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?
Credit, first and foremost, to my friend Rebecca for introducing me to this cake. Blueberry buckle is her favorite cake, and I and others have made it for her birthday. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of American baking. The recipe itself originated in Colonial New England as an adaptation of an English cake, and uses a native ingredient – blueberries. That said, this recipe is much like smetanakuchen, the coffee cake introduced by Ashkenazi Jews with great success to the Northern United States. And though I love Jewish coffee cake, the blueberry buckle has a moisture that the cake is sometimes missing. The name itself comes from the fact that the crumb topping causes the cake to “buckle” – as you can see in the picture.
I made the buckle a little softer than most buckles, because I find that the melty blueberry goes well with that texture. You can totally use frozen blueberries if that is easier or more affordable for you, or if you prefer the result. I added some yogurt to give the cake more weight.
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
½ cup full-fat Greek yogurt, at room temperature
½ cup whole milk
¾ cup brown sugar
1½ cups flour
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a cake pan – I used a 9”/23cm wide round pan, but you can use a similarly sized square pan.
Whisk together the butter, yogurt, milk, sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined. Add the flour and baking soda and mix in thoroughly.
Fold in the blueberries until evenly distributed through the batter. Then, pour the batter into the greased pan.
With a pastry knife, fork, or food processor, blend the topping ingredients together. Then, sprinkle on top of the cake.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick in the cake comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to Rebecca Galin for introducing me to this cake.
This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.
Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?
I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.
I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.
A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.
Here are a few patterns that emerged.
Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.
Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.
Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.
On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.
For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.
And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.
Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptchaand gefilte fish.
Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.
I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.
The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.
If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakomof the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:
Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.
A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)
Greetings! I hope you had a lovely holiday season, be it with your family, your friends, or on a spaceship with kindly aliens.
I have been busy with applications for urban planning school, or volunteering for the Democratic Party, so I have not sat down to do quite as much food writing. However, I did make a very fun gnocchi dish using lots of traditional ingredients from Italian and German Jewry – apples, fennel, and cheese. Gnocchi and Parmesan are not Jewish per se. However, gnocchi has a long tradition in Italian Jewish cooking – though preparations with spinach or tomato sauces are far more common. I cannot find sources in a language I speak for the various hard cheeses of Italian Jewry (Italian speakers, hint hint), but Italian Jewish recipe collections in the languages I do speak use hard cheese heavily. In any case, I should not worry if Parmesan is “traditional” – authenticity is bullshit anyway. That said, this recipe would not be too out of place on an Italian Jewish table.
I have actually made an Italian Jewish dish with fennel and cheese in the past – I highly recommend it.
Autumn Gnocchi with Apple, Fennel, and Parmesan
2 tablespoons butter
1 large white onion, chopped roughly into small pieces
1 medium bulb fennel, chopped roughly into small pieces
2/3 teaspoon table salt
1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
8 cloves garlic, chopped into bits (you can vary the size according to taste)
3 medium Fuji apples, cored and chopped into cubes (you can use another crisp, sweet apple such as a Honeycrisp or Cameo)
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped with stems removed
½ cup water + more to cook gnocchi
1 500g/17.5 oz package potato or sweet potato gnocchi
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Heat a deep saucepan, then melt the butter. Add the onions and fennel. Sauté for two minutes, or until they begin to soften.
Add the salt, pepper, and vinegar, and mix in. Sauté for two more minutes, or until they are slightly softer.
Add the garlic, apples, and rosemary, and stir to combine. When the pan starts sizzling again and the apples begin to soften, add the water, then cover.
Cook covered for ten minutes, then uncovered for ten minutes on a high flame. Stir every few minutes. The apples and fennel should soften and release their juices.
In the meantime, prepare the gnocchi according to package directions. (If you want to use homemade gnocchi, try this recipe here, but I am all for industrial food.)
When the apples and fennel are soft and the liquid has mostly reduced, turn off the heat. Add the gnocchi and parmesan, and stir thoroughly. Serve warm.
Thank you to Eric Routen for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
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.
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.
Here is a quick and pleasant recipe for the summer. I was inspired to make it not by some delightful salad at an event, nor by finding such a salad on the blogosphere. Rather, I was intrigued by lentils and orzo themselves. I have loved both since I was a child, and I was tickled to learn that many Jewish communities called orzo “bird’s tongues.” I also learned that the Gemara considers lentils to have “no mouth” – appropriate for mourners with “no words.”
I am not in mourning, but I decided to make something that combined the “mouthiness” of orzo and the “mouthlessness” of lentils into a heretical but nice salad. It helps that it tastes good, and can be served cold during the heat of the Northern summer.
Lentil Orzo Salad
1 cup dried black lentils
1 medium red onion, diced
2 large fistfuls fresh mint, diced
2 large fistfuls fresh parsley, diced
4oz/125g cooked corn (canned is fine)
½ cup/125g soft white cheese, crumbled up (I use queso fresco)
2 tablespoons berry-flavored jam
1 tablespoon hot water
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste, parsley to garnish
In two separate pots, cook the orzo to package directions in water, and the lentils in 3-4 cups of water until they are soft. Drain, rinse with cold water, and let cool.
Mix the lentils and orzo together in a large bowl, then add the onion, mint, parsley, corn, and cheese. Mix together.
Make the dressing: Mix the jam with the hot water first, until it is liquid. Then, add the vinegar and oil and mix until combined. If you want a less oily dressing, you can add a bit more vinegar and hot water for some of the oil.
Once the dressing is blended, pour it over the salad and mix in thoroughly. Add salt to taste, and more parsley as a garnish if you wish. Serve at room temperature or cold. The salad keeps in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.
So when I was in Mexico a few months ago, I had one of the best soups of my life at a restaurant in Tula de Allende that served comida casera – roughly speaking, “home-style cooking” – but entirely vegetarian. I asked the proprietor, Cristina, for the recipe, which she roughly described in the telegraphic style of home cooks everywhere. A bit of this, a bit of that, and a good dose of black beans. Unfortunately, I left the scrap of paper with my notes on the bus back to Mexico City. However, with some experimentation over the winter, I was able to roughly recreate the soup with ingredients readily available in the United States.
The soup is chock-full of ingredients beloved by Jewish communities: beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers among them. Though some would tell you that this is a “weeknight” dish, I would consider this soup better for languorous weekend cooking, when you have the time to spare a while to cook a big hearty soup. Eat leftovers during the week, when the myth of so-called “easy” home cooking is most apparent.
Sopa de Frijoles y Calabaza con Fideos
1 large onion, diced
7 cloves white garlic, minced
2 dried ancho chilies, broken apart into small pieces (keep the seeds if you want it spicy)
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar
1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 large kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into chunks
1 8oz/225g can corn kernels, drained (or 1 cup cooked corn)
2 15-oz/425g cans black beans, drained (or 4 cups soaked black beans)