Please Shut Up About Authenticity

I hate authenticity, and I especially hate it when people ask me about it. Sometimes it is in the form of a compliment – my blog is “so authentic” or has so many “authentic” recipes! Others critique me for things like having a recipe for quince jam but not one for brisket. The blog is not “authentic” enough – a coded way too often of saying “Ashkenazi” enough. And some just ask for my most “authentic” recipe. This all irritates me, because authenticity is just such a boring performance, and a race for the lowest common denominator. It is also deeply problematic and tied with the same dangerous nostalgia, even if more distantly, that got Trump elected. (Indeed, this post’s timing is not accidental.) I write this blog for good food and good history, not to make my Jewishness a product that can be certified as the most Jewish. And besides, one simple fact is at the heart of why authenticity sets my teeth on edge:

Authenticity does not make food Jewish. Please shut up about authenticity.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah: deeply Jewish, but another Eastern European egg bread. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

You speak of “authentic” Jewish food. But what makes a food Jewish? A Jewish food is nothing more than a dish or an item or an ingredient that finds itself part of the common memory of a Jewish community, tied to other parts of Jewish culture, and/or referent to the Jewish faith. It is not essentially Jewish, and it is not Jewish to the core. This could be a celebratory dish, or an ordinary dish, kosher or trefah, but it is Jewish. This definition is admittedly an uncomfortable one – I myself cannot wrap my head around any Jewish dish with bacon – but it is the closest thing to Jewish food we’ll get. Foods become Jewish – just think of Wiener Schnitzel, the German middle-class cutlet turned into Israeli street food. Foods are shared – and hence I tire of the hummus wars that are really the province of competing nationalisms skirting around the unmistakable bogeymen of foreign influence and the truly unknown. And Jewish foods become universal – which anyone who has found frozen bagels in a rural Midwestern grocery store can attest to. Authenticity is not a defining factor of the Jewishness of food, it is simply something attached to it. Maybe authenticity makes the food sell, maybe authenticity allows you to make fun of your neighbors, when it probably makes you feel better about yourself.

Pihtije
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

But here’s the thing: the only thing eating p’tcha – the Ashkenazi calf’s foot aspic – definitely does to you is it makes you someone who eats p’tcha. The dish is definitely Jewish – and if I may say, delicious – and is tied to memories of communities and is deeply tied to Jewish history. But you’re not more Jewish for eating it, and p’tcha is only authentic insofar as you ignore the Turkic origins of the aspic, or the fact that every Central European, Eastern European, and Balkan culture has some variant of chilled foot jelly: Serbian pihtije, Hungarian kocsonya, Ukrainian kholodets, Turkish soğuk paça. The authenticity is about you and what you want alone.

And, of course, authenticity is about power. Too often a complaint about authenticity is a complaint that we are not adhering to the relentless centering of Jewish narratives around a white, whitewashed Ashkenazi experience. Even in rebellion – be it in Yiddishism or Zionism – the focus on the “authentic” is still, despite other value, a focus on that which can be performed as European. And, despite the ravages of the Israeli state on Yiddish culture or the very real anti-Semitism here, Ashkenazi culture still benefits from power within the Jewish world. So authenticity becomes a gatekeeper – such that an African-American Jew’s perfectly delicious and perfectly Jewish, not to mention perfectly heimish, collard greens for Shabbat are simply “not authentic.” Is it really that something prepared for the honor of Shabbat is not authentic? Or is it not the Jewishness we think should be performed?

