I posted an updated recipe in October 2019 for this dish.
A shorter post this time, which features one of my favorite recipes. I wrote about pashtidot – eggy casseroles – two years ago when I made a corn version, pashtidat tiras, for the blogs. These casseroles have a long history in Jewish cooking, from medieval meat pies through 1950s Israeli cuisine. One of the most popular versions today is pashtidat qishuim – zucchini casserole; this particular dish is found throughout Israel. I grew up with this pashtida, and it is a childhood favorite.
My pashtidat qishuim is a little unorthodox – I add a small turnip to the mix, which gives the pashtida a nice body and a slightly meatier note in the flavor. Others add cauliflower or a grated potato, reminiscent of a kugel. Like many people, I add some cheese to the pashtida as well – but you can always replace the cheese with more zucchini and another egg if you are making a pareve version for a meat meal. Enjoy!
1 cup cottage cheese or farmer’s cheese (I far prefer cottage cheese)
1 teaspoon table salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
3 eggs, beaten
⅓ cup/80 mL vegetable oil
⅔ cup/85g white flour
Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Grease a baking dish with vegetable oil – you can use different dishes, depending on the desired thickness. I use a 7”x10” (18cm x 25cm) deep casserole pan, but generally any medium-sized baking pan should do.
Squeeze any remaining water out of the zucchini with your hands. Then, place the zucchini in a large mixing bowl.
Add the onion, garlic, turnip, parsley, cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine.
Add the eggs and oil. Mix to combine.
Add the flour. Mix to combine. You should have a thick batter mixed in with the zucchini, onion, and turnip.
Pour your mixture into the greased pan.
Bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on the depth of the pan. The pashtida should be brown on top and set when it is done. If you stick in a knife or a chopstick, only a residual zucchini piece should come out, otherwise it should be clean.
Remove from oven. Serve hot or at room temperature.
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.
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
1 cup/125g powdered sugar
2 tablespoons/30 mL water
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.
In a bowl, mix the butter and sugar together until thoroughly combined.
Add the eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. Mix thoroughly until combined.
Add the baking powder and flour. Add the flour a little bit at a time, while mixing. Mix thoroughly, until combined.
Pour half the batter into the cake pan.
Spread the apples over the batter in the cake pan until evenly distributed.
Pour the rest of the batter on top of the layer of apples.
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.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: mix the water and powdered sugar together until thoroughly combined into a thick liquid.
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.
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.
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.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9”x9” square cake pan or a Bundt pan.
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.
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.
Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
Add the baking powder, sour cream, and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined.
Add the flour, and beat until thoroughly combined.
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.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool before removing from the pan.
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.
In a pot, boil the potatoes in the water until soft to the fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes, then let cool.
In a cup, mix together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt, za’atar, and pepper until thoroughly combined.
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
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
Mix together the corn and chickpeas in a large bowl. Set aside.
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.
Mix the remaining water and cornstarch, and add to the carrots and mix in. You should notice the sauce thickening.
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
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
Mix together the cucumber, avocado, and strawberries.
Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and soy sauce separately.
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.
I was recently asked by a friend of a friend if there are any Jewish rhubarb recipes – he had found good rhubarb and wanted to make some for Pesach (Passover). Initially, I was stumped – rhubarb is not even mentioned in Gil Marks’ otherwise encyclopedic Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. So I went to the various corners of the academic food internet to do some research – expecting to find a Greek, Russian, or Iranian Jewish rhubarb sweet, given that those are rhubarb-laden areas that historically had many Jews. Instead, I found something savory: a series of rhubarb sauces used for fish and meat in Greek and Turkish Sephardic communities. Some sources noted that this dish is, in fact, traditional for Pesach. It sounded intriguing – and delicious.
In honor of this history and the season, I made a stewed rhubarb side dish that is kosher for Passover. It is based on the rhubarb sauces from the Mediterranean, but with the addition of rosemary, which complements the tart rhubarb nicely. Though you may still prefer sweet rhubarb in a very-much-khametz pie, I hope you enjoy this method of preparation as well.
Rhubarb with Rosemary and Garlic (for Pesach)
1 pound/500 grams fresh rhubarb stalks (about 5)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 cup water
Wash the rhubarb, and discard the ends. Then chop into 1 cm/1/2 inch chunks.
In a shallow pan, melt the butter (or heat the pan and add the oil). Add the rosemary and garlic and sauté for thirty seconds.
Add the rhubarb and mix thoroughly with the garlic and rosemary. Distribute evenly flat across the pan.
Add the salt, sugar, and water, and bring the mixture to a boil.
Simmer for ten minutes, or until the water has cooked down and the rhubarb has just started to disintegrate. Serve hot or cold.
