Though I myself still partake in many animal products and a rather abundant amount of gluten, I am trying to learn some more gluten-free, vegan dessert and snack recipes. Some of this has to do with the fact that I now interact in spaces with people with each or both of these dietary needs, and I’m too lazy to make two things. Also, some of this is that this skill is probably useful to develop for potlucks. In my research, I was reminded of a delicious dessert or snack from Italy – castagnaccio, a nut- and herb-studded chestnut flour pudding. This traditional snack has not only a wonderful, chewy but dense texture and earthy, nutty taste – but is also vegan and gluten-free.
Chestnuts have a fairly interesting Jewish history which I have touched on in prior posts, particularly in my recipe for kestaneli kuzu – lamb stewed with chestnuts. In additional research, I came to learn that the Jews of Northern Italy put chestnuts into many delicious things – including a traditional charoset recipe, polentas, and stuffed pastries. Some of the use of chestnuts had to do with poverty – before potatoes and corn arrived in the New World, chestnuts were a key source of starch for many European peasants. Wealthy people ate chestnuts too, often cooked with more expensive things like meat or sugar. I have a suspicion that dishes like castagnaccio crossed some boundaries – because while the chestnuts themselves were accessible, grinding chestnuts into flour required significant labor. It is a modern miracle that I can simply order chestnut flour online that has already been ground for me. I imagine castagnaccio graced more well-off tables more frequently – especially if there was someone else doing the grinding or cooking.
Back to today – most of the recipes called for raisins. My partner despises raisins, which is one of the traditional cornerstone ingredients in castagnaccio. I solicited advice from my Facebook friends on how to substitute the raisins – a key source of sweetness – without losing too much in taste. (Thank you!) I landed on a substitute with a splash of wine and some added sugar – which many castagnaccio recipes traditionally omit.I served the castagnaccio along with some ricotta and honey for added moisture – though you can obviously substitute similar vegan things or omit these. The texture is very difficult to describe but quite lovely – with a certain firm chewiness, and the nuts add a wonderful taste and aroma. I will definitely make this again.
It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”
One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.
This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authentic” per se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tchaprobably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.
Chocolate cake is a mechayeh– something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.
And now, a cake.
I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”
Chocolate Red Wine Cake
Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade
6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)
⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
⅔ cup white sugar
¾ cup red wine
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Oil or butter to grease the pan
Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.
Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
This recipe was updated in March 2021 based on additional experimentation.
Here is a simple, straightforward cookie recipe. This type of rolled sugar cookie shows up often in American Jewish community cookbooks from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. Though such recipes are often dismissed as a sign of “assimilation,” I think they offer a lot of knowledge about exactly how Jewish folks, and mostly the women who were doing most of the cooking, were still trying to maintain community ties and get people to communal events in this new framework. Besides, there is no shame in enjoying a cookie.
I did not see a cookie of this specific flavor in the books, but I have made a variant of these a few times in the past months, and was quite happy with the result. You can make a dairy-free/pareve version by using oil and one small egg instead of the milk, or use a plant-based milk and oil for a vegan cookie.
½ cup (3.5oz/100g) granulated cane sugar + 2-3 tbsp for rolling
⅔ cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp whole milk
2 cups (8.5oz/240g) white flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cloves
Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until combined. You can use a pastry knife or an electric hand mixer. Here is a guide for how you can do that with a wooden spoon if you have neither.
Add the maple syrup, vanilla extract, and whole milk, and mix until combined.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and work together with the pastry knife, spoon, or hand mixer until combined. You should have a sticky but pliant dough.
Pour the 2-3 tbsp of sugar for rolling onto a plate and spread it evenly.
Take a piece of dough and roll it into a 1 inch/2.5cm ball. Then, roll it briefly in the sugar until covered. Place it on the parchment paper. Repeat until you use the dough – spread the dough balls about 2 inches/5 cm apart.
Use a fork to lightly “squash” each of the balls.
Bake for 10-13 minutes in the oven, or until the cookies are brown but not burned on the bottom, and the cookies are solid but still soft.
Remove from the heat and let cool for 15-20 minutes before serving. Store any remaining cookies in an airtight container or bag for up to four days.
Thank you to my classmates, colleagues, housemates, and boyfriend for trying several iterations of this recipe.
As a busy graduate student, I have largely been sticking to these simpler recipes during my semesters. Sometimes, these are very obviously Jewish, but this time, I am providing a brownie recipe. I call these Shabbat brownies, because they taste great a day or two later – making them suited for baking for a Shabbat lunch! Make them on Thursday night or Friday afternoon for a tasty end to the meal. (Have one or three as a snack in the meantime.)
While the origin of brownies was likely in church communities in central Maine, they became quite popular among American Jews – just like everyone else in North America. There is a certain type of very fudgy brownie that seems to be popular among synagogues across North America. While they are good, I tend to prefer a cakey brownie – one that relies heavily on eggs.
