This is the first of what will be three posts about babka.
My mother’s friend Abby says that babka is a ghost that will haunt you until it is eaten. In this case, I prefer many exorcisms. I love babka.
Too bad that it’s a pain to make.
A sweet yeasted dough, twisted and wrapped around a filling of chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or fruit and perhaps sweet cheese. Sounds simple, right? In fact, it is not. Sweet yeasted dough is quite difficult to work with, and wrapping it around the filling is always my downfall. (My hand-eye coordination, to quote my boyfriend, is “erratic.”) As it happens, bakeries sometimes do a very good job with their babka. I am more than happy to fork over some money and enjoy the babka without the anxiety.
Babka is, in fact, a very common food that people will only ever savor store-bought. Jewish bakeries across the world specialize in the Ashkenazi treat. Haredi bakeries in Jerusalem make “Krantz cake” – an alternate name for babka – that people from all walks of Israeli life travel from across the country for. The beautiful bite of the dough and the coy sweetness of the filling is a triumph. Breads in New York has become famous for their babka, which seems to elicit joy everywhere. (Note: I believe that all properly-made babkas cause joy.) In any case, Breads’ perfectly textured babka is divine. I have seen visitors from out of town bee-line to Breads for babka before going anywhere else in the city. And of course, one cannot forget supermarket babkas. As dowdy as these can be, some brands’ babkas are perfectly tasty and delectably un-shareable. A few readers have mentioned the Trader Joe’s babka as their ideal babka, but I am more partial to Green’s obscenely swirly chocolate babka.
Of course I want to make my own babka. A plum jam and cottage cheese babka will never be mass market in a country rightly obsessed with chocolate babka. Yet it is so delicious – especially when you hit a plum and a gob of cheese right by a doughy bit. Divine! The braiding is beautiful, and making a babka is really the height of Ashkenazi balabostakeit. I should try it out! But I am also a klutzy graduate student with limited time and even more limited hand-eye coordination. I refuse to only have babka as often as I can make it.
So I have no shame in buying from a bakery. In fact, that has been done for generations. Now, babkas have long been in the repertoire of Ashkenazi home cooking – especially as Jewish communities, like neighbors, used leftover bread dough for the task. However, making babka – and actually, challah and bread generally, was hard work then, as it is now. It also used relatively expensive ingredients, which is why both were reserved for a Sabbath treat. Many people did not have the time or energy, and one of the promises of America or Canada was the prosperity to have a treat like that – and pay someone else to make it. Babkas were a frequent feature of bakeries that opened up across Jewish neighborhoods in New York in the early 20th century – and continue to be a feature at remaining bakeries today. Having a babka that’s not “homemade” is a tradition.
Enough rambling. I want to know: what’s your favorite babka?
Credit, first and foremost, to my friend Rebecca for introducing me to this cake. Blueberry buckle is her favorite cake, and I and others have made it for her birthday. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of American baking. The recipe itself originated in Colonial New England as an adaptation of an English cake, and uses a native ingredient – blueberries. That said, this recipe is much like smetanakuchen, the coffee cake introduced by Ashkenazi Jews with great success to the Northern United States. And though I love Jewish coffee cake, the blueberry buckle has a moisture that the cake is sometimes missing. The name itself comes from the fact that the crumb topping causes the cake to “buckle” – as you can see in the picture.
I made the buckle a little softer than most buckles, because I find that the melty blueberry goes well with that texture. You can totally use frozen blueberries if that is easier or more affordable for you, or if you prefer the result. I added some yogurt to give the cake more weight.
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
½ cup full-fat Greek yogurt, at room temperature
½ cup whole milk
¾ cup brown sugar
1½ cups flour
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a cake pan – I used a 9”/23cm wide round pan, but you can use a similarly sized square pan.
Whisk together the butter, yogurt, milk, sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined. Add the flour and baking soda and mix in thoroughly.
Fold in the blueberries until evenly distributed through the batter. Then, pour the batter into the greased pan.
With a pastry knife, fork, or food processor, blend the topping ingredients together. Then, sprinkle on top of the cake.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick in the cake comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to Rebecca Galin for introducing me to this cake.
