Apple Honey Cake

This recipe has been requested by at least seven people – I do not remember by whom exactly. My sincerest apologies.

Rosh HaShanah in the Ashkenazi world is a rather sweet and sticky holiday. Of course there is the tradition of eating sweet foods to signify a good New Year, and, like any Jewish holiday, the amount of saccharine sentimentality seems to spike on Rosh HaShanah. Sometimes, this is translated into food, including the extreme stickiness and sweetness of taiglakh, or the inexplicably sugary cookies that suddenly morph everywhere, uncontrollably, across tables in the Jewish world. And then you have the apple and honey cakes. Ever-present, sometimes delicious, and quite a vehicle for the nostalgia of many a middle-aged congregant in my childhood synagogue. (“This takes me back!”)

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of these will end up in my apple cake this year for Rosh HaShanah. (Photo mine, September 2016)

The apple cake also happens to be easy to make – and delicious.

Apple cakes and honey cakes have been traditional in Ashkenazi cooking for centuries – in fact, we have records of both from the 12th century in Germany. The latter cake dates to at least the medieval era, when it was part of a ceremony called the Alef-Beyzn, which commemorated a young boy’s first day at school. Lekach, the Yiddish word for honey cake, is a homonym of the word for “good instruction” in the Book of Proverbs, and so the cake had special significance. The practice of giving cake on this day has since died out; a contemporary practice of having the young boy lick honey off a board with the Hebrew alphabet lasted quite a bit longer. (The Israeli musician Victoria Hanna references this custom in her incredible Hosha’ana music video.) The idea of a sweet cake, however, stuck around, and began to be served at Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, in order to get the year off to a sweet start.

The apple cake’s place at the Rosh HaShanah table probably had similar origins – and the cake itself is an adaptation of non-Jewish recipes in the region. Even today, almost every Central and Eastern European culture has at least ten common apple cake recipes. The similar apple charlotte recipe – perhaps known to many readers for being referenced in Downton Abbey – became popular in England and France in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, “Jewish” Apple Cake has been popular in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States since that time. These cakes are similar but not quite an exact match to the many family recipes for simple apple cakes that Ashkenazi families use across the English-speaking world. In any case, it is delicious.

Apple cake
An apple cake made with half buckwheat and half wheat flour. It makes for a very nice breakfast. (Photo mine, September 2016)

In homage of the Rosh HaShanah tradition of eating apples with honey – one to initiate the sweet new year – I am going to give you a recipe that uses both apples and honey. The apples and honey play well of each other – although an apple cake without honey is certainly no curse to a dinner table. I make many variations of this incredibly easy recipe. I have a vegan version with no honey or eggs but with raisins, date syrup, and turmeric to approximate the taste of honey. I also have another version that uses grated apples and ground almonds. My grandmother’s recipe is slightly simpler and doesn’t use honey, but I find that the honey adds both a nuttiness and a lovely weight to the cake. In the spirit of variation, I have a gluten-free and gluten-friendly version of the recipe listed below. The buckwheat version may seem new, but in fact buckwheat – in the form of kasha – has been on the Ashkenazi Jewish table for centuries.

 

Apple Honey Cake

loosely based on a recipe by Esther Back

Gluten version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced into 1cm (~1/3 inch) chunks (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 cups flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp baking powder

 

Gluten-free version

3 medium-sized tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced (you can leave them unpeeled)

1/3 cup honey

3/4 cup sugar

4 eggs

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2.5 cups buckwheat flour

1/4 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

 

Vegetable oil for greasing your pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 375F/190C.
  2. Grease your pan – generally, I use a 9 inch by 9 inch (23 centimeters) pan for a deeper, square cake, but generally any medium-sized cake pan will do.
  3. Scatter a few of the apple chunks at the bottom of a pan.
  4. Mix the remaining apple chunks and the rest of the ingredients together. For a more carefree process, I recommend the following order: honey and sugar, then the eggs and oil, then the apple chunks, then the flour you are using, then the salt, cinnamon, and baking powder.
  5. Pour that mixture on top of the apples at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm or cold.

