Great Reads and Herring

3kg bucket of Nutella
An essential ingredient of bourgeois sweetness around the world: Nutella. Perhaps not in the 3kg jar though. (Photo mine, May 2015)

So yours truly got featured on an incredible blog by Anny Gaul, Kitchening Modernity in North Africa. The wonderful blog – which discusses class, globalization, and food habits in the middle class of the Arab world – wrote a very flattering and intellectually stimulating response piece to my earlier piece about qatayef and how we discuss the sweetness of Arab and Sephardi desserts. Gaul brought up some really incredible points in light of her own doctoral work – and cited the late, great Sidney Mintz in regards to how sugar itself became woven into domestic “normalcy” through empire, and Krishnendu Ray’s new book on how race and class mediate the hierarchy of tastes today.

Check out the post, but also read the entire blog. There are some really wonderful discussions about: how we gender or don’t gender domesticity; how coffee contributes to a culture of timekeeping; how people in Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon actually perceive globalization and food tastes; and how food changes with class, wealth, and Westernization. Check it out!

“Sweetness and Prejudice” – Kitchening Modernity’s Response Post


The incredible Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria and “KosherSoul” fame recently posted what might be my favorite “fusion” recipe of 2016 – macaroni and cheese kugel. The recipe – which combines the African-American macaroni and cheese with the sweet flavors of an Ashkenazi noodle kugel – looks incredible, and despite the initial confusion (cinnamon and savory cheese?!?), very tasty. Twitty’s post is also worth a read for an important lesson on the origins of macaroni and cheese – as a dish made by black slaves for white tables, with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook James Hemings. Take a look (and make the recipe).

Michael Twitty’s encyclopedic historical cookbook of African-American Southern cuisine, The Cooking Gene, is coming out in November. You can pre-order it on HarperCollins’ website, linked below.

Mac and Cheese Kugel

The Cooking Gene – HarperCollins


Finally – as I’ve promised back in April and on Flavors of Diaspora’s Facebook page, there will be a herring series! The next few posts will be about herring, particularly pickled and salted, which has played a major role in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine for centuries. The posts will discuss memory and history, but also provide a few recipes with herring. Your humble author also loves pickled herring with a passion, and has written two pieces with herring themes, for New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. Check them out:

“Herring. Yum.”

Eating Breakfast from the Old Homeland Around the World

Shavuot II: Cheesecake!

Cheesecake on a plate
Me with cheesecake
I’m really excited about this cheesecake. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

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.

Three cheesecakes
Cheesecakes, ready to go. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

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.)

Cheesecake on a plate
Eating cheesecake – a bit of the almond base fell off to the side! (Photo mine, June 2016)

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.

Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base

Almond base:

1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water

1 tbsp butter

2 tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Cheesecake:

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)

5 eggs

1 cup white sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Butter for greasing the pan.

 

  1. In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
  2. Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
  3. 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.

Shavuot I: Make Your Own Cheese

Shavuot is fast upon us! For those of you who don’t know, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah unto Israel, and the time of the Biblical wheat harvest. Though oft-forgotten in secular American Jewish culture, Shavuot is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, and was one of the three Pilgrimage festivals – along with Pesach and Sukkot. Many traditions exist for Shavuot, including pulling an all-nighter of Jewish study, the tikkun leil, decorating the house and synagogue with flowers, and eating copious amounts of dairy food. It is absolutely my favorite Jewish holiday, not least because my favorite prayer and favorite Biblical text are both read in the holiday’s ritual.

But this blog is about food, not archaic Aramaic prayers or the Biblical injunction against slut-shaming, so let’s return to our topic at hand: dairy. Now, multiple explanations exist for why we eat milk products on Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is like G-d’s way of giving to Jews what a mother’s milk gives to her child. The Song of Songs does call the Torah “honey and milk” that “are under Your (G-d’s) tongue” (4:11). Others argue that it comes from the fact that Mount Sinai is Har haGavnunim in Hebrew, the name of which is similar to gvina – cheese. I prefer a more practical explanation: before modern times, Shavuot was soon after the time of year most cows gave birth to calves, and milk would have been in most plentiful supply at this time in most Jewish societies across the world.

