserve one cup of the batter, and pour the remaining batter into your greased pan.
Mix the cocoa powder into the reserved batter cup until thoroughly combined. Then, spoon the cocoa batter over the other batter in the pan.
Use a chopstick or knife to swirl the batters together until you get a marble effect – I run a chopstick back and forth in the pan several times to do this.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to my classmates for participating in User Acceptance Testing!
Add the yeast to the milk. The yeast should bubble up within a few minutes. (Otherwise, your milk was too hot and/or your yeast was dead.)
Mix the butter and sugar together in a bowl. Then, add the eggs one at a time and mix briskly until combined.
Add the milk-yeast mixture, and mix briskly until combined.
Add the flour, ½ cup at a time. When the mixture is still batter, you can mix it in with a spoon. Afterwards, you will need to use your hands to knead it.
Knead the dough with floured hands until you have a smooth, springy dough that does not stick to your hands too much. This should take about 6-7 minutes. I do this by taking out the dough and kneading it on a clean, flour- or starch-covered surface.
Oil a big bowl and put your dough in it. Cover and leave in a warm spot to rise until double in size – 30 minutes to two hours. (In my kitchen, it is usually about one hour.)
Meanwhile, mix the filling ingredients together.
Preheat your oven to 175C/350F. Grease a large Bundt pan or a large loaf pan.
Clean and flour a large surface and a rolling pin.
Punch your dough down. Place it on the surface and then roll the dough out to a large rectangle of about 1cm/2.5 inches thickness. It does not have to be perfectly rectangular.
Spread the filling out over the dough, leaving a ½ centimeter/1 inch border on the edge of the dough.
Roll the dough along the long edge of your rectangle. Then, if you are baking in a loaf pan, create a circle and twist it into a figure 8. If you are baking in a Bundt pan, just make the circle. Move the twisted dough into the pan.
Prick the unbaked babka with a skewer with little holes – this will let out steam.
Mix the egg wash ingredients and brush onto the babka.
Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the babka sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to my classmates and housemates for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
This is the first of what will be three posts about babka.
My mother’s friend Abby says that babka is a ghost that will haunt you until it is eaten. In this case, I prefer many exorcisms. I love babka.
Too bad that it’s a pain to make.
A sweet yeasted dough, twisted and wrapped around a filling of chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or fruit and perhaps sweet cheese. Sounds simple, right? In fact, it is not. Sweet yeasted dough is quite difficult to work with, and wrapping it around the filling is always my downfall. (My hand-eye coordination, to quote my boyfriend, is “erratic.”) As it happens, bakeries sometimes do a very good job with their babka. I am more than happy to fork over some money and enjoy the babka without the anxiety.
Babka is, in fact, a very common food that people will only ever savor store-bought. Jewish bakeries across the world specialize in the Ashkenazi treat. Haredi bakeries in Jerusalem make “Krantz cake” – an alternate name for babka – that people from all walks of Israeli life travel from across the country for. The beautiful bite of the dough and the coy sweetness of the filling is a triumph. Breads in New York has become famous for their babka, which seems to elicit joy everywhere. (Note: I believe that all properly-made babkas cause joy.) In any case, Breads’ perfectly textured babka is divine. I have seen visitors from out of town bee-line to Breads for babka before going anywhere else in the city. And of course, one cannot forget supermarket babkas. As dowdy as these can be, some brands’ babkas are perfectly tasty and delectably un-shareable. A few readers have mentioned the Trader Joe’s babka as their ideal babka, but I am more partial to Green’s obscenely swirly chocolate babka.
Of course I want to make my own babka. A plum jam and cottage cheese babka will never be mass market in a country rightly obsessed with chocolate babka. Yet it is so delicious – especially when you hit a plum and a gob of cheese right by a doughy bit. Divine! The braiding is beautiful, and making a babka is really the height of Ashkenazi balabostakeit. I should try it out! But I am also a klutzy graduate student with limited time and even more limited hand-eye coordination. I refuse to only have babka as often as I can make it.