Author’s note: this recipe is an excellent one for a potluck or other event to which one brings food. For best transport, wrap when cool in aluminum foil with some looseness for the cake to “breathe.”

Chopped Herring (Forshmak)

Here’s a recipe for a classic Ashkenazi forshpeizer – chopped herring. More of a herring mash, hash, or puree than simply chopped, this salad-shmear is both a fishy delight and a potent tradition at the tables of Eastern European Jewry around the world. Originally invented in medieval Germany as a hot dish with fried herring, the delicacy migrated east and became cooler by the 18th century, where it became common among Ashkenazi Jews – and so common that its name comes from the word for “appetizer” in German (Vorschmack). Today, regional variants are served around the world – from the tart one of Lithuania to the biscuit-laden one of South Africa. The dish has also become popular among non-Jews in Russia and Finland, where it is traditional to add ground meat. (This combination would be forbidden under most interpretations of Jewish law.)
Growing up, chopped herring was consistently one of my mother’s favorite things – and like many, she would usually buy a store-made version for any reason you could think of. We would eat the forshmak on sourdough bread or rye with gusto. Admittedly, there are many good ones out there, and they do save you the trouble of having your entire apartment smell like fish (and a good deal of money, too). However, chopped herring is quite easy to make, and it’s a lot of fun as well. Traditionally, bread is used, but I added matzah instead to make a Passover-friendly forshmak. The flavoring is a sweet-tart one, blending both the sweeter Polish and tarter Lithuanian versions; this combination is popular in parts of the former Soviet Union. Enjoy!
Forshmak and scallion
There’s no way to make chopped herring truly aesthetic – but here is some chopped herring, served on rye bread with a bit of scallion for each piece. (Photo mine, July 2016.)
 

Forshmak (Chopped Herring)

based partly on the recipe by Sonia Rozensztroch, in Herring: A Love Story

4 pickled or brined herring fillets
2 small Jonathan apples (or another tart apple), peeled and cored
1 piece matzah, soaked in water
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled
1 tbsp white or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp white sugar
Scallions and/or fresh dill, for garnish (optional)
1. Before mixing your ingredients: if you are using brined herring fillets, you should chop them and then rinse them for 30 seconds under running water. This removes unnecessary saltiness. If you are using pickled herring fillets, just remove them from the vinegar. Squeeze the water from the matzah until you only have the softened matzah.
2. In a food processor, blend the herring, apples, eggs, and matzah. You may have chunks of apple in the final product.
3. Add the vinegar and sugar and blend again.
4. Garnish with scallions or fresh dill. Keep refrigerated for up to a week.
Read the first part of the herring series here

Pesach of Colors VI: Keftes de Prasa (Black)

Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a happy and kosher Passover! I’m posting this from Israel, where I will be spending the holiday with my grandparents, who live in a seniors’ home for South Africans in the town of Herzliyya. Wherever you are, I wish you a happy holiday.

Keftes de prasa
Keftes de prasa – I’ve put them on a paper towel to suck up some of the oil. Photo mine, April 2016

I want to end our Pesach series with a very simple and tasty Passover dish – the traditional Sephardic Balkan keftes de prasa, or leek fritters – whose black bits of crispy fried goodness are the final color.  These treats are traditional Passover fare among the Sephardic communities of the Balkans – Serbia, Turkey, and Greece above all – but also have been served for other holidays as well. I first tried them at an event for Hanukkah – when, like latkes and doughnuts, a leek patty fried in oil would be most seasonal. Yet it is for Pesach that these crispy vegetable patties are now popular.

Leeks themselves have a lengthy Jewish history. The vegetable is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Numbers as one the Jews yearn for from their time of slavery in Egypt, for they “were wont to eat…the leeks, and the onions.” Regardless, the vegetable was probably prominent in ancient Israelite cooking, and was spread by the Romans throughout the Mediterranean region. German Ashkenazim indeed would later use the vegetable, and it saw limited use in Eastern Europe, but this infrequent use paled in comparison to the leek’s appearance on the tables of Sephardim. Gil Marks remarked that the leek was the “single most important vegetable” of Sephardic cooking in the Ottoman Empire, and ended up in everything – soups, stews, patties, and pastries. The keftes de prasa are attested from the Ottoman period – and indeed, their name reflect the Turkish köfte (patty) and Ladino and Greek prasa (leek). These treats, however, are enjoyed by all.

