Despite these struggles, Pesach is a delicious holiday. And for many Jews, no food is so associated with the holiday as much as the macaroon – the delicious, nowadays usually almond- or coconut-based, mysteriously flour-free cookie. Some people, including myself, are fans of macaroons, especially when they are freshly baked. A few Jews have been known to eat ten in one sitting – a category that, of course, does not include the author. Others will gladly eat fluffy French macarons but avoid the heavier Jewish macaroons. And many, having only had the underrated-but-still-somewhat-dry packaged macaroons, consider the cookie a bit dull or not tasty at all. Though one can find them all year round on many tables, macaroons are now only encountered by most Jews around Pesach in their packaged form. As a result, many think this treat with a long history is a modern invention.
Sephardim, and then Ashkenazim, adopted the macaroon from Italian Jews and Spanish Jews fleeing the inquisition, who had made the similaramarguillos from bitter almonds(link in Spanish). Macaroons appeared in the earliest Jewish cookbooks in the United States, and have remained popular since. Today, coconut macaroons predominate – especially given both the ready availability of coconut and the industrialization of coconut grating since the 19th century. One can, of course, still find delicious almond macaroons. The coconut version, however, connects Jewish macaroons to another family of macaroons spread through colonial empires. Coconut macaroons based on the European-Arab original are now popular in the Dominican Republic, Southern India, the Philippines, and Mauritius. (This Mauritian recipe by Shelina Permaloo is particularly lovely.)
These coconut macaroons are simple, tasty, and a good dessert for any time of the year. (And they are gluten free!) I have the recipe here with raisins, but you can also make them with chocolate chips.
Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!
Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
8 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)
1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup water
6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)
Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.
*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.
I hate authenticity, and I especially hate it when people ask me about it. Sometimes it is in the form of a compliment – my blog is “so authentic” or has so many “authentic” recipes! Others critique me for things like having a recipe for quince jam but not one for brisket. The blog is not “authentic” enough – a coded way too often of saying “Ashkenazi” enough. And some just ask for my most “authentic” recipe. This all irritates me, because authenticity is just such a boring performance, and a race for the lowest common denominator. It is also deeply problematic and tied with the same dangerous nostalgia, even if more distantly, that got Trump elected. (Indeed, this post’s timing is not accidental.) I write this blog for good food and good history, not to make my Jewishness a product that can be certified as the most Jewish. And besides, one simple fact is at the heart of why authenticity sets my teeth on edge:
Authenticity does not make food Jewish. Please shut up about authenticity.
You speak of “authentic” Jewish food. But what makes a food Jewish? A Jewish food is nothing more than a dish or an item or an ingredient that finds itself part of the common memory of a Jewish community, tied to other parts of Jewish culture, and/or referent to the Jewish faith. It is not essentially Jewish, and it is not Jewish to the core. This could be a celebratory dish, or an ordinary dish, kosher or trefah, but it is Jewish. This definition is admittedly an uncomfortable one – I myself cannot wrap my head around any Jewish dish with bacon – but it is the closest thing to Jewish food we’ll get. Foods become Jewish – just think of Wiener Schnitzel, the German middle-class cutlet turned into Israeli street food. Foods are shared – and hence I tire of the hummus wars that are really the province of competing nationalisms skirting around the unmistakable bogeymen of foreign influence and the truly unknown. And Jewish foods become universal – which anyone who has found frozen bagels in a rural Midwestern grocery store can attest to. Authenticity is not a defining factor of the Jewishness of food, it is simply something attached to it. Maybe authenticity makes the food sell, maybe authenticity allows you to make fun of your neighbors, when it probably makes you feel better about yourself.
But here’s the thing: the only thing eating p’tcha – the Ashkenazi calf’s foot aspic – definitely does to you is it makes you someone who eats p’tcha. The dish is definitely Jewish – and if I may say, delicious – and is tied to memories of communities and is deeply tied to Jewish history. But you’re not more Jewish for eating it, and p’tcha is only authentic insofar as you ignore the Turkic origins of the aspic, or the fact that every Central European, Eastern European, and Balkan culture has some variant of chilled foot jelly: Serbian pihtije, Hungarian kocsonya, Ukrainian kholodets, Turkish soğuk paça. The authenticity is about you and what you want alone.
And, of course, authenticity is about power. Too often a complaint about authenticity is a complaint that we are not adhering to the relentless centering of Jewish narratives around a white, whitewashed Ashkenazi experience. Even in rebellion – be it in Yiddishism or Zionism – the focus on the “authentic” is still, despite other value, a focus on that which can be performed as European. And, despite the ravages of the Israeli state on Yiddish culture or the very real anti-Semitism here, Ashkenazi culture still benefits from power within the Jewish world. So authenticity becomes a gatekeeper – such that an African-American Jew’s perfectly delicious and perfectly Jewish, not to mention perfectly heimish, collard greens for Shabbat are simply “not authentic.” Is it really that something prepared for the honor of Shabbat is not authentic? Or is it not the Jewishness we think should be performed?
