Mohnkuchen (German Poppy Seed Cake)

The cooling cake
The cake, cooling after being removed from the oven (Photo mine, January 2017)

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 Pflaumenkuchen or Lüneberger Buchweizentorte will 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?

The cake, on a plate, with other dishes in the background
A Mohnkuchen, waiting to be served at my friend’s birthday potluck. The dough is deceptive – it’s not as thick as it looks! (Photo mine, January 2017)

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.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer. (Photo mine, January 2017)

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)

Based on the recipe by Felice Forby

Streusel

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½  tbsp salted butter, chilled

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

¾ cup milk

2½ tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp white sugar

3 tbsp semolina flour

¾ cup ground poppy seeds

1 egg

Cake

1¼ cups white sifted flour + more for rolling

1 tsp baking powder

4 tbsp sour cream

3 tbsp milk

3 tbsp salted butter, softened

3 tbsp white sugar

  1. 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.
  2. In a saucepan, melt the butter into the milk.
  3. Add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and semolina and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.
  4. Add the poppy seeds to the semolina mixture and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
  5. Preheat your oven to 350F/180C.
  6. Mix together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, milk, butter, and sugar until smooth.
  7. 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.
  8. Line the bottom of a 9-inch pan (square or round) with parchment paper.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Evenly distribute the streusel on top.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

Hanukkah, But Fancy: Lemon Rosemary Cake with Olive Oil

The finished cake with a sprig of rosemary
The finished cake with a sprig of rosemary. (Photo mine, December 2016)

It is customary on Hanukkah to eat food with oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil at the rededication of the Second Temple that the holiday celebrates. The standard interpretation of this custom is to eat fried food; indeed this blog began with a fried Hanukkah recipe for beignets. However, not everyone wants to eat fried food all the time, and besides there is a long and ancient Jewish tradition for oil-based cakes. Thus, this year, in honor of Hanukkah, I decided to bring the bright flavors and floral scent of a Mediterranean spring into darkest winter with this lemon rosemary cake. The recipe is based on a delicious one by my friend Yaël. The cake is easy, delicious, and requires only the most ordinary of equipment. Chag sameach!

Lemon Rosemary Cake with Olive Oil

Based on a recipe by Yaël Wiesenfeld

Cake:

Juice of two large lemons (about 1/3 cup)

Zest of one large lemon

3 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped (or 1 tbsp dried)

1 cup olive oil

½ tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp salt

1 ½ cups white sugar

6 eggs

2 ½ cups white flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

Glaze

1 cup powdered sugar

3 tablespoons water

 

  1. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Line a deep pan – a loaf pan or a cake pan – with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the juice, zest, rosemary, oil, vanilla extract, salt, and sugar together until thoroughly mixed.
  3. Fold in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly combined with the sugar-oil mixture.
  4. Add the flour and baking powder bit by bit and mix until you have a thick, consistent yellow batter. Warning: the batter will be quite sticky.
  5. Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan. Bake for 45 minutes to one hour, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean.
  6. Leave the cake to cool.
  7. When the cake is cool, mix the glaze ingredients together and pour over the cake. The cake pairs well with light vanilla creams or tea.

Thank you to Li-Or Zaltzman, Andrew Dubrov, John Bachir, Claire Steifel, Julia Clemons, Shaun Leventhal, and others for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Fun With Chestnuts: Farfel Kugel with Chestnuts, Onions, and Apples

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.

Chestnuts on a green cutting board
Chestnuts being chopped. Delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)

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.

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.

Kugel in a bowl
A heaping, filling helping of kugel for dinner. Better than it looks! (Photo mine, December 2016)

Farfel Kugel with Chestnuts, Onions, and Apples

Serves 6-8

8 oz/225g farfel (or another small noodle)

1tbsp+2tbsp butter

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

  1. 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.
  2. Meanwhile, saute the chestnuts, apples, and onion in the other 2 tbsp butter for 3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  6. Mix the onion-apple-chestnut mixture with the farfel until evenly distributed. Place into an oven-proof dish, greased if necessary with butter.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Apple Honey Cake

This recipe has been requested by at least seven people – I do not remember by whom exactly. My sincerest apologies.