Keftes de Prasa

Makes 12-20 Fritters

A Passover adaptation from the Jewish Women’s Archive

 

Two large leeks, thoroughly washed and chopped

1 cup matzah meal

3 eggs

1 tbsp salt

1 tsp pepper

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

 

Water

Olive oil for frying

 

  1. A note: you really should make sure your leeks are thoroughly washed before you chop. Consult this guide to learn how to have clean leeks! Then chop.
  2. Boil the chopped leeks in water for five minutes, or until somewhat soft, but with some solidity. Drain the leeks and set aside. Let cool.
  3. Mix the boiled leeks and the ingredients other than the oil in a bowl until you have a thick, thoroughly mixed batter.
  4. Heat a pan, then add the oil. Then, spoon in large clumps of batter, one at a time, evenly in the oil.
  5. Fry for 2-4 minutes, or until brown on the done side, and flip to fry the other side. When both sides are brown, remove from the pan. Repeat until you are done with the batter.
  6. Serve hot – some folks serve straight from the pan – or warm. I’ve never tested these after reheating – they have been eaten quickly.

 

The author would like to thank Jeremy Swack for being part of the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Sambusak

Sambusak on a colored plate
Sambusak on a colored plate
Sambusak, about to be consumed. They are little pockets of yummy! Photo mine, March 2016.

Firstly, apologies to the regular readers of this blog for the recent “Ashkenormative” trend in our coverage. Between reader requests and the recent holiday of Purim, I got taken over by the (admittedly delicious) tradition of my Lithuanian ancestors. I promised some Sephardi and Mizrahi friends that I would not stick to Ashkenazi food alone when I began this blog, and now I need to live up to that.

In all my discussions of Ashkenazi food, I have been very keen to point out that the Jewish food traditions of Eastern Europe did not evolve in a vacuum or narrative of purity, but rather took and borrowed from and contributed to the cuisine of their neighbors. These same ideas and trends apply equally to the various Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and North African Jewish food – as I have also noted before. Many foods come from the neighbors of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin – and from the peoples that they traded with.

The sambusak is one such example. Also eaten by non-Jews in the Middle East, these tiny pastries – neither unlike nor unrelated to the Spanish and Latin American empanada (link in Spanish) – originated in medieval times in Central Asia with the sanbosag. Trade across the Indian Ocean, Arabian Peninsula, and Mediterranean spread these pastries across the Islamic world – the famous South Asian samosa arrived in what is now India in the 13th century, and empanadas were made in Spain shortly thereafter. By the early modern period, pockets of filled dough were eaten regularly from Lisbon to Samarqand, Dar Es Salaam to Vilnius – where Karaite Jews of Tatar descent introduced kibinai.

Sambusak with poppy seeds
Sambusak are sometimes covered in poppy seeds, too! Photo Chris Dorward via Flickr/CC

The Iraqi sambusak is just part of this tradition. Though the pastries are made year-round, their frequent triangular shape means that they, like hamantaschen in Ashkenazi communities, are traditional for Purim – when they are reminiscent of the villain Haman’s three-cornered hat. Iraqi Jews in Israel have also made the food common across the country’s Jewish population as a snack food alongside the larger, phyllo-laden boureka; Palestinian communities, meanwhile, have their own delicious, smaller version of the sambusak.

Sambusak come in many varieties. In Israel and Palestine, cheese-filled sambusak are common – especially because they are so common among non-Jewish Palestinians. Meat sambusak are traditional among many Iraqi and Syrian Jews for Shabbat, and I feel that spinach-filled sambusak have also become common. But the most common filling today among Iraqi Jews in Israel – or at least based on the number of posts on the Hebrew food internet – is a chickpea-based filling not unlike the hummus common across the region. In fact, the name for this kind of sambusak is sambusak hummus – and it is this kind for which I provide a recipe.

