Mohnkuchen (German Poppy Seed Cake)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mohnkuchen mit Streuseln (Poppy Seed Cake with Crumble Topping)

Based on the recipe by Felice Forby

Streusel

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½  tbsp salted butter, chilled

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

¾ cup milk

2½ tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp white sugar

3 tbsp semolina flour

¾ cup ground poppy seeds

1 egg

Cake

1¼ cups white sifted flour + more for rolling

1 tsp baking powder

4 tbsp sour cream

3 tbsp milk

3 tbsp salted butter, softened

3 tbsp white sugar

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

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

Please Shut Up About Authenticity

I hate authenticity, and I especially hate it when people ask me about it. Sometimes it is in the form of a compliment – my blog is “so authentic” or has so many “authentic” recipes! Others critique me for things like having a recipe for quince jam but not one for brisket. The blog is not “authentic” enough – a coded way too often of saying “Ashkenazi” enough. And some just ask for my most “authentic” recipe. This all irritates me, because authenticity is just such a boring performance, and a race for the lowest common denominator. It is also deeply problematic and tied with the same dangerous nostalgia, even if more distantly, that got Trump elected. (Indeed, this post’s timing is not accidental.) I write this blog for good food and good history, not to make my Jewishness a product that can be certified as the most Jewish. And besides, one simple fact is at the heart of why authenticity sets my teeth on edge:

Authenticity does not make food Jewish. Please shut up about authenticity.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah: deeply Jewish, but another Eastern European egg bread. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

You speak of “authentic” Jewish food. But what makes a food Jewish? A Jewish food is nothing more than a dish or an item or an ingredient that finds itself part of the common memory of a Jewish community, tied to other parts of Jewish culture, and/or referent to the Jewish faith. It is not essentially Jewish, and it is not Jewish to the core. This could be a celebratory dish, or an ordinary dish, kosher or trefah, but it is Jewish. This definition is admittedly an uncomfortable one – I myself cannot wrap my head around any Jewish dish with bacon – but it is the closest thing to Jewish food we’ll get. Foods become Jewish – just think of Wiener Schnitzel, the German middle-class cutlet turned into Israeli street food. Foods are shared – and hence I tire of the hummus wars that are really the province of competing nationalisms skirting around the unmistakable bogeymen of foreign influence and the truly unknown. And Jewish foods become universal – which anyone who has found frozen bagels in a rural Midwestern grocery store can attest to. Authenticity is not a defining factor of the Jewishness of food, it is simply something attached to it. Maybe authenticity makes the food sell, maybe authenticity allows you to make fun of your neighbors, when it probably makes you feel better about yourself.

Pihtije
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

But here’s the thing: the only thing eating p’tcha – the Ashkenazi calf’s foot aspic – definitely does to you is it makes you someone who eats p’tcha. The dish is definitely Jewish – and if I may say, delicious – and is tied to memories of communities and is deeply tied to Jewish history. But you’re not more Jewish for eating it, and p’tcha is only authentic insofar as you ignore the Turkic origins of the aspic, or the fact that every Central European, Eastern European, and Balkan culture has some variant of chilled foot jelly: Serbian pihtije, Hungarian kocsonya, Ukrainian kholodets, Turkish soğuk paça. The authenticity is about you and what you want alone.

And, of course, authenticity is about power. Too often a complaint about authenticity is a complaint that we are not adhering to the relentless centering of Jewish narratives around a white, whitewashed Ashkenazi experience. Even in rebellion – be it in Yiddishism or Zionism – the focus on the “authentic” is still, despite other value, a focus on that which can be performed as European. And, despite the ravages of the Israeli state on Yiddish culture or the very real anti-Semitism here, Ashkenazi culture still benefits from power within the Jewish world. So authenticity becomes a gatekeeper – such that an African-American Jew’s perfectly delicious and perfectly Jewish, not to mention perfectly heimish, collard greens for Shabbat are simply “not authentic.” Is it really that something prepared for the honor of Shabbat is not authentic? Or is it not the Jewishness we think should be performed?