Most Jewish communities, other than those of Yemen and Ethiopia, have various dairy-eating traditions on Shavuot. These tend to revolve around the various forms of cheese and milk products each Jewish cuisine uses. Cheesecake, a very Jewish dish whose history will be discussed in the next post, is common across many Ashkenazi, Italian, and Sephardi communities, and is taken as synonymous with Shavuot in the American Jewish community. Other delights include blintzes in the  Ashkenazi sphere, rice pudding (sütlaç) among Sephardim, and qatayef – very sweet fried and syrup-soaked pancakes – among Syrians. All of these are delicious, and many often involve local forms of soft cheese.

Soft cheese is a very traditionally Jewish thing. Quark cheeses, called tvarog in Russian,  tsvorekh in Yiddish, and gvina levana in Hebrew, is a curd cheese that is often confused with ricotta. It is soft, sweet-tart and slightly tangy, and quite tasty. The cheese comes at various levels of hardness and sweetness – I tend to prefer a softer, tangier quark. Tsvorekh is traditionally used in kugels, blintzes, and on bread. In fact, quark on black bread was one of the most common meals of poor Jews in Lithuania and Poland for centuries. [The same cheese was used for Shavuot.]

Ricotta, that famous soft Italian cheese, is a frequent ingredient in Italian Jewish dishes. Ricotta – which means “twice cooked” in Italian – is actually made from the whey left over from making other cheeses. When you make cheese, it separates into curds – the white stuff that we eat – and whey, the acidic component. (Think of the nursery rhyme.) Whey is cooked again to separate out the curds, and then the curds are strained out and sometimes played around with. Italian Jews traditionally used ricotta both for Hanukkah cheese pancakes, cheesecakes for Shavuot, and with bread year-round.

Both cheeses are ridiculously easy to make and taste quite good. In fact, you can make them both at the same time, as I shall show you below. It’s not an everyday thing, but certainly a fun thing to do when you get the chance. This is how you do it:

How to Make Two Cheeses at Once 

Makes one pound quark cheese (tvarog/tsvorekh/gvina levana), one pound ricotta, and about four cups whey

Refer to pictures at the beginning of the post for parts of the process.

You will need:

Ingredients

1/2 gallon/2 liters milk

1 pint/500 ml heavy cream

1/2 tsp salt

Juice of 2 large lemons

1/2 tsp white vinegar

Equipment

A big soup pot

Two colanders – one should be quite big

A giant bowl

Cheesecloth

Big wooden spoons

  1. Line one of your colanders – the big one – with cheesecloth, and then place over the bowl so that there is a good two-three inches between the bowl floor and the bottom of your colander.
  2. Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
  3. Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
  4. When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
  5. You should notice the milk start to curdle. This is the curds separating from the whey. The curds are the cheesy bit. The whey is the leftovers* from which we will make more cheese.
  6. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for five minutes. It will look weird – white clumps and white fluid. This is how we make cheese, do not worry one bit!
  7. Pour the entire mixture into your big, lined colander. Then let sit and have the whey drip out for anything between fifteen minutes and two hours – the longer it sits, the harder your cheese. I go for 30-40 minutes since I like my cheese super soft.
  8. When your time is up, scoop up the cheese in the colander and put into a container, and refrigerate. Don’t throw the whey (liquid below) away! Congratulations! You have made quark cheese! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  9. Now it’s time to make the ricotta. Pour your whey – you should have about six cups – back into the pot, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  10. When the whey is boiling, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the 1/2 tsp of vinegar.* Then leave alone for ten minutes.
  11. You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
  12. Pour the mixture through a colander, preferably a fine-meshed one – with a bowl underneath if you want to save your whey. The curds should collect in the colander right away. Scoop them out into a container and refrigerate. Congratulations! You have made ricotta! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
  13. You can save your whey – it is really great for making hearty breads and baked goods when you use it instead of water.

*Traditionally many cooks allow their whey to sit for a few hours to allow it to acidify, which negates the need for additional vinegar. However, this can be a rather smelly process that is not conducive to relaxing cheese-making.

Lokshen Kugel

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

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

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

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

Lokshen Kugel With Apples and Raisins

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

 

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

1 ½ cups sour cream

¼ cup melted butter + butter for greasing pan

1 cup white sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp honey

4 eggs

½ cup raisins, soaked for plumpness

1 large apple, cored and chopped

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

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

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

Pesach of Colors 4: Gefilte Fish (Pink)

Ah, gefilte fish, the much-maligned dish of Ashkenazi tradition. When I’ve told people that I absolutely adore the dish – minced fish patties, often served cold in a gelled fish broth with carrots, sometimes with khrayn (horseradish and beets) – I have seen far more reactions of disgust than delight. “How could you like it?” I am asked. “It’s so gross?” I usually respond with one or another narrative about my love for fish, or that I just grew up with it, or that, well, I’ve had the not “jar” stuff. Yet in the Jewish America of today it seems that gefilte fish is sometimes forgotten as a “gross” dish. I want to tell you that it is actually amazing – and is the pink addition to our Pesach of Colors – the color coming from both the raw ground fish used to make it and the khrayn we add on top. Gefilte fish may seem “gross” – but I promise, it’s really not.