Quinces being candied
Quinces being candied for future use in pastries. Someone told me that this was not authentic enough. I guess more quinces for me. (Photo mine, November 2015)

Besides, authenticity makes for terrible Jewish cooking and terrible Jewish history. I have already outlined why this is terrible Jewish history, but I would also wager that our ancestors in Vilnius, Cordoba, and Baghdad would laugh to the point of wheezing at their descendants’ obsession and puritanical concern for the authentic. Jewish cooking has always been enriched by their neighbors’, simply because you only got to eat a lot of that food a few times a year. Until recently, food was drab and grim for most people most of the time, even if wondrous preserved foods could sustain communities for months. Exotic ingredients from afar and new techniques closer to home not only promised honor to the festivals and occasions that meant eating well, but new ways to nourish appetites long since tired of “ordinary food.” Authenticity, to eat only what your group produced, to fit 19th-century boxes of Nation and Folk, was so anachronistic. Mixing and matching within the bounds of kashrut were the mark of eating Jewishly, and eating well.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring, much of it purchased by Jews. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews have always skirted the boxes of nation, ethnicity, and religion: we are an entity that defies easy categorization. Zionism sought to fit us into the box of nation, Bundism into ethnicity, the Ottoman millet system into religion. All have failed to capture, though, the fact that Jews and Jewish culture are defined in an ever-evolving dialogue, and that extends to food as well. To firmly establish Jewish cuisine as a set table is to declare that we are what precisely we are not. We also defy authenticity, and that is something to take pride in. This fact, perhaps, hearkens back to why precisely 19th-century European nationalists were so frightened by Jews: that we made short shrift of every romantic narrative attached to material culture. That includes food – our tables have always been shared.

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles
The Book of Jewish Cookery, from 1874, contains many German and British recipes that readers today would find “inauthentic.” I say: fabulous.

A lot of the food I make on this blog, and will continue to make, happens to be “authentic.” But there is nothing authentic about this blog. I insist on a Jewish food history that recognizes where we have borrowed and learned from our neighbors, and recognizes where we have taught them. You cannot begin to narrate the history of Jewish food without the borrowing, and we also gave many things to our Gentile compatriots – recipes for duck in Poland, fennel and coffee in Italy, or slow-cooked stews in Spain. Our concern about authenticity is that we do not look like any of the other false nationalisms with the fake authentic cuisine. And that’s a beautiful thing. We have defied boxes ever since someone tried to make them. I will make hamantaschen and I will fill them with heretical sprinkles, and they will be just as Jewish. Authenticity is about insecurity, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about whiteness and class, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about fitting us into a box. I intend on cooking Jewishly, and whiteness and insecurity should not be celebrated parts of Jewish life. And I will not place Jewish food into a box.

We do not need to “make Jewish food great again.” We need to resist Trumpism and keep eating Jewishly, whatever that means to us. To make Jewish food about authenticity is to fall into the same trap that got us into Trump, that got us into a violent state in Israel, that got us into so much acrimony in the Jewish community: it’s about your whiteness or power or insecurity. And not about the fact that authenticity is really a bullshit concept that is too often used to excuse terrible cooking. Cook to eat and if you can, cook to eat well. Food should feed your body and soul, not build walls. And Jewish food can do so much better than build walls – it feeds a group that has defied all the walls yet built around it.

So, please, shut up about authenticity.

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. Enjoyed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike without authentic kitsch for centuries. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons and Hebrew Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

 

Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Happy New Year! Let us hope that 2017 is less terrible than 2016.

Lentil soup with a challah roll.
Lentil soup with a challah roll. Ugly but delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)

Lentil soup is one of the oldest Jewish dishes – it is probably the “pottage” mentioned during the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis, and we have recipes from ancient Greece that may date back as far as the second millennium BCE. It has remained a “classic” – and one that I was recently asked to make.

Red lentils
Red lentils. (Photo Brian Snelson via Flicker/CC, February 2007)

The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.

I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.

Enjoy!


Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Serves 12-25

Vaguely based on the recipe of Esther Katz

2 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

2 tablespoons table salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon sumac

1 teaspoon za’atar

1 teaspoon fenugreek (dried seeds or ground)

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon vinegar (rice wine or apple cider should do)

13oz/370g canned diced tomatoes (about one medium-sized can)

1 large turnip, peeled and diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups vegetable stock (you can use water)

2 cups dried green or brown lentils

1/3 cup dried split peas

1 cup rice (sweet brown or another short-grain rice is best)

1 tbsp rosemary, chopped if fresh

 

2-3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

8-10 cups water

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated cheese for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large, deep soup pot, sauté the leeks in olive oil until they begin to wilt and soften, about two minutes.
  2. Add the salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, thyme, sumac, za’atar, fenugreek, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for another minute or until the leeks are uniformly soft.
  3. Add the vinegar and stir in thoroughly. Then, add the tomatoes and stir in thoroughly. Cook for another minute, stirring throughout.
  4. Add the turnip and garlic and mix in thoroughly with the tomato mixture. Then, add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the lentils, split peas, and 8-10 cups water. Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are thoroughly cooked and the water has reduced slightly. The turnips should also be soft to the fork or tooth.
  7. Stir in the rice and the rosemary and another cup of water. Simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the rice is soft. The soup should be quite thick.
  8. Turn off the flame and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Then, serve hot with salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of grated cheese. The soup tastes best on the second day.

 

Thank you to Jay Stanton and Julia Clemons for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Apple Honey Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Apple Honey Cake

loosely based on a recipe by Esther Back

Gluten version

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

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 cups flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp baking powder

 

Gluten-free version

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

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

4 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2.5 cups buckwheat flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

 

Vegetable oil for greasing your pan

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

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

Red Cabbage With Apples

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.

Red cabbage with apples, cooking in the pan
Red cabbage with apples, cooking in the pan – the delicious smell had already taken over the apartment! (Photo mine, August 2016)

One of the “classic” dishes in the Ashkenazi tradition is cabbage with apples. It is made from simple, accessible ingredients, and exhibits the sweet-and-sour combination frequently found in much of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Though not as celebrated as chicken soup, kugel, or even tzimmes, the dish is a recognizable one for many Ashkenazi families. Similar recipes exist across Central and Eastern Europe – from Hungary to Germany to Finland. Cabbage, after all, was a winter mainstay for centuries in this part of the world. The combination is so common, in fact, that it is apparently referenced in a video-game called Skyrim. (I ask my readers who are gamers to confirm this.)

Red cabbage and apples, served with fenugreek-spiced rice.
Red cabbage and apples, served with fenugreek-spiced rice. (Photo mine, August 2016)

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!

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 and onions, just beginning their cooking process
Red cabbage and onions, just beginning their cooking process. (Photo mine, August 2016)

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

  1. 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.
  2. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and sauté.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

“Yagdes!” And the Jam That They Become

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strawberry-Blueberry Jam

makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied

 

1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed

14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

1 cup white sugar

3/4 cup water

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

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

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

Lokshen Kugel

I’ve written before about kugels on this very blog: these lovely Ashkenazi casseroles that can conjure a whole world of warmth and homeliness for those who grew up with them. The past kugels I have written about are for one sphere of kugel: the dense potato or vegetable kind. The other kind of kugel is what I’m writing about today: the lokshen kugel, or noodle pudding. This kugel has a long history: German Jewish cooks started making kugels in the Sabbath cholent with egg-based noodles during the medieval era, when noodles were introduced to Europe from China and the Arab world. (Fun fact: noodles were already present in Middle Eastern Jewish cooking from antiquity.) Hence the Yiddish word for noodle, lokshen, comes from the Persian lagman, which itself comes from the Chinese lamian – itself the origin of the Japanese word ramen.

By the modern period, the lokshen kugel had morphed into a separate baked dish, savory or sweet. In the United States and South Africa, the latter variety is more common, often served with raisins and baked with an improbable amount of dairy. Among more “assimilated” Ashkenazi Jews in these and other countries, the lokshen kugel is one of the foods that stood the test of cultural change: many of my friends otherwise uninterested in the foods of their ancestors get quite excited when offered a slice of freshly baked kugel. My friends who are not Ashkenazi Jews – be they Sephardi, Mizrahi, or not Jewish – are often somewhat perplexed by the idea of a sweet noodle casserole. “You’ve made a pasta cake!” a Malaysian friend once told me. That said, the popularity of baked savory noodle dishes in the Sephardi and Mediterranean worlds means that the concept, for many, is not that unusual.