Quinces being candied
Quinces being candied for future use in pastries. Someone told me that this was not authentic enough. I guess more quinces for me. (Photo mine, November 2015)

Besides, authenticity makes for terrible Jewish cooking and terrible Jewish history. I have already outlined why this is terrible Jewish history, but I would also wager that our ancestors in Vilnius, Cordoba, and Baghdad would laugh to the point of wheezing at their descendants’ obsession and puritanical concern for the authentic. Jewish cooking has always been enriched by their neighbors’, simply because you only got to eat a lot of that food a few times a year. Until recently, food was drab and grim for most people most of the time, even if wondrous preserved foods could sustain communities for months. Exotic ingredients from afar and new techniques closer to home not only promised honor to the festivals and occasions that meant eating well, but new ways to nourish appetites long since tired of “ordinary food.” Authenticity, to eat only what your group produced, to fit 19th-century boxes of Nation and Folk, was so anachronistic. Mixing and matching within the bounds of kashrut were the mark of eating Jewishly, and eating well.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring, much of it purchased by Jews. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews have always skirted the boxes of nation, ethnicity, and religion: we are an entity that defies easy categorization. Zionism sought to fit us into the box of nation, Bundism into ethnicity, the Ottoman millet system into religion. All have failed to capture, though, the fact that Jews and Jewish culture are defined in an ever-evolving dialogue, and that extends to food as well. To firmly establish Jewish cuisine as a set table is to declare that we are what precisely we are not. We also defy authenticity, and that is something to take pride in. This fact, perhaps, hearkens back to why precisely 19th-century European nationalists were so frightened by Jews: that we made short shrift of every romantic narrative attached to material culture. That includes food – our tables have always been shared.

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles
The Book of Jewish Cookery, from 1874, contains many German and British recipes that readers today would find “inauthentic.” I say: fabulous.

A lot of the food I make on this blog, and will continue to make, happens to be “authentic.” But there is nothing authentic about this blog. I insist on a Jewish food history that recognizes where we have borrowed and learned from our neighbors, and recognizes where we have taught them. You cannot begin to narrate the history of Jewish food without the borrowing, and we also gave many things to our Gentile compatriots – recipes for duck in Poland, fennel and coffee in Italy, or slow-cooked stews in Spain. Our concern about authenticity is that we do not look like any of the other false nationalisms with the fake authentic cuisine. And that’s a beautiful thing. We have defied boxes ever since someone tried to make them. I will make hamantaschen and I will fill them with heretical sprinkles, and they will be just as Jewish. Authenticity is about insecurity, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about whiteness and class, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about fitting us into a box. I intend on cooking Jewishly, and whiteness and insecurity should not be celebrated parts of Jewish life. And I will not place Jewish food into a box.

We do not need to “make Jewish food great again.” We need to resist Trumpism and keep eating Jewishly, whatever that means to us. To make Jewish food about authenticity is to fall into the same trap that got us into Trump, that got us into a violent state in Israel, that got us into so much acrimony in the Jewish community: it’s about your whiteness or power or insecurity. And not about the fact that authenticity is really a bullshit concept that is too often used to excuse terrible cooking. Cook to eat and if you can, cook to eat well. Food should feed your body and soul, not build walls. And Jewish food can do so much better than build walls – it feeds a group that has defied all the walls yet built around it.

So, please, shut up about authenticity.

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. Enjoyed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike without authentic kitsch for centuries. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons and Hebrew Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

 

Hanukkah, But Fancy: Lemon Rosemary Cake with Olive Oil

Fresh rosemary
The finished cake with a sprig of rosemary
The finished cake with a sprig of rosemary. (Photo mine, December 2016)

It is customary on Hanukkah to eat food with oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil at the rededication of the Second Temple that the holiday celebrates. The standard interpretation of this custom is to eat fried food; indeed this blog began with a fried Hanukkah recipe for beignets. However, not everyone wants to eat fried food all the time, and besides there is a long and ancient Jewish tradition for oil-based cakes. Thus, this year, in honor of Hanukkah, I decided to bring the bright flavors and floral scent of a Mediterranean spring into darkest winter with this lemon rosemary cake. The recipe is based on a delicious one by my friend Yaël. The cake is easy, delicious, and requires only the most ordinary of equipment. Chag sameach!

