Gingerbread Cake

Black and white of sliced gingerbread cake covered in powdered sugar

One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.

A medieval oven with two wooden sticks going into holes in a brick edifice, with a fire within
A medieval oven that old gingerbreads may have been baked in. (Photo Richard Croft via CC)

Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.

I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.

This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!



Gingerbread Cake with Raisins

Serves 12-16

⅔ cup raisins

1 cup cold water

1 teaspoon rum extract

½ cup granulated white sugar

½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)

1 cup applesauce

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon table salt

⅔ cup hot water

Oil, to grease pan

Powdered sugar, for garnish

  1. Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
  3. In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
  4. Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
  5. Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
  6. Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
  7. Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.

Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

 

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Bread Pudding

Here is a dessert that seems to be common in some Jewish communities and not others: bread pudding. In the Jewish communities of England, South Africa, Argentina, and the Midwest, bread pudding is quite common as a dessert. This is not surprising, given that the dish as we know it originated in medieval England as a frugal food and later became popular in areas in the British Empire, or – like Argentina – influenced by it. It was also originally eaten as a meal itself, a trend reflected in many German puddings and our own kugels. The dish crept up from the lower classes and became sweeter, richer, and tastier among the wealthy who could afford white bread. The Ottomans, too, had their own bread-based desserts – and so you have the ekmek kadayıfı (link in Turkish) of Turkey, the umm ali of Egypt, and the budín de pan (link in Spanish) of Argentina. A bread-baked dessert makes sense: it is made from a common ingredient, is filling, and can be both very luxurious and very simple. It is also easily made without milk; thus it can be served with a meat meal in kosher households. Yet bread pudding does not seem to be quite as common in the Northeast United States or in Israel as elsewhere in the world – though I have never served it to an unwelcome audience.

I give here my “typical” bread pudding recipe, which I have made for many years – since I was in middle school! For this bread pudding, I used some Berches that I had frozen. Berches is the traditional Shabbat and holiday bread of German Jewry, and in the place of egg in challah, potato is used. The result is a delightfully fluffy and luscious bread. I will post a recipe in the future, but I strongly urge you to check out the incredible recipe in The German-Jewish Cookbook by Gabrielle and Sonya Gropman. If you do not have Berches, use another fluffy bread, such as challah or brioche.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan

Simple Bread Pudding

Serves 9-12

1 medium to large loaf light, white bread, shredded into small pieces (it is fine if the bread is stale) – I recommend using challah, Berches, or brioche

6 tablespoons melted butter (salted or unsalted)

1 cup whole milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1 cup white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

 

Add-ins (all optional and flexible with quantity)

1 handful dried cherries or raisins, soaked for ten minutes

1 handful chocolate chips

1 handful slivered almonds

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190 C.
  2. Place the bread in a deep 9”x9”/23cm x 23cm pan (or a similarly sized pan).
  3. Mix in any add-ins into the bread with your hands, until evenly distributed.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the butter, milk, vanilla, cinnamon (if using), sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined.
  5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Evenly distribute such that all the bread is soaked by the mixture – you may need to press some of the bread down into the mixture with a fork.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the liquid has set and the top is browned and crispy. A toothpick should come out clean. Remove from the oven, and serve warm or at room temperature. You can optionally serve this with a wine sauce, a custard, or ice cream.

*A note: the question of how much bread was actually consumed by the poorest is a matter of historical debate, especially given that grain shortages were common. What is certain is that medieval bread was very different – largely made from unhulled grain, and stretched with other seeds in poorer communities. Medieval peasants did not eat “well” in any sense of the word. Medieval “frugal” bread pudding would be unrecognizable to us today. I suggest reading Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan or Food in Medieval Times by Melitta Weiss Adamson for more.

Apple Cake 2.0

Update: there was a typo in the measurements that caused some of you to make dry cakes. Many apologies! This has now been corrected.

I usually do not tend to update my recipes that often, but Rosh HaShanah is a time of renewal, and as it happens, I have significantly changed my apple cake recipe. It is a big shift – from a dense, weighty cake to a fluffier cake. I am pretty pleased with the result, which I served this year for Rosh HaShanah.

In addition, I made the cake in a Bundt pan. Though Bundt pans come from 1950s America, they are based on the pan for the German-Jewish Kugelhopf cake, and were created in Minnesota partly as a modernized Kugelhopf! So it turns out that Jewish influence on the coffee circles in the Midwest extends even further than what I talked about when I made Sour Cream Cake.

An apple Bundt cake with glaze on parchment paper.
Redone. And delicious. (Photo mine, September 2017)

Apple Cake

Cake:

8 oz/250g butter or margarine, melted + more for greasing the pan

1¼ cups/250g white sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup milk or soy milk

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 3/4 cups white flour, sifted

2-3 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and diced

Glaze:

1 cup/125g powdered sugar

2 tablespoons/30 mL water

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a large cake pan – you can use a 9 inch/23cm spring-form cake pan, a large Bundt pan, or a big square pan.
  2. In a bowl, mix the butter and sugar together until thoroughly combined.
  3. Add the eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. Mix thoroughly until combined.
  4. Add the baking powder and flour. Add the flour a little bit at a time, while mixing. Mix thoroughly, until combined.
  5. Pour half the batter into the cake pan.
  6. Spread the apples over the batter in the cake pan until evenly distributed.
  7. Pour the rest of the batter on top of the layer of apples.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the cake is brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  9. Meanwhile, make the glaze: mix the water and powdered sugar together until thoroughly combined into a thick liquid.
  10. Remove the cake from the pan. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake. Allow the glaze to become solid (about 20 minutes) before serving. The cake lasts for six days in an airtight container.

