This post starts with a country that most people do not think of for Jewish food: Iceland. I recently went on a lovely trip there with my partner. Iceland has many things to love, big and small. Among these things are the food. Some of the food comes from Iceland’s pastoral and fishing heritage: lamb, skyr, butter, cod, and rye bread. And some comes from the incredible creativity of Icelanders – tomatoes and carrots from greenhouses powered by geothermal heat, bread combining the flours of the world with local flavors and advantages; and an abundance of high-quality processed foods. The latter is what I am thinking about here. As I walked through supermarkets in Iceland (something I love to do whenever I travel), I thought about Rachel Laudan’s call for embracing modernist food. If any country has heard this, it is Iceland.
Iceland’s wholehearted embrace of modernity for food – and all the promises that brings – is inspiring. Much of this has to do with the fact that Icelanders aren’t overly romantic about the hardships of the past, which were particularly harsh for a volcanic country just off the Arctic Circle. Modernity is not bad or unnatural – it means that vegetables can be grown closer to home, Icelanders can have a high quality of life, and healthy food is readily available with a fair amount of variety. Some countries direct travelers to unbroken agricultural traditions. Iceland – especially its government – goes in the opposite direction. Icelanders show off greenhouses and posters explaining all of Iceland’s excellent milk products. This push comes not just as a promise of prosperity – but also as a new way of revitalizing traditions, from preserved fish to skyr to some of Iceland’s more notorious specialties. In some ways, this embrace even enhances some of Iceland’s traditions, such as the baking traditions that preserve recipes now lost in the mainland Nordic countries.
We should all be like Icelanders in this way.
Some people pooh-pooh the industrial and artificial for a “natural” history they romanticize and misremember. I have made this point again and again on this blog. A lot of this has to do with the stories people would rather tell or hear about the food they eat. Stories are nice but should not be the basis for advocacy or a food system – the good old days were not very good. (Especially for Jews and Icelanders, and black people in the Americas.) Rather, as Laudan notes, we need to advocate for high quality processed foods. Or as I say, we should try to become a bit more like Iceland. For that, the advocacy and the making is not enough – we also need to tell stories.
In her masterful Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh asks us to imagine what a narrative (which she calls a “mythos”) for processed food looks like. As I noted, Iceland is already beginning to get there with modern food. And part of that has to do with the stories – that there is something about making the highlands bloom with greenhouses, or the clever reuse of Iceland’s volcanic features and abundant water. And let us not forget that Iceland fought off British ships – and won – to be able to fish for cod, which was then processed – and by then, in very modern ways. Those fishermen are well-remembered. There is humor in these stories, too, such as a book of poetry in honor of the discount supermarket Bónus. (I have read it, and can confirm that it is funny.)
Some of this type of storytelling does exist in Israel, with narratives of the kibbutz and the behemoth of the Israeli modern food system. I want to ask: what would American Jewish modernist food storytelling look like? Of course the stories themselves would vary – some stories would be about technology, some about ingenuity, and some about tradition. I would hope that some would be about the workers in plants and in supermarkets and the cooks in commercial kitchens. I think many would be about familiar foods – say, the workers who produce industrial matzah meal or cream cheese, or the technological ingenuity of canned, jarred beets. Others could show the promise of new technologies and tie them to traditional foods – imagine a hraimehor gefilte fish made from fish grown in new forms of aquaculture, or borekas made in giant air fryers. And most of the stories can only be told after the innovation happens. Nothing in this lore would negate the Jewishness of this food. Icelanders can tie their modern embrace to their rich cultural tradition – and so should we.
I decided, however, to try something different, and play around with the recipe format. I have been interested recently in what Eve Jochnowitz once called the “telegraphic style” of pre-war recipes, which do not start with an ingredients list. Though in many ways this style of recipe writing is inaccessible for some, it may also be more accessible for others who think chronologically. I find that it also works for quantity-flexible recipes like jam. Let me know what you think.
Take some black cherries, and remove the stems and pits.
Then, weigh the cherries, and pour them into a big pot.
Add the equivalent weight in white sugar.
