“Can You Make Coffee Cake?” (Smetana Kuchen)

A note to begin, because I need to remark on politics: Someone please tell white nationalists that their coffee cake is Jewish, and then take their cake away, because Nazis do not deserve cake.

Smetanakuchen with a streusel of almonds and brown sugar

It is a crisp autumn morning in a certain year, and your author is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, very gay, and very Jewish first-year at the University of Chicago. Now, he is from the Northeast, where the Jews are many, but some of his classmates are from small towns across the Midwest and adjacent areas, and a few have only interacted with a handful of Jews over their lives. Your author is worried about anti-Semitism – something he had experienced before. Instead, he finds himself bemused, because more than once he is enthusiastically asked variants of:

“Oh my gosh, you’re Jewish! Can you make that coffee cake?”

“That coffee cake” is Smetana Kuchen, a rich, sour cream-laden coffee cake originating with desserts in Germany and Poland. In the 18th and 19th century, as sugar became cheaper, new pastries developed, often to accompany another new import: coffee. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the common base of sour cream (Smetana in Yiddish) came to form the basis of this new cake. German Jews brought this cake with them to the United States in the 19th century – just as Hungarians also brought the similar aranygaluska and Swedes brought their own cakes to the Midwest. In Europe, these had been cakes of luxury for special occasions, but in the wealthy United States, filled with eggs, dairy, and white flour, these became slightly more common place. Many German Jews began to sell these cakes in coffee shops, newly frequented by a middle class seeking all forms of “refinement.” From there, and similar Hungarian and Swedish shops, the cakes spread. By the 1950’s, when many American women were entering baking contests and had ready access to ingredients once unheard of , the “Jewish” coffee cake was already popular across the Midwest.

 

Today, some people still know the cake as “Jewish,” and many Jews are convinced that the cake is not Jewish at all. On both sides, Smetana Kuchen is found at religious events, at church lunches and synagogue kiddushes, and at celebrations and birthday parties and committee meetings. It is still found in coffee shops and in diners, at office parties and at academic conferences. (Indeed, one of the most stellar coffee cakes I had was at an academic conference.) It is very good – and even as it has assimilated, it is still Jewish.

This is a pretty straightforward and simple Smetana Kuchen with a streusel topping and a modest, yet elegant cake. I offer the option of almonds, which is slightly unorthodox compared to the more common pecans or walnuts. “In the wild,” if I may describe the Midwest as such, you may also find variations with apples, raisins, or chocolate. You should consider trying them all, as they are all utterly delicious.

Smetana Kuchen (Sour Cream Cake)

Serves 9-12 (or fewer, if you are like me)

Streusel (also used in the Mohnkuchen):

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½ tbsp. salted butter, chilled

Cake:

¼ cup (1/2 stick) salted butter, softened

1 cup white granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1 ¼ cups sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups white sifted flour

1/3 cup slivered almonds (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9”x9” square cake pan or a Bundt pan.
  2. Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
  3. Cream together the butter and the sugar. I do not have a mixer, so I use a pastry knife to blend them together. You can also do it with a wooden spoon or fork! Alternatively, if you’re fortunate enough to have the mixer, you can do that.
  4. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the baking powder, sour cream, and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined.
  6. Add the flour, and beat until thoroughly combined.
  7. If you’re using a square cake pan, pour the cake batter into the pan first, then sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. If you’re using a Bundt pan, sprinkle the streusel on the bottom first, and then pour the cake batter on top. If you’re using the almonds, sprinkle them with the streusel on the cake or the pan bottom as the case may be.
  8. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool before removing from the pan.
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Challah

Three baked challahs
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin. A fall combination. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.

Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales, but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)

Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.

Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”

Unbaked challah on a tray
Challahs, braided, waiting to be egg-washed and baked. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.

Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.

This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. Bottom to top: one with black sesame, one with poppy-seed, and one with both black sesame and poppy-seed. (Photo mine, October 2016)

Challah

Based on recipes by Jay Stanton, Dana Katz, Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern in The Gefilte Manifesto, and Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food.

Makes three small-medium loaves

1 packet active dry yeast

1.5 cups (350mL) lukewarm water

1/3 cup (80mL) honey

1 tsp table salt

1/3 cup (80mL) canola oil

3 eggs, beaten

5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading

 

Egg wash:

1 egg, beaten

1/5 cup (50mL) cold water

1/2 tsp table salt

 

Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
  2. Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
  3. Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
  4. Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
  5. Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
  6. Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
  8. Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
  9. Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
  10. Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
  11. Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
  12. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.

Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.

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.”

Tzimmes (with Meat)

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?”

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.

