It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”
Chocolate has a long history in Jewish cooking. Of course, cacao and the chocolate it comes from originated in what is now Mexico, and only reached Europe after the Spanish conquest. Despite the Inquisition, Sephardi Jews were involved in the chocolate trade from almost its beginning in Europe, and well-off Jews in the Netherlands were already making and consuming chocolate in the 17th century, and in Italy and the Americas in the 18th. New developments in cocoa processing and production gave us eating chocolate and cocoa powder for baking in the 19th century; Jewish people in Europe and the Americas were involved in early manufacture of both. By the late 19th century, chocolate was still a luxury good, but widespread across Europe, especially in cities; Jewish merchant families and better-off Jewish communities began to incorporate chocolate into baked goods. As a result, the consumption of chocolate quickly became a status symbol. Incorporating a bit of chocolate, even as a paltry glaze or with store-bought candy was a sign of the times and living large. Contemporary recipe books from the United States, Germany, and Lithuania all contain recipes with chocolate in holiday food sections.
One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.
This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authentic” per se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tcha probably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.
Chocolate cake is a mechayeh – something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.
And now, a cake.
I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”
Chocolate Red Wine Cake
Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade
6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)
⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
⅔ cup white sugar
¾ cup red wine
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Oil or butter to grease the pan
- Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
- In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
- Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
- Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
- Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
- Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
- Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.
Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.