This is the first of what will be three posts about babka.
My mother’s friend Abby says that babka is a ghost that will haunt you until it is eaten. In this case, I prefer many exorcisms. I love babka.
Too bad that it’s a pain to make.
A sweet yeasted dough, twisted and wrapped around a filling of chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or fruit and perhaps sweet cheese. Sounds simple, right? In fact, it is not. Sweet yeasted dough is quite difficult to work with, and wrapping it around the filling is always my downfall. (My hand-eye coordination, to quote my boyfriend, is “erratic.”) As it happens, bakeries sometimes do a very good job with their babka. I am more than happy to fork over some money and enjoy the babka without the anxiety.
Babka is, in fact, a very common food that people will only ever savor store-bought. Jewish bakeries across the world specialize in the Ashkenazi treat. Haredi bakeries in Jerusalem make “Krantz cake” – an alternate name for babka – that people from all walks of Israeli life travel from across the country for. The beautiful bite of the dough and the coy sweetness of the filling is a triumph. Breads in New York has become famous for their babka, which seems to elicit joy everywhere. (Note: I believe that all properly-made babkas cause joy.) In any case, Breads’ perfectly textured babka is divine. I have seen visitors from out of town bee-line to Breads for babka before going anywhere else in the city. And of course, one cannot forget supermarket babkas. As dowdy as these can be, some brands’ babkas are perfectly tasty and delectably un-shareable. A few readers have mentioned the Trader Joe’s babka as their ideal babka, but I am more partial to Green’s obscenely swirly chocolate babka.
Of course I want to make my own babka. A plum jam and cottage cheese babka will never be mass market in a country rightly obsessed with chocolate babka. Yet it is so delicious – especially when you hit a plum and a gob of cheese right by a doughy bit. Divine! The braiding is beautiful, and making a babka is really the height of Ashkenazi balabostakeit. I should try it out! But I am also a klutzy graduate student with limited time and even more limited hand-eye coordination. I refuse to only have babka as often as I can make it.
So I have no shame in buying from a bakery. In fact, that has been done for generations. Now, babkas have long been in the repertoire of Ashkenazi home cooking – especially as Jewish communities, like neighbors, used leftover bread dough for the task. However, making babka – and actually, challah and bread generally, was hard work then, as it is now. It also used relatively expensive ingredients, which is why both were reserved for a Sabbath treat. Many people did not have the time or energy, and one of the promises of America or Canada was the prosperity to have a treat like that – and pay someone else to make it. Babkas were a frequent feature of bakeries that opened up across Jewish neighborhoods in New York in the early 20th century – and continue to be a feature at remaining bakeries today. Having a babka that’s not “homemade” is a tradition.
Enough rambling. I want to know: what’s your favorite babka?
My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
Shana tova u-metuqah! Happy New Year! As an advance notice, I am going to be posting a little bit less in the start of 5779. I am applying for urban planning school, and need to focus on applications. That said, you should still see some updates from me! And I could not let the holiday season go by without at least one post.
So as some of you know, fish heads are traditional in many Jewish communities for Rosh Hashanah. Like so many other Jewish food traditions, it is a pun. Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the year,” and the fish head symbolizes that we are at the start of the year. Fish are also traditionally a sign of parnasa, prosperity, in many Jewish legends. So the fish head symbolizes that we should be at the head of our luck and prosperity in the year. That is the simple explanation. In a historical context, we probably picked up this tradition from pagan and Christian neighbors in Europe and the Middle East in the early, pre-Islamic Middle Ages. Many food traditions then (and now) were iconographic: people ate in a way that imitated what was commemorated. Another culture probably had a fish head tradition, and we adoped it.
Fish heads also happen to be year-round food for some Jews. Including me, and my grandmother. No, we are not from communities where fish heads are celebrated fare, such as the Kerala Jewish communities or some Turkish communities. My grandmother is a South African Jew who grew up in the Afrikaans-speaking countryside outside of Cape Town, where fish was plentiful and part of everyday life. In Afrikaans, the word for fish head is viskop. Viskoppe are at once a very rustic food – associated with fishermen and down-home meals in fishing towns – but also refined, and elegant, and symbolic of the Cape. Jews happily adopted eating fish heads, in all sorts of ways – like anything South African, there is no one recipe for it. My family is among them.
My grandmother is 91, and still insists on making fish heads whenever I visit. I tell her she does not have to, but it will happen anyway. (After all, she is also making them for herself.) My grandmother is a happy user of industrial foods, and has recently embraced sweet chili sauce as her preferred seasoning for her fish heads. It is delicious. It is perhaps not authentic, but it would not be out of place in South Africa, where the so-very-irritating fetish for authenticity is thankfully not indulged. I have also had fish heads made by her over the years with a variety of seasonings. Find what works for you. But take my grandmother’s advice: get a fresh fish head, preferably salmon, from the fishmonger. Do not use any old fish head, and make sure that it is very fresh. And enjoy it!
