“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)
I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?
On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?
Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.
Few Ashkenazi dishes invite as many reveries or passionate opinions as the potato kugel. It seems that everyone I talk to – everyone that has some Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, that is – has a) an often cherished memory of eating potato kugel, b) an opinion on how (or whether) it should be made, and c) a forsworn allegiance to a certain person’s or place’s version of the dish. For those of you who have not had a potato kugel, it is a dense and starchy potato casserole, slightly crispy on the outside and very chewy on the inside. It is one of Jewish cuisine’s many carbohydrate-loaded delicacies, and is utterly delicious.
I briefly touched upon the kugel’s origins in my post on corn kugel / pashtida; let us recap in more detail. Kugels initially began as spherical, dense flour-based casseroles cooked within the Sabbath cholent stew. Even today, this practice still persists in some communities – though the Yiddish word “kugel” has since evolved from its original German meaning of “sphere.” In the nineteenth century, it also became common to bake the kugel as a stand-alone item – especially as the noodle kugel became more popular. Kugels were made with many things – and especially with the new star of Eastern European cuisine in the late 18th and early 19th century, the potato. Kugels also became popular with the other peoples Jews lived among – in Lithuania, kugelis is still a popular dish. Thus when Ashkenazi Jews fanned out from theAlter Heim to North America, Argentina, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, and beyond…the kugel travelled with them. And stuck – so that even today, you can buy prepared kugels in kosher supermarkets and have recipes by star cooks for them. (For more on how and why they stuck, I direct you to an excellent master’s thesis by Avery Robinson.) Even the New York Times Magazine recently ran an article on potato kugels – complete with a recipe prefaced by the title “Almost Traditional Jewish Cooking.” Almost traditional indeed – for even as it is homemade, it continues to evolve.
I find that the kugel is an interesting starting point to discuss Jewish authenticity. In some ways it is considered the Ur-authentic: a kugel is what so many imagine must have graced the tables of our ancestors in Eastern Europe; the dish is often presented as a traditional Ashkenazi dish at potlucks and food festivals and the like. Yet the kugel itself has evolved so much over the centuries – is it authentic only if it is made in a cholent? Only if it is made with flour? Can a potato kugel, made from a tuber that only became widespread in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, be authentic? And then there is the whole matter of the potato kugel being served alongside very … non-traditional Ashkenazi dishes. I myself have eaten potato kugel with: stir-fried bok choy (very Ashkenazi), chili con carne (ditto), and stewed collard greens (completely native to the shtetl). And if it is served by an otherwise unengaged Jew, or a non-Jew (gasp!), is it still authentic? If anything, the kugel is a reminder that authenticity becomes this impossible fashion contest, and perhaps always is.
Yet beyond this question of the authentic there is this beautiful idea that the kugel brings one “home.” Even today, there is something for so many of us Ashkenazi Jews delightfully heimish – that’s Yiddish for “home-like,” in a domestic and cuddly sort of way – about a potato kugel. Kugels, as the New York Times article noted, are “good or bad,” and it is the “good” kugel (though that term is so highly subjective!) that can bring about reveries. Or, as a friend who makes a phenomenal potato kugel once said, “it is the heimishkeit that makes it good!” It is also something that is often cooked not by recipe, but by “eyeball.” I myself make potato kugel without measurements or consulting directions, but rather from a family tradition. After all, it is something that I myself ate growing up.
Grated potatoes, ready to morph into kugel! Photo mine, January 2016
Mixing the batter with the potatoes and the onions. Photo mine, January 2016.
My recipe is an approximation – as I noted, I make this kugel by heart, based on my grandmother’s recipe. It is a flexible and versatile recipe that pairs well with many dishes, and you can adjust it accordingly. Let me know what you do with it – and also if you have a recipe of your own you’d like to share!
A last note: one big difference between various kugel recipes is the binding agent used to mesh the kugel together. Most common are flour and matzoh meal, but my friend Joshua introduced me to the use of potato starch, which also makes a fine kugel – though one that is rather denser than the one I have here. This kugel can also be made with sweet potatoes; that is a common American variation.
Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman. See an additional note on ingredients below.
5 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled
One medium onion, diced
Two scallions, chopped
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup oil
1 tbsp salt
1.5 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground thyme
2/3 cup flour
Oil, to grease the pan
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a 9×9 pan for a deeper kugel, 9×13 for a slightly shallower kugel.
Grate your potatoes with a somewhat wide grate. I grate by hand because I like full control over the consistency, but you can do this with a food processor too. To avoid discoloration, keep the gratings in water in a large mixing bowl.
Squeeze the liquid out of the potato gratings. Or, if you’ve been storing the potatoes in water, strain then squeeze.
Add the chopped onions and scallions, mix in thoroughly with the potatoes.
Add the eggs, oil, and spices, and mix in thoroughly.
Add the flour in two batches and mix in thoroughly until well-combined into the mixture. At this point you should have potatoes and onions in a thick batter. If your batter is too thick, add a bit of oil or an egg. If it is very watery, add more flour.
Pour the mixture into your greased pan and make sure that it is evenly spread. Smooth it out on the top with a fork.
Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour in your oven, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.
Note: kugels, by nature, are quite flexible. One can swap the oil for butter for a dairy kugel, or chicken fat (schmaltz) for a meat one. I sometimes use a smaller onion and add a chopped leek rather than a scallion, or I forgo the rather heterodox scallion altogether and use more onion instead.
So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.
So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)
Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach.P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.
Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.
So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes andtaiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.
Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.
This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or Jerusalem kugel from my directions.
I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!
Baked Apple Pudding
Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles
Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.
2 cups white, sifted flour
8 oz (one stick) butter, softened
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp granulated sugar
3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)
¼ cup raisins
Zest of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Butter, to grease the pan
Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan
Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds
Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!
Since starting this blog, I’ve been asked at least ten times when I will be making kugel. (The answer has always been “soon.”) Kugel, for those who are uninitiated, is a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish carbohydrate casserole made of potatoes, noodles, or root vegetables. Recipes for kugel date back to the Middle Ages, and are incredibly varied. Traditionally cooked in a spherical bowl within the Saturday cholent, it is now more frequently baked. The dense pudding is a fixture of American Ashkenazi cuisine – and a delicious one at that. We argue over our recipes, over our preferences, over the fat we use in the kugel. Even Martha Stewart, the goyish-estgoythat ever goyed, has a kugel recipe.Kugels matter.
There is also a dish related to kugel: the pashtida. Imagine a quiche, but perhaps a bit eggier and a lot less cheesy. (Still just as wobbly.) Then, take away the crust – and you basically have a pashtida. In Israel and some parts of the Diaspora, the pashtida is an extremely common dish: be it out of zucchini, eggplant, or cauliflower. Many, in fact, consider the pashtida the hallmark of so-called “Israeli” cuisine – there is even a book you can buy in Israel simply called “Pashtidot.” But is it really Israeli?
Pashtida is a dish that actually has a surprisingly long history – almost as long as that of the kugel. Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi-cum-blacksmith-cum-scholar, mentions a dish called “pashtida” in his legal commentaries (link in French), and food historians think that pashtida likely derives from the Italian pasticcio (link in Hebrew). Various forms of casseroles and “pies” were consumed by Jews in France, Italy, and Germany – and throughout the Old World – from the medieval era, and such a dish was likely popular for special occasions and Shabbat meals alike. Since for a very long time kugels were far more common in Northern and Eastern Europe, the dishes only interacted in certain areas – and even then, a kugel was more often than not cooked within the Saturday cholent.
In Palestine and Israel, the dishes intermingled further. The Hebrew Academy, on its hell-bent mission to eliminate Yiddish from the mouths of Hebrew speakers, suggested that pashtida become the replacement for kugel as early as 1912. Pashtida became, for the largely Ashkenazi Zionists, the “replacement kugel,” especially after the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet both kugels and pashtidot are popular in the State of Israel today – and are largely treated as separate dishes. Kugel, meanwhile, became a mainstay of American Jewish cuisine, far more frequently baked in large quantities than cooked within a Saturday lunchtime cholent. In South Africa, the kugel was so popular that it soon became a slang term for a materialistic Jewish woman.
Mixing the eggs and the sour cream…
…and then we add the corn and spices…
…and soon, it is ready to bake. (But flour first.) Photos mine, December 2015.
Both dishes changed significantly in the 1950s, in Israel and America. In the latter country, Ashkenazi Jews had not only become more affluent and prosperous, but also desired more to be integrated into mainstream white suburban culture. Dishes like kugel now needed to meet both “American” tastes and reflect a certain sort of middle-class propriety. Meanwhile, in Israel, food rationing followed by a growth in industrial foodstuffs, combined with a homogenization of cuisine, meant that pashtidot became more common and began to include new ingredients. In both Israel and the United States, dishes with canned corn became quite popular – including corn kugel and pashtidat tiras (corn pashtida). In the 1950s, a time obsessed with convenience and industrial foods, a can of corn was quite a “natural” ingredient to include. Canned corn had become popular a few decades earlier, but a more Americanized (in the US) or Westernized (in Israel) population embraced the food to include in “traditional” dishes. In any case, canned corn is a rather delicious addition to Jewish cuisine.
We often ignore the 1950s in our relentless pursuit of “authenticity,” without remembering that it was those who grew up with the “authentic” that created the food of the 1950s. Things like pashtida and canned corn were seen not as “invasions” of “real Jewish cuisine,” but rather as “progress” and…something delicious, something easy to make, something to feed a family. I mean, Jewish cuisine has always evolved over the ages – there was a time when p’tchawas newfangled, a time when kneidlachwere newfangled, a time when rugelachwere newfangled. The 1950s with its corn kugels and Osem soup powders were simply another part of the evolution of Jewish cuisine. And a corn casserole is not the worst fate for a cuisine.
The difference between a pashtida and a kugel is hard to suss out sometimes, and with corn this problem is certainly apparent. Is the casserole too eggy to be a kugel? Is it too solid to be a pashtida? Is it a pashtida and a kugel? If anything, it is reflective of the changing language – and changing nature – of Jewish food. One person’s “authentic” kugel is another’s “modern” pashtida is another’s “kugel when meat and pashtida when dairy.” To a certain extent, I am tempted to say here: “f**k nuance, and pass the casserole.”
Though I myself would probably say a pashtida before a kugel for the following recipe – I think of kugels as more solid. I promise an “unequivocally kugel” recipe in the near future.
I created the following recipe myself – I found the pashtida recipes to be too cheesy or complex for a dish meant to be a simple weeknight dinner; the kugels, on the other hand, did not offer the unapologetically eggy texture of a good pashtida. If you want a richer product, add some more sour cream or, if you’re feeling a bit more classy, ricotta. For a thicker kugel, add more flour. I do wonder: would this dish work with an addition of chili peppers? If you try it out, let me know!