(Let us not forget though, that in the Jewish world a “gross” Ashkenazi dish will still be more respected than a “gross” Sephardi or Mizrahi dish. Please don’t use this erasure to say otherwise.)

The homemade patties are far better than the industrialized jars, whose contents I find leave a rather metallic aftertaste. Yet industry has also led us to sometimes forget gefilte fish’s pre-industrial origins as a dish to dress up the nearly-rotten fish many Jews bought for the Sabbath, lacking access to or money for fresher or more fish. The dish also allowed the fish to be consumed without picking apart the bones, an activity technically forbidden on Shabbat. The cooked, gelled, and sometimes-stuffed-into-skins fish mince dressed up the fact that, maybe, you shouldn’t eat this fish. The traditional fish has been, for centuries, freshwater fish like the carp or pike. Yet wealthier Jews or Jews who had access to fresher freshwater fish continued to eat the dish – alongside the nearly ubiquitous pickled fishes like herring that were on Ashkenazi tables, rich and poor, from at least the Late Middle Ages. (Nota bene: a herring series might be in the works.) This dish migrated with Ashkenazim wherever they went: to North America, to South Africa, even to Manchuria.

Gefilte fish is also the cause of one of the great culinary rivalries of Ashkenazim. “Traditionally,” Polish and Galitzianer Jews from today’s Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia eat a sweeter gefilte fish, whereas the Litvaks of today’s Lithuania and Belarus eat a more savory, peppery version. This idea has been mapped both to dialects of Yiddish and to ideas of the “cold” Litvak and “warm-hearted” Galitzianer. The truth – though the myths are compelling – is simpler – and was wonderfully outlined by NPR’s The Salt last year. Sugar beets became a major industry in the 19th century in Poland, in which Jews were rather involved. In that part of Europe, sugar soon became cheap – and ended up in all sorts of dishes, gefilte fish among them. That sugar beet industry never made it to Lithuania.

I make a Lithuanian version here. But the Polish/Galitzianer version is not that hard, and is also pretty good. I’ve actually never made a sweet gefilte fish myself – only partook. See after the recipe, however, for a link to a good-looking Polish version from Gefilteria – perhaps the only artisanal hipster gefilte fish maker in the world! Of course, it’s based in Brooklyn.

Gefilte Fish – Lithuanian-Style

Makes 20-30 patties

Fish

1 ½ pounds filleted white fish (carp or pike are traditional, but trout really works), skinned and boned – keep the skin and bones

½ carrot, peeled

1/3 of a leek

1/3 of a medium onion

2 tsp salt

1 ½ tsp black pepper

3 eggs

1 cup matzah meal

 

Broth

Skin and bones from your white fish

1 ½ medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut into thin slices

2/3 of a leek, finely chopped

2/3 of a medium onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1 tsp thyme

1 cup vegetable stock (or more water)

Water

 

Grated horseradish (khrayn), preferably with beets, for serving*

  1. Set a medium stockpot filled half-way with water and the cup of stock on a high flame. Bring to a boil. Add the other stock ingredients, then simmer.
  2. Meanwhile, grind the carrot, leek, and onion in a food processor until they are finely grated – almost a purée. Empty out into a large mixing bowl.
  3. Now, chop the fish into chunks and place into the food processor. Mix until the fish is finely ground, even sort of puréed. Then, mix with the carrot mixture in the mixing bowl.
  4. Add the eggs and matzah meal and mix into the fish mixture with a spoon or your hands. You should have a thick, solid, and moist mixture.
  5. Pick up a chestnut-sized piece of the fish mixture and roll into a ball or patty with your hands. Set aside, and repeat for the rest of the mixture.
  6. Drop the patties into the simmering stock, and cook for 15-20 minutes. Occasionally push the floating patties back into the broth to prevent them from drying out.
  7. Remove the gefilte fish from the broth and set aside to cool.
  8. Meanwhile, strain the broth into a bowl, and cool until thickened or gelled. Keep the carrots to decorate the gefilte fish. You can decide what you do with the broth “leftovers.”