Despite these struggles, Pesach is a delicious holiday. And for many Jews, no food is so associated with the holiday as much as the macaroon – the delicious, nowadays usually almond- or coconut-based, mysteriously flour-free cookie. Some people, including myself, are fans of macaroons, especially when they are freshly baked. A few Jews have been known to eat ten in one sitting – a category that, of course, does not include the author. Others will gladly eat fluffy French macarons but avoid the heavier Jewish macaroons. And many, having only had the underrated-but-still-somewhat-dry packaged macaroons, consider the cookie a bit dull or not tasty at all. Though one can find them all year round on many tables, macaroons are now only encountered by most Jews around Pesach in their packaged form. As a result, many think this treat with a long history is a modern invention.
Sephardim, and then Ashkenazim, adopted the macaroon from Italian Jews and Spanish Jews fleeing the inquisition, who had made the similaramarguillos from bitter almonds(link in Spanish). Macaroons appeared in the earliest Jewish cookbooks in the United States, and have remained popular since. Today, coconut macaroons predominate – especially given both the ready availability of coconut and the industrialization of coconut grating since the 19th century. One can, of course, still find delicious almond macaroons. The coconut version, however, connects Jewish macaroons to another family of macaroons spread through colonial empires. Coconut macaroons based on the European-Arab original are now popular in the Dominican Republic, Southern India, the Philippines, and Mauritius. (This Mauritian recipe by Shelina Permaloo is particularly lovely.)
These coconut macaroons are simple, tasty, and a good dessert for any time of the year. (And they are gluten free!) I have the recipe here with raisins, but you can also make them with chocolate chips.
Ah, German and Austrian pastry. I claim that the main reasons I am learning German are its usefulness in researching Jewish history (and delicious food), my own heritage, an interest in trains, and the stunning beauty of the language. But I cannot deny that the wonderful pastry traditions of the German-speaking world – anthologized beautifully in Luisa Weiss’ Classic German Baking – is a very key draw for me to the stringent cases, bizarre genders, and complex plurals of die deutsche Sprache. The German-speaking world is particularly famous for its elegant cakes, buttery-creamy pastry, and the oh-so-wonderful delights of nutty and tart flavors combined with the sweet, heady rush of sugar. By this world of pastry and cake I am well and truly smitten – or, perhaps to be more appropriate for the topic of this post, ich bin sehr vernarrt! A man who can make me a perfect Pflaumenkuchenor Lüneberger Buchweizentortewill not only receive an instant marriage proposal from me, he will also have proven himself instantly adept at Jewish food. What more could I ask for?
German pastry, despite its exterior appearance, is also a deeply Jewish tradition. Many of the earliest Jewish cookbooks from the late 19th century were published by and for German Jewish communities in der Heimat and abroad: Milwaukee to London to Cape Town. The recipes within them include the cakes and pastries that differed by region but not ethnicity or religion in their homelands. One could learn to make an apple cake, a buckwheat cake, a Streuselkuchen or Dampfnudeln from these cookbooks. Some were Jewish specialties – such as the doughy potato-based Berches bread – and some were not. Many of these recipes were shared with other Ashkenazi communities – among them the Austrian and Bavarian strudel and recipes filled with poppy seed or almonds. In the United States and Canada, the popularity of German pastries became so ingrained in Ashkenazi Jewish communities that their origins as German and/or Austrian – and not necessarily specifically Jewish – were forgotten. (Many of my New Yorker friends are surprised to learn that non-Jews eat strudel!) In Israel, meanwhile, German bakers who arrived before the establishment of the State began a proud baking tradition that continues to this day. The recipes still do not differ that much from their butter-laden German counterparts, other than the occasional substitution of dairy ingredients.
The pastries are also delicious – like this poppy seed cake, filled with a variant of my beloved mohn. The nuttiness and timbre of the poppy seeds balances with a dense, doughy pastry and the sugar throughout to bring your taste buds on a very pleasant journey. Now, this poppy seed cake is not technically “Jewish,” but it is so very Jewish. Poppy seed pastries are deeply traditional – just think of hamantaschen! – in the Ashkenazi world, and I have seen similar recipes to this one in several Jewish cookbooks. In addition, poppy seed is a popular filling for the cake known as babka – which, though differently shaped and yeasted, is not dissimilar in final product to this cake. Not to mention that many babkas are also covered in streusel! In any case, this cake would be readily recognized as an Ashkenazi one at many a synagogue potluck.
Mohnkuchen mit Streuseln (Poppy Seed Cake with Crumble Topping)
The cake is ready for the oven! (Photo mine, January 2017)
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.
