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.
So easy! Get some turnips.
Chop them and add date molasses and salt.
Boil them in water.
(Photos mine, June 2016)
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
Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
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.
Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.
This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?
In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.
While looking up recipes for qatayef – which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”
“Too sweet,” you say?
Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?
To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.
But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.
Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafehand baklavaare dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.
Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macaronsfrom a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?
The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.
And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.
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.
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.)
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.
Putting down the base…
…adding the batter…
…baking and maybe I added a preserved fig because yum. (Photos mine, June 2016)
Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base
1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
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)
1 cup white sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Butter for greasing the pan.
In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
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.
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.
Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
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.
…and quark cheese happens! It’s ugly, I know. But yum.
And we boil the whey to make ricotta…(Yes this is kind of gross)
…ricotta, just strained! (Photos mine, June 2016)
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:
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
A big soup pot
Two colanders – one should be quite big
A giant bowl
Big wooden spoons
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.
Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
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.
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.
I’ve written before about kugels on this very blog: these lovely Ashkenazi casseroles that can conjure a whole world of warmth and homeliness for those who grew up with them. The past kugels I have written about are for one sphere of kugel: the dense potato or vegetable kind. The other kind of kugel is what I’m writing about today: the lokshen kugel, or noodle pudding. This kugel has a long history: German Jewish cooks started making kugels in the Sabbath cholent with egg-based noodles during the medieval era, when noodles were introduced to Europe from China and the Arab world. (Fun fact: noodles were already present in Middle Eastern Jewish cooking from antiquity.) Hence the Yiddish word for noodle, lokshen, comes from the Persian lagman, which itself comes from the Chinese lamian – itself the origin of the Japanese word ramen.
By the modern period, the lokshen kugel had morphed into a separate baked dish, savory or sweet. In the United States and South Africa, the latter variety is more common, often served with raisins and baked with an improbable amount of dairy. Among more “assimilated” Ashkenazi Jews in these and other countries, the lokshen kugel is one of the foods that stood the test of cultural change: many of my friends otherwise uninterested in the foods of their ancestors get quite excited when offered a slice of freshly baked kugel. My friends who are not Ashkenazi Jews – be they Sephardi, Mizrahi, or not Jewish – are often somewhat perplexed by the idea of a sweet noodle casserole. “You’ve made a pasta cake!” a Malaysian friend once told me. That said, the popularity of baked savory noodle dishes in the Sephardi and Mediterranean worlds means that the concept, for many, is not that unusual.
This recipe is for a somewhat more traditional variant of the lokshen kugel, with apples and raisins. Other “traditional” recipes may be for a savory “salt and pepper” kugel, or a sweet one with apricots. You can also go down the “non-traditional” route: my friend Maxine makes a delicious kugel with pineapples, and I myself have experimented with the Nutella-esque chocolate and hazelnut combinations. Whatever you do, it will be delicious.
Lokshen Kugel With Apples and Raisins
Makes 2 8-inch/20-centimeter round kugels or one 9×13 rectangular kugel
½ lb short, thin noodles – ideally egg noodles, but any flattish pasta should do
1 ½ cups sour cream
¼ cup melted butter + butter for greasing pan
1 cup white sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp honey
½ cup raisins, soaked for plumpness
1 large apple, cored and chopped
Cook the noodle according to package or other directions to the maximum suggested time – a softer noodle makes a better kugel. Drain and rinse well under cold water.
Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
In the meantime, mix the sour cream, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and honey together until well blended. Add one egg at a time and mix in until you have a consistent, creamy mixture. If your mixture is too thin, add some more sour cream; if it is too thick, add another egg.
In a large bowl, mix together the cooked noodles, apples, and raisins. Then, mix in the sour cream mixture until all the ingredients are blended together.
Decant the mixture into greased pans – I would make either two small eight-inch round kugels, or one 9×13 thick, rectangular kugel. Bake the mixture for 40-45 minutes, or until the custard has set and the noodles on top have caramelized.
Variations: Many people would simply omit the apple and double the raisins. You can swap the apple and raisins for ½ cup ground hazelnuts and 1 cup chocolate chips, for a gianduja/Not-Nutella kugel. You can swap the apples for 2/3 cup dried apricots, chopped and soaked.
A thank-you to Diya Mchahwar and Mara Lasky, who were the User Acceptance Testers for the apple-raisin variant.
For this post, I have an easy recipe for a delicious dessert that will be “gold” in our Pesach of Colors series: matzah kugel with strawberries! This recipe is of my own invention, but matzah kugels originated in 19th-century Germany as a flavorful and easy dish to feed a family – in a festive or ordinary way – during Passover. These kugels also are reminiscent of the Sephardic mina, a matzah pie that is traditional in a meat form among the Jewish communities of the Balkans during Passover. Matzah kugels are popular here in the United States – and, it seems, especially on college campuses. I created my matzah kugel recipe with chocolate and hazelnuts, but this strawberry one – accented with cinnamon, which works! – is even better. There is a vague reminiscence of the very not-Passover-friendly bread pudding, but the crispness of the matzah gives the kugel an entirely different feeling.