*I generally use a high-quality store-bought version – I eat enough khrayn on sandwiches where grating my own is too much effort – but this recipe for a traditional khrayn is both easy and delicious.

Gefilteria, which is run by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, provided a recipe to the Forward in 2012: http://forward.com/articles/162573/tale-of-two-gefiltes/

 

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part I – The Stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stock (Litvak-Style)

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

Feel free to adjust all the spices to taste.

Chicken

1.5 pounds chicken necks and/or feet

2 medium-sized white onions, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

2 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1.5 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1.5 tsp thyme

Water

 

Mock Chicken (Vegetarian)

2 large white onions, chopped

5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 leek, finely chopped

½ cup fresh dill, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

2 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1.5 tsp thyme

Water

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

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

Potato Kugel

Potato kugel on a plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

 

Potato Kugel

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

5 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled

One medium onion, diced

Two scallions, chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup oil

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground thyme

2/3 cup flour

 

Oil, to grease the pan

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

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

Corn Kugel or Pashtidat Tiras? Or, Jewish Cuisine Meets The 1950s

A slice of corn kugel-pashtida on a white plate
It’s not the prettiest, but it is delicious! Photo mine, December 2015.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been asked at least ten times when I will be making kugel. (The answer has always been “soon.”) Kugel, for those who are uninitiated, is a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish carbohydrate casserole made of potatoes, noodles, or root vegetables. Recipes for kugel date back to the Middle Ages, and are incredibly varied. Traditionally cooked in a spherical bowl within the Saturday cholent, it is now more frequently baked. The dense pudding is a fixture of American Ashkenazi cuisine – and a delicious one at that. We argue over our recipes, over our preferences, over the fat we use in the kugel. Even Martha Stewart, the goyish-est goy that ever goyed, has a kugel recipe. Kugels matter.

There is also a dish related to kugel: the pashtida. Imagine a quiche, but perhaps a bit eggier and a lot less cheesy. (Still just as wobbly.) Then, take away the crust – and you basically have a pashtida. In Israel and some parts of the Diaspora, the pashtida is an extremely common dish: be it out of zucchini, eggplant, or cauliflower. Many, in fact, consider the pashtida the hallmark of so-called “Israeli” cuisine – there is even a book you can buy in Israel simply called “Pashtidot.” But is it really Israeli?

Pashtida is a dish that actually has a surprisingly long history – almost as long as that of the kugel. Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi-cum-blacksmith-cum-scholar, mentions a dish called “pashtida” in his legal commentaries (link in French), and food historians think that pashtida likely derives from the Italian pasticcio (link in Hebrew). Various forms of casseroles and “pies” were consumed by Jews in France, Italy, and Germany – and throughout the Old World – from the medieval era, and such a dish was likely popular for special occasions and Shabbat meals alike. Since for a very long time kugels were far more common in Northern and Eastern Europe, the dishes only interacted in certain areas – and even then, a kugel was more often than not cooked within the Saturday cholent.

In Palestine and Israel, the dishes intermingled further. The Hebrew Academy, on its hell-bent mission to eliminate Yiddish from the mouths of Hebrew speakers, suggested that pashtida become the replacement for kugel as early as 1912. Pashtida became, for the largely Ashkenazi Zionists, the “replacement kugel,” especially after the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet both kugels and pashtidot are popular in the State of Israel today – and are largely treated as separate dishes. Kugel, meanwhile, became a mainstay of American Jewish cuisine, far more frequently baked in large quantities than cooked within a Saturday lunchtime cholent. In South Africa, the kugel was so popular that it soon became a slang term for a materialistic Jewish woman.

Both dishes changed significantly in the 1950s, in Israel and America. In the latter country, Ashkenazi Jews had not only become more affluent and prosperous, but also desired more to be integrated into mainstream white suburban culture. Dishes like kugel now needed to meet both “American” tastes and reflect a certain sort of middle-class propriety. Meanwhile, in Israel, food rationing followed by a growth in industrial foodstuffs, combined with a homogenization of cuisine, meant that pashtidot became more common and began to include new ingredients. In both Israel and the United States, dishes with canned corn became quite popular – including corn kugel and pashtidat tiras (corn pashtida). In the 1950s, a time obsessed with convenience and industrial foods, a can of corn was quite a “natural” ingredient to include. Canned corn had become popular a few decades earlier, but a more Americanized (in the US) or Westernized (in Israel) population embraced the food to include in “traditional” dishes. In any case, canned corn is a rather delicious addition to Jewish cuisine.