Rosh HaShanah in the Ashkenazi world is a rather sweet and sticky holiday. Of course there is the tradition of eating sweet foods to signify a good New Year, and, like any Jewish holiday, the amount of saccharine sentimentality seems to spike on Rosh HaShanah. Sometimes, this is translated into food, including the extreme stickiness and sweetness of taiglakh, or the inexplicably sugary cookies that suddenly morph everywhere, uncontrollably, across tables in the Jewish world. And then you have the apple and honey cakes. Ever-present, sometimes delicious, and quite a vehicle for the nostalgia of many a middle-aged congregant in my childhood synagogue. (“This takes me back!”)

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)

The apple cake also happens to be easy to make – and delicious.

Apple cakes and honey cakes have been traditional in Ashkenazi cooking for centuries – in fact, we have records of both from the 12th century in Germany. The latter cake dates to at least the medieval era, when it was part of a ceremony called the Alef-Beyzn, which commemorated a young boy’s first day at school. Lekach, the Yiddish word for honey cake, is a homonym of the word for “good instruction” in the Book of Proverbs, and so the cake had special significance. The practice of giving cake on this day has since died out; a contemporary practice of having the young boy lick honey off a board with the Hebrew alphabet lasted quite a bit longer. (The Israeli musician Victoria Hanna references this custom in her incredible Hosha’ana music video.) The idea of a sweet cake, however, stuck around, and began to be served at Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, in order to get the year off to a sweet start.

The apple cake’s place at the Rosh HaShanah table probably had similar origins – and the cake itself is an adaptation of non-Jewish recipes in the region. Even today, almost every Central and Eastern European culture has at least ten common apple cake recipes. The similar apple charlotte recipe – perhaps known to many readers for being referenced in Downton Abbey – became popular in England and France in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, “Jewish” Apple Cake has been popular in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States since that time. These cakes are similar but not quite an exact match to the many family recipes for simple apple cakes that Ashkenazi families use across the English-speaking world. In any case, it is delicious.

Apple cake
An apple cake made with half buckwheat and half wheat flour. It makes for a very nice breakfast. (Photo mine, September 2016)

In homage of the Rosh HaShanah tradition of eating apples with honey – one to initiate the sweet new year – I am going to give you a recipe that uses both apples and honey. The apples and honey play well of each other – although an apple cake without honey is certainly no curse to a dinner table. I make many variations of this incredibly easy recipe. I have a vegan version with no honey or eggs but with raisins, date syrup, and turmeric to approximate the taste of honey. I also have another version that uses grated apples and ground almonds. My grandmother’s recipe is slightly simpler and doesn’t use honey, but I find that the honey adds both a nuttiness and a lovely weight to the cake. In the spirit of variation, I have a gluten-free and gluten-friendly version of the recipe listed below. The buckwheat version may seem new, but in fact buckwheat – in the form of kasha – has been on the Ashkenazi Jewish table for centuries.

 

Apple Honey Cake

loosely based on a recipe by Esther Back

Gluten version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced into 1cm (~1/3 inch) chunks (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 cups flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp baking powder

 

Gluten-free version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

4 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2.5 cups buckwheat flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

 

Vegetable oil for greasing your pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190C.
  2. Grease your pan – generally, I use a 9 inch by 9 inch (23 centimeters) pan for a deeper, square cake, but generally any medium-sized cake pan will do.
  3. Scatter a few of the apple chunks at the bottom of a pan.
  4. Mix the remaining apple chunks and the rest of the ingredients together. For a more carefree process, I recommend the following order: honey and sugar, then the eggs and oil, then the apple chunks, then the flour you are using, then the salt, cinnamon, and baking powder.
  5. Pour that mixture on top of the apples at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm or cold.