In a saucepan, melt the butter into the milk.
Add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and semolina and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.
Add the poppy seeds to the semolina mixture and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
Preheat your oven to 350F/180C.
Mix together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, milk, butter, and sugar until smooth.
Add the flour to the butter-cream mixture and blend together with a pastry knife or two forks until you get a smooth dough. If you want the dough to be more pliable, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for fifteen minutes.
Line the bottom of a 9-inch pan (square or round) with parchment paper.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface to be ½ inch/1.5cm thick, and lay on the floor of your pan. It is perfectly fine if a little rolls over the edges.
Evenly spread the poppy seed mixture on top of the cake dough. You can fold over the far edges of the dough on top of your filling.
Evenly distribute the streusel on top.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust of the cake is brown. When the streusel starts to brown, you can cover the top of the cake with tinfoil.
Leave to cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.
Thank you to Yael Shafritz, Aaron Marans, Alex Roesch, and Yonit Friedman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining. I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.
Holding fennel in my hand (Photo mine, December 2016)
The smell of licorice takes over as I chop the fennel. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”
This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.
On a lighter note than prior posts, it is chestnut season here in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. This fact is amazing in my book, because I would actually marry a chestnut tree. I love chestnuts and their sweet starchiness, which complements everything from chicken to chocolate.
As it happens, so too did medieval Jews enjoy chestnuts – preparations with chestnuts and onions were commonplace in the cuisine of Alsatian and German Jews, and still are in some forms. Meanwhile, Jews in the Balkans and Caucasus often adopted the chestnut-based sweet and savory dishes of their neighbors, like the utterly delectable churchkhela, a Georgian sweet made with grape must and chestnuts, to tempting pastries in chestnut-loving Croatia. Even today, many Jewish cuisines incorporate chestnuts – including in a delicious chestnut and meat stew, hamim de kastanya (or etli kestane) among Sephardic communities in Turkey.
Farfel being browned in butter. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Mixing farfel and chestnut mixture. (Photo mine, December 2016)
The finished kugel before serving. Not the most aesthetically pleasing, but delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)
In honor of the glorious chestnut I decided to make a kugel, using the Alsatian combination of chestnuts, onions, and apples – and somewhat inspired by Joan Nathan’s recipe, linked above, for a dish with prunes instead of apples. I used farfel, a traditional egg noodle from Eastern Europe, for the dish. Farfel was traditionally made from egg dough by Ashkenazi Jews, and was either grated or chopped depending on the region. In English the noodle also became known as “egg barley” for its size and its eggy base. Today, farfel is somewhat rarer than in times past, but is still commonplace in many Orthodox communities. It is also delicious – and rather easy to make at home; albeit time-consuming. Though traditionally served with mushrooms, farfel also goes well with meat, soups, and sweeter sauces. During Passover, matzah farfel – or crumbled matzah – serves as a nearly perfect substitute.
Farfel Kugel with Chestnuts, Onions, and Apples
8 oz/225g farfel (or another small noodle)
7oz/200g roasted chestnuts, diced – you can use prepackaged ones
2 medium apples, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 tbsp + 1 tsp salt
2 tsp+ ½ tsp black pepper
2 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp nutmeg
2 tbsp cider vinegar
2 tbsp water
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup sour cream
Sauté the farfel in the 1 tbsp butter for three minutes, then cook for 20 minutes in 4 ½ cups boiling water, or until the farfel are soft and have absorbed all the water.
Meanwhile, saute the chestnuts, apples, and onion in the other 2 tbsp butter for 3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
Mix in the 2 tbsp salt, 2 tsp black pepper, brown sugar, cinnamon, paprika, and nutmeg with the onion-apple-chestnut mixture, and cook, stirring, for another minute.
Add the water and vinegar to the onion-apple-chestnut mixture, and cook for ten minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the apples are softer and the onions and chestnuts very soft.
Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
Mix the onion-apple-chestnut mixture with the farfel until evenly distributed. Place into an oven-proof dish, greased if necessary with butter.
In a separate bowl, mix the sour cream, eggs, salt, and black pepper until thoroughly combined. Then, mix into the farfel in the dish until evenly distributed. Make sure the mixture is level.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until the mixture is set and the top is browned. Serve as a side or as a hearty main course.
Bonus: if you want to roast your own chestnuts, I recommend the guide from BBC Good Food.
Chestnuts before roasting. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Chestnuts after roasting, in pan, before peeling. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.
This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?
In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.
While looking up recipes for qatayef – which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”
“Too sweet,” you say?
Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?
To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.
But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.
Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafehand baklavaare dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.
Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macaronsfrom a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?
The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.
And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.