A quick corn recipe this time. Polenta has an interesting history in Jewish tradition – like other maize products, it really only became a thing after corn was brought from the New World in 1492. Polenta and similar corn porridges like mamaliga and gomi became common in certain pockets of the Jewish world: Italy, Romania, and Georgia are primary among them. Unlike rice, breads, and noodles though, there was no broad swathe of cornmeal-eaters. Georgian gomi tends to be white; Romanian mamaliga tends to be mushier, and Italian polenta tends to be firmer.
I made this casserole back over the summer when our internet was out for three days during Isaías, but had the wisdom to write this down.
6 cups cooked polenta (about 2 cups uncooked)
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil or butter + more for greasing
1 medium white onion, chopped
6 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped finely
1 15-oz can cannellini beans, with the fluid
Salt and black pepper to taste (I find the goat cheese adds enough salt.)
1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
3 cups frozen spinach
2 cups goat cheese crumbles
If you haven’t already, make the polenta according to package directions. I use Bob’s Red Mill Polenta.
Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a 9×13” casserole with a very light layer of olive oil or butter.
Heat a large skillet, then add the oil or melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté for a few minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
Add the beans and fluid, salt, and pepper. Stir, then add the vinegar. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for five to ten minutes, or until the fluid is mostly gone.
Add the frozen spinach and mix in thoroughly, until it is cooked through. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Spoon the polenta into the casserole. Then, spoon the skillet mixture on top. Add the goat cheese crumbles in an even layer on top of that.
Bake for ten minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown. Serve hot.
It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”
One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.
This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authentic” per se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tchaprobably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.
Chocolate cake is a mechayeh– something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.
And now, a cake.
I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”
Chocolate Red Wine Cake
Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade
6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)
⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
⅔ cup white sugar
¾ cup red wine
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Oil or butter to grease the pan
Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.
Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
This recipe was updated in March 2021 based on additional experimentation.
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)
Greetings! I hope you had a lovely holiday season, be it with your family, your friends, or on a spaceship with kindly aliens.
I have been busy with applications for urban planning school, or volunteering for the Democratic Party, so I have not sat down to do quite as much food writing. However, I did make a very fun gnocchi dish using lots of traditional ingredients from Italian and German Jewry – apples, fennel, and cheese. Gnocchi and Parmesan are not Jewish per se. However, gnocchi has a long tradition in Italian Jewish cooking – though preparations with spinach or tomato sauces are far more common. I cannot find sources in a language I speak for the various hard cheeses of Italian Jewry (Italian speakers, hint hint), but Italian Jewish recipe collections in the languages I do speak use hard cheese heavily. In any case, I should not worry if Parmesan is “traditional” – authenticity is bullshit anyway. That said, this recipe would not be too out of place on an Italian Jewish table.
I have actually made an Italian Jewish dish with fennel and cheese in the past – I highly recommend it.
Autumn Gnocchi with Apple, Fennel, and Parmesan
2 tablespoons butter
1 large white onion, chopped roughly into small pieces
1 medium bulb fennel, chopped roughly into small pieces
2/3 teaspoon table salt
1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
8 cloves garlic, chopped into bits (you can vary the size according to taste)
3 medium Fuji apples, cored and chopped into cubes (you can use another crisp, sweet apple such as a Honeycrisp or Cameo)
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped with stems removed
½ cup water + more to cook gnocchi
1 500g/17.5 oz package potato or sweet potato gnocchi
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Heat a deep saucepan, then melt the butter. Add the onions and fennel. Sauté for two minutes, or until they begin to soften.
Add the salt, pepper, and vinegar, and mix in. Sauté for two more minutes, or until they are slightly softer.
Add the garlic, apples, and rosemary, and stir to combine. When the pan starts sizzling again and the apples begin to soften, add the water, then cover.
Cook covered for ten minutes, then uncovered for ten minutes on a high flame. Stir every few minutes. The apples and fennel should soften and release their juices.
In the meantime, prepare the gnocchi according to package directions. (If you want to use homemade gnocchi, try this recipe here, but I am all for industrial food.)
When the apples and fennel are soft and the liquid has mostly reduced, turn off the heat. Add the gnocchi and parmesan, and stir thoroughly. Serve warm.
Thank you to Eric Routen for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
And now for the second in our series of potato dishes for Passover – a dish most people associate with Spain, the potato omelet. In Spain, this dish is made with chunks of potato and known as a tortilla española. It is a common favorite at tapas bars around the world. However, a similar dish exists across Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. It is called frittata de patate by Italian Jews, kuku sib zamini by Persian Jews. It is also named makroud fil-batates in North African Arabic or a variety of things in Ladino.