Author’s note: this recipe is an excellent one for a potluck or other event to which one brings food. For best transport, wrap when cool in aluminum foil with some looseness for the cake to “breathe.”

“Yagdes!” And the Jam That They Become

Picture this: it’s the late 1960’s, and my mother and her family are in a car driving through Western Europe. They immigrated to Israel a few years before from South Africa, and its their first trip together out of the country they had just moved to. For my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, it is her first time in Europe since the Second World War. As they pass through the Swiss and French countryside, her eyes are on the landscapes and plants familiar from her Lithuanian childhood (Europe is remarkably uniform in its middle latitudes). And, as they drive along a country road – at my grandfather’s characteristic crawl of 20 kilometers an hour – my grandmother yells in her strong accent:

“Darling, you must pull over! The bushes are full of yagdes! Shvartze yagdes!”

That is to say, “berries! Black berries!” Which were regularly made into jam during my grandmother’s childhood.

Bilberry in a bush
A bilberry – the blueberry-like fruit native to Lithuania. (Photo Ilena via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Jams and preserves are, to put it simply, a pretty big deal in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Some of these jams and preserves might be familiar to North American or South African readers: plum jam, strawberry jam, and cherry jam. Others – such as the radish or beet ayngemakhts still served by many families at Passover – may seem a little foreign. (Even more foreign to some is the Yiddish term preglen ayngemakhts – literally “frying jam” – for cooking the beets in a sugar and honey mixture.) Fruits would be picked in their seasons and made into lekvar (povidl), jams, or preserves, which would then be sealed and preserved for the whole year. This practice paralleled that of local gentile communities – whose diasporas in America still import jams from the homeland to this day. Historically, for some Jews jam was a frequent part of the diet; however, for others – in fact, until the 19th century, for most Jews in Eastern Europe, it was a special treat.  When sugar became cheaper in the 19th century after the development of industrial refineries to process sugar from beets, jams became far more economical to make – and began to more frequently appear on Jewish tables. By the time of the great emigrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century, fruit jams and preserves were frequently found on Jewish tables. In her 1937 Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius, Fania Lewando thought it useful to include an entire section on jams and preserves – perhaps indicative of her audience’s need for them.

Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina
Homemade strawberry-blueberry jam on farina. Breakfast of champions! (Photo mine, August 2016)

Even today, preserved fruit shows up in a lot of places in Ashkenazi cooking, be it in desserts like hamantaschen to new recipes in books like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking. And, of course, Eastern European Jews in North America have assimilated into another jam-eating culture: that of White America. Though Smuckers and Welch’s, or even Bonne Maman, hold hardly a candle to homemade jam, they all draw on a long American tradition – white and black – of jam-making that dates to the earliest years of the colonial era. Much of this tradition was first expressed in the eighteenth-century marmalade – which, more often than not and like every other White American food, was made by enslaved people in the South and often the North – and not only by white housewives, as later myth would have it. This marmalade itself was brought to England by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition there – and the fruit was originally quinces, not oranges. (Colonial cookbooks contain recipes for quince jam, and so does this blog – albeit an Iranian version.) So in many ways there is an interesting dichotomy: jam is from the “old country” of Europe, but also something that is a very old Jewish influence on American cuisines.

Jam on toasted bagel
Committing true New York heresy and eating my jam on a toasted bagel! (Photo mine, August 2016)

For this post, I made a berry jam in honor of my grandmother’s love for yagdes. The strawberries and blueberries from farms here in New York State are in season, and I bought a big batch of fresh berries to make into a jam. Blueberries themselves are native to North America; my grandmother would have probably had the very similar bilberry. My jam is a little tart, though I certainly added more sugar than my grandmother, who loved tart food, would have wanted. Feel free to add more sugar to your taste – or enjoy the tart bite that could send my grandmother into a nostalgic reverie.