Lemon Rosemary Cake with Olive Oil

Based on a recipe by Yaël Wiesenfeld

Cake:

Juice of two large lemons (about 1/3 cup)

Zest of one large lemon

3 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped (or 1 tbsp dried)

1 cup olive oil

½ tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp salt

1 ½ cups white sugar

6 eggs

2 ½ cups white flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

Glaze

1 cup powdered sugar

3 tablespoons water

 

  1. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Line a deep pan – a loaf pan or a cake pan – with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the juice, zest, rosemary, oil, vanilla extract, salt, and sugar together until thoroughly mixed.
  3. Fold in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly combined with the sugar-oil mixture.
  4. Add the flour and baking powder bit by bit and mix until you have a thick, consistent yellow batter. Warning: the batter will be quite sticky.
  5. Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan. Bake for 45 minutes to one hour, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean.
  6. Leave the cake to cool.
  7. When the cake is cool, mix the glaze ingredients together and pour over the cake. The cake pairs well with light vanilla creams or tea.

Thank you to Li-Or Zaltzman, Andrew Dubrov, John Bachir, Claire Steifel, Julia Clemons, Shaun Leventhal, and others for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Reader Contributions – My Hanukkah Presents!

And now, a few mini-posts based on reader contributions! Happy Hanukkah! Though your author does not follow the prevailing American custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah, he does appreciate them.

Next month, we’ll have a guest recipe from Dalya and Adele, friends of the blog in Oxford, for her grandmother’s traditional German-Jewish Potato Salad. As quotidian as it sounds, the salad is absolutely phenomenal: the balance of flavors between sour and earthy, hearty and delicate, and sweet and salty is phenomenal. Like their Gentile neighbors, Jews in Germany took quite a shine to the potato – Kartoffel – in the eighteenth century.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

The salad merits a full-length post, but to quell your hunger in the meantime, I found through the Jewish food internet the incredible work of Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and her daughter Sonya Gropman, whose website German Jewish Cuisine is an incredible treasure trove of German Jewish culinary history and Weltanschauung – worldview. Their German Jewish Cookbook is coming out next year and I absolutely cannot wait to buy it. Check the website out here: https://germanjewishcuisine.com/.


A reader from Pittsburgh, Steffi, sent me a fascinating paper about tea and Mormon feminism that she completed in her master’s studies at Chatham University’s Food Studies program. This paper made me realize that many of you have been doing incredible work at school or in your jobs writing about food, thinking about food, and doing the work of studying food. So, if you want some eyes on something you are justly proud of, feel free to send them my way!


The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi.
The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi (Photo mine, December 2016, book is from 2002)

Our reader – and my dear friend – Hadassah in the United Kingdom has requested more Yemenite Jewish recipes. Though I have written about Yemenite Jewish foodways in the past – first on samneh and then on hilbeh – I have not made many Yemenite recipes for the blog. Nor do I have much experience with Yemenite Jewish cooking – as rich and multifaceted as it is. In honor of Hanukkah, I turned to the one book I do have on the subject – the Hebrew-language “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore” (Ha-Mitbakh ha-Teimani: Khawaij, Ahavah veFolklor) by Avshalom Mizrahi. The book itself is a fascinating interspersion of discussions of Yemenite Jewish food practice and recipes themselves. In the book I found, for Shavuot and Hanukkah, the appealing zalabye, a sort of Yemenite sfenj:

Zalabye – Fritters – “The Yemenite Sufganiyot”

Originally printed in “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love and Folklore” by Avshalom Mizrahi, translated from the Hebrew by me

Makes ten zalabye

½ kilo/1 lb flour

20 grams yeast

2 cups water

Salt

Mix all of the ingredients together: flour, yeast, salt and water until the rough parts in the dough are gone. Heat oil well in a deep frying pan. Roll out the dough into big balls and add into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until brown. The zalabye will not be uniform in shape.

