Gingerbread Cake

Black and white of sliced gingerbread cake covered in powdered sugar

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.

A medieval oven with two wooden sticks going into holes in a brick edifice, with a fire within
A medieval oven that old gingerbreads may have been baked in. (Photo Richard Croft via CC)

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.

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

Serves 12-16

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

  1. 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.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
  6. 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.
  7. Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  8. 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.

 

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Breakfast Farina

Semolina piled on a white surface.
Semolina. (Wikimedia Commons)

I am about to go on a trip, but here is a quick recipe for a good breakfast farina. Farina is more commonly called “cream of wheat” in the United States. It has a long Jewish history: semolina, the middlings of milled wheat, has been used in Jewish cooking since ancient times. It is hardy, and it is tasty. In Kurdish and Turkish Jewish cooking, semolina is used both in savory foods like kubbeh and sweet foods like halva (the Turkish semolina halva, un halvası, is my favorite dessert of all time). In Ashkenazi cooking, farina is generally served sweet, and often to the very young and very old. Like in the United States, it has often been seen as a “morning” food – even though breakfast was not a “distinct meal” in European Jewish communities until the early 20th century.

What I like about this recipe is that you can make a lot in advance, and heat it up each day. I generally make four or five days’ worth and have a portion each day. Keep leftovers in the fridge. Here, heating in the microwave is better than heating on the stove if you have a microwave – add a splash of milk if you want your farina softer.

Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food was the main source consulted for this post.

Farina in a bowl with cranberries and cheese on a flowered tablecloth
(Photo mine, July 2018)

Breakfast Farina
Makes 5 servings
1 1/4 cups fine semolina
1 cup whole milk
3 cups water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 fistfuls raisins or dried cranberries
2 tablespoons farmers cheese (optional)
1. Put the semolina, milk, water, sugar, salt, and butter into a medium saucepan. Place on high heat.
2. Bring to a boil. Stir regularly while it is coming to a boil.
3. When it is boiling, cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring throughout.
4. When the mixture is thick and gloopy, turn off the heat. Mix in raisins and cheese.
5. You can store the farina in the refrigerator for a few days.

Cherry Jam in the Telegraphic Style

In the tradition of my ancestors, I made some jam out of cherries recently at home. As I mentioned in a prior post, cherries have a long, beautiful, and tasty Jewish history stretching back over a thousand years. Jam, though more recent, has also become an institution in the past 150 years.

I decided, however, to try something different, and play around with the recipe format. I have been interested recently in what Eve Jochnowitz once called the “telegraphic style” of pre-war recipes, which do not start with an ingredients list. Though in many ways this style of recipe writing is inaccessible for some, it may also be more accessible for others who think chronologically. I find that it also works for quantity-flexible recipes like jam. Let me know what you think.

Cherry Jam

Take some black cherries, and remove the stems and pits.

Then, weigh the cherries, and pour them into a big pot.

Add the equivalent weight in white sugar.

Then, for every 500g/1 pound of cherries, add:

-one teaspoon red wine

-two tablespoons of water

-a dash of cinnamon

Then, add some vanilla extract. The cherry skin should have adequate pectin, but if you want to, you can also add some pectin.

Turn on the stove and bring to a boil.

Stir regularly and reduce to a simmer. Foam will start to bubble up – remove it with your spoon.

Cook for 30-50 minutes, or until the water has reduced, and the syrup part gels on a spoon when removed from the heat. Test by sticking a spoon in.

Put into containers before cooling. If you choose to can, follow safe canning guidelines. If not, the jam keeps for up to a year in the freezer, 3-6 months in the refrigerator.

Guest Post: Shlivovitz/Slivovica by Max Segal

Shlivovitz and plums. (Photo courtesy Max Segal)

Happy Purim! There is a Jewish tradition to get drunk on the holiday of Purim, to honor the topsy-turvy nature of the holiday and to blot out the name of the villain Haman. It’s not my favorite tradition as an autistic fellow with not-so-mild noise sensitivity. But what I do enjoy is the traditional Ashkenazi hooch of shlivovitz – a very strong plum brandy that is known as slivovica or sljivovica across Eastern Europe. I usually buy mine, but it turns out my friend Max Segal – a Russian Jewish foodie and intellectual extraordinaire based in Montréal – knows how to make it. And he very generously provided the recipe for you, the readers.

Anyway, I’ll let Max take it from here. Remember to be careful when distilling, and drink responsibly!