Potato kugel in a cast-iron skillet
A more traditional potato kugel, made by Amy Ross. (See the bottom of the post for a link attribution.) Photo Amy Ross, distributed under Creative Commons.

We often ignore the 1950s in our relentless pursuit of “authenticity,” without remembering that it was those who grew up with the “authentic” that created the food of the 1950s. Things like pashtida and canned corn were seen not as “invasions” of “real Jewish cuisine,” but rather as “progress” and…something delicious, something easy to make, something to feed a family. I mean, Jewish cuisine has always evolved over the ages – there was a time when p’tcha was newfangled, a time when kneidlach were newfangled, a time when rugelach were newfangled. The 1950s with its corn kugels and Osem soup powders were simply another part of the evolution of Jewish cuisine. And a corn casserole is not the worst fate for a cuisine.

The difference between a pashtida and a kugel is hard to suss out sometimes, and with corn this problem is certainly apparent. Is the casserole too eggy to be a kugel? Is it too solid to be a pashtida? Is it a pashtida and a kugel? If anything, it is reflective of the changing language – and changing nature – of Jewish food. One person’s “authentic” kugel is another’s “modern” pashtida is another’s “kugel when meat and pashtida when dairy.” To a certain extent, I am tempted to say here: “f**k nuance, and pass the casserole.”

Though I myself would probably say a pashtida before a kugel for the following recipe – I think of kugels as more solid. I promise an “unequivocally kugel” recipe in the near future.

A baked corn pashtida, very puffy
The finished pashtida, fresh out of the oven. Notice the puffiness! Photo mine, December 2015.

I created the following recipe myself – I found the pashtida recipes to be too cheesy or complex for a dish meant to be a simple weeknight dinner; the kugels, on the other hand, did not offer the unapologetically eggy texture of a good pashtida. If you want a richer product, add some more sour cream or, if you’re feeling a bit more classy, ricotta. For a thicker kugel, add more flour. I do wonder: would this dish work with an addition of chili peppers? If you try it out, let me know!

This dish is delightfully simple to make and is particularly good for those of you out there who are beginner cooks, or just becoming accustomed to the life of the kitchen.

Corn Kugel/Pashtida

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup sour cream

3 cups cooked corn kernels, canned, fresh, or frozen (two cans)

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried rosemary

2/3 cup flour

Butter, to grease the pan

  1. Grease a 9-inch pie pan with butter. Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C.
  2. Mix the eggs and sour cream together until well combined.
  3. Add the corn kernels and mix again until the kernels are evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
  4. Add the flour, salt, black pepper, and rosemary. Mix again so that you have a thick batter.
  5. Pour the batter into the pan and spread out so that the distribution is even.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pashtida/kugel is puffed up and set, and the top is a crisp golden brown.

Many thanks to Aaron Rubin and Matthew Gurevitch, who conducted the “user acceptance testing” for this recipe.

See Amy Ross’ Flickr for more yummy food, like the potato kugel referenced above.

The Hanukkah Classic: Latkes

Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in my college apartment – these are savory ones with onion inside! December 2013, photo mine.

If you ask most American Jews about Hanukkah, they will immediately think of a few things: candles, winter, and latkes. The latter – delicious potato fritters – are so popular that many non-Jews start to harangue their Jewish friends in late November: “when are the latkes coming?” Indeed, I have been so harangued. There is something delightfully heimish (cozy and warm-feelings) about biting into the starchy goodness of a freshly fried latke; it is, perhaps, one of the best parts of Hanukkah.

Latkes being fried in a deep pan
Frying the last of a batch of “test” latkes before Hanukkah – these soaked up the juices from the latkes fried before! Photo mine, November 2015.

As I wrote in my post about doughnuts, Hanukkah has the delightful tradition of foods fried in fantastic amounts of oil. This tradition sources from the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple, where – after prizing the Temple from Greek occupiers – the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil, which burned for eight days in the ritual menorah. From this incident comes the command to eat oily food – and why make a salad dressing when you can fry stuff? Already in the Middle Ages, fritters were a common Hanukkah food – the word latke, meaning patch, probably emerged then. When the potato reached Eastern Europe in the 18th century, they were simply integrated into the tradition. And boy, are we grateful.