Sambusak Hummus (Sambusak with Chickpeas)

Based on recipes by Pascal Perez-Rubin (in Hebrew) and Liz Steinberg

Makes 30-40 Sambusak

Dough

5 ½ cups flour

1 cup water

2/3 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower seed oil)

1 packet dry instant yeast

1 tbsp salt

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried basil

½ tsp ground black pepper

Chickpea Filling

1¼ cups cooked chickpeas, drained

Six large cloves fresh garlic, chopped

One dried red chili pepper, chopped

2 tsp salt

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tbsp sunflower seed oil

  1. Mix the dry ingredients for the dough together until well combined.
  2. Cut the oil and water into the dry ingredients until you have a thick, solid, and blended dough that does not stick to your fingers. You can use a fork or a pastry blender to cut the wet ingredients into the dry. If your dough is very dry, add a touch of water, if it is wet, add a touch of flour.
  3. Cover the dough and let sit at room temperature for one hour, or overnight in the fridge. Note: it is easier to work with if it is cold.
  4. In the meantime, begin making the filling. In a small saucepan, sauté the garlic and pepper in the oil until soft. Then, add the spices and mix in thoroughly. Let cool.
  5. Blend the cooked chickpeas and garlic-oil mixture in a food processor. (Or with a mortar and pestle if you’re old-fashioned, I guess – note that food processors are beloved in the Jewish world.) When you have a thick, orange-brown mixture, set aside.
  6. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  7. It is now time to make the sambusak. Look at the pictures for directions.
    1. Roll out your dough to about ¼ in/7mm thickness (you may need to do this in several batches).
    2. Cut the dough into circles of about 3in/7.5cm diameter, and push down on the circle to squish it a little.
    3. Add about a half-teaspoon of filling into the middle part of the upper half of the circle.
    4. Fold the lower half of the circle over the filling so that the edges of the lower half and upper half meet.
    5. Use a fork or your fingers to push the edges into each other to seal the pouch. I recommend using a fork since it creates a pretty pattern.
  8. Place the finished sambusak on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet or pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastries are golden brown.

Author’s note: if you are making the sambusak with another filling, the filling directions still apply.

Special thanks to Joel Hart, Ilana Newman, and Abdossalam Madkhali for linguistic assistance.

Another Secretly Jewish Dish: Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach with Raisins

Spinach with raisins and pine nuts!
Spinach with raisins and pine nuts! Photo mine, February 2016.

One thing I think we who are interested in Jewish food forget is that Jews themselves have heavily influenced “non-Jewish cuisines.” From cocido in Spain to the existence of dishes like kugelis in Lithuania, Jews have left their mark on so much of European and North African cuisine. In a day and age in which a certain sort of nationalist particularism determines culinary tradition – and that of Jews too – this sort of history is often forgotten. Many a “traditional” Jewish dish, I have noted here thus far, is not so Jewish – but many a “gentile” dish is! This delicacy – spinach with raisins, or spinaci con passerine – is one such dish. Though often considered an Italian specialty, this delightful vegetable medley has deep Jewish roots.

The recipe seems classically “Mediterranean,” but it is so precisely because of Jews. The fact that this dish is eaten in Italy, in Greece, and in Spain is traceable directly to the migration of Catalan Jews following the Inquisition in 1492 – and with the memories of Spain (often longed for alongside or more than the Holy Land) and the Ladino language, Sephardim brought culinary traditions with them to their new countries. Spinach with raisins was not the only dish that travelled: Mark Mazower notes that in the 20th century, Spanish Christian travelers in Greece were stunned to find Sephardim in Greece exchanging membrillo, quince paste, four hundred years after expulsion from Spain. Yet in the discussions of “Mediterranean” cooking, the role of diaspora – especially Jewish, but also Greek and Lebanese and Roma – seems to be forgotten.

I have written out the recipe here with two options: pine nuts and sunflower seeds. I strongly suggest that you use the former; the latter is an option in the case of nut allergies. I have also adjusted the spicing a little – I find that the black pepper really brings out the sweetness of the raisins. Enjoy!

Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach With Raisins

Based on recipes by Janet Amateau and Joyce Goldstein

2 tbsp raisins

1 small-to-medium onion, chopped

2 tbsp pine nuts or shelled sunflower seeds – roasted or unroasted

1 tsp ground salt

½ tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar

1 pound fresh spinach, lightly chopped

2 tbsp water

 

2 tbsp olive oil for frying

  1. Soak the raisins in hot water for 15 minutes to plump them up and make them less dry. Drain and set aside.
  2. Heat a wide skillet, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and pine nuts/sunflower seeds and sauté until the onions are slightly soft. Use a sturdy spoon.
  3. Add the raisins and spices and mix in thoroughly. Add the vinegar and continue to sauté until the onions are very soft and just beginning to brown.
  4. Add the spinach a fistful at a time and mix thoroughly with the onions. Add the water once all spinach is added and mix in.
  5. Keep sautéing as you move the mixture around the pan quickly – the spinach cooks rapidly, so quick movement allows for even cooking.
  6. When the spinach is soft and has wilted, remove the skillet form the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature – though I should note that the former is far better.

Orange Semolina Biscuits with Rosemary

Orange semolina biscuit with rosemary.
Orange semolina biscuit with rosemary. Photo mine, January 2016.
A shorter post this week. Some of you have requested a pareve dessert recipe: many of you serve meat (as is the custom) at your Friday night dinners, and want a dessert that can be served with a kosher meat meal. There are many wonderful dairy-free dessert recipes – though, admittedly, finding one can seem challenging in a culture where “dessert” has become nigh-synonymous with “dairy.” 
 
This orange-semolina biscuit recipe is delicious and unusual – rosemary is a key star here. It also is a refreshing and light pareve dessert option.
 
This recipe is my creation, but it incorporates semolina – an ingredient with a long Jewish history. Semolina is made from purified coarse wheat middlings, a product produced while making flour from durum wheat. The use of semolina is common across the Mediterranean – you may be familiar with it from making pasta or couscous; in the Middle East, it is a common ingredient in breads and desserts alike. (Including your correspondent’s very favorite dessert, galaktoboureko.) Semolina has been consumed by Jews since antiquity: it is mentioned as
“fine flour” in the Book of Kings
as being part of King Solomon’s provisions; it is also referenced at several points in the Talmud. Since then, semolina has been a frequent starring ingredient in the Jewish cuisines of Iraq and Turkey. Most famous perhaps is kubbeh – little filled dumplings of semolina that are as delightfully soft and yummy as a matzah ball. Elsewhere, semolina found its way into dessert cakes – such as the Sephardi shamali and soups, such as the semolina soups served in both Moroccan and German traditions. 
 
The inclusion of semolina in this cookie is a nod to this tradition – and the dense semolina balances out the oranges’ sweet, light flavor. Rosemary brings out the freshness of the oranges. I was introduced to the idea of baking with rosemary by my friend Yael – and though unusual, it really adds something quite magical to a citrus dessert. Even in the dead of winter, rosemary makes a cookie or cake feel summery and sunny. 
 
Orange Semolina Biscuits with Rosemary
distantly based on a recipe by Yael Wiesenfeld
 
1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar
zest of two medium-sized oranges (about 1/4 cup – zest before juicing your oranges)
juice of two medium sized oranges (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/4 tsps dried rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water (or brandy*)
1 packet instant yeast
3/4 cup semolina flour
1 1/4 cups white all-purpose flour
1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line a 9″x9″ (23cmx23cm) pan with parchment paper. (You can grease it with oil, but the risk of your cake being difficult to remove increases greatly.)
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the zest and sugar. You can use a whisk or spoon. 
3. Add the orange juice, olive oil, rosemary, and salt to the zest sugar, and mix thoroughly until combined.
4. Add the water/brandy and yeast and mix in thoroughly.
5. Add the semolina and mix in thoroughly – until the grains are invisible. Because semolina is thick, I recommend adding it 1/4 cup at a time to avoid clogging your whisk or spoon.
6. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time and mix in thoroughly. At the end, you should have a thick batter. If your batter is too thick and getting doughy, add a tablespoon or two of water. If your batter is too thin, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.
7. Pour the batter into your parchment-lined pan and spread evenly. 
8. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool.
9. Now, the fun part. Lift the entire “big biscuit” out of the pan  and place on a cutting board, and slice into squares about 2 1/4 inches”x2 1/4 inches (about 6cmx6cm.) You should get sixteen biscuits or so. You can slice bigger or smaller as needed; I often do about 1 1/2 inches x 1 1/2 inches to make cute little biscuits. I recommend slicing the big biscuit into quarters first to have a more manageable slicing process, and to more easily create even and “pretty” biscuits.
10. The biscuits keep in sealed containers at room temperature for up to four days. I recommend serving the biscuits with hot tea.
 