Besides, authenticity makes for terrible Jewish cooking and terrible Jewish history. I have already outlined why this is terrible Jewish history, but I would also wager that our ancestors in Vilnius, Cordoba, and Baghdad would laugh to the point of wheezing at their descendants’ obsession and puritanical concern for the authentic. Jewish cooking has always been enriched by their neighbors’, simply because you only got to eat a lot of that food a few times a year. Until recently, food was drab and grim for most people most of the time, even if wondrous preserved foods could sustain communities for months. Exotic ingredients from afar and new techniques closer to home not only promised honor to the festivals and occasions that meant eating well, but new ways to nourish appetites long since tired of “ordinary food.” Authenticity, to eat only what your group produced, to fit 19th-century boxes of Nation and Folk, was so anachronistic. Mixing and matching within the bounds of kashrut were the mark of eating Jewishly, and eating well.
Jews have always skirted the boxes of nation, ethnicity, and religion: we are an entity that defies easy categorization. Zionism sought to fit us into the box of nation, Bundism into ethnicity, the Ottoman millet system into religion. All have failed to capture, though, the fact that Jews and Jewish culture are defined in an ever-evolving dialogue, and that extends to food as well. To firmly establish Jewish cuisine as a set table is to declare that we are what precisely we are not. We also defy authenticity, and that is something to take pride in. This fact, perhaps, hearkens back to why precisely 19th-century European nationalists were so frightened by Jews: that we made short shrift of every romantic narrative attached to material culture. That includes food – our tables have always been shared.
A lot of the food I make on this blog, and will continue to make, happens to be “authentic.” But there is nothing authentic about this blog. I insist on a Jewish food history that recognizes where we have borrowed and learned from our neighbors, and recognizes where we have taught them. You cannot begin to narrate the history of Jewish food without the borrowing, and we also gave many things to our Gentile compatriots – recipes for duck in Poland, fennel and coffee in Italy, or slow-cooked stews in Spain. Our concern about authenticity is that we do not look like any of the other false nationalisms with the fake authentic cuisine. And that’s a beautiful thing. We have defied boxes ever since someone tried to make them. I will make hamantaschen and I will fill them with heretical sprinkles, and they will be just as Jewish. Authenticity is about insecurity, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about whiteness and class, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about fitting us into a box. I intend on cooking Jewishly, and whiteness and insecurity should not be celebrated parts of Jewish life. And I will not place Jewish food into a box.
We do not need to “make Jewish food great again.” We need to resist Trumpism and keep eating Jewishly, whatever that means to us. To make Jewish food about authenticity is to fall into the same trap that got us into Trump, that got us into a violent state in Israel, that got us into so much acrimony in the Jewish community: it’s about your whiteness or power or insecurity. And not about the fact that authenticity is really a bullshit concept that is too often used to excuse terrible cooking. Cook to eat and if you can, cook to eat well. Food should feed your body and soul, not build walls. And Jewish food can do so much better than build walls – it feeds a group that has defied all the walls yet built around it.
The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.
I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.
Green lentils in a jar. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Sauteing the leeks and tomatoes. (Photo mine, December 2016)
It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining. I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.
Holding fennel in my hand (Photo mine, December 2016)
The smell of licorice takes over as I chop the fennel. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”
This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.
So, what to cook for your vegetarian friends and relatives – or yourself, if you are vegetarian? There are, of course, many options, but I am going to suggest this very simple adaptation of a Indian recipe: lentils with okra. Both lentils and okra are traditional in many Jewish cuisines, and both have that wonderful ability of being very easy to cook, yet tasting like something very complex indeed. I make a simpler version of this recipe quite regularly for guests, and the contrast of the green okra chunks against the brown lentils can, with a bit of arrangement, be beautiful. The original recipe I used many years ago had a completely different spice mixture; for this recipe I used a more Middle Eastern combination with sumac and paprika.
Lentils symbolize plenty to some, but unlikeother beans in some Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, they are not actually a traditional Rosh HaShanah food. Instead, many consider the lentil to be a food of mourning, and eat lentils both during theshivafor a deceased relative, and at the traditional meal preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av. However, lentils also can and do show up on the table at joyous occasions – and perhaps, with this recipe, at yours as well.
Lentils with Okra
1 medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound okra, chopped into chunks*
2 tsp table salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp ground sumac (optional)
½ tsp ground thyme
1 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar
1½ cups dried lentils
3 cups water or vegetable stock
Olive or vegetable oil
Fresh cilantro (for garnish)
Heat a deep saucepan, then coat the bottom with oil. Add the onions and garlic and begin to sauté.
When the onions begin to soften, add the okra and mix thoroughly while sautéing.
After the okra is mixed in thoroughly, add and mix in the salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, sumac, and thyme. Sauté for two minutes.
When the onions are significantly softer (beginning to brown under the spices), and the spices are sticking to the okra and onions, add the vinegar. Sauté for another two minutes, or until the okra begins to “look” and feel slightly softer against your mixing implement.
Add the lentils and mix in, then add the water.
Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are soft, and the okra is soft. Stir every few minutes. (If the lentils and okra are very soft, and you still have some water left over, you can add 1 teaspoon of cornstarch or ground kuzu root to thicken the sauce.)