This dish is delightfully simple to make and is particularly good for those of you out there who are beginner cooks, or just becoming accustomed to the life of the kitchen.
As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too. Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….
One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!
And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.
How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains
…to chopped plantains…
…to frying plantains…
…to almost fried plantains…
…to fried plantains.
Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)
If you ask most American Jews about Hanukkah, they will immediately think of a few things: candles, winter, and latkes. The latter – delicious potato fritters – are so popular that many non-Jews start to harangue their Jewish friends in late November: “when are the latkes coming?” Indeed, I have been so harangued. There is something delightfully heimish (cozy and warm-feelings) about biting into the starchy goodness of a freshly fried latke; it is, perhaps, one of the best parts of Hanukkah.
As I wrote in my post about doughnuts, Hanukkah has the delightful tradition of foods fried in fantastic amounts of oil. This tradition sources from the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple, where – after prizing the Temple from Greek occupiers – the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil, which burned for eight days in the ritual menorah. From this incident comes the command to eat oily food – and why make a salad dressing when you can fry stuff? Already in the Middle Ages, fritters were a common Hanukkah food – the word latke, meaning patch, probably emerged then. When the potato reached Eastern Europe in the 18th century, they were simply integrated into the tradition. And boy, are we grateful.
People always ask me about “authentic” latkes, but I prefer to note how the latke undoes our notions of “authenticity.” Firstly, these are considered by some to be a quintessential and timeless Ashkenazi Jewish food, but they only reached their current form in the past two centuries, after the potato had become common across Eastern Europe. Secondly, potato pancakes are pretty common across Europe, be they Lithuanian blynai or Swiss rösti or Slovak haruľa. If anything, latkes are yet another reminder that Jewish food has never been isolated from its neighbors – nor is an “authentic” Jewish recipe Jewish alone. Finally, a concentration on authenticity just takes out all of the delicious ways latkes have evolved in diaspora, from the addition of grated parsnips in England to the Jewish-Japanese fusion latkes of 21st-century Brooklyn. If we spend too much time worrying about the authentic, we forget that food can have a delicious life of its own. Such is the case of the latke – though I admit, I am most fond of very ordinary, plain latkes.
Latkes come in different shapes and sizes within the Jewish world. Some think that latke tastes in prewar Europe followed the “gefilte fish line.” Just as in the case of ground fish balls, Lithuanian Jews preferred a savory latke, while the Polish preferred a sweeter latke. Toppings differ – though applesauce is considered “classic,” many prefer to augment our latkes with sour cream. Or – as I prefer – both. Some latkes are tiny and finger-sized, others make enormous latkes that are a meal alone. In America, latkes are made and served in huge quantities in both ordinary and sweet potato varieties. And of course, in Israel, latkes are almost invisible – it is the industrially-produced doughnut that is king of Hanukkah there, after the efforts of Israeli trade unions.
I personally find that the best way to make latkes is rather haphazard – as befitting such a simple food. I do not measure out my grated potatoes or oil, nor do I seek a specific weight. Rather, it is simply knowing by touch, feel, and sight when the latke batter is the right consistency, when it is crisp enough in the pan, when I need a thicker batter or to add another egg. Latkes can be surprisingly tricky: grated potatoes are a mischievous and quickly-shifting ingredient, and flipping requires a technical skill greater than that of ordinary fritters or pancakes. One can also make last-minute additions: some black pepper, a few potato skins for color, or – my favorite – a grated apple.
Thus, for those of you who are not as familiar with the kitchen, latkes can be challenging. The temptation for a beginning cook to follow a recipe exactly will not produce the latkes of your dreams, and this deceptively simple treat gets better with a lot of trial and error. A lot. That said, fried potatoes are delicious in many forms, and you can totally eat “ugly” or disintegrated latkes out of a bowl with applesauce and sour cream…not that I have ever done that. Seriously, though, it’s worth the work and experimentation. In addition, the skills you gain making latkes apply to a lot of recipes, and a lot of Jewish recipes.
I have included here a recipe for homemade applesauce, should you decide to make it. I have not been able to find a good source for the Jewish history of applesauce, but dishes with cooked apple have a long and illustrious history across the Jewish world. It is likely that applesauce emerged alongside kompot,a traditional and delicious stew of fruit. The normal American apple-cinnamon pairing is delicious, but I find the color and flavor are enhanced with a hefty dose of turmeric, my very favorite spice.
These recipes are approximately written but very flexible. If you want to add or take away things, do so – and if they’re really good, let me know what you did. Enjoy! And, of course, Khag Urim Sameakh to you and yours!
Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)
4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)
1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 medium apple, peeled and grated (see step 1)
½ cup flour
Oil for frying
Grate the potatoes and the apple separately. I am including this as a step since this takes time. I grate by hand because I find grating therapeutic, but feel free to use a food mill or a food processor. It does save a lot of energy and time. Keep the grated potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration, unless gray latkes are your thing.
When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
Add the flour and mix again until blended. You should have pieces of potato and apple coated in a thick batter. If your batter is too thin, add a few tablespoons of flour. If it is too thick, add another egg.
Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
Heat your pan – ideally, a wide skillet. Then add a layer of oil – about ¼ of an inch. Also, make sure that your frying area is well ventilated.
Add heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the pan and fry until the bottom is brown. Flip, then continue frying until the other side is brown. Remove and place on a pan lined with something to absorb the oil, like paper towels.
Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.