Ingredients:

1)   10-13 kg of plum

2)   200-500 g of sugar

This process is best broken down into 5 chronologically and technically separated steps:

  1.    The raw materials

Sit down with your plums and begin parsing through the fruit. Slivovica requires the plums to be as sweet as possible, if even overripened, but absolutely not rotten or moldy. You should, under no circumstances, wash your plums, as you may eliminate critical elements for your spirit contained in the plum’s integumentary system. If needed, you can you a dry paper towel to wipe off excess dirt or debris.

Cut your plums in two, taking out the pit. Food process the plums until it is reduced to a fine mush.

  1.    Preparing the ferment

Try the mush! This is how the tradition calls for, so you might as well indulge the practice. The mush should be comparatively sweet; if not, add sugar to the mush and food process again. Repeat as many times as needed. This step is more labor intensive than it might appear, so be mentally prepared. Writer’s note: I personally find that adding sugar even if already sweet helps the wort become heavier, so I typically add 200 grams of sugar from the start. This is not very traditional, but it is my twist.

Take the resulting mass and leave it in an unclosed container covered with a porous fabric or paper towel in a damp, warm place for 24-48 hours. The mush will foam and hiss, but rest assured, this is totally normal.

Into a separate vessel, drain (typically using a strainer/doing this in many go’s is the key to a successful draining) the mush of the liquid (this is called wort in the community) and add about 20-40% of the wort’s volume of water to the wort. This will determine how prevalent the taste of sweet plum will be in your resulting slivovica. Mix the water and wort very thoroughly. Atop the bottleneck or opening of where you have your wort-water mixture, affix a latex glove with a small pinprick on the “nail” part of the middle finger. We are essentially making plum wine first, that we will then distill into slivovica.

  1.    Fermentation

Leave your wort-water mixture in a dark, damp and warm place (ideally between 66 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the tricky part. The mixture will ferment for anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months. One must attend to it very closely to understand when the ideal condition of the “plum wine” has been attained. If your wort-water mixture is actively bubbling, sweet, and translucent, it is still fermenting. Once it begins to leave residue at the bottom, tastes rather bitter, and has stopped bubbling, the fermentation has stopped. This is what we are aiming for.

  1.    Distillation

Drain (using the same tip in step #2) the “plum wine” of its residue into an intermediate vessel. It is essential not to leave any residue in the “wine,” or else it will be burned in the distillation process and leave a nasty mark on the flavor of the spirit.

Pour your wine into a pot still/vat (I highly do not recommend the low-cost “reverse distillation” technique many people use, but see the star-denoted part to see how to use one. For the record, you can buy a sturdy, cheap pot still on eBay for around 80 bucks.). Distill the mixture in one “dry” go (the first 15% of distilled product should be discarded, as it is toxic), then do two runs “separating by parts”, and adding the missing volume with water (should be 10% and 20%, respectively). Check to see that you are not below 30% alcohol in the distilled liquids. Once you are, your slivovica is ready.

*Pour the wine a pot and float a small bowl. Cover the pot edges with wet paper towel. Put the cover on upside-down and put ice on the resulting dip. On a small fire, run the wine, and you will find that condensation will accumulate in the bowl. Pour out the first bowl, as it contains unsavory chemicals. Pour each full bowl into a bottle, then, being done with the “wine”, repeat the process until the whole bottle has been distilled one or two more times. Replace the missing liquid with water.

  1.    Let it breathe

If possible, in lieu of the famous oak barrel aging, let your slivovica age for 72-96 hours in a cold and dry place, in a hermetically sealed container.

Guest Post: Spinach Artichoke Blintzes

Happy Tu Bishvat! Today marks a “New Year for trees” in the Jewish calendar, and many food traditions exist surrounding the day. I have talked about eating foods from the Seven Species before, but in Israel and the United States it has become a sort of Jewish Arbor Day, when it is customary to eat all the various green bounties of the earth. And so we have a slightly un-seasonal, but very delicious recipe from a guest!

Ashley Goldstein is a vegan professional chef and writer based in Tel Aviv, and a dear friend and mentor to me. Her website is Tipsy Shades of Earl Grey, which also has a deeply tantalizing Facebook page. A lot of her culinary and written work is on updated and vegan versions of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, as well as inventive pastries and cakes. This recipe, for Spinach Artichoke Blintzes, is a beautifully modern – and very Tu Bishvat-appropriate – take on a classic Ashkenazi recipe, with an almost Italian twist. In her own words:

Who can deny the pleasure of eating a stuffed pancake? Common across many cultures, blintzes are an Eastern European answer to crepe envy. With a slightly springy pancake, embracing a warm, and hearty filling, they are a food traditionally eaten for Shavuot, and other holidays where dairy is customary [Jonathan notes: including Tu Bishvat!]. Traditional savory fillings range from some sort of potato to white cheese, while the sweet version is again cheese or fruit. I wanted to update the filling a little bit, in order to heighten the flavor profile, and possibly allay some of the guilt of eating a buttery pancake by upping the nutrition with some veggies. Inspired by spinach artichoke dip, this blintz is the perfect combo of a creamy and dare I say “cheesy” filling, covered in a soft pancake blanket, while remaining as pareve as can be. Indeed, this recipe is entirely vegan, perfect for your egg or dairy allergic friends, while also proving to be an option for holiday meals the rest of the year.