Then, for every 500g/1 pound of cherries, add:
-one teaspoon red wine
-two tablespoons of water
-a dash of cinnamon
Then, add some vanilla extract. The cherry skin should have adequate pectin, but if you want to, you can also add some pectin.
Turn on the stove and bring to a boil.
Stir regularly and reduce to a simmer. Foam will start to bubble up – remove it with your spoon.
Cook for 30-50 minutes, or until the water has reduced, and the syrup part gels on a spoon when removed from the heat. Test by sticking a spoon in.
Put into containers before cooling. If you choose to can, follow safe canning guidelines. If not, the jam keeps for up to a year in the freezer, 3-6 months in the refrigerator.
Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.
“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.
The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.
When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.
The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.
Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.
And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.
I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.
Bringing out the juices in the pumpkin
Pureed pumpkin with cottage cheese on a pancake (photos mine, November 2017)
Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.
Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash
Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.
Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.
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.
Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.
In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!
In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.
Easy Refrigerator Pickles
Makes one quart
2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)
1 cup water
1 cup vinegar (any should do)
1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)
1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)
Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.
Remember to can safely if you can!
Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
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.
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.
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.
Blame my friend Maryam. A couple of weeks ago, she made us all – well, all of us who are friends with her on Facebook – very hungry. Very hungry indeed. Why? Well, she had made quince jam! Her preserves – called moraba-ye beh in Persian – were lusciously red, inviting the viewer to indulge in fruity, sticky bliss. On viewing the photo, I was immediately inspired to make my own – and, in addition, reminded of something else. I was reminded of how quinces kept on popping up throughout Jewish spaces I was in: in the quince paste at a Sephardi restaurant in Israel, mentioned in the Talmud, or how quince jam was the traditional gift for departing guests in Jewish Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece.) Looking at Maryam’s creation, I was reminded that, in fact, quince jam is a very Jewish recipe.
By the way, for those of you that have not had them: quinces are a type of fruit related to apples and pears. These oddly-shaped orbs are in season in the autumn and early winter and are famous for their fragrance. Cooked, they taste like wild, gamey apples – but are in the United States more commonly seen in Latin American quince pastes and jellies. The fresh fruit is certainly not nearly as common as its cousin, the apple, in North America. And, like the apple that we eat at Rosh HaShanah, the quince is a very Jewish fruit.
Quinces have a Jewish history stretching back to the Bible. Some scholars believe that the “apple” mentioned in the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) was actually a quince, which was prized across the ancient Mediterranean for its fragrance. So celebrated, in fact, was the quince’s aroma that the Babylonian Talmud prescribed that a blessing be recited upon smelling the fruit (Berachot 43b). The fruit was prized by non-Jews across the Mediterranean and Persian worlds too: Greek and Roman writings both made mention of the fruit.
In the medieval era, quinces remained popular in the Middle East – where Syrian quinces were famed – and in Europe, where the fruit graced Charlemagne’s imperial estates. Jews, too, ate quince for both culinary and medicinal reasons. In the latter case, quince was used against coughs and stomachaches, and Maimonides mentioned that eating quince was a remedy for headaches. Yet it was for cuisine that the quince’s complex and fragrant flavor was most renowned: and quince was widely consumed. It was found in the bembriyo paste that Sephardim brought from Spain (where it is called membrillo) across the Mediterranean after the expulsion of 1492, the quince preserves North African and Italian Jews served at Rosh HaShanah, or in the jam eaten year-round. Though traditionally thought of as a “Sephardi” food, Ashkenazim in the southern parts of the Yiddish world – Hungary and Romania today – were often exposed to the fall fruit as well. By the turn of the twentieth century, quinces were being preserved and cooked across a wide swath of the Jewish world – from tarts in France to tagines in Morocco, from quince cheese in Hungary to the jam here in Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and Iran. One old English Jewish cookbook I found from 1907 had several recipes for quince compotes and jams.