Hence this recipe. I used to have a different recipe, but here is my updated version. Thank you to my boyfriend, housemates, colleagues, and classmates for testing the various iterations.
Makes 24 brownies
2 sticks (1 cup) butter + more for greasing
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup granulated white sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 ½ cups sifted white flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
Grease a 9”x13”/23cmx33cm (or similarly sized pan) with butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper again with butter.
Melt the butter and chocolate chips together until smooth. You could do this in a bain-marie, but I just do it in the microwave: put the chips in a deep, microwave safe bowl, add the butter in chunks, microwave on high for a minute, then stir together. Put the melted chocolate-butter mixture in a large mixing bowl.
Add the sugar and cocoa powder and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
Add the milk and vanilla extract, and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
Crack the eggs into the bowl, and then whisk together until thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth.
Add the flour, baking powder, and sugar. Whisk together until the batter is thoroughly combined and is a smooth, thick consistency. Make sure all the flour is thoroughly mixed in!
Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Let cool before cutting.
Store in an airtight container for up to four days.
No story here, just a baked good. This is a recipe for a “lazy” rendition of scones, which are usually made with cold butter. Melting the butter or using oil does change the texture slightly by making them a bit less flaky, but they are so much easier to make. And they are still delicious.
Makes ten scones
2 cups white flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup mix-ins (chopped candied fruit, chocolate chips, raisins, dried fruit, chopped berries, etc. If using dried fruit, soak in hot water for 15 minutes before using)
6 tablespoons salted butter, melted or 6 tablespoons vegetable oil plus ½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
¾ cup full-fat yoghurt
1/3 cup whole milk
Preheat your oven to 400C/200F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and baking soda until combined. Add the mix-ins and mix thoroughly until the additions are evenly distributed through the flour. Set aside.
In a second bowl, mix together the butter/oil and sugar until thoroughly combined. Then, add the egg, yogurt, and milk and mix until fully combined.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Using a large spoon or paddle, mix together until you have a thoroughly combined, wet, thick dough.
Using two spoons, form and place heaps of dough onto the parchment paper. They will not be “perfect” in shape, but that is the point. These are lazy.
Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the top is beginning to brown and the bottom is fully golden brown. Remove from oven. Let cool for 15 minutes before removing from tray.
Thank you to my colleagues at the University of Maryland for participating in iterative User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
This is a fall-themed cake using common pantry ingredients. The cake is in some ways my own creation, but was inspired by a significant amount of reading I did this summer. This perusal was of early- and mid-20th century cookbooks aimed to new Jewish housewives from the middle class, and Jewish housewives new to the middle class. Besides “educating” them in proper “housekeeping” – which, I suspect, would realistically rely on things learned from family, friends, and life experience – the books were chock-full of recipes, including recipes for cakes when company is coming over soon. Or recipes for cakes from everyday ingredients that one could serve for various occasions.
These cakes seemed, to me, the highlight. As ardent bloggers of mid-century cuisine have noted, these sort of cakes were far more common than the showier and more infamous confections of the era. And many, honestly, seemed delicious. I spotted some familiar bakes – smetanakuchen, banana bread, and apple cake among them. I also spotted the use of various other delicious things – like jam! So I toyed with an old vegan muffin recipe I had, added some eggs and dairy, and…voilà. I have been told that these sort of cakes – “company is coming” cake – are also part of the Soviet/Russian-language cookbook canon, but I do not have the Russian language skills to research this. Any readers care to help?
The cake is very autumnal. I use normal supermarket applesauce – which, on a normal day, makes for a fine replacement for eggs. The sour cream adds to moisture and rise, but you could probably mix in milk. Most of the time for this cake is really in the baking – the prep is very simple. I wrote the recipe in a different format this time – let me know what you think!
Applesauce Raisin Cake
Preheat the oven to 400F. Grease a deep loaf pan or a rectangular (9x13in/23x32cm) pan.
Pour hot water over 1 cup of raisins to cover. Set aside.
Melt 4oz/125g butter on a stove or in the microwave. Then, beat in 1 cup applesauce, 3 tablespoons sour cream, 1 ¼ cups white granulated sugar, and 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice mix until combined. If you do not have pumpkin pie spice mix, use 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon, and ½ teaspoon each of ground ginger, ground cloves, and ground nutmeg.
Beat in three large eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly combined.
Add two cups of white all-purpose flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and a dash of salt, and mix thoroughly until you have a thick batter. If your applesauce is runny, you will need to add more flour – for every additional ½ cup flour, add 2 tbsp of white sugar.
Drain the raisins, and fold them into the batter until evenly distributed.
Pour the batter into a pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick or knife come out clean and the top is golden brown. Cool for a while, then store sealed until serving to hold moistness.
Thank you to my classmates at the University of Maryland’s Master in Community Planning program for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe!