My Grandmother’s Fish Heads
All measures are to taste.
Take a big fish head, preferably salmon. Have the fishmonger cut it in half for you.
Wash the fish heads, and trim off any excess gunk.
Oil a baking tray and lay the fish heads on top.
Chop some cherry tomatoes and lay them around and on top of the fish.
Pour over the fish some sweet chili sauce and some vegetable oil. Make sure the fish is coated! (I also add some salt.) If you want to do it without sweet chili sauce, I would add some red pepper flakes and honey, and perhaps some vinegar over the fish.
Bake in a hot oven (~400F/200C) or a hot toaster oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is cooked.
I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.
My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.
We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.
Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.
We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.
What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.
In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?
For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nationis spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.
I have wanted, for a long time, to research how people figured out which foods were safe to eat. How were unsafe foods found? How were necessary preparations found? It is a huge topic, and my hubris became clear rather soon. There are scientists who have spent their entire lives figuring this out.
Even then, I have now spent a few weeks down the rabbit hole of poisonous food, poisons, and food. The big thing is that the historical study of food poisoning is completely bonkers. For example: we find a lot of early pottery that sort of looks like a colander. Turns out the items were used to make cheese, which is one of the first safe ways people had to eat milk. Before then, people would eat milk and get really sick, from lactose intolerance. But diarrhea when you are malnourished is dangerous, and people died. Cheese saved lives. Later, lactose tolerance became a more common genetic mutation in Europe and India. This was probably because that in resource scarce areas, where milk was one of the only reliable foods, people who could not digest it died. Then there are other mysteries. Corn was bred from teosinte grass in what is now Central Mexico several thousand years ago. At some point, ancient Mesoamericans figured out how to soak the corn in various alkaline substances. This process, nixtamalization, makes corn more nutritious and flexible. The initial moment was very likely an accident. But later “research” was probably toxic at times – too much alkaline, or not enough washing afterwards. Alkaline substances are sometimes fine for you. There were also certainly instances when someone burned the wrong tree for ash, with terrible consequences. This goes toward the major theme of a lot of what I read: what happens later.
Something that has struck me is how often people die after we know what foods are safe. Mushrooms are one example. We know that some mushrooms are poisonous, and they look like safe mushrooms. There are details that distinguish them. These were important things to learn in communities that relied heavily on foraging. (Communities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans foraged through modern times.) This knowledge was mostly transmitted orally through folk tales and folk wisdom. The knowledge was not always right! People were confident, forgetful, or rushed to assuage hunger or finish the day’s work. And people died. Elderly people, disabled people, and young children were most at risk. When even a mouthful of a deadly mushroom can destroy one’s kidneys, those most at risk died. People of all ages and bodies died, though, centuries after it became common knowledge that a mushroom could be deadly. Monarchs died, composers died, and countless ordinary people died. Even now, many people die from relying on folk legends about mushrooms, such as the idea that all deadly mushrooms are brightly colored. We also have known for millennia that ergot can render rye and barley dangerously unsafe. Yet it still ends up in flour – often under conditions of hunger – and was responsible for several medieval epidemics. Today, occasional incidents still pop up. And let us not forget the people who eat fish that is plainly rotten, drink raw milk despite the risks we know, and consume unwashed salad greens, e. coli and all.
You may have noticed that I switched into the present tense. This is a current topic: people still die from food poisoning every day. Besides, more than half of all food poisoning comes from food prepared at home. Obviously, this is relevant now. Our concern about restaurant safety needs to come alongside giving people the knowledge and tools to prepare food safely at home. Methods include an accessible kitchen, simpler and less risky food, or industrial food. But it also is important from a historical perspective. Until recently, almost all people mostly ate food prepared in domestic settings. The risk then was from the family hearth. The food that killed people was the peasant food, the mother’s food, and the grandmother’s cooking of yesteryear. This is where that oral knowledge comes in – and where it was forgotten.
In the Jewish world, this is no different. Deadly food is mentioned in the Bible. In II Kings 4, the prophet Elisha throws some flour into a pot of gourds and herbs to ward off “death.” Scholars now think that the plant mentioned is colocynth, whose flesh can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Flour may reduce the distress. The story is didactic: that some of G-d’s creations can kill you. In the Holy Land with sweet and toxic oleander, and colocynth with poisonous flesh and edible seeds, this was important and life-saving knowledge.