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

People always ask me about “authentic” latkes, but I prefer to note how the latke undoes our notions of “authenticity.” Firstly, these are considered by some to be a quintessential and timeless Ashkenazi Jewish food, but they only reached their current form in the past two centuries, after the potato had become common across Eastern Europe. Secondly, potato pancakes are pretty common across Europe, be they Lithuanian blynai or Swiss rösti or Slovak haruľa. If anything, latkes  are yet another reminder that Jewish food has never been isolated from its neighbors – nor is an “authentic” Jewish recipe Jewish alone. Finally, a concentration on authenticity just takes out all of the delicious ways latkes  have evolved in diaspora, from the addition of grated parsnips in England to the Jewish-Japanese fusion latkes of 21st-century Brooklyn. If we spend too much time worrying about the authentic, we forget that food can have a delicious life of its own. Such is the case of the latke – though I admit, I am most fond of very ordinary, plain latkes.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

Latkes come in different shapes and sizes within the Jewish world. Some think that latke tastes in prewar Europe followed the “gefilte fish line.” Just as in the case of ground fish balls, Lithuanian Jews preferred a savory latke, while the Polish preferred a sweeter latke. Toppings differ – though applesauce is considered “classic,” many prefer to augment our latkes with sour cream. Or – as I prefer – both. Some latkes are tiny and finger-sized, others make enormous latkes that are a meal alone. In America, latkes are made and served in huge quantities in both ordinary and sweet potato varieties. And of course, in Israel, latkes are almost invisible – it is the industrially-produced doughnut that is king of Hanukkah there, after the efforts of Israeli trade unions.

Potato grating
Grating the potatoes by hand. The effort is worth it! Photo mine, November 2015.

I personally find that the best way to make latkes is rather haphazard – as befitting such a simple food. I do not measure out my grated potatoes or oil, nor do I seek a specific weight. Rather, it is simply knowing by touch, feel, and sight when the latke batter is the right consistency, when it is crisp enough in the pan, when I need a thicker batter or to add another egg. Latkes can be surprisingly tricky: grated potatoes are a mischievous and quickly-shifting ingredient, and flipping requires a technical skill greater than that of ordinary fritters or pancakes. One can also make last-minute additions: some black pepper, a few potato skins for color, or – my favorite – a grated apple.

Thus, for those of you who are not as familiar with the kitchen, latkes can be challenging. The temptation for a beginning cook to follow a recipe exactly will not produce the latkes of your dreams, and this deceptively simple treat gets better with a lot of trial and error. A lot. That said, fried potatoes are delicious in many forms, and you can totally eat “ugly” or disintegrated latkes out of a bowl with applesauce and sour cream…not that I have ever done that. Seriously, though, it’s worth the work and experimentation. In addition, the skills you gain making latkes apply to a lot of recipes, and a lot of Jewish recipes.

Spices on apples for applesauce
Adding spices to the apples in the process of making applesauce – we have cinnamon, turmeric, sugar, rosemary, and cloves in this one. Photo mine, November 2015.

I have included here a recipe for homemade applesauce, should you decide to make it. I have not been able to find a good source for the Jewish history of applesauce, but dishes with cooked apple have a long and illustrious history across the Jewish world. It is likely that applesauce emerged alongside kompot, a traditional and delicious stew of fruit. The normal American apple-cinnamon pairing is delicious, but I find the color and flavor are enhanced with a hefty dose of turmeric, my very favorite spice.

These recipes are approximately written but very flexible. If you want to add or take away things, do so – and if they’re really good, let me know what you did. Enjoy! And, of course, Khag Urim Sameakh to you and yours!

Latkes in the pan with chunks of apple in them
Latkes in progress – these have chunks of apple, which make them quite unwieldy, but oh-so-soft and juicy! Photo mine, December 2014.

Potato Latkes

Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)

4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)

4-5 eggs

1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 medium apple, peeled and grated (see step 1)

½ cup flour

Oil for frying

  1. Grate the potatoes and the apple separately. I am including this as a step since this takes time. I grate by hand because I find grating therapeutic, but feel free to use a food mill or a food processor. It does save a lot of energy and time. Keep the grated potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration, unless gray latkes are your thing.
  2. When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
  3. Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
  4. Add the flour and mix again until blended. You should have pieces of potato and apple coated in a thick batter. If your batter is too thin, add a few tablespoons of flour. If it is too thick, add another egg.
  5. Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
  6. Heat your pan – ideally, a wide skillet. Then add a layer of oil – about ¼ of an inch. Also, make sure that your frying area is well ventilated.
  7. Add heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the pan and fry until the bottom is brown. Flip, then continue frying until the other side is brown. Remove and place on a pan lined with something to absorb the oil, like paper towels.
  8. Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
  9. Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.