One of the great things about many of the Jewish versions of the frittata is that it is made with mashed potato instead of potato chunks, which does wondrous things for the texture. Instead of admittedly delicious chunks of potato, you get a creamy, almost mousse-like texture. I based my recipe off of Claudia Roden’s, but with a few adjustments. I swapped the parsley with cilantro, and added a touch of another New World introduction – chili peppers – to give it a bit of a spicy kick. This dish makes for a great sharing food, or as breakfast for Pesach and the whole year. However, I skipped the onions in the North African version and made a riff off of the deceptively simple Italian version. I have been eating it for breakfast, piece by piece. Enjoy!
Potato Frittata for Passover
Based on several recipes by Claudia Roden
2lbs/1kg potatoes, peeled
5 cloves white garlic, minced
2 fresh hot chili peppers, finely diced
4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil
1 fistful fresh cilantro, chopped
8 eggs, beaten
Salt and black pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper)
Boil the potatoes in water until soft. Then, drain the potatoes and rinse them under cold water to cool them. Mash the potatoes and set aside to cool further.
In the meantime, heat a deep non-stick or cast-iron skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Then, add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic is browned. Pour out the oil, garlic, and chili, and mix them into the mashed potatoes.
Mix the cilantro, eggs, salt, and pepper into the mashed potatoes until you get a thick batter.
Heat the skillet again, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, pour the egg-potato mixture into the skillet. Cook for 15-20 minutes on a medium-to-high flame, or until the omelet is set and browned on the bottom. If you want it brown on top, you can bake the frittata afterwards for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can bake the frittata in the skillet or a pan for 35-45 minutes in an oven preheated to 425F/220C.
Remove from heat. Serve the frittata in slices, hot, warm, or cold.
Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.
Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones– blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.
That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.
That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka – both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrew – lesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.
That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.
That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.
That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.
And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.
Just like many nerdy New Yorkers, I spend a fair amount of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many beautiful things to see and histories to learn there. Anyway, since apparently I cannot stop thinking about Jewish food at any point, I decided to spot some Jewish ties with various objects throughout the museum on a recent visit. Many of the things we consider “high art” today once had functional purposes – especially the ceramic, metal, and glass ware we now peer at through glass protective cases. These functions were, of course, largely for the upper crust of society – and in this case I will be generally referring to wealthier Jews. It should be noted that we do find plenty of “ordinary people” pottery and cookware in archaeological sites – they just do not make the vaunted cases of the world’s great museums.
Let us go take a look.
Brass ewer for wine or sherbets, 13th-century Iran
The object: A brass ewer with detailed mural-like inlays of silver and other compounds. The complex design includes medallion vines with rabbit heads, zodiacs with the planets, and harpies and astrological imagery. All of these were considered highly auspicious in the context of 13th-century Iran, and may be considered akin to similar decorative work on Kiddush cups today. (Jews, too, are superstitious.)
The Jewishness: Ewers and jugs like this would have been used for ritual purposes in many wealthier homes – especially for Kiddush wine. In addition, silver and silverwork was commonly a Jewish industry in many cities.
Iznik plates, Ottoman Empire, 16th century
The objects: A circular stonepaste plate with a colorful pattern of flowers and birds. The plate was made in the late 16th century in Iznik, which was the center of the Ottoman pottery industry. Iznik ware was popular across the empire and abroad, and was influenced by prior Arab and Persian practices, as well as Chinese porcelain traded along the Silk Road.
The Jewishness: Iznik had a thriving Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom would have traded these wares to other centers in Thessaloniki, Izmir, and abroad. Later, plates like this would become a “template” for early Zionists to use for serving “new Israeli cuisine.”
Porcelain teapots from China and Japan, and the German, English, French, and Dutch factories that imitated them, 18th century
The Jewishness: Tea is consumed traditionally in dozens of Jewish communities, and the consumption of tea greatly expanded in the 17th century among Russian and Sephardi Jews. Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Georgia were involved in the Silk Road trade and many Jews in maritime and overland trade with Asia, including that of porcelain.
French porcelain partial tea service used in 18th-century America
The object: This is a beautifully decorated porcelain teapot, cup, and saucer, from an 18th-century French factory, with a gold-and-back floral theme sparsely laid on a white background. Such examples come from the aforementioned European porcelain industry, which moved from “Chinoiserie” Orientalist designs to more localized European examples through the 18th century. These pieces are examples of the latter. This particular group belonged to the Loyalist Verplanck family in New York in the late 18th century, who was given the full tea service by the British commander of forces in New York, Sir William Howe.
The Jewishness: As mentioned above, tea consumption spiked in the 17th century among Jewish communities. By the 18th century, a small minority of Jews was wealthy enough to drink tea like the Christian élites they partly assimilated into. This sort of tea service would easily have appeared at the table of the Nathans or other wealthy Jewish families in 18th-century New York.