Serve and eat hot. Those with a sweet tooth can add or dip the fritters in sugar or honey.

These fresh, hot fritters are a treat to eat on winter mornings and on the holiday of the giving of the Torah – Shavu’ot.

And, as a bonus, later in the book Professor Mizrahi discusses zalabye again: (also my translation)

Zalabye – Fritters for Hanukkah and Shavuot

The fritters zalabye, though eaten throughout the year (mainly in the time of winter), were one of two components of Jewish festivals. Yemenite Jews treated themselves to eat these “sufganiyot”[-like fritters] on Hanukkah and to be eaten especially for the morning meal on the holiday of the gift of the Torah, Shavuot.

Khoresht-e Beh (Quince and Split Pea Stew)

Khoresht-e beh
Khoresht-e beh, freshly prepared. A little caramelized onion from the base is peeking out! (Photo mine, October 2015.)
Firstly an apology: for the past while, this blog has been very, very Ashkenazi. I of course did not mean to fall into a trap of Ashkenormativity, but alas, I did and I am sorry about that. Many readers have complained that this blog can skew “too Ashkenazi” and I agree. Ashkenazi numerical dominance does not play out into Ashkenazi cultural monopoly. I will make more of an effort to be “balanced” in the future – especially because – contrary to popular misconception – Sephardi and Mizrahi ingredients and customs have informed Ashkenazi cooking for hundreds of years. One need only look at a chickpea soup recipe in Yiddish, which uses a Turkic word – via Russian – for the bean.
quince-61574_960_720
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)
Sukkot, which is happening now, is a pretty fabulous holiday, and fruit is only one tiny reason for it. The holiday is of course better known for the waving of the lulav and etrog, and the eating in huts (sukkot), but it started out as an a harvest festival on the ultimately very agrarian Jewish calendar. This tradition is still maintained in that many choose to eat a “new” fall fruit (or spring in the Southern Hemisphere) in the sukkah – which may be apples, pears, or my favorite, the quince.
I talked about the Jewish history of quinces last year, when I made quince jam. These fruits have been part of the Jewish imagination since the time of the Talmud, and have remained common on Jewish tables from Morocco to Spain to Iran. Quinces have also stayed as a Sukkot treat – the fruit is in season in the fall, and smells like the etrog (citron) used in the holiday’s ceremonies.
Quinces being candied
Quinces being candied for future use in pastries. (Photo mine, November 2015)
We in the West normally think of quinces as an ingredient in sweet dishes, but in many Jewish cuisines it is also a savory ingredient – for example, the Moroccan quince tagine (link in French). This recipe is from Iran, where quinces are also cooked with rice or in a tas kabob stew. Other Persian recipes also make good use of fruits and nuts that Westerners or Ashkenazim would normally place into savory dishes: for example, the delicious adas polo, a lentil pilaf with raisins. The use of fruit in savory dishes is a culinary habit shared with Ashkenazim – one need only look at the red cabbage and apple recipe on this blog.
Though this recipe is normally made with meat, I made this khoresht-e beh vegetarian. It is traditionally cooked with beef and is absolutely delicious that way as well. Persian cooking and other Iranian cuisines, however, have a long vegetarian tradition as well – and in this form, a kosher-keeper could pour delicious Persian yogurt on top. (Recommended! – but with that said, the recipe itself happens to be vegan and gluten-free.)
Stirring the khoresht-e beh
Stirring the khoresht-e beh after adding the quinces. (Photo mine, October 2016.)
 