So I have no shame in buying from a bakery. In fact, that has been done for generations. Now, babkas have long been in the repertoire of Ashkenazi home cooking – especially as Jewish communities, like neighbors, used leftover bread dough for the task. However, making babka – and actually, challah and bread generally, was hard work then, as it is now. It also used relatively expensive ingredients, which is why both were reserved for a Sabbath treat. Many people did not have the time or energy, and one of the promises of America or Canada was the prosperity to have a treat like that – and pay someone else to make it. Babkas were a frequent feature of bakeries that opened up across Jewish neighborhoods in New York in the early 20th century – and continue to be a feature at remaining bakeries today. Having a babka that’s not “homemade” is a tradition.
Enough rambling. I want to know: what’s your favorite babka?
Today we have a guest post from my friend Ilana Newman. She is a fantastic Canadian Jewish librarian in Toronto with a keen mind and a witty sense of humor! Though we often have different perspectives on things like authenticity, she is an incredible person to discuss food with, and has a keen eye for historical and current recipes that go beyond the box of what we think of when we think of Ashkenazi Jewish food.
Ilana wrote up a recipe for pyrizhky – pasties – stuffed with hearts. This recipe is part of a longer tradition of Jews eating treats stuffed with organ meat. Many Lithuanian Jews would stuff pierogi with lung, dumplings with liver, and of course, put a stuffed kishke (intestine) in the pot. Polish Jews often prized the gizzards and other organs of chickens, geese, and ducks. (You can learn more in Gil Marks’ and Claudia Roden’s works. I am personally a fan of these foods, and it pleases me very much to publish Ilana’s recipe.
I will let Ilana take it from here.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been on something of a mission to learn to cook the foods of my culture- so, Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Of course, I’ve been eating some of this food my whole life, so on one level it’s intimately familiar to me. But I also grew up as a middle class American child of culinarily-adventurous Ashkenazi Jews, one second generation and one third generation, making me something like Gen 3.5 – and as a result, I have ended up eating the foods of other peoples more than my own.
I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means. I’m grateful to my parents’ “foodie” natures (and their financial stability), which meant I got to try saag paneer, sushi, ojingeo bokkeum, and other culinary delights, early and often. But my experience with Real Jewish Food* was limited to a few staples: gefilte fish (from the jar), my mom’s challah, matzoh brei, latkes, matzoh ball soup, bagels and lox, salami and eggs, and pickles. It wasn’t until I left home and met Jews other than the ones I grew up with that I tried cholent, kishke, holishkes, and more.
As a kid, I also instinctively understood that there was something embarrassing, if not even shameful, about Ashkenazi food. Just as I absorbed the notion that Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew was embarrassing, in comparison to the Israeli pronunciation we were taught in Hebrew Sunday school and at synagogue, I learned what “acceptable” Ashkenazi foods were. These included challah, brisket, matzah ball soup, and bagels. They were sweetish, soft, cakey rich bread, roasted meat, bready dumplings, and, well, everyone knows what a bagel is.** Who wouldn’t like those things? Gefilte fish, on the other hand, is obviously “disgusting,” or “smelly.” Cholent? Tzimmes? Holishkes? Unpronounceable, unrecognizable, and frankly inedible, to the WASPs with whom I grew up surrounded in Maine in the 1990s. (Even today, articles like “7 foods I would never touch if I wasn’t Jewish” abound.)
All this is to say that I grew up somewhat divorced from my own culinary heritage. I was taught to have as adventurous a palate as I could, even eating some kinds of treyf, like a fiery Korean squid dish. I was not taught the same for the “deep cuts” of Ashkenazi food, like tongue, p’tcha, chopped liver, pickled herring, kishke, knishes, and more.
It is with this in mind that I have started to explore eastern European cooking in general, since Ashkenazi food is generally an adaptation of the same, with changes made here and there to allow for kashrut. And one recipe I tried recently is for heart-stuffed pyrizhky, Ukrainian stuffed buns. Pyrizhky are made with a yeasted dough wrapped around some kind of filling- it can be cabbage, beef, cheese, potato, or anything, really. They are often baked, but can also be pan-fried.