Pennsylvania Redware, 18th century
The objects: German immigrants in 18th-century Pennsylvania began manufacturing practical ceramic wares from local red clay found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, which soon gave rise to a local style now known as “Pennsylvania Redware.” These plates, bowls, and cups often utilized a technique known elsewhere as sgraffito, which involves scratching through one level of clay slip to reveal a lower level of slip. The ceramics were largely made for a local American market, which was readily receptive. Though these plates are from the 18th century, the industry’s golden age was in the early 19th century after American independence.
The Jewishness: The same wealthy families that might have owned the French tea service would have easily possessed some Pennsylvania Redware for everyday use – and middle-class families may have served their Shabbat and weekday meals on plates like these as well.
Spanish inlaid plates and bowls, 14th century
The objects: Inlaid plates and bowls with decorative patterns from Southern Spain in the 14th century, when the region was still under Almohad rule. The style of pottery is now known as Hispano-Moresque, and utilizes detailed patterning, tin glazes, and often a metallic after-glaze. In its era it was already a luxury good, and these wares influenced Italian styles that later became known as maiolica in the 16th century.
The object: This is an incredible illuminated Haggadah from 15th-century Italy. The order of the Passover (Pesakh) Seder ritual is not only written, but accompanied by gilded and painted images from the story of the Exodus and of the Passover ritual foods. The margins also contain micrographic illustrations.
The Jewishness is obvious.
Images all mine, July 2017, unless otherwise noted.
Despite these struggles, Pesach is a delicious holiday. And for many Jews, no food is so associated with the holiday as much as the macaroon – the delicious, nowadays usually almond- or coconut-based, mysteriously flour-free cookie. Some people, including myself, are fans of macaroons, especially when they are freshly baked. A few Jews have been known to eat ten in one sitting – a category that, of course, does not include the author. Others will gladly eat fluffy French macarons but avoid the heavier Jewish macaroons. And many, having only had the underrated-but-still-somewhat-dry packaged macaroons, consider the cookie a bit dull or not tasty at all. Though one can find them all year round on many tables, macaroons are now only encountered by most Jews around Pesach in their packaged form. As a result, many think this treat with a long history is a modern invention.
Sephardim, and then Ashkenazim, adopted the macaroon from Italian Jews and Spanish Jews fleeing the inquisition, who had made the similaramarguillos from bitter almonds(link in Spanish). Macaroons appeared in the earliest Jewish cookbooks in the United States, and have remained popular since. Today, coconut macaroons predominate – especially given both the ready availability of coconut and the industrialization of coconut grating since the 19th century. One can, of course, still find delicious almond macaroons. The coconut version, however, connects Jewish macaroons to another family of macaroons spread through colonial empires. Coconut macaroons based on the European-Arab original are now popular in the Dominican Republic, Southern India, the Philippines, and Mauritius. (This Mauritian recipe by Shelina Permaloo is particularly lovely.)
These coconut macaroons are simple, tasty, and a good dessert for any time of the year. (And they are gluten free!) I have the recipe here with raisins, but you can also make them with chocolate chips.
It is customary on Hanukkah to eat food with oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil at the rededication of the Second Temple that the holiday celebrates. The standard interpretation of this custom is to eat fried food; indeed this blog began with a fried Hanukkah recipe for beignets. However, not everyone wants to eat fried food all the time, and besides there is a long and ancient Jewish tradition for oil-based cakes. Thus, this year, in honor of Hanukkah, I decided to bring the bright flavors and floral scent of a Mediterranean spring into darkest winter with this lemon rosemary cake. The recipe is based on a delicious one by my friend Yaël. The cake is easy, delicious, and requires only the most ordinary of equipment. Chag sameach!
A delicious, ripe Meyer lemon,
, Italian olive oil,
, and the batter of a cake that smells like spring. (Photos mine, December 2016.)
Lemon Rosemary Cake with Olive Oil
Based on a recipe by Yaël Wiesenfeld
Juice of two large lemons (about 1/3 cup)
Zest of one large lemon
3 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped (or 1 tbsp dried)
1 cup olive oil
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups white sugar
2 ½ cups white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons water
Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Line a deep pan – a loaf pan or a cake pan – with parchment paper.
Mix the juice, zest, rosemary, oil, vanilla extract, salt, and sugar together until thoroughly mixed.
Fold in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly combined with the sugar-oil mixture.
Add the flour and baking powder bit by bit and mix until you have a thick, consistent yellow batter. Warning: the batter will be quite sticky.
Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan. Bake for 45 minutes to one hour, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean.
Leave the cake to cool.
When the cake is cool, mix the glaze ingredients together and pour over the cake. The cake pairs well with light vanilla creams or tea.