Today, quinces remain popular in some parts of the Jewish world. In Israel – where quinces have grown for thousands of years – preserves and sweets made from the fruit are widely eaten, though perhaps not every day. Quince trees are also found in cooler regions of Israel and Palestine; my mother, who lived for many years in Israel, remembers seeing quince trees at her friends’ houses. Quinces are also common in the Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities of France, another quince-loving country, where treats from the fruit are eaten at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the autumn. In Argentina, quinces have been used as a substitute for apples in traditional Ashkenazi pastries.
Yet in the United States this enigmatic fruit – once common in the Northeast – remains rare and rather unknown. Not to mention that quinces are pricy and hard to get – I made a detour on my commute home to Washington Heights for the sole purpose of buying quinces from Fairway Market on the Upper West Side. In order to save money, I only bought enough for one batch of jam – but that said, you do not need too many to make a large quantity of jam. In fact, if you choose to can the jam – which I am planning to do with a larger batch in the near future – a few quinces can provide you with fragrant flavors throughout the year. Think of it as a substitute for buying jams in the store! (The price differential is pretty close, depending on the jam you buy and the amount you eat. I am a total jam pig.) Besides, food preservation has a long and venerated Jewish history: preserved foods are “essential” to many Sephardi cuisines, while jam-making, pickling, and canning were both autumn customs among Jews in Eastern Europe to prepare for a long, harsh, produce-less winter. Why not, then, celebrate this history by joining in and canning this jam?
Even before canning, though, this jam requires a labor commitment. Firstly, quinces are finicky. They have an unusual skin and shape that make peeling difficult; unlike apples or pears, quinces are not recommended for raw consumption. But like apples and pears, quinces discolor quickly. Cooking, however, reveals the multilayered lace of flavor hidden within the pockets of the quince – and though I definitely don’t recommend doing this as a regular thing, quinces cooked for a long time are worth the wait. Of course, there is also all the usual faff of jam in this: the boiling, the sugar, the time, and for some of you, the canning. But guys, really, it’s worth it.
Quince jam has also provided a window for me to learn about other traditions involving jam as well. If you, like me, have made a lot of jam that you didn’t can, these traditions are really helpful. Maryam (who is not Jewish) likes to eat her moraba-ye beh with soft cheese and nuts on bread – similar to the warm bread the jam is served with in Iran. In Spain and much of Latin America, quince jam is often used with cheese in empanadas (which I didn’t make, link in Spanish), or in almond shortbreads (which I did). In many Mediterranean countries, quince jellies are served with ice cream – which I can testify also work with your typical supermarket vanilla ice cream! And perhaps my new favorite thing, in Azerbaijan it is traditional to stir jam into your tea or sip tea through jam, including quince jam. I went through a lot of jam this way – and truly, it was fantastic.
Peel and core your quinces. I do this with a knife since quinces can have a rather complicated and tough skin. Chop the quince flesh up into small pieces and place into a bowl. While you are chopping, cover the already-chopped pieces of quince flesh with juice from one of the small lemons or half a large lemon. (You will need the other lemon or lemon half later on.) This will prevent discoloration and allow the fabulous tones of the quince flavor to come out more in the jam.
In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
Place the quince pieces, covered in lemon juice, at the bottom of a big pot. Add water to cover to 4/5 of an inch (about 2cm). Place on the flame and bring to a boil covered.
Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, or when the quinces are just beginning to soften, add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract. Stir in thoroughly and bring to a boil uncovered.
Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours. Leave the mixture uncovered since you need a lot of the water to cook off. Stir regularly so that the sugar blends in and that the jam does not burn.
When the syrup is thick and the quinces and syrup have turned a ruby red color, you are close to the end. How do you know that it is thick enough? My friend’s trick to test if the syrup is ready is to 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. I recommend this method. If the jam is still too liquid, keep on simmering. If the jam is thick enough, turn up the heat, and add the juice from the second lemon or large lemon half, and mix in. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.
At this point your jam is done. Remove from the heat and ideally from your pot as quickly as possible. If you can, follow your favorite safe canning method. The jam should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Serve on bread with butter or a soft cheese, bake into cookies, cook with meat, serve with ice cream, or – my new favorite – stir into a cup of hot tea.
*You can also use cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, but I’m too lazy to fish them out of bubbling jam.