If you want to make the original apple cake recipe, click here.

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

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

Smetanakuchen with a streusel of almonds and brown sugar

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

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

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

 

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

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

Smetana Kuchen (Sour Cream Cake)

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

Streusel (also used in the Mohnkuchen):

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½ tbsp. salted butter, chilled

Cake:

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

1 cup white granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1 ¼ cups sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups white sifted flour

1/3 cup slivered almonds (optional)

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

Mohnkuchen (German Poppy Seed Cake)

The cooling cake
The cake, cooling after being removed from the oven (Photo mine, January 2017)

Ah, German and Austrian pastry. I claim that the main reasons I am learning German are its usefulness in researching Jewish history (and delicious food), my own heritage, an interest in trains, and the stunning beauty of the language. But I cannot deny that the wonderful pastry traditions of the German-speaking world – anthologized beautifully in Luisa Weiss’ Classic German Baking is a very key draw for me to the stringent cases, bizarre genders, and complex plurals of die deutsche Sprache. The German-speaking world is particularly famous for its elegant cakes, buttery-creamy pastry, and the oh-so-wonderful delights of nutty and tart flavors combined with the sweet, heady rush of sugar. By this world of pastry and cake I am well and truly smitten – or, perhaps to be more appropriate for the topic of this post, ich bin sehr vernarrt! A man who can make me a perfect Pflaumenkuchen or Lüneberger Buchweizentorte will not only receive an instant marriage proposal from me, he will also have proven himself instantly adept at Jewish food. What more could I ask for?

The cake, on a plate, with other dishes in the background
A Mohnkuchen, waiting to be served at my friend’s birthday potluck. The dough is deceptive – it’s not as thick as it looks! (Photo mine, January 2017)

German pastry, despite its exterior appearance, is also a deeply Jewish tradition. Many of the earliest Jewish cookbooks from the late 19th century were published by and for German Jewish communities in der Heimat and abroad: Milwaukee to London to Cape Town. The recipes within them include the cakes and pastries that differed by region but not ethnicity or religion in their homelands. One could learn to make an apple cake, a buckwheat cake, a Streuselkuchen or  Dampfnudeln from these cookbooks. Some were Jewish specialties – such as the doughy potato-based Berches bread – and some were not. Many of these recipes were shared with other Ashkenazi communities – among them the Austrian and Bavarian strudel and recipes filled with poppy seed or almonds. In the United States and Canada, the popularity of German pastries became so ingrained in Ashkenazi Jewish communities that their origins as German and/or Austrian – and not necessarily specifically Jewish – were forgotten. (Many of my New Yorker friends are surprised to learn that non-Jews eat strudel!) In Israel, meanwhile, German bakers who arrived before the establishment of the State began a proud baking tradition that continues to this day. The recipes still do not differ that much from their butter-laden German counterparts, other than the occasional substitution of dairy ingredients.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer. (Photo mine, January 2017)

The pastries are also delicious – like this poppy seed cake, filled with a variant of my beloved mohn. The nuttiness and timbre of the poppy seeds balances with a dense, doughy pastry and the sugar throughout to bring your taste buds on a very pleasant journey. Now, this poppy seed cake is not technically “Jewish,” but it is so very Jewish. Poppy seed pastries are deeply traditional – just think of hamantaschen! – in the Ashkenazi world, and I have seen similar recipes to this one in several Jewish cookbooks. In addition, poppy seed is a popular filling for the cake known as babka – which, though differently shaped and yeasted, is not dissimilar in final product to this cake. Not to mention that many babkas are also covered in streusel! In any case, this cake would be readily recognized as an Ashkenazi one at many a synagogue potluck.

Mohnkuchen mit Streuseln (Poppy Seed Cake with Crumble Topping)

Based on the recipe by Felice Forby

Streusel

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½  tbsp salted butter, chilled

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

¾ cup milk

2½ tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp white sugar

3 tbsp semolina flour

¾ cup ground poppy seeds

1 egg

Cake

1¼ cups white sifted flour + more for rolling

1 tsp baking powder

4 tbsp sour cream

3 tbsp milk

3 tbsp salted butter, softened

3 tbsp white sugar

  1. Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
  2. In a saucepan, melt the butter into the milk.
  3. Add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and semolina and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.
  4. Add the poppy seeds to the semolina mixture and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
  5. Preheat your oven to 350F/180C.
  6. Mix together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, milk, butter, and sugar until smooth.
  7. Add the flour to the butter-cream mixture and blend together with a pastry knife or two forks until you get a smooth dough. If you want the dough to be more pliable, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for fifteen minutes.
  8. Line the bottom of a 9-inch pan (square or round) with parchment paper.
  9. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to be ½ inch/1.5cm thick, and lay on the floor of your pan. It is perfectly fine if a little rolls over the edges.
  10. Evenly spread the poppy seed mixture on top of the cake dough. You can fold over the far edges of the dough on top of your filling.
  11. Evenly distribute the streusel on top.
  12. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust of the cake is brown. When the streusel starts to brown, you can cover the top of the cake with tinfoil.
  13. Leave to cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.

Thank you to Yael Shafritz, Aaron Marans, Alex Roesch, and Yonit Friedman  for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.

This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.

While looking up recipes for qatayef ­– which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”

“Too sweet,” you say?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?

To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.

Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafeh and baklava are dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.

Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macarons from a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?

The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)

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.