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!
The incredible Michael Twitty of Afroculinariaand “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.
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:
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?
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?
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.
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 kanafehand baklavaare 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 macaronsfrom 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.
And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.
Mention Shavuot to a Jew in the United States or Canada, and their first response is often “cheesecake.” The holiday associated with dairy foods has now become, for many, only associated with a creamy concoction of cheese, eggs, and sugar, soft and yet mysteriously solid. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for many American Jews the cheesecake on Shavuot matters more than the important event the holiday actually celebrates: revelation. This connection may seem modern, but – as I noted in my last post, when I made cheese and talked about dairy on Shavuot – dairy and this holiday have a long history together, and cheesecake and Jewry also have a long and delicious relationship.
Cheesecake has a long Jewish history spanning the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds – in fact, the longest of any recipe yet profiled on the blog. In Ancient Greece, combinations of flour, fresh cheese, and honey were baked and dried; this recipe was likely known in the Holy Land. (The Priestly Source may himself have eaten this.) Similar desserts were eaten across the Roman Empire, probably including by those Hellenized Jews who sought to assimilate into access to imperial power. Later on, Jews settled in many cheese-eating parts of the world: and so you ended up with Italian Jews making ricotta-based cheesecakes (more on that later), and Ashkenazi Jews – as Claudia Roden notes in her book – absorbing and reimagining the cheesecakes of their non-Jewish neighbors. English Jews before the expulsion of 1290 probably made a cake like the sambocade found in medieval cookbooks; medieval Spanish Jewry probably ate cheesecakes not unlike the quesada pasiega(video in Spanish) still common in Spain today. By the 19th century, cheesecakes were popular Shavuot and festival dishes in many places of the Jewish world.
Cheesecake is now considered in many places a “Jewish” food. In Rome, the traditional ricotta-based cassola and crostata di ricotta (video in Italian) are both recipes that originate in the Jewish quarter of that city. The recipe is based on the Shavuot and Sabbath delicacies of the Sicilian Jews that arrived in Rome after being expelled from their home island in the fifteenth century. Today, the Jewish cheesecake has become a Roman Christmas tradition, one that has even attracted the attention of the New York Times. Across the ocean, in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal, the cream cheese-based cheesecake of North American Jewry is considered a “Jewish” food of the first order – and in the rest of the United States, “real” cheesecake is often “New York, and Jewish.” Indeed, as Joan Nathan notes in Jewish Food in America, cheesecake was first popularized in the United States by Jewish delis in New York. (In college, the first question one non-Jewish friend asked of me, when he learned I was Jewish, was for a cheesecake recipe.)
For this recipe, I made a simple ricotta cheesecake with an almond base, using the homemade cheese I made for the last post. Of course, you can also use store-bought ricotta and/or quark cheese. One of the great things about ricotta cheesecakes or quark cheesecakes is that you don’t need to have a water bath for them, as you do for the far more delicate cream cheese-based cakes common here in the United States. This means that the recipe is both far quicker to make, and far easier – especially for beginning cooks. The recipe here resembles in some ways the ricotta cheesecakes from Italy I mentioned earlier, and in some ways the quark-based Käsekuchen or sernik common in Germany and Poland. Perhaps it also resembles the cheesecakes of pre-war, pre-Holocaust Lithuania – Fania Lewando’s recipe also uses farmer’s cheese (tsvorekh). The innovation I made is using an almond base. Not only does this provide a wonderful nutty counterpart to the light, sweet cheese – with which the almonds meld wonderfully – but also makes the cake gluten-free. Feel free to make a dough or biscuit crust, like that in the Baked Apple Pudding, but the almonds really do work.
Putting down the base…
…adding the batter…
…baking and maybe I added a preserved fig because yum. (Photos mine, June 2016)
Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base
1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2-2 cups fresh ricotta
1-1 1/2 cups fresh quark cheese (you can also use ricotta only, it should add up to three cups of cheese)
1 cup white sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Butter for greasing the pan.
In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
Preheat your oven to 400F. Grease the bottom of a 9″ round pan. You can use a springform pan for easier cutting or a normal deep round cake or casserole pan for easy transport.
Press the almond base into the bottom of your pan. Your almond base should be pretty soft and a bit of a paste, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. The almond mix should be evenly distributed.
(Author note: for a thicker base, use 1/2 cup of almonds and a tad more butter and sugar.)
If you are using a dough base, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of dough of about ½ an inch thickness.
Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set (meaning it no longer jiggles when moved) and the top is browned. Let cool before serving.
The author would like to thank Sara and Lisa Wolovick for assisting in the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe, and Gabi Kirk for User Acceptance Testing, photography, and helping me make this year’s Shavuot cheesecakes.
…and quark cheese happens! It’s ugly, I know. But yum.
And we boil the whey to make ricotta…(Yes this is kind of gross)
…ricotta, just strained! (Photos mine, June 2016)
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:
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
A big soup pot
Two colanders – one should be quite big
A giant bowl
Big wooden spoons
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.
Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
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.
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.