Today we have a guest post from my friend Ilana Newman. She is a fantastic Canadian Jewish librarian in Toronto with a keen mind and a witty sense of humor! Though we often have different perspectives on things like authenticity, she is an incredible person to discuss food with, and has a keen eye for historical and current recipes that go beyond the box of what we think of when we think of Ashkenazi Jewish food.
Ilana wrote up a recipe for pyrizhky – pasties – stuffed with hearts. This recipe is part of a longer tradition of Jews eating treats stuffed with organ meat. Many Lithuanian Jews would stuff pierogi with lung, dumplings with liver, and of course, put a stuffed kishke (intestine) in the pot. Polish Jews often prized the gizzards and other organs of chickens, geese, and ducks. (You can learn more in Gil Marks’ and Claudia Roden’s works. I am personally a fan of these foods, and it pleases me very much to publish Ilana’s recipe.
I will let Ilana take it from here.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been on something of a mission to learn to cook the foods of my culture- so, Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Of course, I’ve been eating some of this food my whole life, so on one level it’s intimately familiar to me. But I also grew up as a middle class American child of culinarily-adventurous Ashkenazi Jews, one second generation and one third generation, making me something like Gen 3.5 – and as a result, I have ended up eating the foods of other peoples more than my own.
I don’t think this is a bad thing, by any means. I’m grateful to my parents’ “foodie” natures (and their financial stability), which meant I got to try saag paneer, sushi, ojingeo bokkeum, and other culinary delights, early and often. But my experience with Real Jewish Food* was limited to a few staples: gefilte fish (from the jar), my mom’s challah, matzoh brei, latkes, matzoh ball soup, bagels and lox, salami and eggs, and pickles. It wasn’t until I left home and met Jews other than the ones I grew up with that I tried cholent, kishke, holishkes, and more.
As a kid, I also instinctively understood that there was something embarrassing, if not even shameful, about Ashkenazi food. Just as I absorbed the notion that Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew was embarrassing, in comparison to the Israeli pronunciation we were taught in Hebrew Sunday school and at synagogue, I learned what “acceptable” Ashkenazi foods were. These included challah, brisket, matzah ball soup, and bagels. They were sweetish, soft, cakey rich bread, roasted meat, bready dumplings, and, well, everyone knows what a bagel is.** Who wouldn’t like those things? Gefilte fish, on the other hand, is obviously “disgusting,” or “smelly.” Cholent? Tzimmes? Holishkes? Unpronounceable, unrecognizable, and frankly inedible, to the WASPs with whom I grew up surrounded in Maine in the 1990s. (Even today, articles like “7 foods I would never touch if I wasn’t Jewish” abound.)
All this is to say that I grew up somewhat divorced from my own culinary heritage. I was taught to have as adventurous a palate as I could, even eating some kinds of treyf, like a fiery Korean squid dish. I was not taught the same for the “deep cuts” of Ashkenazi food, like tongue, p’tcha, chopped liver, pickled herring, kishke, knishes, and more.
It is with this in mind that I have started to explore eastern European cooking in general, since Ashkenazi food is generally an adaptation of the same, with changes made here and there to allow for kashrut. And one recipe I tried recently is for heart-stuffed pyrizhky, Ukrainian stuffed buns. Pyrizhky are made with a yeasted dough wrapped around some kind of filling- it can be cabbage, beef, cheese, potato, or anything, really. They are often baked, but can also be pan-fried.
I used Olia Hercules’ recipe from her cookbook Mamushka, but made several adaptations to make it kosher . They came out really delicious, and while they were not unbelievably challenging to make, prompted some amount of awe in friends and family (my dad’s response was that I was “taking it old school! Hearts!”). Here’s the recipe, by Olia (with a few edits by me). Olia’s recipe provides other fillings, including egg and green onion, and potato filling. Her original heart filling calls for chicken livers instead of mushrooms, but I improvised as I didn’t have livers, and I ended up loving the result. But you might try using livers instead if you prefer.
