And now, a few mini-posts based on reader contributions! Happy Hanukkah! Though your author does not follow the prevailing American custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah, he does appreciate them.
Next month, we’ll have a guest recipe from Dalya and Adele, friends of the blog in Oxford, for her grandmother’s traditional German-Jewish Potato Salad. As quotidian as it sounds, the salad is absolutely phenomenal: the balance of flavors between sour and earthy, hearty and delicate, and sweet and salty is phenomenal. Like their Gentile neighbors, Jews in Germany took quite a shine to the potato – Kartoffel – in the eighteenth century.
The salad merits a full-length post, but to quell your hunger in the meantime, I found through the Jewish food internet the incredible work of Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and her daughter Sonya Gropman, whose website German Jewish Cuisine is an incredible treasure trove of German Jewish culinary history and Weltanschauung – worldview. Their German Jewish Cookbook is coming out next year and I absolutely cannot wait to buy it. Check the website out here: https://germanjewishcuisine.com/.
A reader from Pittsburgh, Steffi, sent me a fascinating paper about tea and Mormon feminism that she completed in her master’s studies at Chatham University’s Food Studies program. This paper made me realize that many of you have been doing incredible work at school or in your jobs writing about food, thinking about food, and doing the work of studying food. So, if you want some eyes on something you are justly proud of, feel free to send them my way!
Our reader – and my dear friend – Hadassah in the United Kingdom has requested more Yemenite Jewish recipes. Though I have written about Yemenite Jewish foodways in the past – first on samnehand then on hilbeh – I have not made many Yemenite recipes for the blog. Nor do I have much experience with Yemenite Jewish cooking – as rich and multifaceted as it is. In honor of Hanukkah, I turned to the one book I do have on the subject – the Hebrew-language “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore” (Ha-Mitbakh ha-Teimani: Khawaij, Ahavah veFolklor) by Avshalom Mizrahi. The book itself is a fascinating interspersion of discussions of Yemenite Jewish food practice and recipes themselves. In the book I found, for Shavuot and Hanukkah, the appealing zalabye, a sort of Yemenite sfenj:
Zalabye – Fritters – “The Yemenite Sufganiyot”
Originally printed in “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love and Folklore” by Avshalom Mizrahi, translated from the Hebrew by me
Makes ten zalabye
½ kilo/1 lb flour
20 grams yeast
2 cups water
Mix all of the ingredients together: flour, yeast, salt and water until the rough parts in the dough are gone. Heat oil well in a deep frying pan. Roll out the dough into big balls and add into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until brown. The zalabye will not be uniform in shape.
Serve and eat hot. Those with a sweet tooth can add or dip the fritters in sugar or honey.
These fresh, hot fritters are a treat to eat on winter mornings and on the holiday of the giving of the Torah – Shavu’ot.
And, as a bonus, later in the book Professor Mizrahi discusses zalabye again: (also my translation)
Zalabye – Fritters for Hanukkah and Shavuot
The fritters zalabye, though eaten throughout the year (mainly in the time of winter), were one of two components of Jewish festivals. Yemenite Jews treated themselves to eat these “sufganiyot”[-like fritters] on Hanukkah and to be eaten especially for the morning meal on the holiday of the gift of the Torah, Shavuot.
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.
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.
Farfel being browned in butter. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Mixing farfel and chestnut mixture. (Photo mine, December 2016)
The finished kugel before serving. Not the most aesthetically pleasing, but delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)
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.
Farfel Kugel with Chestnuts, Onions, and Apples
8 oz/225g farfel (or another small noodle)
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
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.
Meanwhile, saute the chestnuts, apples, and onion in the other 2 tbsp butter for 3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
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.
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.
Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
Mix the onion-apple-chestnut mixture with the farfel until evenly distributed. Place into an oven-proof dish, greased if necessary with butter.
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.
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.
Chestnuts before roasting. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Chestnuts after roasting, in pan, before peeling. (Photo mine, December 2016)
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!”)
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.
