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.

Great Books: The German-Jewish Cookbook

I wrote back in December about how excited I was for this book to come out, and the final product proved my excitement worthwhile. The German-Jewish Cookbook, by the mother and daughter Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman, was released last month. It is the first English-language cookbook of German Jewish cooking since World War II! For those of you who are unfamiliar, German Jewish cooking is a delicious and very separate school of cooking from the more-commonly known Eastern European traditions of Ashkenazi cooking. The book not only documents the cuisine, but is also beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated. I have been re-reading the book quite a bit as I eat my breakfast, and I always leave the table hungrier than when I started!

The cover for the German-Jewish Cookbook

The book is part memoir, part history, and part cookbook. There are of course the memories: not just of the culinary tradition that the authors grew up with, but also of the German Jewish community of Washington Heights and their food. Interspersed with the memory is history, both German Jewish and of how the culinary traditions came to evolve. It is not a history of independence and nationalism, but rather of traded traditions and influences from everywhere! And then, of course, there are the recipes – for classics like Berches, the potato-based challah of German Jewry, carp in aspic, roast goose, and delicious marble cake. I have tried several of the recipes, and recommend them all.

German Jewish cuisine is unique, delicious, and oft forgotten. The ingredients are often similar to the Eastern European Jewish food that gets all the press – you have your potatoes, herring, schmaltz, and matzah. But many of the ingredients are very much German from assimilation – smoked meats, Bundt cakes, and aspics galore. And then there are all the influences of increased wealth and access to food in the late 19th and early 20th century – and hence you have citrus flavors, wine sauces, and cakes that mark German Jewish cuisine as something all its own. It is not a sexy story of authenticity – which, by the way, does not exist – nor is it one of Jewish separation alone. And unfortunately, the German Jewish community is smaller than the wider Ashkenazi community – and in the assimilation of Jews into North American society, much of the German heritage was simply lost – though it was very much kept alive by those who fled the Nazis and their descendants. This book is a wonderful step towards preserving this tradition.

For me, receiving this book was a meaningful way to connect with a past my own family was a part of. My late grandfather was born to German Jewish immigrants in South Africa, and though five thousand miles from home, grew up with the German Jewish cuisine and food culture of his parents. Many of the classic dishes in this book were things he ate growing up, and told me about in his old age. And when he waxed poetic about his visit to Germany in 1928, it was the food that often triggered his memory. My grandfather missed this food, but never gained a true love for the Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine from Eastern Europe more common in South Africa. Though he is no longer alive to share in the joy of this book, I know that he would have approved.

The German-Jewish Cookbook: Recipes and History of a Cuisine, by Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman. UPNE, Boston: 2017.

Apple Cake 2.0

Update: there was a typo in the measurements that caused some of you to make dry cakes. Many apologies! This has now been corrected.

I usually do not tend to update my recipes that often, but Rosh HaShanah is a time of renewal, and as it happens, I have significantly changed my apple cake recipe. It is a big shift – from a dense, weighty cake to a fluffier cake. I am pretty pleased with the result, which I served this year for Rosh HaShanah.

In addition, I made the cake in a Bundt pan. Though Bundt pans come from 1950s America, they are based on the pan for the German-Jewish Kugelhopf cake, and were created in Minnesota partly as a modernized Kugelhopf! So it turns out that Jewish influence on the coffee circles in the Midwest extends even further than what I talked about when I made Sour Cream Cake.

An apple Bundt cake with glaze on parchment paper.
Redone. And delicious. (Photo mine, September 2017)

Apple Cake

Cake:

8 oz/250g butter or margarine, melted + more for greasing the pan

1¼ cups/250g white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup milk or soy milk

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 3/4 cups white flour, sifted

2-3 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and diced

Glaze:

1 cup/125g powdered sugar

2 tablespoons/30 mL water

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a large cake pan – you can use a 9 inch/23cm spring-form cake pan, a large Bundt pan, or a big square pan.
  2. In a bowl, mix the butter and sugar together until thoroughly combined.
  3. Add the eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. Mix thoroughly until combined.
  4. Add the baking powder and flour. Add the flour a little bit at a time, while mixing. Mix thoroughly, until combined.
  5. Pour half the batter into the cake pan.
  6. Spread the apples over the batter in the cake pan until evenly distributed.
  7. Pour the rest of the batter on top of the layer of apples.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the cake is brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  9. Meanwhile, make the glaze: mix the water and powdered sugar together until thoroughly combined into a thick liquid.
  10. Remove the cake from the pan. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake. Allow the glaze to become solid (about 20 minutes) before serving. The cake lasts for six days in an airtight container.

If you want to make the original apple cake recipe, click here.

May It Be The Divine Will: Auspicious Foods for Rosh HaShanah

Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.

Quinces on a tree
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones – blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of which were made into a cake for Rosh HaShanah 5777. (Photo mine, September 2016)

That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.