This dish, for what it’s worth, also makes an incredible breakfast.
Matzah Kugel With Strawberries
Makes one kugel
6 pieces matzah
1 cup whole milk
2/3 cup white sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
1/2 cups chopped strawberries
Break the matzah into little pieces and soak for 20 minutes in water, or until the matzah is soft and has absorbed the water. Squeeze out a bit of the moisture.
Preheat your oven to 200C/400F. Grease a deep baking pan, about 8 inches/20cm, with butter. The shape does not matter, but I prefer a round pan.
Mix the soft matzah, strawberries, eggs, milk, sugar, and cinnamon in a bowl until thoroughly combined. The matzah pieces should break with your mixing implement. (Ah, soft matzah!)
Pour the mixture into your greased pan, then bake it for 35-40 minutes, or until the kugel has set and is a golden brown on top. It’s good warm or cold, but I prefer the former.
A variation: swap the strawberries for ¾ cup chocolate chips and ½ cup ground hazelnuts. It tastes like Nutella!
A note: those who keep the Ashkenazi tradition of gebrokhts, or avoiding “broken” or soaked matzah – a minority tradition here – will not be able to eat this recipe over Passover. You should know that this recipe really works all year round.
I would like to thank my cousins Dana, Adrian, Lara, and Jonathan for being part of the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
We never celebrated Purim much when I was a child. On years when there is only one month of Adar – the month that Purim is in, which is repeated in leap years – it was the yahrzeit, or death anniversary, of my maternal grandmother. That said, even without the somber occasion, Purim was a bit too…gaudy for my understated parents. The holiday celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire from the machinations of the evil Haman, as narrated in the biblical Book of Esther – named after the heroine of the tale. Historically, this has been a day of much celebration and much drinking. Yet this has somehow morphed in the modern era to a day of mandatory fun masked as chaos, complete with costumes and a lot of yellow. My father hated chaos, my mother hated yellow. Purim was not really a thing in our house.
One memory does stand out from Purim though: poppy seed hamantaschen. Fluffy, triangular cookies, sweet – but filled with the nuttiest, most beguiling poppy seed filling on the inside. I was hooked. Even as my peers went for chocolate chip, apricot, or sprinkle-flavored hamantaschen, I stayed loyal to the poppy seeds. Which, in some ways, is in keeping with history.
Hamantaschen come from the intersection of Jewish folklore and European pastry. On the one hand, filled cookies – and especially those with poppy seeds – were common in the medieval Europe where Ashkenazi cuisine developed. On the other hand, there is the command to simultaneously obliterate the name of the evil Haman (and, metaphorically, Amaleq) while remembering what he did! At some point, the cookies, which may have been called Mohntaschen in German (poppy-pockets) became Haman-tashen, Yiddish for Haman’s pockets. And thus the humble hamantasch was born.
I have attached two recipes here: one for my poppy seed filling (the mohn), and one for the hamantaschen more generally. You can, of course, also fill your hamantaschen with other things: apricot, prune, and berry jams are traditional fillings, and I have been known to make Nutella ones. (This year, I’m making quince hamantaschen with the jam I made this past November.) The poppy seed filling goes very well in a cake. Do note that this poppy seed filling is especially strong.
Poppy Seed Filling(Mohn)
Makes about two cups (I usually make a double batch)
3 tbsp butter
1 cup milk
One egg, beaten
2 tbsp shlivovitz or other brandy
5/8 cup white sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 ½ tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water
¾ cup poppy seeds*
In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter.
When the butter is melted, add the milk and bring to a boil.
When the milk is boiling, reduce the flame. Take a bit of hot milk out of the pan and mix into the beaten egg to temper it. Then, add the egg, shlivovitz, sugar, and cinnamon to the pan and mix in thoroughly.
Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring continuously to prevent the mixture from burning.
Once the mixture is boiling, add the cornstarch and water and mix in thoroughly. Boil until the mixture is thick.
Add the poppy seeds and mix in thoroughly, or until the mixture is dark. Remove from heat and allow to cool and set, preferably refrigerated.
*Author’s note: though it is traditional to grind the poppy seeds, I actually prefer to leave them whole – it adds a wonderful nutty flavor to the filling.
5 1/2 cups white flour (sifted)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
Have some filling on hand – look above for a mohn recipe. I also recommend a good, thick jam. Such as my quince jam!
Mix the dry ingredients together until thoroughly mixed.
Cut the water and oil into the dry ingredients and mix together – with your hands, a big fork, or a pastry cutter – until you get a dense dough. Cover and set aside for a while – I recommend refrigerating the dough overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C.