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
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
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp table salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder
3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced (you can leave them unpeeled)
1/3 cup honey
3/4 cup sugar
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
Preheat your oven to 375F/190C.
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.
Scatter a few of the apple chunks at the bottom of a pan.
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.
Pour that mixture on top of the apples at the bottom of the pan.
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.”
As a Jewish food blogger I usually get the same questions. They are about matzoh balls, authenticity, and the food of childhood. Among the more common ones in that last category are requests for two recipes: one for brisket and one for tzimmes. Both are considered classic Ashkenazi home cooking, both are centerpieces of many a festive meal. Readers want to relive their childhoods or feel “authentic” or just eat really good food, and they think of brisket and tzimmes. And until today…I had made neither for this blog.
Brisket is good- and even though I titled a prior blog piece “Beyond Brisket,” I cannot argue with this. Tzimmes is really good – third-helping good, stuff-your-face good, drown-in-prune-and-carrot good. And many recipes…well…they ask, “why not both?”
Meat and onions…
…carrots and apricots and (white!) sweet potato…
Brown that meat!
Everything cooking together (this one still has another hour to go). (Photos mine, September 2016)
This is one of those recipes.
The backstory on tzimmes and brisket begins in medieval Germany, which is in some ways the Urheimat of Ashkenazi culture. There, cooking fruit with meat has been traditional for at least a thousand years, and the original tzimmes – derived from zum essen, “for eating” – was probably a spinoff of another local dish. As Jews migrated eastwards into what is now Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, the dish stuck – and became an institution. Brisket, in or out of tzimmes, was often consumed. It was from an undeniably kosher part of the animal, fatty, and somewhat cheap. That said, the large cut made it not a meat for every Shabbat – but rather one for special occasions. Hence, it became reified – and some would say deified. Today, both tzimmes and brisket have a legendary status in the Ashkenazi mindset. Many consider these dishes – especially the brisket – mandatory for any Jewish holiday celebration, and will be confused should a festive meal not include them. (Every Ashkenazi vegetarian I know has been asked the brisket question.)
I tend to serve dairy meals at festivities: nothing says “celebration” quite like butter. But tzimmes’ sweetness and heartiness makes it an excellent complement to meat – and the fattiness of a brisket or stew meat adds quite a bit of weight to tzimmes. That said, if you do have a dairy meal, a vegetarian tzimmes is still quite a hit.
This tzimmes with meat is a hodgepodge of Polish recipes. A Lithuanian recipe would be less sweet and somewhat more peppery, and feature more turnips and beets. I often use chuck meat, because kosher brisket is expensive and your author is a civil servant. I will be using brisket, however, this Rosh HaShanah.
Tzimmes with Meat
2 tsp salt + 1 tsp more for seasoning
1 tsp pepper + 1 tsp more for seasoning
1.5 lbs (750g) beef chuck or brisket, coarsely chopped
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp white flour
3 cups boiling water
1/4 cup honey
7 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium-large turnip or 1 medium-large potato, peeled and diced
12 dried apricots, soaked in hot water* and chopped into quarters,
12 dried prunes, chopped
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 tsp cinnamon for seasoning (optional)
Vegetable oil or schmaltz
Rub half of the salt and half of the pepper into the beef brisket.
Heat a Dutch oven or deep cast-iron pot. Add oil, then the onions or garlic. Sauté for one minute.
Add the beef and the rest of the salt and pepper. Brown the meat with the onions over medium heat.
Add the flour and mix in thoroughly.
Add the water and stir until the mixture reaches a boil.
Cover and simmer on a low flame for one hour.
Mix in the honey with the meat.
Cook for one minute, then add the carrots, turnip/potato, apricots/prunes, and sweet potato.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for one hour, or until the vegetables have softened and the water has reduced. The sauce should be quite thick. Stir occasionally, and add the salt, pepper, and cinnamon at some point during that hour. You can also bake it for one hour in a 375F/190C oven. Serve hot.**
*You can get away with doing this within fifteen minutes of using the apricots.