 

Homemade Applesauce

Based on a recipe by Karen Waltuck

Makes four to six cups applesauce

5 apples, cored and chopped roughly

½ cup sugar

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp ground turmeric

1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (yes you’re reading this correctly)

1 tsp ground pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp salt

3 cloves

water

  1. Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
  2. Place the apples, sugar, and spices into a pasta or stock pot and mix thoroughly. Add water so that the apples are floating above or are underneath about ¾ of an inch of water. If they are floating, don’t worry.
  3. Bring to a boil. Then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the apples are very soft and the water has cooked down about 1 inch.
  4. Once the apples are soft, take the pot over another heat. Set up either a food mill or colander and spoon over a second pot, container, or bowl.
  5. Ladle the mixture into the food mill or colander gradually and push through. With a food mill, you can just crank. With a colander, you just spin the spoon around and the apples and sauce go through mashed, leaving the peels behind. Do this for all the sauce; you should have peels in the work colander and sauce in the bowl at the end. Discard the peels.
  6. Stir the sauce to evenly distribute the apple mash. Taste it and add a bit of lemon if you find it too sweet. If your sauce is a bit watery, don’t worry – pour off the most liquid bits and drink it! (It’s really good as an addition to soup stock as well.)

Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta): A Childhood Favorite

Cabbage soup with kneidlach

Cabbage Soup With Apple: The Childhood Favorite

Cabbage soup with kneidlach
Kapushta (cabbage soup) served with kneidlakh (matzah balls), November 2015. The recipe for kneidlakh is not included here. Photo mine.

My grandparents used to take over our house every year. And when I say take over, I mean they would occupy our house for up to six weeks – filling our ears with the Afrikaans from their mouths, our brains with the stories of the pre-war South Africa of their childhoods, and our kitchen with what they liked to eat. My grandfather, a creature of culinary habit, would fill the pantry with the various European pickles and South African staples he subsisted on – delicious herring and onions for the former, various forms of dried cracker and jam for the latter. On the other hand, my grandmother – knitter, soup maestro, and shade-thrower extraordinaire –filled our stomachs and freezer with an arsenal of soups. Many of my childhood memories either involve eating her soup, or the effort to find adequate containers to store the amount she had made.

Chopped cabbage and apples
Chopped cabbage and apple for inclusion in the soup. Here, I am using Honeycrisp apples, which are sweeter than a Granny Smith. November 2015, photo mine.

My favorite soup as a child was her kapushta – a cabbage soup imported from her parents’ homeland of Lithuania. Tart, beguilingly sweet, and traversing the boundary between “light” and “dense,” kapushta – or, more commonly, “cabbage borscht,” is a world on a plate. It is also a deeply vernacular food. Russian and Ukrainian peasants were making cabbage soup in the 11th century; by the 18th century, the soup was consumed from Vienna, to Perm, to Helsinki, to Bucharest. Around that time, tomatoes and potatoes arrived in Eastern Europe from the Americas  Even today, in Eastern Europe, one can find soup on the menu of many a “home-style cooking” establishment. Or, as the Russians say, “cabbage soup and kasha – this is our food!” The name kapushta – common in Poland, and in Slovakia as kapustnica, simply means “cabbage.” “Cabbage borsht” – or borsht mit kroyt – seems to be a bit more common as a name than kapushta. I asked many of my friends who had this soup as children, and more of them called it “borscht” or something along those lines – and even more just “cabbage soup.” I wonder, after some research, if kapushta is a regionalism based on the Lithuanian kopūstienė or kopūstų sriuba.

Kapustnica from slovakia
Kapustnica – the Slovak cabbage soup, with some very non-kosher additions (Maciarka via Wikimedia Commons)

The Jewish versions are generally kosher renditions of their neighbors. This fact stands to reason, since Jews were not exactly wealthy at this time either, cabbage was cheap and plentiful, and folks have copied each other’s cooking since the dawn of humankind. So here, we Ashkenazim swapped the lard for other fats, and skipped the sausage-smetana combinations as garnish. Sometimes, however, there are more specific additions: kneidlach (matzoh balls) or farfel (an egg pasta). The preparation can also be a hint as to the region of origin: apples added a tartness often associated with Lithuanian Jews and their taste for the sour, whereas some sugar could indicate a recipe from Galitzia (Southern Poland and Western Ukraine, known as “Galicia” during the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and the sweet tooth of the Jews there. It is the former that my very Litvak grandmother cooks: she even slices the apple thinly to make crisp the tartness of the soup.