Strawberry-Blueberry Jam

makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied

 

1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed

14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

1 cup white sugar

3/4 cup water

  1. In a large pot, mash the strawberries and blueberries together until you have a thick pulp. If your strawberries are large, it may help to chop them into chunks first.
  2. Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
  4. Simmer the mixture, stirring regularly, for 30-35 minutes, until the mixture has thickened into a jam. Here is how to check: dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. Otherwise, continue simmering the jam.
  5. When the jam is done, remove from the heat and let cool. Scrape off some of the foam (“jam scum”*) and place it on a separate plate or bowl.
  6. Once cool, pack the jam into containers. The jam keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks and in the freezer for three months. You can also can it using a safe method to do so, though I would recommend slightly increasing the amount of lemon juice in the initial recipe for canning, and doing so with a larger batch. This jam goes very well at the bottom of a quark-based cheesecake, between the cheese and the crust.

*”Jam scum” – the “useless” foamy bit at the top of the jam that is trapped air – has a hallowed place in much of 19th-century Russian and American literature – for in this period jam scum was a special treat for many children. One of my favorite scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and one of my favorite scenes of food in literature – is Dolly’s thought-monologue on the delights of jam scum as she supervises her maid Agafea/Agatha’s jam-making at her country house in Part Six.

The author thanks Brian Pritchett, Robbie Berg, Amy Estersohn, and Kate Herzlin for participation in User Acceptance Testing.

Great Reads and Herring

3kg bucket of Nutella
An essential ingredient of bourgeois sweetness around the world: Nutella. Perhaps not in the 3kg jar though. (Photo mine, May 2015)

So yours truly got featured on an incredible blog by Anny Gaul, Kitchening Modernity in North Africa. The wonderful blog – which discusses class, globalization, and food habits in the middle class of the Arab world – wrote a very flattering and intellectually stimulating response piece to my earlier piece about qatayef and how we discuss the sweetness of Arab and Sephardi desserts. Gaul brought up some really incredible points in light of her own doctoral work – and cited the late, great Sidney Mintz in regards to how sugar itself became woven into domestic “normalcy” through empire, and Krishnendu Ray’s new book on how race and class mediate the hierarchy of tastes today.

Check out the post, but also read the entire blog. There are some really wonderful discussions about: how we gender or don’t gender domesticity; how coffee contributes to a culture of timekeeping; how people in Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon actually perceive globalization and food tastes; and how food changes with class, wealth, and Westernization. Check it out!

“Sweetness and Prejudice” – Kitchening Modernity’s Response Post


The incredible Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria and “KosherSoul” fame recently posted what might be my favorite “fusion” recipe of 2016 – macaroni and cheese kugel. The recipe – which combines the African-American macaroni and cheese with the sweet flavors of an Ashkenazi noodle kugel – looks incredible, and despite the initial confusion (cinnamon and savory cheese?!?), very tasty. Twitty’s post is also worth a read for an important lesson on the origins of macaroni and cheese – as a dish made by black slaves for white tables, with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook James Hemings. Take a look (and make the recipe).

Michael Twitty’s encyclopedic historical cookbook of African-American Southern cuisine, The Cooking Gene, is coming out in November. You can pre-order it on HarperCollins’ website, linked below.

Mac and Cheese Kugel

The Cooking Gene – HarperCollins


Finally – as I’ve promised back in April and on Flavors of Diaspora’s Facebook page, there will be a herring series! The next few posts will be about herring, particularly pickled and salted, which has played a major role in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine for centuries. The posts will discuss memory and history, but also provide a few recipes with herring. Your humble author also loves pickled herring with a passion, and has written two pieces with herring themes, for New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. Check them out:

“Herring. Yum.”