This recipe is for a somewhat more traditional variant of the lokshen kugel, with apples and raisins. Other “traditional” recipes may be for a savory “salt and pepper” kugel, or a sweet one with apricots. You can also go down the “non-traditional” route: my friend Maxine makes a delicious kugel with pineapples, and I myself have experimented with the Nutella-esque chocolate and hazelnut combinations. Whatever you do, it will be delicious.

Lokshen kugel with apples and raisins.
Lokshen kugel with apples and raisins. Photo mine, May 2016.

Lokshen Kugel With Apples and Raisins

Makes 2 8-inch/20-centimeter round kugels or one 9×13 rectangular kugel

 

½ lb short, thin noodles – ideally egg noodles, but any flattish pasta should do

1 ½ cups sour cream

¼ cup melted butter + butter for greasing pan

1 cup white sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp honey

4 eggs

½ cup raisins, soaked for plumpness

1 large apple, cored and chopped

  1. Cook the noodle according to package or other directions to the maximum suggested time – a softer noodle makes a better kugel. Drain and rinse well under cold water.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  3. In the meantime, mix the sour cream, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and honey together until well blended. Add one egg at a time and mix in until you have a consistent, creamy mixture. If your mixture is too thin, add some more sour cream; if it is too thick, add another egg.
  4. In a large bowl, mix together the cooked noodles, apples, and raisins. Then, mix in the sour cream mixture until all the ingredients are blended together.
  5. Decant the mixture into greased pans – I would make either two small eight-inch round kugels, or one 9×13 thick, rectangular kugel. Bake the mixture for 40-45 minutes, or until the custard has set and the noodles on top have caramelized.

Variations: Many people would simply omit the apple and double the raisins. You can swap the apple and raisins for ½ cup ground hazelnuts and 1 cup chocolate chips, for a gianduja/Not-Nutella kugel. You can swap the apples for 2/3 cup dried apricots, chopped and soaked.

A thank-you to Diya Mchahwar and Mara Lasky, who were the User Acceptance Testers for the apple-raisin variant.

Great Books: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, by Bee Wilson

Bread pudding
Bread pudding – a childhood favorite, but also reflective of foods commonly given young children. (Photo mine, February 2016)

“To anticipate pleasure in the next meal – something that can take up the greater part of the day, in my experience – is always a form of memory. And each mouthful recalls other mouthfuls you’ve eaten in the past. It stands to reason, therefore, that the flavor patterns in our brains are highly dependent on all the things we’ve tasted in the past, especially during childhood.” (Wilson 2015, 51)

The acclaimed British food writer Bee Wilson came out with a fascinating new book this past December: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. In it, Wilson examines how memory, childhood eating habits, food practices we learn from our parents, culture, and taste all combine to create our dietary habits and preferences. Why is someone who is picky at five picky at fifty? How is it that children can be taught to like new foods? How do our dietary habits and culturally determined desires affect the healthiness of our food choices? And if – as Wilson amply proves – likes and dislikes in food are not nature, but nurture, what can we do? Wilson explores various ways that not only show how food choices can – slowly and steadily – be changed, but also how these ideas about food even evolve in the first place.

The book is structured in eight chapters, roughly topical: “Likes and Dislikes,” “Memory,” “Children’s Food,” “Feeding,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Hunger,” “Disorder,” and “Change.” In each, Wilson shows how food culture and habits and the way children are raised with food affect everything from eating disorders – the idea that only boys should like certain foods, for example – to how the mass marketing of children’s food has led to a global convergence around a taste combination of salt, sugar, and fat. Wilson provides a rather stunning overview.

The book is also delightfully written and flows like a conversation – or, more aptly, like a sauce! I read almost the entire volume on a five-hour train journey, and could not put it down.