Based on a recipe by Karen Waltuck
Makes four to six cups applesauce
5 apples, cored and chopped roughly
½ cup sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (yes you’re reading this correctly)
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
Place the apples, sugar, and spices into a pasta or stock pot and mix thoroughly. Add water so that the apples are floating above or are underneath about ¾ of an inch of water. If they are floating, don’t worry.
Bring to a boil. Then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the apples are very soft and the water has cooked down about 1 inch.
Once the apples are soft, take the pot over another heat. Set up either a food mill or colander and spoon over a second pot, container, or bowl.
Ladle the mixture into the food mill or colander gradually and push through. With a food mill, you can just crank. With a colander, you just spin the spoon around and the apples and sauce go through mashed, leaving the peels behind. Do this for all the sauce; you should have peels in the work colander and sauce in the bowl at the end. Discard the peels.
Stir the sauce to evenly distribute the apple mash. Taste it and add a bit of lemon if you find it too sweet. If your sauce is a bit watery, don’t worry – pour off the most liquid bits and drink it! (It’s really good as an addition to soup stock as well.)
Blame my friend Maryam. A couple of weeks ago, she made us all – well, all of us who are friends with her on Facebook – very hungry. Very hungry indeed. Why? Well, she had made quince jam! Her preserves – called moraba-ye beh in Persian – were lusciously red, inviting the viewer to indulge in fruity, sticky bliss. On viewing the photo, I was immediately inspired to make my own – and, in addition, reminded of something else. I was reminded of how quinces kept on popping up throughout Jewish spaces I was in: in the quince paste at a Sephardi restaurant in Israel, mentioned in the Talmud, or how quince jam was the traditional gift for departing guests in Jewish Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece.) Looking at Maryam’s creation, I was reminded that, in fact, quince jam is a very Jewish recipe.
By the way, for those of you that have not had them: quinces are a type of fruit related to apples and pears. These oddly-shaped orbs are in season in the autumn and early winter and are famous for their fragrance. Cooked, they taste like wild, gamey apples – but are in the United States more commonly seen in Latin American quince pastes and jellies. The fresh fruit is certainly not nearly as common as its cousin, the apple, in North America. And, like the apple that we eat at Rosh HaShanah, the quince is a very Jewish fruit.
Quinces have a Jewish history stretching back to the Bible. Some scholars believe that the “apple” mentioned in the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) was actually a quince, which was prized across the ancient Mediterranean for its fragrance. So celebrated, in fact, was the quince’s aroma that the Babylonian Talmud prescribed that a blessing be recited upon smelling the fruit (Berachot 43b). The fruit was prized by non-Jews across the Mediterranean and Persian worlds too: Greek and Roman writings both made mention of the fruit.
In the medieval era, quinces remained popular in the Middle East – where Syrian quinces were famed – and in Europe, where the fruit graced Charlemagne’s imperial estates. Jews, too, ate quince for both culinary and medicinal reasons. In the latter case, quince was used against coughs and stomachaches, and Maimonides mentioned that eating quince was a remedy for headaches. Yet it was for cuisine that the quince’s complex and fragrant flavor was most renowned: and quince was widely consumed. It was found in the bembriyo paste that Sephardim brought from Spain (where it is called membrillo) across the Mediterranean after the expulsion of 1492, the quince preserves North African and Italian Jews served at Rosh HaShanah, or in the jam eaten year-round. Though traditionally thought of as a “Sephardi” food, Ashkenazim in the southern parts of the Yiddish world – Hungary and Romania today – were often exposed to the fall fruit as well. By the turn of the twentieth century, quinces were being preserved and cooked across a wide swath of the Jewish world – from tarts in France to tagines in Morocco, from quince cheese in Hungary to the jam here in Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and Iran. One old English Jewish cookbook I found from 1907 had several recipes for quince compotes and jams.
Today, quinces remain popular in some parts of the Jewish world. In Israel – where quinces have grown for thousands of years – preserves and sweets made from the fruit are widely eaten, though perhaps not every day. Quince trees are also found in cooler regions of Israel and Palestine; my mother, who lived for many years in Israel, remembers seeing quince trees at her friends’ houses. Quinces are also common in the Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities of France, another quince-loving country, where treats from the fruit are eaten at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the autumn. In Argentina, quinces have been used as a substitute for apples in traditional Ashkenazi pastries.
Yet in the United States this enigmatic fruit – once common in the Northeast – remains rare and rather unknown. Not to mention that quinces are pricy and hard to get – I made a detour on my commute home to Washington Heights for the sole purpose of buying quinces from Fairway Market on the Upper West Side. In order to save money, I only bought enough for one batch of jam – but that said, you do not need too many to make a large quantity of jam. In fact, if you choose to can the jam – which I am planning to do with a larger batch in the near future – a few quinces can provide you with fragrant flavors throughout the year. Think of it as a substitute for buying jams in the store! (The price differential is pretty close, depending on the jam you buy and the amount you eat. I am a total jam pig.) Besides, food preservation has a long and venerated Jewish history: preserved foods are “essential” to many Sephardi cuisines, while jam-making, pickling, and canning were both autumn customs among Jews in Eastern Europe to prepare for a long, harsh, produce-less winter. Why not, then, celebrate this history by joining in and canning this jam?