Eating Breakfast from the Old Homeland Around the World

Turnips with Date Molasses (Shalgham Helu)

Cooked turnips with date molasses
Shalgham helu or shalgham bi-dibs – turnips with date molasses. (Photo mine, June 2016)

I was browsing through Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food the other day and happened upon this delightfully simple and incredibly tasty Iraqi recipe. Shalgham helu – or, as it also seems to be known, maye al-shalgham or shalgham bi-dibs – is simply turnips cooked with silan, also known as dibis, rub, or date molasses. The latter is a syrup, made from dates, that acts as a sweetener in Iraqi cooking. Iraqi Jews frequently use silan in pastries, stews, and with bread – and also in their charoset for Passover. Turnips cooked with date molasses is a common Iraqi dish – and one recipe I found (Hebrew) says that some Iraqi Jews serve this as a dessert.

This dish is two things: incredibly delicious and ridiculously easy. I made this while making something far more complicated and talking to my future roommate on the telephone. The result is spectacular and I may have had some turnip pieces as my midnight snack that night. Even someone just getting started in the kitchen should not have too much trouble with this recipe.

You can buy date molasses at most Middle Eastern or Jewish shops. Many health food stores also carry date syrup.

Shalgham Helu (Turnips with Date Molasses)

Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden

1 ½ pounds small white turnips, peeled

3 tablespoons date molasses (silan)

½ tsp salt

Water

  1. Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
  2. Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
  3. Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
  4. Bring to a boil, then cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the turnips are tender and the liquid has reduced. Serve warm or cold with the “sauce.” (Note: The longer the turnip pieces sit in the sauce, even in a container in the refrigerator, the darker their color becomes.)

Thank you to Lexi Freiman, who participated in User Acceptance Testing of this recipe.

“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

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?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

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?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

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.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

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 kanafeh and baklava are 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 macarons from 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.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)

Shavuot II: Cheesecake!

Me with cheesecake
I’m really excited about this cheesecake. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Mention Shavuot to a Jew in the United States or Canada, and their first response is often “cheesecake.” The holiday associated with dairy foods has now become, for many, only associated with a creamy concoction of cheese, eggs, and sugar, soft and yet mysteriously solid. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for many American Jews the cheesecake on Shavuot matters more than the important event the holiday actually celebrates: revelation. This connection may seem modern, but – as I noted in my last post, when I made cheese and talked about dairy on Shavuot – dairy and this holiday have a long history together, and cheesecake and Jewry also have a long and delicious relationship.

Cheesecake has a long Jewish history spanning the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds – in fact, the longest of any recipe yet profiled on the blog. In Ancient Greece, combinations of flour, fresh cheese, and honey were baked and dried; this recipe was likely known in the Holy Land. (The Priestly Source may himself have eaten this.) Similar desserts were eaten across the Roman Empire, probably including by those Hellenized Jews who sought to assimilate into access to imperial power. Later on, Jews settled in many cheese-eating parts of the world: and so you ended up with Italian Jews making ricotta-based cheesecakes (more on that later), and Ashkenazi Jews – as Claudia Roden notes in her book – absorbing and reimagining the cheesecakes of their non-Jewish neighbors. English Jews before the expulsion of 1290 probably made a cake like the sambocade found in medieval cookbooks; medieval Spanish Jewry probably ate cheesecakes not unlike the quesada pasiega (video in Spanish) still common in Spain today. By the 19th century, cheesecakes were popular Shavuot and festival dishes in many places of the Jewish world.

Three cheesecakes
Cheesecakes, ready to go. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Cheesecake is now considered in many places a “Jewish” food. In Rome, the traditional ricotta-based cassola  and crostata di ricotta (video in Italian) are both recipes that originate in the Jewish quarter of that city. The recipe is based on the Shavuot and Sabbath delicacies of the Sicilian Jews that arrived in Rome after being expelled from their home island in the fifteenth century. Today, the Jewish cheesecake has become a Roman Christmas tradition, one that has even attracted the attention of the New York Times. Across the ocean, in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal, the cream cheese-based cheesecake of North American Jewry is considered a “Jewish” food of the first order – and in the rest of the United States, “real” cheesecake is often “New York, and Jewish.” Indeed, as Joan Nathan notes in Jewish Food in America, cheesecake was first popularized in the United States by Jewish delis in New York.  (In college, the first question one non-Jewish friend asked of me, when he learned I was Jewish, was for a cheesecake recipe.)