*Note: if you want a fluffier cookie, swapping the water for brandy provides additional sugar for the yeast to react with, and also makes for a slightly sweeter final product. 

Bamia con Limón / Okra With Lemon

Bamia con limon on the stove (B+W)
Fresh okra
Fresh okra pods. Photo mine, January 2016.

I dream of okra. This pod-like vegetable – slippery at times, ethereally soft when cooked – is my favorite, and I cook it regularly. Very regularly. I make it with lentils, in curries, stewed, fried, and even as a spread. I am always on the lookout for okra recipes – especially Jewish ones. And in a country where Jewish food is often defined as “Ashkenazic carbohydrates,” a vegetable more commonly associated with African-American and Southern cuisines is assumed to be not Jewish. But okra is, in fact, very Jewish.

Okra only made it to Ashkenazi tables in the 20th century, yet it has a long tradition in the Jewish world. The vegetable, native to Ethiopia, was present in Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant by the 13th century, where it was well documented by travelers of the period. Okra was also found by this point in South Asia and West Africa; from the latter, the plant was brought to the Americas as part of the slave trade, where it later became a bedrock of African-American and Afro-Brazilian cuisines. In the medieval era, Iraqi and Egyptian Jews likely to have already been eating okra. Ethiopian Jews also frequently ate – and still eat – stewed okra. Then, in the 16th century, Sephardi arrivals fleeing Spain for the Ottoman Empire encountered okra upon their arrival in modern-day Turkey. Various dishes with okra, including the common bamia con domates and the bamia con limón described here, entered the Sephardi culinary tradition later on. Meanwhile, okra with tomatoes became a common mourning dish among Jews in Libya…while it was an everyday food among Iraqi Jews by the 19th century. These traditions were brought to new homelands as well: meat and okra became common among Baghdadi Jews in India, while migrants to Israel added okra to shakshouka. Okra dishes remain popular in many Jewish communities – and increasingly so among Ashkenazim, though it was only after Jewish population growth in the Southern United States and culinary encounters in 1950s Israel that okra became more common among many Ashkenazim.

Pieces of okra in bowl
Prepping okra – the chopped pieces are piling up in the bowl, where they will be briefly soaked in hot water. Photo mine, January 2016.

As popular as it is, okra can be an acquired taste. It is often slithery and slimy when cooked – and though some love its viscous texture, others are rather perturbed by it. The vegetable is not always cooked to be this way – in fact, most often it is not – but some dishes and some cooks both produce “slimy” okra that can be off-putting. That said, it is not difficult to prepare okra that is palatable to a wide range of tastes. Many cooks recommend a short vinegar bath or “drying out” the okra; I prefer to soak the pods, caps off, in hot water for a few minutes. That said, not all dishes require this technique to avoid the “goo” – though the following recipe for bamia con limón does.

This recipe is a tangy, lighter variation of a more common dish – bamia con domates, okra in a tomato sauce. Lemony okra dishes are common across the Eastern Mediterranean, West Africa, and the Caribbean (link in French); this is a Jewish rendition from the Balkans. The original recipes called for onion with the okra, but I swapped it for the lighter, yet sharper scallion. As a result, the beguiling savory taste of the okra and acidity of the lemon come into sharper focus – sweetened, in fact, by the garlic. This dish makes an excellent side for a flaky fish, and goes very well with rice. If you can, use fresh okra for this recipe.