My favorite sections were the first two – on what we like and how we remember it. As a diaspora nerd, I always find the question of memory particularly vexing and beautiful at the same time: is our nostalgia a “colonization of the present” by what we want, or is it a reaching into the past to make sense of the present and tie it to place and culture? In the Jewish context, how does remembered childhood memories of food – kneidlach, corn pashtida, or quince jam – determine what other foods we like, or how we envision home? (Beyond the obvious “that is where kneidlach are eaten.”) And how does our approach to Jewish food relate to what we ate in early childhood? Wilson notes that many of our tastes are determined between the ages of four and eight months, and some tastes through the third year of life. So, for example, the fact that I liked to bite into lemons as a little child (true story) might be why I’m rather fond of both dishes with citrus (in many forms) and sour food more generally. This is maybe why American babka is that sweet, or why the sour taste of schav might fail to capture the mind of someone whose earliest nourishment outside breast milk was sweetened infant formula. Wilson’s work provides a path to explore all these points.

The book isn’t perfect – I think Wilson could have done a better job of addressing class and income, and how both significantly affect the ability one has to change what one eats. In addition, the way gender is addressed is a bit underwhelming – especially given how us queer folks have very complicated relationships with food and gender. But First Bite is definitely worth a read, it’s incredibly informative, and I think many of the points can spur interesting discussions. To add a Jewish angle to this whole thing – after all, this is a Jewish food blog – I thought of two questions that I’d like to mull over, inspired by this book’s chapter on Memory:

  1. For those of us who started keeping kosher later in life, how does memory play a role in addressing the various challenges that are presented by, say, avoiding a food one used to like? Does the advent of “kosher bacon” and imitation shrimp stem from curiosity, or a desire to restore – within the framework of halakhafoods once beloved?
  2. If so many food tastes are learned in early childhood, what happens to reviving certain Jewish food traditions? It is interesting to think about how an adult’s revulsion to or love for p’tcha or schav upon first taste is in part determined by what he might have consumed at the age of two or three. What are the bounds of revival? How do these early tastes change how we cook Jewish food as adults? Is my taste for sour food in part due to my toddler-hood love for biting into lemons?

Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. New York, Basic: 2015.

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part II

For part one, click here.

So we’re back: Chicken Soup, Part II: now that you’ve got your stock, it’s time to have some soup!

Chicken soup with kreplach
Chicken soup with kreplach (image Yoninah via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

But first, let us note that chicken soup has a long history in the Jewish world. In the Talmudic era, it was already a festive tradition to cook a chicken in broth; the medieval scholar Maimonides touted it as a curative dish for one’s health. By the modern era, chicken-based soups were common across the Jewish world, including among Turkish Sephardim and Yemenite Jews. But they were perhaps most widespread – as yoikh or goldene yoikh – among Ashkenazi communities in Eastern Europe, where dozens of variations of chicken soup were consumed for Shabbat and festivals. These soups were brought by Ashkenazi immigrants to wherever they landed – and especially America. And, as other dishes became less popular, chicken soup had a certain staying power. It was comforting; it was easy; it didn’t have calves’ feet. By the mid-20th century, “Jewish penicillin” – coined by performers on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit – was an icon of what we can roughly call mass Ashkenazi culture. And it stuck: mass media has have also helped reify chicken soup in today’s Jewish world. From blogs to television shows to Tumblr, chicken soup is the Jewish classic.*

So, you want to make this classic. But how? There are many different ways, particularly if you have your stock. I have five recipes here, with the basic parts of liquids, soup-solids, and additions. I’ve written them in order of difficulty.

Of course the ingredients and methodology vary. For mock chicken soup, ignore all directions involving the chicken.

Easy

Don’t even take your ingredients out of the stock. Just add your additions if you have any – noodles, matzoh balls, ground hazelnuts, etc., cook them in the soup, and you’re good to go.

Friday Night

Take out the chicken and cut it up, leave the vegetables in there. If you would like, add some boiled broad beans or some carrots. Add back the chicken, with any additions. Enjoy!