For the dough:
½ tbsp sunflower oil** (or substitute canola or olive)
1 cup room-temperature water
2 tsp active dry yeast
½ tbsp granulated sugar (I think I forgot this, but they came out fine without)
½ tsp salt
2.25 – 2.5 cups flour
For the filling:
2 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive)
125g shallots (or substitute onions), sliced
2 tbsp Madeira (I didn’t have any and used ordinary cooking wine)
½ lb chicken hearts, quartered
½ lb mushrooms (any kind), diced very fine
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste; I used about 2 tsp)
About 6 tbsp sunflower oil (or substitute canola or olive), or as much or as little as necessary depending on preference
Whisk oil, yeast, salt, sugar, and water in a large bowl. Sift in the flour gradually. Cover and leave to rise for 45 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Knead dough until soft and pliable but not sticky. Divide into 8-10 equal pieces and cover.
Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Cook the shallots or onions until golden, then deglaze with your cooking alcohol and cook until the liquid evaporates. Remove the shallots from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil if necessary and saute the mushrooms until their liquid has evaporated. Add the chicken hearts on medium-high heat. Saute until they are fully cooked and begin to get some colour on them. Add your salt and pepper, add the shallots back to the pan and stir until the mixture is even. Take it off the heat to cool slightly.
Flour your work surface well and roll out each piece of dough into as perfect a circle as you can, ideally about 10 cm in diameter. Put some filling in the middle of each circle (about two tbsp of filling) and fold over the dough. Fork the perimeter of the dumpling so the edges stick together.
Heat your pan again and add some oil if needed. You can either fry the pyrizhky very hot in the oil (in which case add the full 6 tbsp), or use a little oil and steam-fry the pyrizhky. If frying, cook three minutes on each side. If steam-frying, cook about 2 minutes on the first side, covering, then flip the pyrizhky over and cook another 2 minutes covered. (I don’t love heavily fried foods, so I prefer the second method, which Olia doesn’t mention. She’s team fry all the way I guess!)
Turn each bun out onto a paper towel on a plate, and let drain if necessary. Serve immediately for best results, but honestly, they’re still delicious even days later. (Just make sure to refrigerate them once they’ve cooled completely.)
*“Real Jewish Food” is obviously a really subjective measure, dependant on time and place. All the foods I mentioned are Ashkenazi (not the only kind of Jewish and certainly not any more “real” than any other kind), and several are a specifically American variety of it. Authenticity, as has been discussed on this blog before, is itself subjective, mutable, liable to change – in short, very much a cultural construct. But nevertheless, the heart understands that some things are indeed Very Real.
** Olia says that unrefined sunflower oil is one of the cornerstones of southern Ukrainian cooking. For me it hasn’t been easy to find (I’d have to go to a specialty store), and I found that olive oil works just fine for this recipe.
Many thanks to Ilana Newman for this guest post! She describes herself as such: “Ilana is a librarian currently based in Toronto. She is also a frequent baker of challah, a stewer of fruit preserves, and a pickle enthusiast (half-sours are the best; no questions). You can find her on Instagram at @ketzelekitchenpreserves.”
My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
A preface: I do not tend to be fond of “must-have” articles. What each person needs to do or keep for food differs: what do they eat? How much can they spend? Where do they live? What do they do? Must-have articles always seem to make far too many assumptions, and then ask folks to keep things that they never actually use, or do things that are totally unreasonable. (Three types of salt? To quote the kids, “whomst.”) That said, I do seem to write a lot of advice articles. People seem to like having ideas or general advice, and I strive to be suggestive rather than prescriptive. So for this article, please correct me if I mess up.
A few people wanted me to write an article about “how to stock a pantry.” Despite what so many food bloggers tell you, this is actually a hard thing to write. What to stock and how to stock depend on where you live, what you eat, what you can afford, your cooking habits, and all the social things that also intersect with food. So instead, here are some thoughts about stocking your pantry, which come from two places. One is my own experience and research. The other is you. I surveyed friends and readers about what they kept in their pantry. Then, I cobbled together data from dozens of responses to get an idea of what other pantries look like, in all sorts of situations.