Even before canning, though, this jam requires a labor commitment. Firstly, quinces are finicky. They have an unusual skin and shape that make peeling difficult; unlike apples or pears, quinces are not recommended for raw consumption. But like apples and pears, quinces discolor quickly. Cooking, however, reveals the multilayered lace of flavor hidden within the pockets of the quince – and though I definitely don’t recommend doing this as a regular thing, quinces cooked for a long time are worth the wait. Of course, there is also all the usual faff of jam in this: the boiling, the sugar, the time, and for some of you, the canning. But guys, really, it’s worth it.
Quince jam has also provided a window for me to learn about other traditions involving jam as well. If you, like me, have made a lot of jam that you didn’t can, these traditions are really helpful. Maryam (who is not Jewish) likes to eat her moraba-ye beh with soft cheese and nuts on bread – similar to the warm bread the jam is served with in Iran. In Spain and much of Latin America, quince jam is often used with cheese in empanadas (which I didn’t make, link in Spanish), or in almond shortbreads (which I did). In many Mediterranean countries, quince jellies are served with ice cream – which I can testify also work with your typical supermarket vanilla ice cream! And perhaps my new favorite thing, in Azerbaijan it is traditional to stir jam into your tea or sip tea through jam, including quince jam. I went through a lot of jam this way – and truly, it was fantastic.
Peel and core your quinces. I do this with a knife since quinces can have a rather complicated and tough skin. Chop the quince flesh up into small pieces and place into a bowl. While you are chopping, cover the already-chopped pieces of quince flesh with juice from one of the small lemons or half a large lemon. (You will need the other lemon or lemon half later on.) This will prevent discoloration and allow the fabulous tones of the quince flavor to come out more in the jam.
In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
Place the quince pieces, covered in lemon juice, at the bottom of a big pot. Add water to cover to 4/5 of an inch (about 2cm). Place on the flame and bring to a boil covered.
Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, or when the quinces are just beginning to soften, add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract. Stir in thoroughly and bring to a boil uncovered.
Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours. Leave the mixture uncovered since you need a lot of the water to cook off. Stir regularly so that the sugar blends in and that the jam does not burn.
When the syrup is thick and the quinces and syrup have turned a ruby red color, you are close to the end. How do you know that it is thick enough? My friend’s trick to test if the syrup is ready is to dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. I recommend this method. If the jam is still too liquid, keep on simmering. If the jam is thick enough, turn up the heat, and add the juice from the second lemon or large lemon half, and mix in. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.
At this point your jam is done. Remove from the heat and ideally from your pot as quickly as possible. If you can, follow your favorite safe canning method. The jam should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Serve on bread with butter or a soft cheese, bake into cookies, cook with meat, serve with ice cream, or – my new favorite – stir into a cup of hot tea.
*You can also use cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, but I’m too lazy to fish them out of bubbling jam.
We have our first reader contribution! JD Hammond, a friend and urban planner extraordinaire, had some questions about shakshouka, a North African dish imported to Israel by Tunisian Jews in the 1950s. It comprises a vegetable ragout in which eggs are poached. Specifically, JD wants to know (paraphrased):
How do we make it? He has made it before, but wants to know another recipe.
How do we make it so pretty – specifically, regarding the eggs?
How did this dish with this “remarkable intensity” of flavors evolve?
Shakshouka, celebrated in Israel as a “breakfast of champions,” has its origins in North Africa. The word comes from a Tamazight word for “vegetable sauce,” and eggs were added later by the Arab populations of North Africa. The dish later spread across the Arab world – from Iraq to Morocco – and became popular among the Jews of the region as well. In fact, shakshouka is still considered quintessential home cooking in Tunisia today. As this article states (in French), “try to tell a Tunisian at your risk and peril that shakshouka is an Israeli or American dish!” Yet it has come in many minds to be associated with Israel.
In the 1950s, Tunisian Jews brought the dish to the Israel which they immigrated to – and were, by and large, unwelcome in. (As it happens, a variant of the dish is also popular among Palestinians.) Shakshouka spread from the peripheral towns into Israeli cities, where – like other Arab Jewish and Arab dishes – it was appropriated and adopted into an Israeli national icon. Rather than admit the origins of the dish, a new etymology for the dish’s name, as originating from the Hebrew leshaqsheq (to shake), emerged. North Africans – Jews and Muslims alike – continue to make this dish in their own way, separate from the Israeli adaptation. Meanwhile, as more Israelis moved abroad in the 1980s, the dish became popular in the United States and Canada, and became the hipster breakfast du jour in recent years.
Of course, the way the dish has become popular is less than appealing – Ashkenazi Israelis “borrowing” the dishes of North African Jews and Palestinians whose cultures they sought to erase, then calling it their own. In addition, many argue that those such as myself who are post-Zionist should eschew the “Israeli” for the “diasporan.” Yet shakshouka is also a very clear example of how diaspora works, and how diaspora affects what we eat. Firstly, I would like to note that this dish was consumed in the Jewish diaspora for centuries before the state of Israel was even imagined – how is shakshouka not a food of “diaspora”? Secondly, I do not think that we can run away from Israel or misdeeds there if we are to explore Jewish food and its history – given that Israel, like it or not, looms large over Jewish life around the world. Finally, I think we can still enjoy the remarkable mix of flavors shakshouka provides while acknowledging its North African origins.
Indeed, shakshouka is versatile, intense, and remarkable. The vegetables’ softness and peppers’ spice meld against the egg yolk and firm whites to create an experience that seems simple but is so very complex: no two bites are the same. It is also versatile: the variations are legion, from the simple varieties encouraged on Tunisian expatriate forums to the complex, cheese-laden ones that have become popular on certain upscale food blogs. My friend David, who was familiar with the latter, found the recipe I used “lazy” – but in a good way, in that it is simple. Indeed, shakshouka can be and often is simple. That is key to its beauty – and it is what drew JD into wanting to make it.