Bamia con limon on the stove (B+W)
Bamia con limon, in progress. Photo mine, January 2016.

A note for our readers: bamia is the Arabic-derived term for okra in Ladino, the language of Mediterranean Sephardim that emerged from medieval Spanish after 1492. In standard Spanish, okra is most commonly referred to as quingombó, gombo, and molondrón. Domates is the Ladino word for tomato, which in Spanish is tomate. 

Bamia con limon in a bowl
A serving of bamia con limon, with an extra helping of garlic for me! Photo mine, January 2016.

Bamia con Limón / Okra with Lemon

Based on the recipe of Gil Marks, published in Olive Trees and Honey.

1 pound fresh okra

4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1 cup chopped scallions (about four or five scallions)

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp ground black pepper

1/3 cup lemon juice (about two medium-sized lemons)

1½ cups water

Olive oil, for frying

  1. Remove the caps from the okra, and if you desire, cut the rest of the okra into small pieces. If you want less gooey okra, you can soak the pieces of okra for a few minutes in hot water.
  2. Heat a pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the scallions and the garlic and sauté until soft. While sautéing, add the salt and pepper.
  3. Add the okra, lemon juice, and water, and mix thoroughly. Let simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and the okra is soft.
  4. Remove from the heat and serve.

 

Two notes:

  1. The author would like to thank Amram Altzman and James Weisbach for eating – with gusto! – one of the test runs of this recipe.
  2. You should all check out – now in the links section – a new blog written by your humble author’s lovely friend Harry Gao. Immortal Dumplings. The blog covers Chinese and Chinese-American home cooking from a narrative perspective, and is delightfully witty. Check it out!

Potato Kugel

Potato kugel on a plate

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.

Cutting a kugel with a celery stalk
I once brought a kugel to a potluck picnic, but we forgot a knife to cut it. Hence, a substitution was made. Photo mine, July 2011.

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 the Alter 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.

Kugelis
Lithuanian kugelis. Photo edenpictures via Wikimedia Commons (CC/Open).

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.

And when I do take a bite, I sometimes go into that reverie, much as Proust did with his madeleine – back to that imagined Jewish home-ness.


 

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.

Potato kugel on a plate
A slice of potato kugel, ready to meet its fate as my breakfast. Photo mine, January 2016.

 

Potato Kugel

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

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a 9×9 pan for a deeper kugel, 9×13 for a slightly shallower kugel.
  2. 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.
  3. Squeeze the liquid out of the potato gratings. Or, if you’ve been storing the potatoes in water, strain then squeeze.
  4. Add the chopped onions and scallions, mix in thoroughly with the potatoes.
  5. Add the eggs, oil, and spices, and mix in thoroughly.
  6. 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.
  7. Pour the mixture into your greased pan and make sure that it is evenly spread. Smooth it out on the top with a fork.
  8. 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.

Sweet Plantains (Maduros) for Hanukkah

fried seasoned plantains

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

  1. 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.
  2. Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
  3. 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.
  4. Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
  5. Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
  6. 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.)

The Hanukkah Classic: Latkes

Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in my college apartment – these are savory ones with onion inside! December 2013, photo mine.

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.

Latkes being fried in a deep pan
Frying the last of a batch of “test” latkes before Hanukkah – these soaked up the juices from the latkes fried before! Photo mine, November 2015.

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.

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

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.

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

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.

Potato grating
Grating the potatoes by hand. The effort is worth it! Photo mine, November 2015.

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.

Spices on apples for applesauce
Adding spices to the apples in the process of making applesauce – we have cinnamon, turmeric, sugar, rosemary, and cloves in this one. Photo mine, November 2015.

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!

Latkes in the pan with chunks of apple in them
Latkes in progress – these have chunks of apple, which make them quite unwieldy, but oh-so-soft and juicy! Photo mine, December 2014.

Potato Latkes

Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)

4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)

4-5 eggs

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

  1. 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.
  2. When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
  3. Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
  4. 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.
  5. Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
  9. Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.

 

Homemade Applesauce

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

3 cloves

water

  1. Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)