So, here is some advice. Keep in mind that what you can afford, where you live, what you can and cannot do, and what you eat all play a role in stocking your pantry. You may not be able to have very much in a dorm room or a temporary place. You may not have a good refrigerator. You may have tons of space and money and be able to go all out – but not really have a diet that necessitates all those ingredients. Some things someone can tell you, but this is one thing you will need to partly figure out yourself.
Which is to say: this advice is not prescriptive. I give only suggestions! Mix and match as you need.
An important note on cuisines: your pantry should change based on what you eat. This pantry list is largely for Ashkenazi and Western Sephardic cooking, with some other addendums. If your primary diet is a different cuisine, be it Japanese, Korean, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Lao, Mexican, O’odham, or Cree, you will need to stock accordingly for the base ingredients in your main cuisine. So, you will probably want to first look at advice from other folks that eat those cuisines primarily. Many “pantry” stocking articles assume a generic Western standard that applies for everyone. Let us not do that here.
With that said, let us dive in!
Pantry Stocking Advice
I have sorted the following out into three sections, and the second section has three parts of three parts each. The first is a general rule on what to make sure you have. The second part sorts some things out by how to store them, then split up into how much preparation they require. I give suggestions across a range of flavors and budget levels. The third selection is on building up a spice and seasoning stockpile.
Things You Should Try to Have
You should try to have the following two things: some food that they can eat with no or very little preparations, and ingredients for a simple meal.
I am about to say something heretical for a food blogger to say. You need to have a ready-made meal, or something that can be treated as such, on hand. Ideally, a few. There are going to be days when you cannot cook, days when your stove is out of commission, or days when you’re suddenly stuck at home because your road is blocked off, and you have few groceries. This is where industrial food comes in. Platitudes about real food are all nice and good until you have a real need for food that cannot wait. So, keep some things on hand. Some things I recommend are: instant noodles, microwave meals if you have a working freezer, canned soups, protein bars, breakfast cereals, and microwave-pack shelf-stable meals. I personally stock some protein bars, breakfast cereals, frozen mac and cheese, and shelf-stable microwaveable pasta and vegetables for emergencies. I do not recommend making these a mainstay of your diet if you can avoid it, but they are a good idea. We live in a time where industrial food has enabled us to stockpile safe, somewhat tasty food if we can. It would be a shame not to take advantage.
The other thing I recommend is keeping shelf- or freezer-stable ingredients for a simple, easily cooked meal. This could be as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You should have a carbohydrate and a protein, and sources of salt, fat, and acid. Vegetable matter is always nice, too. I usually keep the ingredients for pasta with tuna or beans at all times:
Ingredients for Tuna/Bean Pasta
Canned or frozen vegetables
Canned tomato sauce
Canned tuna or beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
In this list, the pasta, beans or tuna, salt, oil, and vinegar are the most essential, with the seasoning and vegetables adding flavor and nutrition. You can mix and match as necessary.
Here are ingredient lists for four more shelf-stable based cooked meals that you can plan for:
Rice and beans
Canned black beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Couscous and beans
Couscous (the add-hot-water kind)
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Kasha with Mushrooms and Beans
Canned white beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Pasta with Green Beans and Canned Fish
Canned green beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Again, if you can, I encourage expanding from these bases. But keep basic ingredients for a basic meal on hand. Again, this does not even necessarily have to involve cooking.
Beyond the Basics
Once you have the very basics, here are some things that you could consider placing in your pantry, based on your diet, your space, what you can do, what you cannot do, what you can afford, and what you can realistically keep.
I don’t even have all of these things in my pantry. You do not need all of these things at once! This list is suggestive, not prescriptive.
Note: some things are listed twice, because you can store them in either place.
Things That You Store in Cupboards
No or little preparation required:
Bread (I tend to freeze bread.)
Add hot-water or microwaveable rice
Add hot-water or microwaveable pasta
Add hot-water or microwaveable mashed potatoes
Add hot-water oatmeal or Cream of wheat
Canned baked beans
Nutritional shakes or protein bars
Add hot water soups
Apple sauce (can also go in fridge)
Long-life milk or plant milk
Some preparation required:
Potatoes (can also go in fridge)
Onions (can also go in fridge)
Garlic (can also go in fridge)
Dried beans (Though I strongly prefer canned.)