Cooking beets
Cooking beets. (Photo mine, November 2016)

That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrewlesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
Pomegranates on a tree. (Photo Bharji/Wikimedia Commons via CC)

That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.

A school of herring.
A school of herring, as many as our merits. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.

And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.

Shana tova!

“Can You Make Coffee Cake?” (Smetana Kuchen)

A note to begin, because I need to remark on politics: Someone please tell white nationalists that their coffee cake is Jewish, and then take their cake away, because Nazis do not deserve cake.

Smetanakuchen with a streusel of almonds and brown sugar

It is a crisp autumn morning in a certain year, and your author is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, very gay, and very Jewish first-year at the University of Chicago. Now, he is from the Northeast, where the Jews are many, but some of his classmates are from small towns across the Midwest and adjacent areas, and a few have only interacted with a handful of Jews over their lives. Your author is worried about anti-Semitism – something he had experienced before. Instead, he finds himself bemused, because more than once he is enthusiastically asked variants of:

“Oh my gosh, you’re Jewish! Can you make that coffee cake?”

“That coffee cake” is Smetana Kuchen, a rich, sour cream-laden coffee cake originating with desserts in Germany and Poland. In the 18th and 19th century, as sugar became cheaper, new pastries developed, often to accompany another new import: coffee. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the common base of sour cream (Smetana in Yiddish) came to form the basis of this new cake. German Jews brought this cake with them to the United States in the 19th century – just as Hungarians also brought the similar aranygaluska and Swedes brought their own cakes to the Midwest. In Europe, these had been cakes of luxury for special occasions, but in the wealthy United States, filled with eggs, dairy, and white flour, these became slightly more common place. Many German Jews began to sell these cakes in coffee shops, newly frequented by a middle class seeking all forms of “refinement.” From there, and similar Hungarian and Swedish shops, the cakes spread. By the 1950’s, when many American women were entering baking contests and had ready access to ingredients once unheard of , the “Jewish” coffee cake was already popular across the Midwest.

 

Today, some people still know the cake as “Jewish,” and many Jews are convinced that the cake is not Jewish at all. On both sides, Smetana Kuchen is found at religious events, at church lunches and synagogue kiddushes, and at celebrations and birthday parties and committee meetings. It is still found in coffee shops and in diners, at office parties and at academic conferences. (Indeed, one of the most stellar coffee cakes I had was at an academic conference.) It is very good – and even as it has assimilated, it is still Jewish.

This is a pretty straightforward and simple Smetana Kuchen with a streusel topping and a modest, yet elegant cake. I offer the option of almonds, which is slightly unorthodox compared to the more common pecans or walnuts. “In the wild,” if I may describe the Midwest as such, you may also find variations with apples, raisins, or chocolate. You should consider trying them all, as they are all utterly delicious.

Smetana Kuchen (Sour Cream Cake)

Serves 9-12 (or fewer, if you are like me)

Streusel (also used in the Mohnkuchen):

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½ tbsp. salted butter, chilled

Cake:

¼ cup (1/2 stick) salted butter, softened

1 cup white granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1 ¼ cups sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups white sifted flour

1/3 cup slivered almonds (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9”x9” square cake pan or a Bundt pan.
  2. Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
  3. Cream together the butter and the sugar. I do not have a mixer, so I use a pastry knife to blend them together. You can also do it with a wooden spoon or fork! Alternatively, if you’re fortunate enough to have the mixer, you can do that.
  4. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the baking powder, sour cream, and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined.
  6. Add the flour, and beat until thoroughly combined.
  7. If you’re using a square cake pan, pour the cake batter into the pan first, then sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. If you’re using a Bundt pan, sprinkle the streusel on the bottom first, and then pour the cake batter on top. If you’re using the almonds, sprinkle them with the streusel on the cake or the pan bottom as the case may be.
  8. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool before removing from the pan.

Fun With Pickles

Pickled kohlrabi and turnip in an orange brine
Pickled kohlrabi and turnip. (Photo mine, July 2017)

It finally happened: I made pickles. It is such a Jewish category of food – and so tasty – and I had simply skipped it. No longer.

Jews have been preserving food since Jews have … been Jews. The pickles that we enjoy today are all ultimately related to methods of food preservation from ancient times. In the Ancient Near East, people Jewish and non-Jewish alike dried, salted, and fermented foods for long-term use. (Some ancient ferments like feseekh in Egypt are still with us today.) Cabbage has been fermented in Eastern Europe since ancient times, and foods have been preserved in vinegar or whey from Iceland to India to Ethiopia since at least the medieval era. As salt became cheaper because of colonialism and expanded trade networks, pickling in Europe and North Africa became far more affordable and thus common. New pickles often joined existing pickles and preserved foods – pickles eggplants alongside preserved lemons in Morocco, pickled radishes alongside sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, pickled herring alongside … other pickled herring in Germany. The invention of the boiling water bath certainly helped. By the early 19th century, a scepter was haunting Europe – the scepter of many preserved vegetables.

Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.

In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!

In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.

Happy Pickling!

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

Makes one quart

2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)

1 cup water

1 cup vinegar (any should do)

1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)

1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)

  1. Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
  2. Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
  3. In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
  4. When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
  5. Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
  6. Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.

Remember to can safely if you can!

Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.

Three Easy 20th-Century Jewish Summer Salads

I get very lazy during the summer. Some of it is the heat, some of it is my rare-but-real Summer Seasonal Depression, and some of it is that things during the summer always feel a bit more hectic. So, as much as I love cooking, I do not necessarily have the energy for a long and involved preparation process. Hence, salads become central in my meals. Not a few leaves with a sad dressing, but weighty and substantial salads that are, in fact, very Jewish.

In the past seventy years or so, Jewish communities have been having a bit of a…salad frenzy. Some of this has to do with the central place salad takes in Zionist cooking, as a way of “becoming of the land.” Salad is also part of Jewish assimilation into surrounding countries. And though some Jewish communities have had “salads” for centuries, salad is far more popular and central now. The ingredients have, of course, changed with the times. The three salads here use three ingredient combinations popular in Israel and the United States at different points since World War II.

1950s: Potato Salad with Yogurt

In the 1950s, Israeli cuisine was in a strange moment. In a completely Eurocentric state, certain Middle Eastern and North African foods were still considered unhealthy or unsanitary, and new immigrants were encouraged to “switch” to European, Ashkenazi food. Yet at the same time, that food was being amended with ingredients and recipes taken from local Palestinian cuisine. Hence you ended up with beet salads with cilantro, hummus with European bread, and recipes in which original ingredients were swapped with Middle Eastern ones. This potato salad with yogurt and za’atar would not be out of place in this environment.

(For more history, I highly recommend Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation.)

Potato salad with yogurt and za'atar

Potato Salad with Yogurt

Serves 4-8

2 lbs/1 kg new potatoes, chopped in halves

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup thick plain yogurt or Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon za’atar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Water

  1. In a pot, boil the potatoes in the water until soft to the fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes, then let cool.
  2. In a cup, mix together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt, za’atar, and pepper until thoroughly combined.
  3. Put the potatoes in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over the potatoes. Mix to coat. Serve cold or at room temperature. The salad keeps for 4-5 days refrigerated.

1970s: Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic

The midcentury was the time of canned corn – especially in the 1950s and 1970s. In the United States, it ended up in strange combinations; in Israel, it was campfire food (and my mother’s one true teenage love); in the Soviet Union there was an entire, extremely bizarre campaign featuring talking cans of corn. And so corn often found its way into salads, including a corn-chickpea salad one man at synagogue told me about. Without the recipe, I updated it with carrots and garlic for more contemporary tastes – and it is definitely delicious.

Corn and chickpea salad with carrots and garlic

Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic

Serves 4-8

2 cups cooked corn kernels (you can use canned)

2 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use canned)

1 cup chopped carrots

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon molasses or honey

½ cup water+1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon cornstarch

  1. Mix together the corn and chickpeas in a large bowl. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan, place the carrots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, molasses, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, or until the carrots are soft and the “sauce” has reduced.
  3. Mix the remaining water and cornstarch, and add to the carrots and mix in. You should notice the sauce thickening.
  4. Remove the carrot mixture from the heat, and pour over the corn and chickpeas. Mix thoroughly, and then let the dish cool to room temperature before serving. This salad keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.

1990s: Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad

Avocados were not just hip now, but in the 1990s too. At that time, avocados were first beginning to make themselves common in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the United States and Canada – and they were already common in the Southwest, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. And just like the avocado toast craze today, in the 1990s, avocado seemed to pop up everywhere – and especially in salads. Avocados, of course, were largely seasonal then due to pre-NAFTA import restrictions, and limited to the summer – just like strawberries. When NAFTA allowed for avocados to be imported year-round from Mexico, consumption exploded. Israel, meanwhile, had been growing avocados since 1924. This salad combines avocado with another 1990s trend – fruit in salad.

Cucumber avocado strawberry salad

Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad

Serves 4-8 as a side dish or 1-2 as a main dish

1 large cucumber, diced

1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced

2/3 cup chopped fresh strawberries

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

  1. Mix together the cucumber, avocado, and strawberries.
  2. Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and soy sauce separately.
  3. Add the dressing to the cucumber mixture. Serve cold or at room temperature. This keeps refrigerated for a few days but is best served within 24 hours of preparation.

A bonus salad: last year, I published a recipe for a Chickpea Arugula Salad with the Jewish Daily Forward. It is very 2010s. Take a look!

Thank you to Dov Fields and Dana Kline for participating in User Acceptance Testing.