This is a fall-themed cake using common pantry ingredients. The cake is in some ways my own creation, but was inspired by a significant amount of reading I did this summer. This perusal was of early- and mid-20th century cookbooks aimed to new Jewish housewives from the middle class, and Jewish housewives new to the middle class. Besides “educating” them in proper “housekeeping” – which, I suspect, would realistically rely on things learned from family, friends, and life experience – the books were chock-full of recipes, including recipes for cakes when company is coming over soon. Or recipes for cakes from everyday ingredients that one could serve for various occasions.
These cakes seemed, to me, the highlight. As ardent bloggers of mid-century cuisine have noted, these sort of cakes were far more common than the showier and more infamous confections of the era. And many, honestly, seemed delicious. I spotted some familiar bakes – smetanakuchen, banana bread, and apple cake among them. I also spotted the use of various other delicious things – like jam! So I toyed with an old vegan muffin recipe I had, added some eggs and dairy, and…voilà. I have been told that these sort of cakes – “company is coming” cake – are also part of the Soviet/Russian-language cookbook canon, but I do not have the Russian language skills to research this. Any readers care to help?
The cake is very autumnal. I use normal supermarket applesauce – which, on a normal day, makes for a fine replacement for eggs. The sour cream adds to moisture and rise, but you could probably mix in milk. Most of the time for this cake is really in the baking – the prep is very simple. I wrote the recipe in a different format this time – let me know what you think!
Applesauce Raisin Cake
Preheat the oven to 400F. Grease a deep loaf pan or a rectangular (9x13in/23x32cm) pan.
Pour hot water over 1 cup of raisins to cover. Set aside.
Melt 4oz/125g butter on a stove or in the microwave. Then, beat in 1 cup applesauce, 3 tablespoons sour cream, 1 ¼ cups white granulated sugar, and 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice mix until combined. If you do not have pumpkin pie spice mix, use 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon, and ½ teaspoon each of ground ginger, ground cloves, and ground nutmeg.
Beat in three large eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly combined.
Add two cups of white all-purpose flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and a dash of salt, and mix thoroughly until you have a thick batter. If your applesauce is runny, you will need to add more flour – for every additional ½ cup flour, add 2 tbsp of white sugar.
Drain the raisins, and fold them into the batter until evenly distributed.
Pour the batter into a pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick or knife come out clean and the top is golden brown. Cool for a while, then store sealed until serving to hold moistness.
Thank you to my classmates at the University of Maryland’s Master in Community Planning program for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe!
A quick recipe for you, right before Rosh HaShanah, for a classic favorite: marble cake. This cake was originally German, and shows up in the 19th century with a mix of gingerbread and vanilla cakes. The chocolate version came a little later in the same century, when cocoa powder became available on the mass market. German Jews brought the cake to both the United States and Israel – where it became a fan favorite in Jewish communities. For many Jews of my generation, marble cake is a quintessentially Jewish dessert, consumed at synagogues, semachot, and other events.
It seems hard, but this cake is actually quite easy to make. I hope you enjoy it, and Happy New Year! Shana tova umetukah!
Marble Cake (Marmorkuchen)
Makes 10-18 servings, depending on how big you cut
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened, plus more to grease the pan
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp sour cream
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups white flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Grease a 9 inch/23 cm loaf pan.
Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy – you can use a pastry knife , spoon, or hand mixer.
Add the eggs, sour cream, milk, and vanilla, and mix until thoroughly combined.
Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix until you have a smooth, thick, consistent batter.
Reserve one cup of the batter, and pour the remaining batter into your greased pan.
Mix the cocoa powder into the reserved batter cup until thoroughly combined. Then, spoon the cocoa batter over the other batter in the pan.
Use a chopstick or knife to swirl the batters together until you get a marble effect – I run a chopstick back and forth in the pan several times to do this.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to my classmates for participating in User Acceptance Testing!
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.
One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.
I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.
Ready to go
This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!
Gingerbread Cake with Raisins
⅔ cup raisins
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon rum extract
½ cup granulated white sugar
½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup applesauce
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon table salt
⅔ cup hot water
Oil, to grease pan
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.
Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
I am not a vegan. The reasons why are probably the topic of a future, more controversial post that would discuss a lot of environmental and agricultural science. That said, I have a number of vegan friends who I enjoy feeding, and am always happy to cook for them. So it was a welcome challenge when a friend requested a vegan, Shavuot-appropriate cake. Shavuot is a dairy-heavy holiday, and if you do not eat dairy, a lot of festive foods for an agrarian, sugary festival are barred to you. I also happened to be very stressed, and baking is a good way for me to relieve anxiety. (Your mileage may vary.) So I decided to put the request to work and make a cake using some flavors I enjoy in my cakes: the dark fruitiness of cherries and the happy luxury of chocolate. The cake is simple, and turned out well. My colleagues enjoyed the cake immensely, and gave good feedback to make it better. I put a ganache on this cake because chocolate rarely hurts. However, the cake is perfectly delicious without it.
¾ cup melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil + more for greasing pan
1 ¼ cups granulated brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup / 300 mL soy milk
1 cup dried cherries, soaked in water for 20 minutes and drained
1 cup miniature chocolate chips
2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
2 ½-3 cups all-purpose flour (depending on which shortening you use, you may need more flour)
⅔ cup chocolate chips
½ cup / 120 mL soy milk
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a medium-size (9 inches or 25 centimeters square) rectangular/square pan, cake pan, or Bundt pan, depending on what shape you want the cake to be.
In a large bowl, mix the shortening/oil, brown sugar, and vanilla together until the brown sugar is completely mixed into the oil. You can use a whisk or a large spoon.