A quick recipe for you, right before Rosh HaShanah, for a classic favorite: marble cake. This cake was originally German, and shows up in the 19th century with a mix of gingerbread and vanilla cakes. The chocolate version came a little later in the same century, when cocoa powder became available on the mass market. German Jews brought the cake to both the United States and Israel – where it became a fan favorite in Jewish communities. For many Jews of my generation, marble cake is a quintessentially Jewish dessert, consumed at synagogues, semachot, and other events.
It seems hard, but this cake is actually quite easy to make. I hope you enjoy it, and Happy New Year! Shana tova umetukah!
Marble Cake (Marmorkuchen)
Makes 10-18 servings, depending on how big you cut
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened, plus more to grease the pan
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp sour cream
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups white flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Grease a 9 inch/23 cm loaf pan.
Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy – you can use a pastry knife , spoon, or hand mixer.
Add the eggs, sour cream, milk, and vanilla, and mix until thoroughly combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix until you have a smooth, thick, consistent batter.
Reserve one cup of the batter, and pour the remaining batter into your greased pan.
Mix the cocoa powder into the reserved batter cup until thoroughly combined. Then, spoon the cocoa batter over the other batter in the pan.
Use a chopstick or knife to swirl the batters together until you get a marble effect – I run a chopstick back and forth in the pan several times to do this.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to my classmates for participating in User Acceptance Testing!
Add the yeast to the milk. The yeast should bubble up within a few minutes. (Otherwise, your milk was too hot and/or your yeast was dead.)
Mix the butter and sugar together in a bowl. Then, add the eggs one at a time and mix briskly until combined.
Add the milk-yeast mixture, and mix briskly until combined.
Add the flour, ½ cup at a time. When the mixture is still batter, you can mix it in with a spoon. Afterwards, you will need to use your hands to knead it.
Knead the dough with floured hands until you have a smooth, springy dough that does not stick to your hands too much. This should take about 6-7 minutes. I do this by taking out the dough and kneading it on a clean, flour- or starch-covered surface.
Oil a big bowl and put your dough in it. Cover and leave in a warm spot to rise until double in size – 30 minutes to two hours. (In my kitchen, it is usually about one hour.)
Meanwhile, mix the filling ingredients together.
Preheat your oven to 175C/350F. Grease a large Bundt pan or a large loaf pan.
Clean and flour a large surface and a rolling pin.
Punch your dough down. Place it on the surface and then roll the dough out to a large rectangle of about 1cm/2.5 inches thickness. It does not have to be perfectly rectangular.
Spread the filling out over the dough, leaving a ½ centimeter/1 inch border on the edge of the dough.
Roll the dough along the long edge of your rectangle. Then, if you are baking in a loaf pan, create a circle and twist it into a figure 8. If you are baking in a Bundt pan, just make the circle. Move the twisted dough into the pan.
Prick the unbaked babka with a skewer with little holes – this will let out steam.
Mix the egg wash ingredients and brush onto the babka.
Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the babka sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to my classmates and housemates for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
This blog is deeply political. In a time when the American President is saying nakedly anti-Semitic things, and that children are being incarcerated, it would be deeply irresponsible not to be. Besides, like it or not, food is political! I encourage all readers to do what they can to fight for a better society. For some people, that might include protests.
There are many articles that talk about how to go to protests. I want to add a bit of levity and sugar to this by suggesting you bring a babka to a protest. Yes, this article is ridiculous, but why not? Babkas are delicious, portable, and help you make new friends with whom you can fight – together. Different babkas are appropriate for different protests, so here is a guide for “which babka?”
If there are going to be many children at a protest, a chocolate babka is best. Children are often scared at their first protest: while it is fun, there are a lot of people, and a lot of noise! Chocolate is a nice treat that also helps children feel a little more comfortable with this new learning experience. Not to mention, the adults love chocolate babka too.
If the protest is mostly adults, a cinnamon babka also works. In adulthood, some begin to find a chocolate babka too cloying, and others – including myself – come to prefer cinnamon, which many children find a bit difficult. Chocolate also can trigger migraines in many adults, which is the last thing you want at a protest. Cinnamon is a good bet. (You can bring both.)
If the protest has many, many people, or will be outside for a long time, bring a babka from the store. It is fun to bake a babka, but in quantity, it is very hard to do. Home-baked babka also tends to be a tad more difficult to transport, unless you have the right equipment. No shame in popping to the store.
If the protest may have some right-wing counter-protesters, a plum babka, or any other kind of jam babka. If they try to shake your hand, their hands will be sticky! Pettiness is sometimes your friend. Also, Trump hates plums.
You can always bring multiple flavors! We are advocating for a world where all people have the freedom to live a fulfilling life, which ideally should include many babkas.
Remember to stay safe at protests! Follow these tips by Sam Killermann on your own safety, and don’t forget to have the contact information of a pro-bono lawyer, just in case. Your protest right is protected in the United States by the First Amendment. (In other countries, different local laws apply.) Don’t forget to hydrate. If you don’t feel safe going to a protest, or can’t make it, that’s okay! There are many other ways to contribute to a better society, and you should still have babka while doing it.
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?