Vegetarian Khoresht-e Beh (Quince and Split Pea Stew)
based on recipes on Mastering Persian Cooking, and by Sally Butcher and Azita from Turmeric & Saffron
Serves 4-8
1 white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 tbsp ground salt
1.5 tsp ground paprika
1.5 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground sumac (optional)
1/2 tsp honey
1 1/3 cups (250g/9 oz) dried split peas*
5 cups (1.2 liters) hot water
2 large quinces (you can peel, core, and dice them in advance but I will tell you why not to do that)
2 tablespoons table sugar
Juice of 2 large lemons
1 bunch fresh spinach, chopped
Grapeseed or olive oil (about 4 tablespoons)
Fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)
1. Heat a deep saucepan or 4-quart pot. Add 2 tablespoons or so of oil to the bottom, then the onions and garlic.
2. Sauté the onions and garlic for 3-4 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the salt, paprika, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, sumac, and honey and mix in thoroughly.
3. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions begin to brown.
4. Add the split peas and mix in thoroughly, then add the hot water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. While the split peas are cooking, peel, core, and dice the quinces. You can do this in advance but they tend to oxidize fairly quickly.
6. Heat a skillet, then add 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, add the quinces, sugar, and juice of one lemon.
7. Sauté the quinces for 8-10 minutes, or until the pieces turn golden and have softened.
8. By this time the split peas should be quite tender and the water will have reduced somewhat. Add the quince mixture and the juice of the other lemon, and mix in thoroughly. If a lot of water has cooked off, add a cup of water.
9. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
10. At this point, the water should be reduced, the stew thickened, and the split peas should be very tender. At this point, you should stir in the spinach so that it is evenly distributed throughout the stew. Cook for one minute, then remove from the heat. (You can also stir in the spinach with the heat off, it will still cook in the heat of the stew.) Serve with rice or a good bread – the traditional noon-e barbari or another doughy flatbread would work really well for this. Garnish with fresh cilantro if you so desire.
*Do not use canned or soaked split peas! They tend to fall apart in this recipe and in other Persian stews. You don’t need to soak split peas before cooking, in any case – it is a common misconception that that is needed.
Thank you to Ariel Goldberg, Francesca Littman, Jessica Belasco, Abigail Teller, and Benjamin Chaidell for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

How to Pair Cider, the Jewish Way

I’m back! The posting schedule is still a bit less frequent due to Sukkot, but there is a Sukkot treat I did want to remind you of: cider! It may seem very much like a non-Jewish beverage, but cider and other apple-based beverages in fact have deep Jewish roots: “wines,” particularly for sacred use, were often made from the fruit in an Eastern Europe where grapes were not readily available. (These would be understood as ciders or liqueurs today.) Going back even further, the word for cider derives, via Latin, from the Hebrew word shekhar, which means both “liqueur” and “hooch.” (It is the origin of the Yiddish shikker.)

Ciders on my windowsill
Two of my cider acquisitions: Gurutzeta Sigardoa from the Basque Country, and Aval Cidre from France. (Photo mine, October 2016)

On a recent weekend, I had the opportunity to go to a cider tasting held at the Astor Center, led by the wonderful Tess Rose Lampert. (This was a birthday present from a dear friend.) During the workshop, in which we tasted seven delicious ciders, we were given tasting recommendations. Naturally, my mind wandered to the Jewish culinary traditions…and the ciders were so good that I couldn’t resist sharing these with you! Thus, in this table: our ciders!