Spinach artichoke blintzes with a gold pancake and a green and beige filling, ready to be served on a white plate
Spinach artichoke blintzes, ready to be served. (Photo Ashley Goldstein, 2018)

And now, Ashley’s recipe, exactly as she wrote it:

Spinach Artichoke Blintzes

 

Spinach artichoke filling

1 cup raw cashews, soaked or boiled for 15 minutes

2 cans artichokes, drained and rinsed

1 large bunch of spinach

1 medium onion

2 tbsp olive oil

1+3/4 tsp salt divided

1/2 cup water

Juice of half a lemon

1 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp nutritional yeast

Crepes

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups chickpea flour

1/4 cup oil

1 tbsp sugar

1 tsp salt

2 cups soy milk

1 1/2 cup water

Blintzes

Olive oil or non hydrogenated vegan margarine

 

Spinach Artichoke Filling:

Drain the cashews into a blender. Blend with the 1/2 cup water until smooth. In a large pan, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add the artichoke and sauté for another 10 minutes before adding the spinach and half of the salt. Let the spinach just wilt, then add to the blender with the rest of the filling ingredients. Pulse until the artichoke and spinach are finely chopped. Set aside and make the crepes.

Crepe:

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together. Whisk in the soy milk and water, taking care not to over mix. Set aside for about 15 minutes. In a small, nonstick frying pan, pre-heat over medium heat. You can put a tiny bit of oil down, but if your pan is truly nonstick, it’s not needed. Pour a small ladleful of the batter into the pan, then quickly tilt the pan so the batter covers the bottom of the pan entirely. Let cook for about 5 minutes, until the top of the crepe is dry. Remove to a plate and cover with waxed paper. Repeat the process with the rest of the batter, covering each one as you add it to the plate.

To Assemble:

It’s important to assemble the blintzes while the crepes are still warm, though once assembled, they can be refrigerated until you are ready to warm and serve them. Take one crepe, and dollop about two tablespoons of filling into the center. Fold one edge of the crepe over the filling, then tuck the two sides in. Once the sides are tucked, continue rolling to the end.

To Serve:

Blintzes can be browned a few at a time on the stove with a tablespoon or olive oil or non-hydrogenated margarine, or they can be lightly brushed with the fat of your choice and baked in the oven at 350F (175C) until slightly browned and warmed through, about 10-20 minutes, depending on how chilled the filling was when the blintzes were made.

Ashley can be found at Tipsy Shades of Earl Grey. Ashley’s former blog is also linked with other blogs in our Links section. (The Facebook is here.) You can also watch her in action on a recent i24 video, discussing vegan Hanukkah treats.

Laziness is Welcome in the Jewish Kitchen

A bit of a short post this time: a number of readers have asked me for some easy Jewish recipes – things that do not require a lot of effort or metaphorical spoons. I am more than happy to fulfill this request. So I have included three recipes:

  1. Apple lokshen – a simple noodle recipe with apples and mustard. This is a slightly unorthodox take on classic Ashkenazi egg noodles, with a traditional savory use of apple and a slightly wacky use of mustard. The mustard actually works – trust me on this.
  2. A simple salad, without raw tomato, that goes with many different dishes.
  3. Poached eggs – something that is easier than it seems to make, and very traditional in many Jewish traditions.

Enjoy!

Lazy Apple Lokshen

1 package egg noodles

2 apples, cored and chopped

8-12 cloves white garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon mustard

1/2 cup water

 

2 tablespoons oil (mild-flavored preferred)

Apple lokshen on a plate

  1. Cook the noodles according to package directions.
  2. Heat a skillet on a high flame, then add oil.
  3. Add the apples and garlic. Sauté for 4-5 minutes, or until the apples are more tender.
  4. Add the salt, mustard, and water to the apples. Mix in thoroughly. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the apples are soft and the water has reduced.
  5. Turn off the heat. Pour the apple mixture over the noodles and mix thoroughly. Serve hot.