Things you add to other food:
Salt – people will tell you to have multiple types of salt, but having basic salt that you can shake or grind is honestly manageable enough.
Vinegars – I recommend rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar to start for food, and white vinegar for cleaning. Red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and malt vinegars are nice to have if you can.
Oils – I recommend canola or vegetable oil to start. Sesame oil, olive oil, and sunflower oil are nice to have.
Spices – see the section below.
Sugar – I recommend white sugar to start, brown sugar or confectioners’ sugar as needed. I personally store sugar in the fridge, since I find it keeps bugs away.
Flour – I usually recommend all-purpose flour to start, unless you cannot have gluten, in which case, an all-purpose gluten-free blend. Keep it sealed!
Cornstarch – for thickening foods.
Onion powder and garlic powder (even if you have onions and garlic)
Stock cubes or soup powder.
Syrup or honey, if you prefer that to sugar.
Yeast, if you bake breads.
Baking soda or baking powder for baking – I find baking soda and vinegar is great for cleaning too!
Ketchup – this can also go in the fridge, but it is fine if not.
Worcestershire sauce – do keep in mind that some folks have kashrut issues around this.
Hot sauce – check which kind, since some types do need to be refrigerated.
Things That You Store in the Fridge
No preparation required:
(Most ready-made stuff that is kept in the fridge does not keep for very long – so I would not rely on always having that specific type of thing on hand.)
Things you add to other food:
Vegan butter substitutes
Eggs – admittedly all three, but so versatile!
Applesauce – admittedly, the same as eggs.
Onions – can be stored outside, but keep longer in the fridge. If space allows,keep at some distance from potatoes.
Garlic – can be stored outside, but keep longer in fridge.
Pasta sauces (as needed)
Ketchup – this does not need to be in the fridge, but I do find that it is less messy
when it is refrigerated.
Miso paste – if you cook things that require it. If you seal it well, it actually keeps equally well in the freezer.
Jams – they can be kept, if not yet opened, on a shelf.
Chutneys – same rules as jams.
Things That You Store in the Freezer
Little preparation required:
Microwave meals/frozen meals, for backup situations
Frozen stock – which is especially useful for soups and rice.
Frozen garlic or frozen crushed garlic – a lifesaver.
Frozen animal fats, if you use them – I particularly like frozen schmaltz.
Frozen sauces, if you use them.
Let me be clear about one thing first: getting a spice or ingredient stockpile together is not easy. Spices are expensive, need to be stored properly, and can easily be “lost” in a pile of bottles. Organization helps, but so does a bit of advanced knowledge.
Some people go off generic lists or kits, but I do not advise that. Instead, I suggest that before going out and buying spices you never use, get a sense of what you like to eat. Do you like spicy foods, bland foods, sweet foods, or savory foods? Look up a few recipes for things you like to eat often and note down the spices that you see. Buy those spices first, and make sure you know which ones you have. Then, only buy other spices as you need them. Over time, you will build a stockpile. Properly stored ground, dried spices can be stored for years.
I put together a joint list for spices based on the frequency I use them in Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern cuisines. I’m Lithuanian and German by heritage, so I tend to skew more seasoned than Polish or Russian Jews. I cook quite a bit of Middle Eastern food at home, and Mexican food.
Spices to start:
Garlic powder (alongside fresh garlic)
Red pepper (flakes or powder)
Salt (iodized or sea)
Poppy seed (for baking)
Vanilla extract (for baking)
Even more spices:
Fennel seed (Anise)
Fenugreek (extremely needed for some cuisines)
Juniper berries (I personally am not a fan)
Saffron (very expensive, only buy if absolutely needed)
Sumac (but if you frequently cook Levantine food, get this)
If you want to experiment with several spices at a time, I highly recommend buying spice mixes. Some of these are quite beloved by their users, and are “standard” for many cuisines. I keep a very large amount of South African spice blends for cooking meat and pickling things on hand at all time. You can get some of these mixes very cheaply at the supermarket – for example, Pumpkin Pie Spice. There is no shame in using these!