Spices and garlic.
Spices and garlic for the soup – in “the old country” such a spiced mix would have been inaccessible to most, but the cabbage and apple alone would have provided wonderful flavor. November 2015, photo mine.

Then there are the traditions surrounding cabbage soup in various parts of Ashkenazi Jewry. Some serve the sweet-tangy soup on Hanukkah because of its “warmth” and to commemorate the sweetness of victory. German Jews, however, eat it on Hoshanah Rabah, as part of a pun: the German and Western Yiddish Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew qol mevaser (voice proclaiming) – and thus celebrates the proclamation of G-d’s divine mercy. Many more groups associate the soup with the solemnity and celebration of the Friday night Shabbat (or Shabbos, for many Ashkenazim) dinner. Indeed, in our family, that was kapushta’s frequent stage.

Apples and cabbage in the pot
Throwing the apples into the pot to cook alongside the cabbage – here, I used Jonagold for a tarter flavor. October 2015, photo mine.

My grandmother recently resent me her recipe – one that I had received and mislaid many times. This message triggered a renewed flurry of kapushta-making, one that has given my kitchen and my mother’s kitchen a cabbage smell. It is not everyone’s favorite odor, but it is the smell of my childhood – and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This kapushta is slightly adjusted from my grandmother’s recipe: I like to find chunks of sweet apple in the tangy soup, so I dice the apple rather than slice it thinly. Furthermore, I use water rather than stock or bouillon for the soup itself: I find that a flavored liquid can drown the flavors too much, whereas water allows the apple, vinegar, cabbage, and tomatoes to do their magical work.

Kapushta with farfel
Halfway through dinnertime I thought to snap a photo of this “uglier” kapushta – I threw in farfel, small egg noodles, as an afterthought. October 2015, photo mine.

Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta)

Based on the recipe of Esther Back

3 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large head green cabbage, washed and chopped into thin slices

16 oz. canned tomatoes in water*

1 large or 2 medium apple(s), cored and diced – use Granny Smith or Jonagold for a more tart flavor, Honeycrisp for a sweet-tart balance, or Jonathan for a sweeter addition

3 tbsp apple cider vinegar

3 tbsp white sugar

2 tbsp salt (and more to taste at serving)

2 tbsp dried dill

1 tbsp ground black pepper (and more to taste at serving)

2 tsp ground paprika (optional)

1 tsp dried thyme

Water (amount varies)

 

Small egg noodles or farfel (optional)

Matzoh balls, prepared according to your favorite recipe (optional)

 

  1. In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in the oil until translucent but not brown.
  2. Add the chopped cabbage and garlic and mix thoroughly with the onions.
  3. Cover the whole mixture in water up to two or three inches above where the cabbage reached in the pot. If you needed to take your pot off the stove to do this, place it back on the flame and add the tomatoes, and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Add the apple, vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, paprika, and thyme once the water is boiling.
  5. Boil for a few minutes, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half, by which time the cabbage should be very soft and translucent.
  6. If you are serving noodles or farfel with the soup, cook the noodles or farfel according to package directions. For noodles, cut off a minute or so from the cooking time – they will cook in the soup. For homemade farfel, you can cook them directly in the soup.
  7. When the soup is ready, you can serve it as is, add noodles or farfel, matzoh balls, and/or another starch – my grandmother likes a baked potato in hers. I like to add a dollop of sour cream to mine. It freezes well.

*Eve Jochnowitz discusses Lithuanian Jewish canning and food preservation in her translation of Fania Lewando’s (hy”d) 1938 cookbook, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (which you should get). Jews in Europe canned extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Lewando included many recipes for home canning in the book. As Jochnowitz noted, many of those preserving methods would not be considered safe today.

Additional note: In regards to the name, I would like to thank Susan Rosenberg, Yael Wiesenfeld, Josh Schwartz, Sara Liss, Maurice Farber, Donna Druchunas, Tova Reiter, Ilana Newman, JS Biderman, Laynie Soloman, Amanda Jermyn, Shana Carp, Ziva Freiman, and others for their contributions to the discussion about names.