Add the salt, soy milk, cherries, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix until the mixture is thoroughly even in distribution of chocolate chips. (The cherries need the ballast of the flour to become even.)
Mix in the flour, a half cup at a time, until you get a thick but still viscous batter. The cherries and chocolate chips should be evenly distributed.
Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean. Remove from heat, and let cool before adding ganache and/or serving.
To prepare the optional ganache: put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Then, heat the soy milk to just below boiling temperature on the stove or in the microwave (no shame). Then, pour the soy milk over the chocolate chips and mix with a fork until well blended, about two minutes. Let cool until thicker. Once thicker and cooler, pour over the cake or use for other purposes.
Thank you to all of my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing and Operational Readiness Testing on this recipe, and giving feedback for adjustments.
Update: there was a typo in the measurements that caused some of you to make dry cakes. Many apologies! This has now been corrected.
I usually do not tend to update my recipes that often, but Rosh HaShanah is a time of renewal, and as it happens, I have significantly changed my apple cake recipe. It is a big shift – from a dense, weighty cake to a fluffier cake. I am pretty pleased with the result, which I served this year for Rosh HaShanah.
In addition, I made the cake in a Bundt pan. Though Bundt pans come from 1950s America, they are based on the pan for the German-Jewish Kugelhopf cake, and were created in Minnesota partly as a modernized Kugelhopf! So it turns out that Jewish influence on the coffee circles in the Midwest extends even further than what I talked about when I made Sour Cream Cake.
8 oz/250g butter or margarine, melted + more for greasing the pan
1¼ cups/250g white sugar
4 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup milk or soy milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 3/4 cups white flour, sifted
2-3 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and diced
1 cup/125g powdered sugar
2 tablespoons/30 mL water
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a large cake pan – you can use a 9 inch/23cm spring-form cake pan, a large Bundt pan, or a big square pan.
In a bowl, mix the butter and sugar together until thoroughly combined.
Add the eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, and milk. Mix thoroughly until combined.
Add the baking powder and flour. Add the flour a little bit at a time, while mixing. Mix thoroughly, until combined.
Pour half the batter into the cake pan.
Spread the apples over the batter in the cake pan until evenly distributed.
Pour the rest of the batter on top of the layer of apples.
Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the cake is brown on top and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: mix the water and powdered sugar together until thoroughly combined into a thick liquid.
Remove the cake from the pan. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake. Allow the glaze to become solid (about 20 minutes) before serving. The cake lasts for six days in an airtight container.
If you want to make the original apple cake recipe, click here.
A note to begin, because I need to remark on politics: Someone please tell white nationalists that their coffee cake is Jewish, and then take their cake away, because Nazis do not deserve cake.
It is a crisp autumn morning in a certain year, and your author is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, very gay, and very Jewish first-year at the University of Chicago. Now, he is from the Northeast, where the Jews are many, but some of his classmates are from small towns across the Midwest and adjacent areas, and a few have only interacted with a handful of Jews over their lives. Your author is worried about anti-Semitism – something he had experienced before. Instead, he finds himself bemused, because more than once he is enthusiastically asked variants of:
“Oh my gosh, you’re Jewish! Can you make that coffee cake?”
“That coffee cake” is Smetana Kuchen, a rich, sour cream-laden coffee cake originating with desserts in Germany and Poland. In the 18th and 19th century, as sugar became cheaper, new pastries developed, often to accompany another new import: coffee. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the common base of sour cream (Smetana in Yiddish) came to form the basis of this new cake. German Jews brought this cake with them to the United States in the 19th century – just as Hungarians also brought the similar aranygaluska and Swedes brought their own cakes to the Midwest. In Europe, these had been cakes of luxury for special occasions, but in the wealthy United States, filled with eggs, dairy, and white flour, these became slightly more common place. Many German Jews began to sell these cakes in coffee shops, newly frequented by a middle class seeking all forms of “refinement.” From there, and similar Hungarian and Swedish shops, the cakes spread. By the 1950’s, when many American women were entering baking contests and had ready access to ingredients once unheard of , the “Jewish” coffee cake was already popular across the Midwest.
Today, some people still know the cake as “Jewish,” and many Jews are convinced that the cake is not Jewish at all. On both sides, Smetana Kuchen is found at religious events, at church lunches and synagogue kiddushes, and at celebrations and birthday parties and committee meetings. It is still found in coffee shops and in diners, at office parties and at academic conferences. (Indeed, one of the most stellar coffee cakes I had was at an academic conference.) It is very good – and even as it has assimilated, it is still Jewish.
This is a pretty straightforward and simple Smetana Kuchen with a streusel topping and a modest, yet elegant cake. I offer the option of almonds, which is slightly unorthodox compared to the more common pecans or walnuts. “In the wild,” if I may describe the Midwest as such, you may also find variations with apples, raisins, or chocolate. You should consider trying them all, as they are all utterly delicious.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9”x9” square cake pan or a Bundt pan.
Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
Cream together the butter and the sugar. I do not have a mixer, so I use a pastry knife to blend them together. You can also do it with a wooden spoon or fork! Alternatively, if you’re fortunate enough to have the mixer, you can do that.
Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
Add the baking powder, sour cream, and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined.
Add the flour, and beat until thoroughly combined.
If you’re using a square cake pan, pour the cake batter into the pan first, then sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. If you’re using a Bundt pan, sprinkle the streusel on the bottom first, and then pour the cake batter on top. If you’re using the almonds, sprinkle them with the streusel on the cake or the pan bottom as the case may be.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool before removing from the pan.