When you are ready to make your hamantaschen, roll out your dough to between 1/8” and ¼” of an inch thick (about 4-7mm thick) – I recommend a slightly thicker hamantasch. Cut the hamantaschen into circles of about 3 inches/7cm in diameter.
Place no more than a teaspoon of filling into the center of each Then fold the edges of the circle over the center of the filling to make and seal the triangle. I recommend this order:
Lift the left-hand flap of the cookie and fold over the filling.
Then, fold the right hand flap over the filling, and push down a bit over where the right hand flap overlaps the left-hand one.
Now, fold over the bottom flap. Have it fold over the right hand flap, but under the left hand one, and push down on the overlaps. This seals the cookie.
A shorter post this week. Some of you have requested apareve dessert recipe: many of you serve meat (as is the custom) at your Friday night dinners, and want a dessert that can be served with a kosher meat meal. There are many wonderful dairy-free dessert recipes – though, admittedly, finding one can seem challenging in a culture where “dessert” has become nigh-synonymous with “dairy.”
This orange-semolina biscuit recipe is delicious and unusual – rosemary is a key star here. It also is a refreshing and light pareve dessert option.
This recipe is my creation, but it incorporates semolina – an ingredient with a long Jewish history. Semolina is made from purified coarse wheat middlings, a product produced while making flour from durum wheat. The use of semolina is common across the Mediterranean – you may be familiar with it from making pasta or couscous; in the Middle East, it is a common ingredient in breads and desserts alike. (Including your correspondent’s very favorite dessert, galaktoboureko.) Semolina has been consumed by Jews since antiquity: it is mentioned as
“fine flour” in the Book of Kings as being part of King Solomon’s provisions;it is also referenced at several points in the Talmud. Since then, semolina has been a frequent starring ingredient in the Jewish cuisines of Iraq and Turkey. Most famous perhaps is kubbeh – little filled dumplings of semolina that are as delightfully soft and yummy as a matzah ball. Elsewhere, semolina found its way into dessert cakes – such as the Sephardi shamali– and soups, such as the semolina soups served in both Moroccan and German traditions.
The inclusion of semolina in this cookie is a nod to this tradition – and the dense semolina balances out the oranges’ sweet, light flavor. Rosemary brings out the freshness of the oranges. I was introduced to the idea of baking with rosemary by my friend Yael – and though unusual, it really adds something quite magical to a citrus dessert. Even in the dead of winter, rosemary makes a cookie or cake feel summery and sunny.
Orange Semolina Biscuits with Rosemary
distantly based on a recipe by Yael Wiesenfeld
1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar
zest of two medium-sized oranges (about 1/4 cup – zest beforejuicing your oranges)
juice of two medium sized oranges (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/4 tsps dried rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water (or brandy*)
1 packet instant yeast
3/4 cup semolina flour
1 1/4 cups white all-purpose flour
1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line a 9″x9″ (23cmx23cm) pan with parchment paper. (You can grease it with oil, but the risk of your cake being difficult to remove increases greatly.)
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the zest and sugar. You can use a whisk or spoon.
3. Add the orange juice, olive oil, rosemary, and salt to the zest sugar, and mix thoroughly until combined.
4. Add the water/brandy and yeast and mix in thoroughly.
5. Add the semolina and mix in thoroughly – until the grains are invisible. Because semolina is thick, I recommend adding it 1/4 cup at a time to avoid clogging your whisk or spoon.
6. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time and mix in thoroughly. At the end, you should have a thick batter. If your batter is too thick and getting doughy, add a tablespoon or two of water. If your batter is too thin, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.
7. Pour the batter into your parchment-lined pan and spread evenly.
8. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool.
9. Now, the fun part. Lift the entire “big biscuit” out of the pan and place on a cutting board, and slice into squares about 2 1/4 inches”x2 1/4 inches (about 6cmx6cm.) You should get sixteen biscuits or so. You can slice bigger or smaller as needed; I often do about 1 1/2 inches x 1 1/2 inches to make cute little biscuits. I recommend slicing the big biscuit into quarters first to have a more manageable slicing process, and to more easily create even and “pretty” biscuits.
10. The biscuits keep in sealed containers at room temperature for up to four days. I recommend serving the biscuits with hot tea.
*Note: if you want a fluffier cookie, swapping the water for brandy provides additional sugar for the yeast to react with, and also makes for a slightly sweeter final product.
So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.
So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)
Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach.P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.
Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.
So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes andtaiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.
Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.
This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or Jerusalem kugel from my directions.
I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!
Baked Apple Pudding
Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles
Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.
2 cups white, sifted flour
8 oz (one stick) butter, softened
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp granulated sugar
3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)
¼ cup raisins
Zest of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Butter, to grease the pan
Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan
Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds
Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!
As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too. Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….
One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!
And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.
How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains
…to chopped plantains…
…to frying plantains…
…to almost fried plantains…
…to fried plantains.
Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)