JD’s biggest question was “how can you poach the eggs and keep them intact, without babysitting them?” I have bad news: you do really need to “babysit them.” Eggs are fragile and finicky creatures, and if you are attached to having a delightfully runny yolk and/or an aesthetic shakshouka, you will need to keep an eye on them. I advise that you make a well in the sauce, crack the egg in, and then carefully fold the whites into the sauce. You need to watch to make sure the eggs don’t overcook, and that they get in in the first place. Practice makes perfect! See the recipe for more information.
Spicing and vegetable chopping are also frequent questions with shakshouka. Different regions have different textures for chopping vegetables and length of time the ragout is cooked, which affects the “softness” of the sauce. Some add peppers, some do not. Some use very piquant and hot spices, whereas others prefer a milder dish. In Tunisian recipes, the ragout tends to rely on more roughly chopped fresh vegetables and sinus-destroying spice, whereas Israeli and Palestinian adaptations tend to be finer. I stick with a fiery, rough shakshouka, but JD himself has globalized the recipe with a variant involving Sriracha chili sauce and cayenne pepper.
The shakshouka here is closer to the variant common in Tunisia than that common in Israel. One common ingredient in an Israeli shakshouka is tomato paste (the canned stuff), an ingredient I abhor in most circumstances, which often tends to become quite globby in the frying process. Tunisian shakshouka relies largely on fresh tomatoes (or canned, but not paste), and often uses a wonderfully larger amount of cilantro – my favorite spice. My recipe is based on two Tunisian recipes and one by Einat Admony, the Israeli genius-chef behind Balaboosta, one of New York’s most fantastic restaurants.
Serves 2-6, depending on your hunger level and stomach size
1 large onion, diced
3 bell peppers, seeded and chopped into one-two inch rectangles or squares
1-3 small hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped – the amount you use depends on the spice level of the pepper and your own tolerance; I tend to stick with three smaller habaneros
4 plum tomatoes, diced or chopped
1-2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil (olive is better)
1 tbsp vinegar (many vinegars work)
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp dried cilantro
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1.5 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground oregano
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic
2/3 cup water
6 large eggs
Bread for serving (optional)
Chop up your vegetables. I am including this as a separate step for this recipe because this is very important factor to budget into your time.
Heat a large frying pan, shallow wide saucepan, or similar pan, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and sauté until soft.
Add the peppers (bell and chili) and continue sautéing. If you are using fresh garlic, add it here.
When the peppers begin to soften, add the salt, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary and mix in thoroughly. Keep sautéing.
After a minute or so, add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute.
Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for a few minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the water and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, and the skin has separated from the tomatoes’ fleshy part. The water should have mostly cooked down by this point.
When the tomatoes and peppers are cooked until soft, it is time to add the eggs. Make six wells in the tomato-pepper mixture and crack an egg into each one. Then carefully tuck the whites of the eggs into the surrounding tomato-pepper mixture, being careful to leave the yolk alone. If you want your eggs to be super pretty, I would suggest cracking them first into a cup or several cups individually, then putting them in the shakshouka. You will need to “babysit” your eggs – the whites can be finicky. If you want your yolks solid, crack the yolk *after* folding in the whites. If your wells are deep enough, folding should be fairly simple – just push the tomato-pepper mix over the whites!
You should still have a little white visible on top, because…
When the whites are cooked through and solid, your shakshouka is ready. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as possible. Serving in the pan and having folks dig in and help themselves is the easiest, but a wide spoon does the trick and keeps the eggs intact. I prefer to serve shakshouka with warm bread.
Author’s note: if you have leftover chili peppers, I heartily recommend trying the A Fiery Law cocktail, a brilliant creation by my friend, the “Kiddush Club President” of Tippling Through The Torah.
My grandparents used to take over our house every year. And when I say take over, I mean they would occupy our house for up to six weeks – filling our ears with the Afrikaans from their mouths, our brains with the stories of the pre-war South Africa of their childhoods, and our kitchen with what they liked to eat. My grandfather, a creature of culinary habit, would fill the pantry with the various European pickles and South African staples he subsisted on – delicious herring and onions for the former, various forms of dried cracker and jam for the latter. On the other hand, my grandmother – knitter, soup maestro, and shade-thrower extraordinaire –filled our stomachs and freezer with an arsenal of soups. Many of my childhood memories either involve eating her soup, or the effort to find adequate containers to store the amount she had made.
My favorite soup as a child was her kapushta – a cabbage soup imported from her parents’ homeland of Lithuania. Tart, beguilingly sweet, and traversing the boundary between “light” and “dense,” kapushta – or, more commonly, “cabbage borscht,” is a world on a plate. It is also a deeply vernacular food. Russian and Ukrainian peasants were making cabbage soup in the 11th century; by the 18th century, the soup was consumed from Vienna, to Perm, to Helsinki, to Bucharest. Around that time, tomatoes and potatoes arrived in Eastern Europe from the Americas Even today, in Eastern Europe, one can find soup on the menu of many a “home-style cooking” establishment. Or, as the Russians say, “cabbage soup and kasha – this is our food!” The name kapushta – common in Poland, and in Slovakia as kapustnica, simply means “cabbage.” “Cabbage borsht” – or borsht mit kroyt – seems to be a bit more common as a name than kapushta. I asked many of my friends who had this soup as children, and more of them called it “borscht” or something along those lines – and even more just “cabbage soup.” I wonder, after some research, if kapushta is a regionalism based on the Lithuanian kopūstienė or kopūstų sriuba.