Some Friday Nights

Take out the chicken and vegetables. Keep the stock vegetables for something else, but add new vegetables and boil them in the soup until they’re soft. (I recommend a few carrots, a few peeled parsnips, and some finely chopped onion. Chop up the chicken and add it back in, with separately cooked additions.

Birthday Shabbat/Holidays

See Some Friday Nights, but cook a more difficult addition – such as matzoh balls with neshommes (forthcoming), kreplach, or homemade farfel.

Rosh Hashanah and Pesach

I only do this twice a year at most. Essentially, you make a stock all over again using half first round chicken stock, half water with fresh chicken and fresh vegetables – including some cabbage and apple for Rosh Hashanah – and cook again for about an hour or so. (Keep the chicken and vegetables from the stock for later meals.) Then, you add separately cooked additions – and it’s one of the two biggest food holidays of the year, so go all out here – and freshly chopped herbs as a garnish. Chop up the chicken for the soup and add it back in. There is also a veritable tradition in my family of using the fattiest chicken you can find – or even turkey – for even more flavor. Pesach is no time for a diet, because we are being liberated.

*Albeit this entire post is a tad Ashkenormative. Apologies.

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part I – The Stock

A loyal reader of this blog, Marianne Kwok, has requested chicken soup – “it’s such a classic!” Indeed, “chicken soup” – be it with kneidlach or lokshen/lagman or kubbeh – is the first thing that comes to mind when many people think of “Jewish food,” nebulously defined. Most Jewish cuisines have some form of chicken soup, often served on Shabbat – from the Ashkenazi savory goldene yoikh to the coriander-spiked soups of Yemenite Jewry (link in Hebrew). In a Jewish culinary sphere of many differences, chicken soups are one commonality.

Vegetarian "chicken" soup with lokshn
Mock chicken soup with lots of veggies and noodles! And dill. Dill. I like dill. Photo mine, June 2012.

Hence this series: Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup! We’ll be going through three parts here: the stock, the soup itself, and all the additions. I’m doing both the meat version and a vegan/pareve version not just for those of you not inclined to eat delicious, delicious flesh, but also for those of us who wish to serve cheesecake for dessert at all times. (Not like I’ve ever been that person…) This soup is a rather Ashkenazi one: it is what I grew up with. Not all Jews grew up with this.

I’ll go more into the history of chicken soups across the Jewish world in Part Two, but for Part One, I’m going to teach you how to make the stock. You don’t have to use stock for soups – I don’t always – nor does the stock have to be separate from the “broth” of the soup itself. For most of Jewish history, it wasn’t. But making stock is a good skill for the Jewish or non-Jewish cook to have. Stocks make so many things that much more delicious, and it is the basis, after all, for soups. Making stock can be hard work, but it is so worth it.

Here are four rules I have for stock. Stock does not have to be hard, nor does it have to be wasteful, and these three rules really help.

  1. It’s okay to use store-bought, and save the effort of your own (or this stock) for special occasions. I’m not going to lie. Making your own stock – though supremely easy – does take time, and you don’t necessarily want to use all of your equipment every time you make something just to make stock. I would say that this problem is especially acute in our small New York City kitchens. I would encourage you to make your own stocks for special occasions – Rosh Hashanah, Shavuot, your partner’s birthday, and so on – but for ordinary weekday and Shabbat meals, it’s really fine to use other stock. If you have a packaged stock, soup powder, or bouillon cube you like, use it! Parts II and III of the Soup Series will still apply to you, and lots of stock is good to have for everything. But I really do encourage you to go all out for special occasions – you get so much more control over the taste of the final product!
  1. Freeze your stock. If you don’t want to use store-bought or you make a lot of stock, freeze it for later use. You’ll be glad you did.
  1. Herbs are your friend. No, seriously. I get that people go for the protein in the stock – the chicken or turkey or fish – but the herbs actually form the foundation of the flavor. I honor my Lithuanian background with a very dill-heavy stock, but your own tastes and palate should inform it. And different Jewish cuisines have distinctive stock flavorings – for example, cumin in an Iraqi stock, or more parsley in a Moroccan one.
  1. Save your leftovers. Now, the most traditional thing to do would be to chop them up and throw them back into the soup. This was definitely the tradition for meat, which was historically rather expensive. But if you’re saving stock for later or making it for later, don’t throw away the solid materials! I know, I know, the flavor of the ingredients in the stock “gets cooked out.” But the stuff you use to make the stock can actually be used and flavored to be delicious! My mother would always give us turkey from her turkey stock to eat when she made stock for Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and the vegetables for a vegetarian stock can taste great with rice and a bit of chili sauce.
Chicken soup with kreplach
From the “Jewish Cuisine” page on Hebrew Wikipedia: chicken soup with kreplach – dumplings. (photo Zierman via CC/Wikimedia Commons)