Cheesecake on a plate
Eating cheesecake – a bit of the almond base fell off to the side! (Photo mine, June 2016)

For this recipe, I made a simple ricotta cheesecake with an almond base, using the homemade cheese I made for the last post. Of course, you can also use store-bought ricotta and/or quark cheese. One of the great things about ricotta cheesecakes or quark cheesecakes is that you don’t need to have a water bath for them, as you do for the far more delicate cream cheese-based cakes common here in the United States. This means that the recipe is both far quicker to make, and far easier – especially for beginning cooks. The recipe here resembles in some ways the ricotta cheesecakes from Italy I mentioned earlier, and in some ways the quark-based Käsekuchen or sernik common in Germany and Poland. Perhaps it also resembles the cheesecakes of pre-war, pre-Holocaust Lithuania – Fania Lewando’s recipe also uses farmer’s cheese (tsvorekh). The innovation I made is using an almond base. Not only does this provide a wonderful nutty counterpart to the light, sweet cheese – with which the almonds meld wonderfully – but also makes the cake gluten-free. Feel free to make a dough or biscuit crust, like that in the Baked Apple Pudding, but the almonds really do work.

Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base

Almond base:

1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water

1 tbsp butter

2 tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Cheesecake:

1 1/2-2 cups fresh ricotta

1-1 1/2 cups fresh quark cheese (you can also use ricotta only, it should add up to three cups of cheese)

5 eggs

1 cup white sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Butter for greasing the pan.

 

  1. In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400F. Grease the bottom of a 9″ round pan. You can use a springform pan for easier cutting or a normal deep round cake or casserole pan for easy transport.
  3. Press the almond base into the bottom of your pan. Your almond base should be pretty soft and a bit of a paste, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. The almond mix should be evenly distributed.

(Author note: for a thicker base, use 1/2 cup of almonds and a tad more butter and sugar.)
If you are using a dough base, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of dough of about ½ an inch thickness.

  1. Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
  2. Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
  3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set (meaning it no longer jiggles when moved) and the top is browned. Let cool before serving.

The author would like to thank Sara and Lisa Wolovick for assisting in the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe, and Gabi Kirk for User Acceptance Testing, photography, and helping me make this year’s Shavuot cheesecakes.

Shavuot I: Make Your Own Cheese

Shavuot is fast upon us! For those of you who don’t know, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah unto Israel, and the time of the Biblical wheat harvest. Though oft-forgotten in secular American Jewish culture, Shavuot is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, and was one of the three Pilgrimage festivals – along with Pesach and Sukkot. Many traditions exist for Shavuot, including pulling an all-nighter of Jewish study, the tikkun leil, decorating the house and synagogue with flowers, and eating copious amounts of dairy food. It is absolutely my favorite Jewish holiday, not least because my favorite prayer and favorite Biblical text are both read in the holiday’s ritual.

But this blog is about food, not archaic Aramaic prayers or the Biblical injunction against slut-shaming, so let’s return to our topic at hand: dairy. Now, multiple explanations exist for why we eat milk products on Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is like G-d’s way of giving to Jews what a mother’s milk gives to her child. The Song of Songs does call the Torah “honey and milk” that “are under Your (G-d’s) tongue” (4:11). Others argue that it comes from the fact that Mount Sinai is Har haGavnunim in Hebrew, the name of which is similar to gvina – cheese. I prefer a more practical explanation: before modern times, Shavuot was soon after the time of year most cows gave birth to calves, and milk would have been in most plentiful supply at this time in most Jewish societies across the world.