The Jewish versions are generally kosher renditions of their neighbors. This fact stands to reason, since Jews were not exactly wealthy at this time either, cabbage was cheap and plentiful, and folks have copied each other’s cooking since the dawn of humankind. So here, we Ashkenazim swapped the lard for other fats, and skipped the sausage-smetana combinations as garnish. Sometimes, however, there are more specific additions: kneidlach (matzoh balls) or farfel (an egg pasta). The preparation can also be a hint as to the region of origin: apples added a tartness often associated with Lithuanian Jews and their taste for the sour, whereas some sugar could indicate a recipe from Galitzia (Southern Poland and Western Ukraine, known as “Galicia” during the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and the sweet tooth of the Jews there. It is the former that my very Litvak grandmother cooks: she even slices the apple thinly to make crisp the tartness of the soup.
Then there are the traditions surrounding cabbage soup in various parts of Ashkenazi Jewry. Some serve the sweet-tangy soup on Hanukkah because of its “warmth” and to commemorate the sweetness of victory. German Jews, however, eat it on Hoshanah Rabah, as part of a pun: the German and Western Yiddish Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew qol mevaser (voice proclaiming) – and thus celebrates the proclamation of G-d’s divine mercy. Many more groups associate the soup with the solemnity and celebration of the Friday night Shabbat (or Shabbos, for many Ashkenazim) dinner. Indeed, in our family, that was kapushta’s frequent stage.
My grandmother recently resent me her recipe – one that I had received and mislaid many times. This message triggered a renewed flurry of kapushta-making, one that has given my kitchen and my mother’s kitchen a cabbage smell. It is not everyone’s favorite odor, but it is the smell of my childhood – and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
This kapushta is slightly adjusted from my grandmother’s recipe: I like to find chunks of sweet apple in the tangy soup, so I dice the apple rather than slice it thinly. Furthermore, I use water rather than stock or bouillon for the soup itself: I find that a flavored liquid can drown the flavors too much, whereas water allows the apple, vinegar, cabbage, and tomatoes to do their magical work.
Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta)
Based on the recipe of Esther Back
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large head green cabbage, washed and chopped into thin slices
16 oz. canned tomatoes in water*
1 large or 2 medium apple(s), cored and diced – use Granny Smith or Jonagold for a more tart flavor, Honeycrisp for a sweet-tart balance, or Jonathan for a sweeter addition
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp salt (and more to taste at serving)
2 tbsp dried dill
1 tbsp ground black pepper (and more to taste at serving)
2 tsp ground paprika (optional)
1 tsp dried thyme
Water (amount varies)
Small egg noodles or farfel (optional)
Matzoh balls, prepared according to your favorite recipe (optional)
In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in the oil until translucent but not brown.
Add the chopped cabbage and garlic and mix thoroughly with the onions.
Cover the whole mixture in water up to two or three inches above where the cabbage reached in the pot. If you needed to take your pot off the stove to do this, place it back on the flame and add the tomatoes, and mix in thoroughly.
Add the apple, vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, paprika, and thyme once the water is boiling.
Boil for a few minutes, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half, by which time the cabbage should be very soft and translucent.
If you are serving noodles or farfel with the soup, cook the noodles or farfel according to package directions. For noodles, cut off a minute or so from the cooking time – they will cook in the soup. For homemade farfel, you can cook them directly in the soup.
When the soup is ready, you can serve it as is, add noodles or farfel, matzoh balls, and/or another starch – my grandmother likes a baked potato in hers. I like to add a dollop of sour cream to mine. It freezes well.
*Eve Jochnowitz discusses Lithuanian Jewish canning and food preservation in her translation of Fania Lewando’s (hy”d) 1938 cookbook, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (which you should get). Jews in Europe canned extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Lewando included many recipes for home canning in the book. As Jochnowitz noted, many of those preserving methods would not be considered safe today.
Additional note: In regards to the name, I would like to thank Susan Rosenberg, Yael Wiesenfeld, Josh Schwartz, Sara Liss, Maurice Farber, Donna Druchunas, Tova Reiter, Ilana Newman, JS Biderman, Laynie Soloman, Amanda Jermyn, Shana Carp, Ziva Freiman, and others for their contributions to the discussion about names.
I’m normally not that into Hanukkah. The holiday itself I do not dislike – the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple was pretty awesome, and the general sense of cheer that takes over Jewish communities is welcome as people forget the solemn promise to “be nice” that they made on Yom Kippur. It’s just that compared to the glory of Shavuot with revelation and Ruth and cheesecake, the majesty of the Passover Seder, and the wackiness of having a Tree New Year on Tu BiShvat, Hanukkah is…just not that exciting. I don’t begrudge fellow Jewish-Americans for having made the holiday so materialistic and kitsch-ified to compete with Christmas – honestly, in a Christian country, what else would you expect? If it gets folks into Judaism or to learn about their or others’ Jewish heritage, that makes me pretty happy. Besides, I have neither the energy nor desire to harangue people about “messing up” a holiday that I simply just…am not that into.