Later Jewish communities had to deal with the dangers of their local environments. In Europe, one found deadly mushrooms, dairy products made with rotting milk, and badly brewed alcohol. In the Middle East, you had the risks of oleander, colocynth, and algal blooms in the sea. Adulterated or diseased grain was a threat everywhere. Many Jewish foodies have embraced a romantic history of Jewish food. We rue lost traditions of food preservation and certain delicacies and ties to the land. And while the traditions are beautiful and worth keeping, it is also important to remember why our grandparents embraced industrial foods. Homemade killed, and food was risky. Abundant, relatively safe food was the promise that pushed immigration. The idea of clean, Jewish food contributed to the rise of Zionism. The search for safe bread motivated Bundist movements in Europe and leftist Jewish movements in the Middle East. Food was, and is, life.
Death and deadly foods are a glaring omission from romantic histories of food. I get that it is not fun to think about the food that kills people. A food activism that focuses on yesteryear why we have to go forwards, not backwards. We are all familiar with the horrors of industrial food, but let us take a moment to remember the horrors it reduces. People died trying to figure out what we can eat, and people die figuring out what they are able to eat. Should we not avoid meeting our fate at dinner too?
Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.
Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones– blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.
That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.
That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka – both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrew – lesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.
That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.
That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.
That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.
And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.
There are some Ashkenazi Jewish dishes that I can easily explain to people who are not familiar with that style of cooking. Kneidlach are a classic case of “carbs in soup,” latkes are giant hash browns, and even p’tchais a sort of 1950s aspic, but far older. (And generally tastier.) Cabbage soups make sense in many cultures, as do soft and sweet breads like challah. But then there are the ones that find confusion among Americans – the pickled herring and poppy seed filling, for example. But none have caused quite as many perplexed looks as kasha varnishkes – roasted buckwheat groats with noodles.
“What is buckwheat?” “Is that a health nut thing?” “You eat grains with noodles?”
…after roasting (photos mine, May 2017)
Kasha varnishkes is a delicious dish – nutty and savory, with hints of carbohydrate sweetness and a touch of tannin from the buckwheat. Though it has dropped off the mainstream radar in recent years, other than a reference in Seinfeld, it is still a treasured treat for many Jews. The dish itself has a fascinating history. Kasha, or buckwheat, has been present in Jewish cooking since the 12th century, when Mongol and Tatar invaders introduced buckwheat to Eastern Europe from Siberia and China. The plant – grain-like, but botanically not a grass like wheat – was well-adapted to the climate of northeastern Europe, and quickly became a mainstay of the local diet. The groats were usually roasted for better flavor, easier digestion, and longer storage time – roasted groats can keep for months in cool and dry spaces. Kasha varnishkes initially began as vareniki, or pierogi, stuffed with buckwheat. However, the dish soon became buckwheat with onions and strips of pasta, which skipped the laborious process of stuffing the dumplings. In the United States, the recipe then became popular with bowtie pasta, made initially in imitation of the Italian farfalle. Today, kasha varnishkes is almost always made with this pasta.
Cooking the roasted buckwheat groats!
Mushrooms, onions, and garlic – Ashkenazi goodness.
Mushrooms, onions, and garlic – cooked. (Photos mine, May 2017)
In this preparation, I made the kasha varnishkes with mushrooms. Kasha with mushrooms is another Jewish recipe with a long history – it was a particular favorite in pre-war Lithuania. Today one does not encounter kasha varnishkes with mushrooms too often in Jewish spaces, but the meatiness of the mushrooms complements the buckwheat quite well. Alone this dish is a delicious meal – especially with an egg – but it also makes a wonderful side dish.
Kasha Varnishkes with Mushrooms
2 cups buckwheat groats
1 lb bowtie pasta
1 lb white mushrooms, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil, schmaltz, or butter
If your buckwheat groats are not roasted, roast the buckwheat groats first. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C, and lay out the groats flat on a cookie sheet or a big pan. Roast the groats for 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oven.
Cook the bowtie pasta according to package instructions – generally speaking, about nine minutes in briskly boiling salted water. Set aside.
In the meantime, heat a pan. Add oil, and then the onions and garlic. Sauté for a minute or until the onions begin to soften.
Add the mushrooms, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the onion-garlic mixture. Sauté for another five to ten minutes, stirring regularly, or until the mushrooms have softened. When the mushrooms are soft and the onions very soft, remove from the heat.
In the meantime, bring four cups of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the buckwheat groats. Simmer, stirring regularly, for ten minutes, or until the buckwheat has absorbed all the water and is soft to the tooth.*
Mix the components together: pasta, buckwheat, and the mushroom mixture. They should be evenly distributed. I mix the pasta and mushrooms first, then the buckwheat. Serve hot or warm.
*Some people claim that coating the groats in beaten egg helps them not to stick together. I counter that if your buckwheat is too sticky, you have added too much water. Besides, fluffing with a fork is a very easy way to fix this problem.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
BONUS: For another great variation on kasha varnishkes, check out The Gefilte Manifesto‘s version with crisp Brussels sprouts!