Special thanks to the dozens of readers who told me what they keep in their pantries.
A lot is said about Jews who eat treyf. Most of this stuff is said by Jews who keep kosher, who claim that our bacon-eating brethren are somehow unengaged, or not Jewish enough, or somehow wrong. Yet there is not enough from Jews who eat treyf themselves. So as I read the stories of Jews, perfectly engaged and perfectly Jewish, who eat treyf, I wanted to find patterns. Some patterns were pretty easy to find. Location mattered. Treyf had its own traditions. Ham was controversial. And some were harder. I was excited to hear from so many people who had stopped keeping kosher, but was also overwhelmed. Each story was different enough that a pattern, of un-koshering, was not clear. I spent a few days, doodling in the margins of my work notebooks, trying to figure it out. The answer, which was there all along, was only noticed by me when I stopped.
The obvious truth is that there is no one reason people stop keeping kosher.
Grasping stories about kashrut ricochet through the Jewish community like schoolhouse rumors. They tend to rely on tired narratives of rebellion, assimilation, distance, and a lack of commitment. Like the rumors, these tales read at once too much and too little. Some Jews are rebellious, for sure. But is that any different from the ba’alei teshuvawho vex their parents by refusing, in their newfound Orthodoxy, to eat from their treyf kitchens? Perhaps some Jews want “assimilation.” But here’s the catch – there is no one that does not assimilate. Some people argue that Israel is a giant project in assimilation. A Jewish state, for sure, but one built along European lines, in a European framework. I am writing in English after study in a solitary fashion, not at a yeshiva or in a chavruta. Hence, assimilation can only be a small-scale explanation. Some Jews probably want to distance themselves from the community. Others find commitments in it too tiring. This idea seems too facile, especially given how many meals happen in the small confines of the home. In all these, where are the people?
Jews are individuals. Treyf eaters have their own reasons for eating treyf. Sometimes these are the reasons I outlined above. Folks leave a community that does not work for them, or want to be more like their neighbors, or cannot keep up. There should be no shame in those types of choices: coercion is not a mitzvah. Sometimes, though, the choices are deeply personal. Maybe a treyf food is something that lets one be closer to a partner, Jewish or not. A job may require one to eat treyf. If you do keep kosher, imagine yourself in this situation. If you are a restaurant short-order cook, you may not have choice in what you taste. If you are an archaeologist working on Classic Maya sites in Campeche, you are both way cooler than me, and hard-pressed not to eat pork. A few people told me about eating treyf to not offend a relative they adore, or a relative they would rather not cross. And then the most boring answer is sometimes the truth: now and again, someone just wants to eat a shrimp. I have come quite close to throwing my version of kashrut out the window for the orgasmic delights of linguini with clams.
Sure, there are common trends. These touch on many different experiences. Many Jews stop keeping kosher when they realize they cannot afford it. Like it or not, keeping kosher is way easier when you have wealth. A friend of mine did a calculation that, to keep a kitchen kosher enough according to some Orthodox authorities, one must spend $12,000 a year. For many people, that sum is impossible. Many people start eating treyf when their beliefs about halacha or what Jewishness is changes. My own form of kashrut became far more liberal when I realized that, frankly, the specifics of halacha are not important to my Judaism. Many converts resume eating treyf to make interactions with their family easier. That does not make them less Jewish, it makes them a Jew with a deeply Jewish experience. Born Jews have this experience too. There are those who begin eating treyf when they move to a new place, far from other Jews. These experiences seem common, but are always deeply personal, and different between people. Everyone eats treyf for their own reasons.
Really, the one big commonality is how much thought people have given to their Jewishness. This is no disconnected, unengaged group of unrepentant bacon eaters. Jews who eat treyf confront their contradiction with tradition every time they eat treyf, with every bite. As a result, what Jewishness means in practice to treyf eaters is something that requires a lot of work. How does one insert themselves into the tradition? What are the parts that make Jewishness Jewish for them? And how do they engage with the community, if they choose to do so? I received many answers, from treyf eaters who attend Orthodox synagogues to those with no communal involvement at all.