Most Jewish communities, other than those of Yemen and Ethiopia, have various dairy-eating traditions on Shavuot. These tend to revolve around the various forms of cheese and milk products each Jewish cuisine uses. Cheesecake, a very Jewish dish whose history will be discussed in the next post, is common across many Ashkenazi, Italian, and Sephardi communities, and is taken as synonymous with Shavuot in the American Jewish community. Other delights include blintzes in the  Ashkenazi sphere, rice pudding (sütlaç) among Sephardim, and qatayef – very sweet fried and syrup-soaked pancakes – among Syrians. All of these are delicious, and many often involve local forms of soft cheese.

Soft cheese is a very traditionally Jewish thing. Quark cheeses, called tvarog in Russian,  tsvorekh in Yiddish, and gvina levana in Hebrew, is a curd cheese that is often confused with ricotta. It is soft, sweet-tart and slightly tangy, and quite tasty. The cheese comes at various levels of hardness and sweetness – I tend to prefer a softer, tangier quark. Tsvorekh is traditionally used in kugels, blintzes, and on bread. In fact, quark on black bread was one of the most common meals of poor Jews in Lithuania and Poland for centuries. [The same cheese was used for Shavuot.]

Ricotta, that famous soft Italian cheese, is a frequent ingredient in Italian Jewish dishes. Ricotta – which means “twice cooked” in Italian – is actually made from the whey left over from making other cheeses. When you make cheese, it separates into curds – the white stuff that we eat – and whey, the acidic component. (Think of the nursery rhyme.) Whey is cooked again to separate out the curds, and then the curds are strained out and sometimes played around with. Italian Jews traditionally used ricotta both for Hanukkah cheese pancakes, cheesecakes for Shavuot, and with bread year-round.

Both cheeses are ridiculously easy to make and taste quite good. In fact, you can make them both at the same time, as I shall show you below. It’s not an everyday thing, but certainly a fun thing to do when you get the chance. This is how you do it:

How to Make Two Cheeses at Once 

Makes one pound quark cheese (tvarog/tsvorekh/gvina levana), one pound ricotta, and about four cups whey

Refer to pictures at the beginning of the post for parts of the process.

You will need:

Ingredients

1/2 gallon/2 liters milk

1 pint/500 ml heavy cream

1/2 tsp salt

Juice of 2 large lemons

1/2 tsp white vinegar

Equipment

A big soup pot

Two colanders – one should be quite big

A giant bowl

Cheesecloth

Big wooden spoons

  1. Line one of your colanders – the big one – with cheesecloth, and then place over the bowl so that there is a good two-three inches between the bowl floor and the bottom of your colander.
  2. Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
  3. Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
  4. When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
  5. You should notice the milk start to curdle. This is the curds separating from the whey. The curds are the cheesy bit. The whey is the leftovers* from which we will make more cheese.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for five minutes. It will look weird – white clumps and white fluid. This is how we make cheese, do not worry one bit!
  7. Pour the entire mixture into your big, lined colander. Then let sit and have the whey drip out for anything between fifteen minutes and two hours – the longer it sits, the harder your cheese. I go for 30-40 minutes since I like my cheese super soft.
  8. When your time is up, scoop up the cheese in the colander and put into a container, and refrigerate. Don’t throw the whey (liquid below) away! Congratulations! You have made quark cheese! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  9. Now it’s time to make the ricotta. Pour your whey – you should have about six cups – back into the pot, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  10. When the whey is boiling, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the 1/2 tsp of vinegar.* Then leave alone for ten minutes.
  11. You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
  12. Pour the mixture through a colander, preferably a fine-meshed one – with a bowl underneath if you want to save your whey. The curds should collect in the colander right away. Scoop them out into a container and refrigerate. Congratulations! You have made ricotta! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  13. You can save your whey – it is really great for making hearty breads and baked goods when you use it instead of water.

*Traditionally many cooks allow their whey to sit for a few hours to allow it to acidify, which negates the need for additional vinegar. However, this can be a rather smelly process that is not conducive to relaxing cheese-making.