There is one thing, however, that I do love about Hanukkah: the fried food, in constant supply. In order to commemorate that a day’s oil lasted eight at the Temple, it is considered traditional in most Jewish communities to eat food cooked in oil. One nearly universal thing about human communities, Jewish cultures included, is that if you tell people to cook food in oil, fried things will result. So Hanukkah is the Jewish fry-fest. You might be familiar with latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish potato pancakes that populate both Hanukkah tables and Jewish plates throughout the winter. But there are also torzelli¸the fried curly endives that Italian Jews eat, and the Colombian Jewish tradition of fried plantain discs (patacones). As a complete glutton for fried food – my favorite treat in a mostly healthy diet – I enjoy them all…but not as much as one category of food.
Chief among the fried food for me is the doughnut, a treat with a long Jewish history. Fried dough was already common in Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Middle East in the 13th century, when it was mentioned by the Abbasid scholar (and medieval cookbook writer) Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi in a form similar to today’s Turkish lokma. Ashkenazi Jews make pontshkes, impossibly fluffy jelly doughnuts, borrowed from a Polish dessert already popular in medieval times. Moroccan and Tunisian Jews consumed local savory and sweet doughnuts alongside their Muslim neighbors, and many a Dutch Jew has delighted in the puffy oliebol. In Israel, the Ashkenazi pontshke tradition meshed with North African Jewish traditions to produce the sufganiyah– an even fluffier, sweeter jelly doughnut that is the scourge of Israeli dentists and delight of their patients. These are all absolutely, artery-clogging-ly delicious.
Besides the eating, what I like most about the Jewish doughnut is … how it is so very Jewish and un-Jewish. All of these “authentic” Jewish doughnut recipes reflect the myriad cultural influences, the worlds, and the places Jews have and continue to interact with in their cultures. There is the fact that these are all borrowed from, shared with, adjusted after contact with, and in imitation of our non-Jewish neighbors. Our ancestors were not concerned with being “pure” in their Jewish conduct, but rather celebrating the holidays with what they saw and knew throughout their lives. However, in our diasporic mindset, there is something so Jewish about that act: re-owning, retaking, and reworking the traditions of “exile” to make the diaspora “home.”
Of course this reworking is delicious. Let us take one of my favorite doughnuts as an example – the sfenj,an airy Moroccan doughnut traditionally eaten in the morning, often dipped in honey or sugar. (They are also known in some areas as ftayer.) Moroccan Jews traditionally enjoy a sweet version of these ring-shaped treats on Hanukkah, and some a bit more frequently than that. I was introduced to them first at a Jewish event long ago, and the unapologetic assault of carbohydrate and sugar and oil the sfenj provided had me hooked. I told myself, Hanukkah after Hanukkah, that I needed to recreate that taste. Later, when I visited Morocco myself, and learned more about the history of Moroccan Jewry, I would end up sampling and eating many, many more sfenj. They were all delicious.
I tried to make sfenj once, but got my beignet recipe instead. What happened was that I had invited two friends over, we got distracted, and when it was time to make the batter I realized that I did not have enough flour. Oops. We had a batter instead, but not the dough to shape into the traditional ring shape. The batter was fried anyway – I spooned it in, and out came fluffy, puffy balls that were sweet and chewy. In a few fits of experimentation – and one incident of “boiling Nutella” – I finally managed to get the recipe to the point that I could repeatedly recreate these fried treats. I am not sure if I should call them “doughnuts,” given that they are made with a batter. But they are not made with chouxpastry, so are they “beignets”? The names “beignet” and “doughnut” have both stuck – though I lean slightly towards the former.
I’ve been making these beignets since that Hanukkah miracle – though I do intend to tackle sfenj one day. In fact, I taught a few friends how to make these beignet-doughnuts themselves, brought them to parties and potlucks, and may even bring them to work at some point. Of course, this Hanukkah, I intend to make them again as well.
This recipe is quite flexible – I’ve made chocolate, vanilla ginger, and cinnamon versions of the beignets so far. They store well for a day or two in a sealed bag. Be sure to fry safely in a very well-ventilated place. I prefer to fry in a deep pan, a wok, or a large saucepan – I don’t have a deep-fryer, and you need to be able to quickly turn or flip the beignets.
Hanukkah Beignets/Batter Doughnuts
3-3.5 cups (400-450g) white or whole wheat flour
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 packet yeast (or 1 tbsp fresh yeast)
~1.5 cups (~350ml) water (approximate measure)
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp honey or agave nectar (you can also make this up with about 2 tbsp extra sugar)
Canola, corn, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower, or vegetable oil
Mix the flour, sugar, and yeast together until thoroughly combined.
Add the water, vanilla extract, optional ingredients, and honey/agave nectar, and mix together until you have a thick, sticky batter. You might need to add more flour to achieve this.
Cover, leaving some cracks for ventilation, and let “rise” for at least an hour.
Heat oil in a deep pan or wok. (See frying tips at bottom of post.)
Carefully spoon heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan of oil. You will need to scrape the batter off one spoon with the back of another spoon. I recommend not having more than five or six beignets in the pan at one time.
Let cook until brown on one side, then flip (using a slotted spoon) and let cook until brown on the other side. The beignets should puff up.
When golden brown on both sides, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
Repeat steps 5-7 until you have fried up all the batter. Depending on the size of your beignets this can make anything from 16 to 36 beignets, I usually get about 20-25 off this recipe.
When they have cooled down a bit, you can season them with powdered sugar. For the “normal” ones I occasionally like to dip them in Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or sugar mixed with dried chili pepper flakes.