But not one has simply not thought about their Jewishness. Hand-wringing pessimists who spin tales of assimilation tragedy assume otherwise. These people claim that those who assimilate in any way do not give real thought to their Jewishness. I see this pattern with religious zealots jumpy as a Golden Retriever for the faith of the fathers. Secular Yiddishists mirror them, while speaking a stilted Yiddish few actually speak, and hacken a Tschainikfor all us “uneducated” yokels. Hipsters go with them, and seem to think adding elitist buzzwords reinvents a millennia-old practice. In every case, they are full of shit.
If a Jewish person does not do the “traditional” thing, it does not follow that they have not thought about their Judaism or are uneducated. In fact, the person doing the untraditional thing has often thought about their Judaism a great deal more than the person hawking tradition. In any case, no one is immune from assimilation, as I noted earlier. Your unassimilated Jew does not exist.
Besides, we cannot talk about Jewish cuisine without assimilation, or without treyf. Communities have always adapted the local cuisine to Jewish needs, and incorporated what was there. Other than kashrut, Jewish cuisine was not always that different – and sometimes, the kashrut was not there either. So many Jewish dishes, like cholent, p’tcha, and albondigas, derive from treyf ancestors. It is highly unlikely that those dishes were not developed partly by Jews who ate treyf. Jews encountered the food of the rest of the locale all the time. They saw these foods in their trading, in their farming, in their homes, when they went to the market, when they went to the court, and even, when they went to the brothel. Many communities said that treyf was unwelcome, yet willfully ignored that many members did, in fact, eat treyf from time to time. For itinerant traders, those far from other communities, or the very poor, it was probably unavoidable. We do not know it now, because our communities would rather us hear about the kitschy, suspect stories of the peddlers who brought their own pans and the maids who would rather die than eat pork with their employers. Those stories, like other lies, do not do much good for anyone.
There are all sorts of reasons people eat treyf. Maybe we should listen. We can learn a lot about the Jewish community, about foods, and about the people around us who we love. We can build a more inclusive Jewish community, one that is truly welcoming to all Jews and anyone who wants to join us. Kashrut can finally be a choice, and celebrated, and not something that is forced, mandatory, or insincere. And most of all – we can ask ourselves, “why do we do this?” The answer might not be what we expect, or what we want to hear. Maybe, under the religiosity we perform, we do not want to keep kosher. Maybe, under the secularism we preach, we do. Most likely, we are more in-between than we want to be. Which is okay: Judaism is often about the in-between. We eschew defined dogmas and boxes, and it makes us beautiful. If we can express and listen to each other’s in-betweens, we can make the in-between better, and a place for building.
You, dear readers, seriously provided for my first post on Jewish Treyf. Not only did you provide insight and stories from the heart, but you also shared with me your funniest stories about the intersection of treyf and Judaism. I “ugly laughed” my way through all your input. And, as we would say, sharing is caring. So, from Passover-friendly shrimp to pareve butter, here are a few of your tales.
All these stories are anonymous. The writing was touched up for grammar and spelling.
“One time, I checked to make sure that some cocktail sauce did not contain any chametz [‘leavened’ goods forbidden on Passover]. Once I made sure that it did not, I then proceeded to put it on the shrimp that I was eating.”
“So, apparently, my grandmother’s specialty was Veal Parmesan with matzoh meal on Passover.”
God Created the Pig Too
“In my nuclear family, I am the one who keeps kosher the most, actually. My parents and sister think I am a bit of a stick in the mud for refusing to eat pork, or meat if there is cream sauce or cheese involved. My dad always says, “God created the pig too!” To which I reply, “God created it, but not for us to eat!” We laugh about it, and he orders something with bacon.”
“When I was 5, we had to do a presentation at school about ourselves and our family. In making my poster board, one of the categories we were supposed to have was ‘favorite food.’ So, my mom, who was helping me make it, asked ‘Okay, so what’s your favorite food?’ I hesitated and said…pork. Not bacon. Not ham. Pork. The most brutal way to put it. We had pork regularly at home, and even though I have not eaten it in over a decade now, I still think of that moment. My mom reflects on how weird it was to talk about this, and my proud Jewishness, in the same presentation to a classroom full of non-Jewish kids. But yay! They were introduced to complex forms of Jewish authenticity at an early age.”