The Cider The Taste We were told… The Jewish pairing
Wölffer No. 139 Dry Rosé Cider – it’s from Long Island and a mix of apple cider and a bit of grape juice. (NB: if you follow many interpretations of kashrut on wine, this is not kosher.) It’s a slightly bitter, but crisp cider with a nice fizzy aftertaste and simple aroma. The taste is quite light. This can go with anything – cheese, meats, salads – or even on its own. This would go well with some dishes that have delicate flavors – for example, sambusak, pumpkin fritters, or keftes de prasa. The bitter and crisp flavors would balance out the earthiness of leeks or chickpeas quite nicely.
Gurutzeda Sagardoa Sidra Natural – a cider from the Basque country that is cloudy. The smell is very fermented – a bit like kombucha or a very aged sauerkraut. The taste is incredible – an exact balance of bitter and sweet with a mysterious and dancing richness on the tongue. This cider is one of the best I have ever had and there is now a bottle in my pantry waiting for Sukkot. (On my notepad this cider is marked with “!!!!!!!!” and “This is the herring cider.”) Funky cheese and fatty foods – one example given was a rich risotto. This is the cider that would go well with herring – especially matjes herring, which is quite fatty and salty. (Or a herring marinated in beer.) I could also pair this with something served with gribenes (an upcoming blog recipe).
Pilton Somerset Keeved Cider – this one is from England and is produced using keeving, a slow and cold fermentation method. (The method is similar to how Lithuanian Jews would make fruit wines in the 19th century.) The cider itself is very clear and sparkly, and has a very musty smell. The taste is a bit like an alcoholic bitter apple, with a pleasant acidic twang. This is another cider for easy drinking. This cider is easy to pair but would go well with roast meats, soups, and cheeses. I would pair this with the “traditional” Ashkenazi canon – chicken soup, potato kugel, tzimmes and brisket, or p’tcha (another upcoming blog recipe). The lightness of the cider balances out the heaviness of the food.
“Lost and Found” Cider, Shacksbury – this cider is from Vermont and made with foraged heirloom apples from early 20th century varieties. The smell of this cider is a very pleasant one – a honey or floral smell, like that of quinces. The taste is clean and tart, with a hint of caramel. Turkey, smoked meat, and roasted vegetables – very American pairings for a very American cider! I can see this one going well with two sets of Jewish dishes. One is the salty side – lox or the beloved Sephardi dried cod come to mind. Then there are the smoky-rich dishes: red cabbage with apples, a good shakshouka, for example, or even a corn kugel.
Millstone Cellars “Hopvine” Cider – this is a cider from Maryland brewed with hops, like beer, and honey. It is somewhat cloudy. The first smell that hits you is the hops – and hence this one has a vegetal, wheaty smell. The taste is earthy, crisp, and bitter, with some similarities to rhubarb. We were suggested sausage and cheese, since this cider would go well with the richness of Central European food. This one was a bit harder to pair, but I could see this going well with cabbage soup, stuffed cabbage, or cholent (yet another upcoming recipe, though I’m not the biggest fan).
Aval Cidre – this French cider is a dark caramel color, like other Norman ciders This cider smells like apples and quinces. The taste is a sweetish, caramelized one, with a hint of bitterness and a good dose of wild gamey-ness. In short, absolutely delicious. (This one also has “!!!!!!!!” and there is a four-pack waiting for Sukkot in my pantry.) Our teacher gave us a multitude of options: cheese, mushrooms, pastries, lighter meats, and even desserts. Or on its own. This cider is versatile and can go with so many things! The first few I thought of were kugels, tagines, and the Tunisian fish dish hraime. This is the cider I would pair with the chickpea, collard, and pumpkin stew I made for Rosh HaShanah.
Poiré, Cidrerie du Vulcain, J. Perritaz – this is a fizzy Swiss pear cider. The odor is musty and a bit tart, but the taste is incredibly sweet and has a jam-like and fatty quality. Our two suggestions were fatty and spicy food, or desserts. This is the cider to serve with noodle kugel or qatayef. The  sweetness would also make it a good pairing with latkes. Who is ready for Hanukkah?

Nota bene: some Orthodox kashrut traditions require that any cider consumed have a hechsher, or kosher seal. None of these ciders do. I, like many Jews, hold to a less stringent interpretation of kashrut and consider these ciders kosher. 

“It Gives Flavor, It’s Good!” – Samneh, Diaspora, and the Memory of Yemeni Tel Aviv  

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Etzel Nekhama” – “At Nekhama’s” – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Photo mine, April 2016.

It’s my last evening in Israel, and my friend Tom and I are walking through the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kerem ha-Teimanim, the Yemenite Quarter. The district was founded in 1906 by Yemenite immigrants to the Holy Land, who chose to settle in an area near Jaffa. Founded before the “original” start of the (European, Ashkenazi) city of Tel Aviv in 1906, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the center for a growing Yemenite immigrant community in the Holy Land. The Yemenite Jews who came were and still are excluded from the state-sponsored history of Zionism and Israel: they spoke Arabic, brought traditions from Yemen rather than Europe, and integrated and cooperated with Jaffa’s Palestinian population. The migration was not under the auspices of European organization, but rather as residents of the Ottoman Empire’s farthest-flung province moving to the major centers of Jaffa and Jerusalem. This, if it was Zionism, was a very different kind of Zionism. Later, Kerem ha-Teimanim was the poorer dumping ground for some of the thousands of Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. Even today, the neighborhood has a strong Yemenite population; streets and public art commemorate both the area’s Yemenites and the communities of the homeland, like Aden, Sana’a, and Ta’izz. However, gentrification – and the occupation of the neighborhood by Ashkenazim with money – is changing the character of Kerem ha-Teimanim. It is still, however, a center of Yemenite-Jewish culture in a Tel Aviv known for erasing all that is not secular and Ashkenazi.