Tzimmes on noodles
Tzimmes on noodles. Delicious. (Photo mine, September 2016)

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

  1. Rub half of the salt and half of the pepper into the beef brisket.
  2. Heat a Dutch oven or deep cast-iron pot. Add oil, then the onions or garlic. Sauté for one minute.
  3. Add the beef and the rest of the salt and pepper. Brown the meat with the onions over medium heat.
  4. Add the flour and mix in thoroughly.
  5. Add the water and stir until the mixture reaches a boil.
  6. Cover and simmer on a low flame for one hour.
  7. Mix in the honey with the meat.
  8. Cook for one minute, then add the carrots, turnip/potato, apricots/prunes, and sweet potato.
  9. 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.

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.

 

Pesach of Colors 3: Stuffed Cabbage (Green)

Stuffed cabbage on a plate
Stuffed cabbage, with keftes de prasa (leek fritters, upcoming), the “bed” of apples and onions, and rice. Photo mine, April 2016.

I like to mix up some parts of the traditional Ashkenazi culinary calendar. The reason for this is simple: for fifty-one weeks of the year, a.k.a. not Pesach, I see no reason not to eat poppy-seed hamantaschen, and am of the opinion that these herald the new year far better than the pastry-who-shall-not-be-named. That said, I’ve been known to serve latkes on Shavuot and cheesecake on Hanukkah – the latter of which happens to be actually somewhat traditional. And this green recipe is simply a colorful Passover rendition of another holiday’s treat.
Stuffed cabbage, also known as holishkes, is traditional to Simchat Torah. (Continue) Holishkes are one of Ashkenazi Jewry’s oldest borrowings from neighbors in Eastern Europe – it appeared in Jewish cooking from the 14th century, when a similar dish emerged in Eastern Europe. Since then, it has been a frequent feature of the Jewish Sabbath table – not just in the Ashkenazi-dominated regions of Carpathia and Galicia (now Eastern Poland and Western Ukraine), but also throughout the Sephardi communities of the Balkans, where the dish became popular later. (Nota bene: the dish is Ashkenazi in origin.) Cooking and serving methods vary. Whereas in Hungary and Romania the holishkes are slow-cooked in a fantastically flavored tomato sauce, and Bulgaria’s are stuffed to the brim, the Greek lahmanadolmathes are cooked on top of a bed of vegetables. I blended the two methods – I made the stuffed cabbage in the Greek style, but added the tomato sauce from further north.

Creating Passover-friendly stuffed cabbage proved to be an interesting challenge. The traditional carbohydrate of the filling is rice, which is eaten by some Jews, but not by most Ashkenazim. Meanwhile, flour cannot be used to thicken the filling if it is too thin, but matzah meal would make the filling too dry. I settled instead for walnuts, which add body to the filling and a characteristic nutty, but not too savory, undertone.

Stuffed Cabbage for Passover (Holishkes)
Serves 8-10

Stuffed Cabbage
1 medium head cabbage
1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup ground walnuts
2 eggs
1 tbsp white salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground smoked paprika
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 large apple, cored and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
Water or stock

1. Cut the end off the cabbage. Then, place it in a pot of boiling water, and leave in until the outer leaves begin to fall off. Carefully remove about 20-30 leaves, without tearing them. Then, take the core of the cabbage out. Set the leaves and core aside, separately.

  1. In a large bowl, mix the beef, walnuts, eggs, and spices together until you have a consistent and solid mixture.
  2. Dice the core of the cabbage, and place the pieces at the bottom of a medium-sized stockpot with the apples and onions.
  3. Now it is time to make the holishkes.
  • Take a leaf and lay it out flat on a flat surface.
  • Cut off the nib of the leaf (the hard bit) at the bottom. (Throw the nib into the pot on top of the rest of the apple-onion-cabbage bed)
  • Place about a teaspoon of the beef mixture into the lower-center part of the cabbage leaf.
  • Fold the bottom bit of the leaf over the filling, and then the two bottom-side bits.
  • Now, roll the leaf up to completely conceal the filling. Congrats, you have made a holishke!
  • Place the roll on top of the bed, open side down. (This prevents the stuffed cabbage leaf from opening during the cooking process.
  • Repeat until you are out of cabbage leaves! Nota bene: if you have leftover filling, you can fry them into little keftes.
  1. Cover the contents of the pot with water and/or stock.
  2. Place on the heat, and bring to a boil. Then, simmer for one to one and a half hours, basting – pouring liquid over – the holishkes regularly.
  3. Serve with carbs and the vegetables from the “bed,” with the additional option of tomato sauce. 

    Tomato Sauce (optional)
    2 cups cooked, crushed tomatoes with their juices (or 1 can)
    1 medium onion, chopped
    Five cloves garlic, chopped
    1.5 tsp salt
    1.5 tsp black pepper
    1 tsp smoked paprika
    1 tbsp white wine vinegar
    Olive or sunflower seed oil

    1. In a medium saucepan, sauté the onions and garlic in oil until soft. Add the spices and vinegar and mix in thoroughly.
    2. Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes.

 

The author would like to thank Jeremy Swack for being an excellent sous-chef during the testing of this recipe.

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.