“My rabbi does not eat kosher either – he’s Reform. We were out for dinner with him, our shul’s student cantor, and his husband. The student cantor and I were both wearing kippot. Rabbi and I decided to split the ‘bacon-topped poutine.’ The poor waiter was like, looking back and forth from kippot to me and the rabbi, just like ‘um, you want like, all those ingredients? We have substitutes!’ My rabbi just turns to me and goes, ‘quick! Take off your yarmulke! They can’t know!’ We all just lose it while I try to explain to the poor waiter – who was just trying to be helpful! – that it is okay, thanks for his concern, we are not kosher. Please excuse my rabbi, he’s a menace to society…”
Tradition and Not-Tradition
“My mom likes to make pork loins for family gatherings, which are often Jewish ones. Nothing especially interesting or traditional about this, but I always thought it was funny. I was a little offended when my cousin wanted to make corn fritters instead of latkes one Hanukkah, though. I mean, how many times do you get to make latkes?!”
Jonathan’s note: latkes are a year-round food.
“I grew up with two sets of dishes et cetera, but we ate shellfish. We would not cook it except on the beach in the summer, and there was a designated set of a treyf pot and dishes. We also had treyf silverware for Chinese food – we would order non-kosher meat out. The logic behind the shellfish allowance? My dad loves it, and declared the ban a ‘Biblical typo.’”
“I have a hobby of shape note singing. I was road tripping through the south with a Jewish friend. We found ourselves staying with a family in Hoboken, GA who are big names in the shape note world, and very devout Primitive Baptists. They invited us to lunch, and we found out when we arrived that everything, including the veggies, was cooked in ham hocks. The two of us looked at the meal, looked at each other, then without a word served ourselves and ate it. We both decided that though neither of us ate pork, it was more important to make a genuine connection with people who we, two Northeastern Jews, would never had [encountered] outside this singing tradition. I’d do it again…[it’s] about the human connections.”
“[In Maine], the older kids (Grade 7 and up) would have religious school on Sunday nights, and we would have a dinner break. Usually, it was a cheese pizza, but sometimes the shul sprung for Chinese takeout from a treyf place. (Are you going to find a Kosher Chinese restaurant in Maine? LOL.) Anyway, they only ordered things with kosher animals – chicken dishes or vegetarian. But once, the restaurant made a mistake, and sent something with shrimp. The school director FREAKED OUT. It was kind of amazing because virtually none of the kids kept kosher in their home lives, but the synagogue couldn’t be seen furnishing little Jewish kids with treyf. It would be unthinkable!”
It’s Secretly Kosher
“At my parents’ wedding, on a kibbutz in the early 1960’s, two buffet tables were laid out: treyf and kosher. As the guests arrived, my mother welcomed them and showed them to the buffet tables. One friend exclaimed, on being shown the treyf table, ‘But there is schinko there, and that is kosher!’ My mother looked at her, and explained that schinko is ham, which is pork. The friend was horrified! I do not know whether said friend did or did not continue enjoying her ‘kosher’ schinko. But yes – schinko was a very commonly consumed pork meat [product] among Polish Jews.”
Jonathan’s note here: pork was widely consumed on many staunchly secular kibbutzim in Israel until quite recently.
“My Yekkishe [German] grandmother considered raw ham (Schinken) kosher, although she would not touch bacon or pork. Seafood of course is another matter…”
“We do have these lovely friends, with whom we enjoy Shabbat together. They are probably our most religious friends. We made this funny discovery about them many years ago – when I complimented the wife on something she baked for dessert. I asked her for the recipe, and when I received it, I noticed there was a stick of butter in the recipe. So, I went back to her unwittingly, and asked her what she used to substitute the butter when she served a meat dish for Shabbat like, she had that night. I did not expect the answer: that there is no substitution. Butter is always ‘Kosher for Shabbat’ in their house, because it is delicious!”
Thank you, everyone, for sharing your stories of Jewish treyf.