Anyway, here’s the stock recipe. It’s a more Lithuanian-style stock, with dill and black pepper, and it’s not too sweet. I am giving both a chicken (meat/bashari/fleishig) version and a mock chicken (vegan/pareve) one. I actually make the mock chicken version far more frequently than the meat version.

The Stock (Litvak-Style)

For two to four gallons of stock, depending on your pot size and how much water you add.

Feel free to adjust all the spices to taste.

Chicken

1.5 pounds chicken necks and/or feet

2 medium-sized white onions, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

2 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1.5 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1.5 tsp thyme

Water

 

Mock Chicken (Vegetarian)

2 large white onions, chopped

5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 leek, finely chopped

½ cup fresh dill, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

2 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1.5 tsp thyme

Water

The methodology for making either of these stocks is pretty simple. Start off with a big stock-pot – mine is good for about three and a half gallons. You throw in the non-spice ingredients first – up to the dill in each recipe, and cover to the top of the pot with water. Bring the water to a boil, and then add the spices. Reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring frequently, for two hours. You can add water if too much evaporates off. Less water means a stronger stock flavor but less stock overall. Keep the liquid; it freezes well for about four months, I usually try to use stock in the fridge within a week. You can either use the solid materials in your soup or keep them for other uses.

Author’s note: some people fry their onions for vegetable stocks in oil before making the stock. I tend not to do this, because I think that the fat should be added closer to the final dish.

Potato Kugel

Potato kugel on a plate

Few Ashkenazi dishes invite as many reveries or passionate opinions as the potato kugel. It seems that everyone I talk to – everyone that has some Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, that is – has a) an often cherished memory of eating potato kugel, b) an opinion on how (or whether) it should be made, and c) a forsworn allegiance to a certain person’s or place’s version of the dish. For those of you who have not had a potato kugel, it is a dense and starchy potato casserole, slightly crispy on the outside and very chewy on the inside. It is one of Jewish cuisine’s many carbohydrate-loaded delicacies, and is utterly delicious.

Cutting a kugel with a celery stalk
I once brought a kugel to a potluck picnic, but we forgot a knife to cut it. Hence, a substitution was made. Photo mine, July 2011.

I briefly touched upon the kugel’s origins in my post on corn kugel / pashtida; let us recap in more detail. Kugels initially began as spherical, dense flour-based casseroles cooked within the Sabbath cholent stew. Even today, this practice still persists in some communities – though the Yiddish word “kugel” has since evolved from its original German meaning of “sphere.” In the nineteenth century, it also became common to bake the kugel as a stand-alone item – especially as the noodle kugel became more popular. Kugels were made with many things – and especially with the new star of Eastern European cuisine in the late 18th and early 19th century, the potato. Kugels also became popular with the other peoples Jews lived among – in Lithuania, kugelis is still a popular dish. Thus when Ashkenazi Jews fanned out from the Alter Heim to North America, Argentina, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, and beyond…the kugel travelled with them. And stuck – so that even today, you can buy prepared kugels in kosher supermarkets and have recipes by star cooks for them. (For more on how and why they stuck, I direct you to an excellent master’s thesis by Avery Robinson.) Even the New York Times Magazine recently ran an article on potato kugels – complete with a recipe prefaced by the title “Almost Traditional Jewish Cooking.” Almost traditional indeed – for even as it is homemade, it continues to evolve.