Lazy Salad

2 medium cucumbers, chopped

2 bell peppers, cored and diced

4 scallions, chopped

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl.
  2. Mix the wet ingredients together in a glass, and stir together.
  3. Pour the dressing over the vegetables. Mix.

The salad, in a bowl

How to Poach an Egg

You will need:

-an egg

-about 2 cups of water

-2 tablespoons vinegar

 

You will also need

-a small cup

-a small saucepan or skillet

-a normal spoon

-a slotted spoon

 

Crack the egg into the cup.

Bring the water to a boil in the skillet.

When the water is boiling, reduce the heat and add the vinegar. Wait until the water is simmering – bubbling a bit but not rapidly.

Pour the egg from the cup into the water. Do this with the cup close to the water – it helps the egg keep its shape.

The egg will be in the water and the white will be pushing around the yolk. Use the spoon to push the white towards the yolk a little.

Let the egg cook for 3-4 minutes. You will be able to see the white “firm up” when it is cooked. The egg will also be closer to the surface.

Remove the egg with a slotted spoon. You can also pat it dry with a paper towel. Poached eggs keep for up to two days in the fridge. I put them on everything.

Nota bene: if you are poaching several at a time, try not to have more than three or four in the pot at once. The starch in the egg bubbles up a lot sometimes. I usually poach two for myself, three if I am hungry.

Poached eggs in a squash soup!
Poached eggs in a squash soup! (Photo mine, September 2016)

I originally published the directions for poaching an egg on my Facebook in July 2017.

Bread Pudding

Here is a dessert that seems to be common in some Jewish communities and not others: bread pudding. In the Jewish communities of England, South Africa, Argentina, and the Midwest, bread pudding is quite common as a dessert. This is not surprising, given that the dish as we know it originated in medieval England as a frugal food and later became popular in areas in the British Empire, or – like Argentina – influenced by it. It was also originally eaten as a meal itself, a trend reflected in many German puddings and our own kugels. The dish crept up from the lower classes and became sweeter, richer, and tastier among the wealthy who could afford white bread. The Ottomans, too, had their own bread-based desserts – and so you have the ekmek kadayıfı (link in Turkish) of Turkey, the umm ali of Egypt, and the budín de pan (link in Spanish) of Argentina. A bread-baked dessert makes sense: it is made from a common ingredient, is filling, and can be both very luxurious and very simple. It is also easily made without milk; thus it can be served with a meat meal in kosher households. Yet bread pudding does not seem to be quite as common in the Northeast United States or in Israel as elsewhere in the world – though I have never served it to an unwelcome audience.

I give here my “typical” bread pudding recipe, which I have made for many years – since I was in middle school! For this bread pudding, I used some Berches that I had frozen. Berches is the traditional Shabbat and holiday bread of German Jewry, and in the place of egg in challah, potato is used. The result is a delightfully fluffy and luscious bread. I will post a recipe in the future, but I strongly urge you to check out the incredible recipe in The German-Jewish Cookbook by Gabrielle and Sonya Gropman. If you do not have Berches, use another fluffy bread, such as challah or brioche.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan

Simple Bread Pudding

Serves 9-12

1 medium to large loaf light, white bread, shredded into small pieces (it is fine if the bread is stale) – I recommend using challah, Berches, or brioche

6 tablespoons melted butter (salted or unsalted)

1 cup whole milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1 cup white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

 

Add-ins (all optional and flexible with quantity)

1 handful dried cherries or raisins, soaked for ten minutes

1 handful chocolate chips

1 handful slivered almonds

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190 C.
  2. Place the bread in a deep 9”x9”/23cm x 23cm pan (or a similarly sized pan).
  3. Mix in any add-ins into the bread with your hands, until evenly distributed.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the butter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon (if using), sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined.
  5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Evenly distribute such that all the bread is soaked by the mixture – you may need to press some of the bread down into the mixture with a fork.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the liquid has set and the top is browned and crispy. A toothpick should come out clean. Remove from the oven, and serve warm or at room temperature. You can optionally serve this with a wine sauce, a custard, or ice cream.

*A note: the question of how much bread was actually consumed by the poorest is a matter of historical debate, especially given that grain shortages were common. What is certain is that medieval bread was very different – largely made from unhulled grain, and stretched with other seeds in poorer communities. Medieval peasants did not eat “well” in any sense of the word. Medieval “frugal” bread pudding would be unrecognizable to us today. I suggest reading Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan or Food in Medieval Times by Melitta Weiss Adamson for more.