But back to the walk Tom and I were taking. We had walked from Tom’s home in the north of Tel Aviv all the way down to Kerem ha-Teimanim. It was a quiet Shabbat afternoon, and the neighborhood was mostly silent. We saw the public art scattered throughout Kerem ha-Teimanim that commemorates the Yemenite Jewish people of Tel Aviv and the balad – homeland – of Yemen. On this walk, we passed by a homespun sign for an eatery that sold traditional Yemenite Jewish foods. These include the breads lakhukh, jakhnun, and malawwakh, soups, and other savory goods. The eatery itself was closed for Pesach and Shabbat, but Tom – whose ancestry is Syrian and Sephardic – and I, the consummate Litvak, busied ourselves with discussing the foods on the menu. Our eyes then turned to the bottom of the sign, which read – and here is my annotated translation:

To take away:

Lakhukh – a spongey flatbread made from a yeasted, fermented batter. It is not unlike the injera consumed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and has the same soft, bouncy texture. Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia, the same recipe is called canjeero. When my mother was a teenager in Israel in the 1970’s, this was one of her favorite foods, along with another Yemenite bread – the fried, oily malawwakh.

Skhug or sahawiq – a deliciously spicy hot sauce made from fresh red or green chilies, augmented with cilantro, garlic, and cumin. Sometimes tomatoes are added too. Skhug is delicious and is also pretty easily found in Israel.

Hilbeh – this is a spread or a dip made from the raw seeds of the fenugreek plant. Those of you familiar with South Asian, Turkish, or Ethiopian cooking are probably familiar with this pungent spice. The spread is made by grinding the seeds and adding water and spices, which creates a thick sauce. If you have access to fenugreek seeds, it is quite easy to make at home – here is a good recipe.

Samneh

Here, Tom and I were a bit confused. What was “samneh?” Tom and I scratched our heads. Clearly, it was something that went on the lakhukh, but what was it? “I haven’t heard this word before,” Tom offered. Then, we heard a voice with behind us. “What are you wondering about?”

An older lady, conservatively dressed, stood behind us. We responded:

“Oh we were just wondering what samneh was.” She smiled.

“You know ghee? It’s like ghee, and it gives flavor.” And then she began to explain how she made it, by melting and straining the butter, and then adding fenugreek (hilbeh) for a smokier, tangier flavor. She was visibly happy as she explained it. “I eat it with the lakhukh and the hilbeh and the skhug, and I use it to cook sometimes too!” We thanked her for her explanation, and then she asked us a few questions before wishing us a shabbat shalom. Later, we figured out that she may well have been the Nekhama whose name is mentioned in the eatery’s name.

From later research, I learned that samneh is a clarified, fermented butter common across the Arab world – where it is also known as smen. The butter is sometimes salted after it is melted, boiled, and strained, and thyme is often added to provide a type of yeast. The result? A smoky, flavorful, fatty samneh. It seems that our passerby prepared a version that is particularly traditional to the Jews of Yemen (link in Hebrew). It sounds pretty good.

This type of encounter renews my interest in Jewish food cultures. It is all well and good to make the broad statements of who likes what, what “Yiddish” or “Sephardi” food mean, or that the younger generations “aren’t” eating your definition of traditional Jewish food. It is all well and good to buy expensive cookbooks and go to restaurants that make expensive reinventions of Jewish food. But the food ultimately comes from the people, and the way they engage with it and remember it. It is this – not any notion of authenticity or tradition – that makes Jewish food worth writing about, and I am grateful to this passerby that took the time to tell us about her samneh.