Gingerbread Cake

Black and white of sliced gingerbread cake covered in powdered sugar

One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.

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

Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.

I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.

This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!



Gingerbread Cake with Raisins

Serves 12-16

⅔ cup raisins

1 cup cold water

1 teaspoon rum extract

½ cup granulated white sugar

½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)

1 cup applesauce

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon table salt

⅔ cup hot water

Oil, to grease pan

Powdered sugar, for garnish

  1. Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
  3. In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
  4. Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
  5. Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
  6. Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
  7. Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.

Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

 

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How to Please a Vegan on Shavuot – Chocolate Cherry Cake

Round Bundt chocolate cherry cake on a glass tray

I am not a vegan. The reasons why are probably the topic of a future, more controversial post that would discuss a lot of environmental and agricultural science. That said, I have a number of vegan friends who I enjoy feeding, and am always happy to cook for them. So it was a welcome challenge when a friend requested a vegan, Shavuot-appropriate cake. Shavuot is a dairy-heavy holiday, and if you do not eat dairy, a lot of festive foods for an agrarian, sugary festival are barred to you. I also happened to be very stressed, and baking is a good way for me to relieve anxiety. (Your mileage may vary.) So I decided to put the request to work and make a cake using some flavors I enjoy in my cakes: the dark fruitiness of cherries and the happy luxury of chocolate. The cake is simple, and turned out well. My colleagues enjoyed the cake immensely, and gave good feedback to make it better. I put a ganache on this cake because chocolate rarely hurts. However, the cake is perfectly delicious without it.

Cherries have long appeared in Jewish pastry, as it happens – though Shavuot is generally just before fresh cherries come into season in the Northern Hemisphere. The fruit, which is native to Europe and the Middle East, has been popular among Jews for ancient times, especially as an accompaniment to meat. Fresh and dried cherries started appearing in preserves in the Sephardic world and in pastries in Eastern Europe once sugar became more common in the eighteenth century. Jewish immigrants, who owned many of the “ European” bakeries in the Northeast and Midwest, helped make cherries and cherry pastry popular in America from the 19th century on. (This is the same time as when coffee cake became popular.) Cherries are also particularly common in German Jewish cooking, and The German-Jewish Cookbook has several fantastic cherry-centric recipes.

 

Chocolate Cherry Cake (with ganache option)

Cake

¾ cup melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil + more for greasing pan

1 ¼ cups granulated brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

1 ¼ cup / 300 mL soy milk

1 cup dried cherries, soaked in water for 20 minutes and drained

1 cup miniature chocolate chips

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

2 ½-3 cups all-purpose flour (depending on which shortening you use, you may need more flour)

Ganache (Optional)

⅔ cup chocolate chips

½ cup / 120 mL soy milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a medium-size (9 inches or 25 centimeters square) rectangular/square pan, cake pan, or Bundt pan, depending on what shape you want the cake to be.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the shortening/oil, brown sugar, and vanilla together until the brown sugar is completely mixed into the oil. You can use a whisk or a large spoon.
  3. Add the salt, soy milk, cherries, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix until the mixture is thoroughly even in distribution of chocolate chips. (The cherries need the ballast of the flour to become even.)
  4. Mix in the flour, a half cup at a time, until you get a thick but still viscous batter. The cherries and chocolate chips should be evenly distributed.
  5. Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean. Remove from heat, and let cool before adding ganache and/or serving.
  6. To prepare the optional ganache: put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Then, heat the soy milk to just below boiling temperature on the stove or in the microwave (no shame). Then, pour the soy milk over the chocolate chips and mix with a fork until well blended, about two minutes. Let cool until thicker. Once thicker and cooler, pour over the cake or use for other purposes.

Thank you to all of my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing and Operational Readiness Testing on this recipe, and giving feedback for adjustments.

Pumpkin Spice, But Jewish

Pumpkins on wooden shelves arranged in rows
(Photo Petr Kratochvil – Public Domain)

Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.

“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.

The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Pumpkin, next to some older Jewish foods – challah and etrog (Photo mine, October 2016.)

When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.

Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style
Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style. (Photo mine, November 2017)

The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.

Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.

And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.


I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.

Candied Pumpkin (Dulce de Calabasa/Kabak Tatlısı)

Based on the recipes by Claudia Roden, Elia Tabuenca (in Spanish) and Hamarat Abla (in Turkish)

Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.

Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash

White sugar

Water

Ground cinnamon

Ground nutmeg

Cloves

Star anise

  1. Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
  2. Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
  3. Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
  4. Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
  5. Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
  6. After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
  7. Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
  8. Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
  9. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
  10. Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.

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.

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.