I used Olia Hercules’ recipe from her cookbook Mamushka, but made several adaptations to make it kosher . They came out really delicious, and while they were not unbelievably challenging to make, prompted some amount of awe in friends and family (my dad’s response was that I was “taking it old school! Hearts!”). Here’s the recipe, by Olia (with a few edits by me). Olia’s recipe provides other fillings, including egg and green onion, and potato filling. Her original heart filling calls for chicken livers instead of mushrooms, but I improvised as I didn’t have livers, and I ended up loving the result. But you might try using livers instead if you prefer.
For the dough:
½ tbsp sunflower oil** (or substitute canola or olive)
1 cup room-temperature water
2 tsp active dry yeast
½ tbsp granulated sugar (I think I forgot this, but they came out fine without)
½ tsp salt
2.25 – 2.5 cups flour
For the filling:
2 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive)
125g shallots (or substitute onions), sliced
2 tbsp Madeira (I didn’t have any and used ordinary cooking wine)
½ lb chicken hearts, quartered
½ lb mushrooms (any kind), diced very fine
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste; I used about 2 tsp)
About 6 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive), or as much or as little as necessary depending on preference
Whisk oil, yeast, salt, sugar, and water in a large bowl. Sift in the flour gradually. Cover and leave to rise for 45 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Knead dough until soft and pliable but not sticky. Divide into 8-10 equal pieces and cover.
Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Cook the shallots or onions until golden, then deglaze with your cooking alcohol and cook until the liquid evaporates. Remove the shallots from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil if necessary and saute the mushrooms until their liquid has evaporated. Add the chicken hearts on medium-high heat. Saute until they are fully cooked and begin to get some colour on them. Add your salt and pepper, add the shallots back to the pan and stir until the mixture is even. Take it off the heat to cool slightly.
Flour your work surface well and roll out each piece of dough into as perfect a circle as you can, ideally about 10 cm in diameter. Put some filling in the middle of each circle (about two tbsp of filling) and fold over the dough. Fork the perimeter of the dumpling so the edges stick together.
Heat your pan again and add some oil if needed. You can either fry the pyrizhky very hot in the oil (in which case add the full 6 tbsp), or use a little oil and steam-fry the pyrizhky. If frying, cook three minutes on each side. If steam-frying, cook about 2 minutes on the first side, covering, then flip the pyrizhky over and cook another 2 minutes covered. (I don’t love heavily fried foods, so I prefer the second method, which Olia doesn’t mention. She’s team fry all the way I guess!)
Turn each bun out onto a paper towel on a plate, and let drain if necessary. Serve immediately for best results, but honestly, they’re still delicious even days later. (Just make sure to refrigerate them once they’ve cooled completely.)
*“Real Jewish Food” is obviously a really subjective measure, dependant on time and place. All the foods I mentioned are Ashkenazi (not the only kind of Jewish and certainly not any more “real” than any other kind), and several are a specifically American variety of it. Authenticity, as has been discussed on this blog before, is itself subjective, mutable, liable to change – in short, very much a cultural construct. But nevertheless, the heart understands that some things are indeed Very Real.
** Olia says that unrefined sunflower oil is one of the cornerstones of southern Ukrainian cooking. For me it hasn’t been easy to find (I’d have to go to a specialty store), and I found that olive oil works just fine for this recipe.
Many thanks to Ilana Newman for this guest post! She describes herself as such: “Ilana is a librarian currently based in Toronto. She is also a frequent baker of challah, a stewer of fruit preserves, and a pickle enthusiast (half-sours are the best; no questions). You can find her on Instagram at @ketzelekitchenpreserves.”
My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.
As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.
Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.
A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.
The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.
Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.
Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.
Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?
Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.
It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.
Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.
This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.
Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.
As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?
For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.
For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Foodhas a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.
One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.
I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.
Ready to go
This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!
Gingerbread Cake with Raisins
⅔ cup raisins
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon rum extract
½ cup granulated white sugar
½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup applesauce
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon table salt
⅔ cup hot water
Oil, to grease pan
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.
Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.