** One of my favorite heresies is to serve tzimmes with lokshen (noodles). Delicious!
Thank you to Ziva Freiman and Jeannie Cogill for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
Rosh HaShanah is coming up, and with it, hours upon hours of cooking in Jewish households across the world. The Jewish New Year is a traditionally a time for much feasting and many dishes, and is more generally two days of deliciousness. Over the next few weeks, this blog will feature a few recipes common to Rosh HaShanah and the subsequent holiday of Sukkot.
Hundreds of variations of this dish exist. Even within my own family, three generations disagree on what best constitutes this dish. My grandmother’s recipe has a strong taste of caraway; my mother prefers the dish without any caraway. I myself the additions of both caraway and garlic for a more pungent final product. Others use pepper and vinegar for a sour taste, or raisins for a sweeter one. Across the variations, however, a sweet-and-sour taste is maintained.
On a recent trip to Atlanta, I found a most interesting cookbook in a secondhand bookstore: the 1973 cookbook of the employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book itself is beautiful, and provides a really great insight into what the intellectual class of the 1970’s liked to eat. Some of the recipes are quite quaint to American readers nowadays – think “molded rice” and other wobbly “salads” – and many are quite familiar, such as the Korean Spinach Soup. Yet others are extremely complex, and generally of Continental European origin – even including the infamously difficult Sauerbraten. Among this cornucopia of recipes, I found a not unfamiliar – albeit not kosher – recipe for red cabbage! It is said to be a Hungarian recipe. This version is unusual, however, in that it uses pears, which makes the final product far sweeter. “Sweet and sour” indeed!
The 1973 “A Culinary Collection From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
The red cabbage recipe, by Janos Schulz and Linda Gillies. (Contact me if you would like a transcription.)
I provide my somewhat more garlicky recipe here. This recipe is based on my grandmother’s, which was very heavy on the caraway – a taste, though welcome, which can become quickly overpowering. The garlic and caraway balance each other out well.
Red Cabbage With Apples
Based on the recipe by Annushka Smit Freiman
1 medium-sized white onion, finely diced
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried caraway seeds
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 medium-sized red cabbage, diced
2 medium-sized tart apples (Granny Smith or Antonovka*)
2 tablespoons butter or a vegetable seed oil, for frying
2 cups water
Heat a saucepan or other broad, slightly deep pan on a high heat. Then, add the butter and melt across the pan’s bottom, or add oil and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan.
Add the onions and garlic to the pan and sauté.
When the onions and garlic begin to soften, add the salt, pepper, and thyme. Mix thoroughly into the onions. Sauté for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar.
Once the pan stops sizzling, add the apples and cabbage to the pan and mix thoroughly with the onions, garlic and spices. Then, add the water.
When the water is boiling, reduce the heat to medium and braise for 20-30 minutes, or until the cabbage and apples are soft and the water has reduced. Serve hot.
*If you are so lucky as to have access to Bramley cooking apples – which are easy to find in the United Kingdom but not so much in the United States – you can use one of those large ones instead.
Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
Read the herring series hereand here,and learn how to make chopped herring here.
An unusual and short recipe today – in the course of my research, I learned that herring is, in parts of Germany and Denmark, marinated in beer (link in Danish). This type of recipe yields a dark and yeasty – yet not too fishy – herring, and variants have since spread – even canned – to France, the United Kingdom, and North America. It’s unusual, but it works pretty well – and I have to say my variant, based on a French-language recipe, turned out quite delicious! The saltiness and fishiness of the herring is cut well by the beer, which blends well with the dill and bay leaves to add a wonderfully savory taste.
In recent years, beer has become quite popular as an oneg Shabbat (Sabbath treat) in many American and Canadian Jewish communities – and, not to mention, that Ashkenazi Jews have a long and ancient tradition of brewing and drinking beer. This recipe combines this pleasure with the classic oneg Shabbat of pickled herring.
Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.
I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones. What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?
Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.
After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.
Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia. More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast, and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.
Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.
Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.
And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.
In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.
Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.
“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten
I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.
For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.
We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.
I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).
Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.
I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.
But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”
How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.
And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.
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.
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.