Kugelis
Lithuanian kugelis. Photo edenpictures via Wikimedia Commons (CC/Open).

I find that the kugel is an interesting starting point to discuss Jewish authenticity. In some ways it is considered the Ur-authentic: a kugel is what so many imagine must have graced the tables of our ancestors in Eastern Europe; the dish is often presented as a traditional Ashkenazi dish at potlucks and food festivals and the like. Yet the kugel itself has evolved so much over the centuries – is it authentic only if it is made in a cholent? Only if it is made with flour? Can a potato kugel, made from a tuber that only became widespread in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, be authentic? And then there is the whole matter of the potato kugel being served alongside very … non-traditional Ashkenazi dishes. I myself have eaten potato kugel with: stir-fried bok choy (very Ashkenazi), chili con carne (ditto), and stewed collard greens (completely native to the shtetl). And if it is served by an otherwise unengaged Jew, or a non-Jew (gasp!), is it still authentic? If anything, the kugel is a reminder that authenticity becomes this impossible fashion contest, and perhaps always is.

Yet beyond this question of the authentic there is this beautiful idea that the kugel brings one “home.” Even today, there is something for so many of us Ashkenazi Jews delightfully heimish – that’s Yiddish for “home-like,” in a domestic and cuddly sort of way – about a potato kugel. Kugels, as the New York Times article noted, are “good or bad,” and it is the “good” kugel (though that term is so highly subjective!) that can bring about reveries. Or, as a friend who makes a phenomenal potato kugel once said, “it is the heimishkeit that makes it good!” It is also something that is often cooked not by recipe, but by “eyeball.” I myself make potato kugel without measurements or consulting directions, but rather from a family tradition. After all, it is something that I myself ate growing up.

And when I do take a bite, I sometimes go into that reverie, much as Proust did with his madeleine – back to that imagined Jewish home-ness.


 

My recipe is an approximation – as I noted, I make this kugel by heart, based on my grandmother’s recipe. It is a flexible and versatile recipe that pairs well with many dishes, and you can adjust it accordingly. Let me know what you do with it – and also if you have a recipe of your own you’d like to share!

A last note: one big difference between various kugel recipes is the binding agent used to mesh the kugel together. Most common are flour and matzoh meal, but my friend Joshua introduced me to the use of potato starch, which also makes a fine kugel – though one that is rather denser than the one I have here. This kugel can also be made with sweet potatoes; that is a common American variation.

Potato kugel on a plate
A slice of potato kugel, ready to meet its fate as my breakfast. Photo mine, January 2016.

 

Potato Kugel

Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman. See an additional note on ingredients below.

5 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled

One medium onion, diced

Two scallions, chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup oil

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground thyme

2/3 cup flour

 

Oil, to grease the pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a 9×9 pan for a deeper kugel, 9×13 for a slightly shallower kugel.
  2. Grate your potatoes with a somewhat wide grate. I grate by hand because I like full control over the consistency, but you can do this with a food processor too. To avoid discoloration, keep the gratings in water in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Squeeze the liquid out of the potato gratings. Or, if you’ve been storing the potatoes in water, strain then squeeze.
  4. Add the chopped onions and scallions, mix in thoroughly with the potatoes.
  5. Add the eggs, oil, and spices, and mix in thoroughly.
  6. Add the flour in two batches and mix in thoroughly until well-combined into the mixture. At this point you should have potatoes and onions in a thick batter. If your batter is too thick, add a bit of oil or an egg. If it is very watery, add more flour.
  7. Pour the mixture into your greased pan and make sure that it is evenly spread. Smooth it out on the top with a fork.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour in your oven, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Note: kugels, by nature, are quite flexible. One can swap the oil for butter for a dairy kugel, or chicken fat (schmaltz) for a meat one. I sometimes use a smaller onion and add a chopped leek rather than a scallion, or I forgo the rather heterodox scallion altogether and use more onion instead.