Thank you to Li-Or Zaltzman, Andrew Dubrov, John Bachir, Claire Steifel, Julia Clemons, Shaun Leventhal, and others for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining. I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.
Holding fennel in my hand (Photo mine, December 2016)
The smell of licorice takes over as I chop the fennel. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”
This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.
Mention Shavuot to a Jew in the United States or Canada, and their first response is often “cheesecake.” The holiday associated with dairy foods has now become, for many, only associated with a creamy concoction of cheese, eggs, and sugar, soft and yet mysteriously solid. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for many American Jews the cheesecake on Shavuot matters more than the important event the holiday actually celebrates: revelation. This connection may seem modern, but – as I noted in my last post, when I made cheese and talked about dairy on Shavuot – dairy and this holiday have a long history together, and cheesecake and Jewry also have a long and delicious relationship.
Cheesecake has a long Jewish history spanning the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds – in fact, the longest of any recipe yet profiled on the blog. In Ancient Greece, combinations of flour, fresh cheese, and honey were baked and dried; this recipe was likely known in the Holy Land. (The Priestly Source may himself have eaten this.) Similar desserts were eaten across the Roman Empire, probably including by those Hellenized Jews who sought to assimilate into access to imperial power. Later on, Jews settled in many cheese-eating parts of the world: and so you ended up with Italian Jews making ricotta-based cheesecakes (more on that later), and Ashkenazi Jews – as Claudia Roden notes in her book – absorbing and reimagining the cheesecakes of their non-Jewish neighbors. English Jews before the expulsion of 1290 probably made a cake like the sambocade found in medieval cookbooks; medieval Spanish Jewry probably ate cheesecakes not unlike the quesada pasiega(video in Spanish) still common in Spain today. By the 19th century, cheesecakes were popular Shavuot and festival dishes in many places of the Jewish world.
Cheesecake is now considered in many places a “Jewish” food. In Rome, the traditional ricotta-based cassola and crostata di ricotta (video in Italian) are both recipes that originate in the Jewish quarter of that city. The recipe is based on the Shavuot and Sabbath delicacies of the Sicilian Jews that arrived in Rome after being expelled from their home island in the fifteenth century. Today, the Jewish cheesecake has become a Roman Christmas tradition, one that has even attracted the attention of the New York Times. Across the ocean, in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal, the cream cheese-based cheesecake of North American Jewry is considered a “Jewish” food of the first order – and in the rest of the United States, “real” cheesecake is often “New York, and Jewish.” Indeed, as Joan Nathan notes in Jewish Food in America, cheesecake was first popularized in the United States by Jewish delis in New York. (In college, the first question one non-Jewish friend asked of me, when he learned I was Jewish, was for a cheesecake recipe.)
For this recipe, I made a simple ricotta cheesecake with an almond base, using the homemade cheese I made for the last post. Of course, you can also use store-bought ricotta and/or quark cheese. One of the great things about ricotta cheesecakes or quark cheesecakes is that you don’t need to have a water bath for them, as you do for the far more delicate cream cheese-based cakes common here in the United States. This means that the recipe is both far quicker to make, and far easier – especially for beginning cooks. The recipe here resembles in some ways the ricotta cheesecakes from Italy I mentioned earlier, and in some ways the quark-based Käsekuchen or sernik common in Germany and Poland. Perhaps it also resembles the cheesecakes of pre-war, pre-Holocaust Lithuania – Fania Lewando’s recipe also uses farmer’s cheese (tsvorekh). The innovation I made is using an almond base. Not only does this provide a wonderful nutty counterpart to the light, sweet cheese – with which the almonds meld wonderfully – but also makes the cake gluten-free. Feel free to make a dough or biscuit crust, like that in the Baked Apple Pudding, but the almonds really do work.
Putting down the base…
…adding the batter…
…baking and maybe I added a preserved fig because yum. (Photos mine, June 2016)
Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base
1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2-2 cups fresh ricotta
1-1 1/2 cups fresh quark cheese (you can also use ricotta only, it should add up to three cups of cheese)
1 cup white sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Butter for greasing the pan.
In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
Preheat your oven to 400F. Grease the bottom of a 9″ round pan. You can use a springform pan for easier cutting or a normal deep round cake or casserole pan for easy transport.
Press the almond base into the bottom of your pan. Your almond base should be pretty soft and a bit of a paste, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. The almond mix should be evenly distributed.
(Author note: for a thicker base, use 1/2 cup of almonds and a tad more butter and sugar.)
If you are using a dough base, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of dough of about ½ an inch thickness.
Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set (meaning it no longer jiggles when moved) and the top is browned. Let cool before serving.
The author would like to thank Sara and Lisa Wolovick for assisting in the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe, and Gabi Kirk for User Acceptance Testing, photography, and helping me make this year’s Shavuot cheesecakes.