Posts Tagged ‘Rosh Hashana’

Fall Back: Springy Ahead

Citrus Chiffon Cake

Citrus Chiffon Cake

The couple of weeks that follow Labor Day are like a limbo. It still feels like summer, but you can sense Fall running up behind you to tap you on the shoulder. If you’re like me you slow your walking down a bit so Fall can catch up. That also means the Jewish High Holidays will soon be tapping the other shoulder, and like High Tea, it’s really all about the food. (Pardon my sacrilege.)

No matter how devout you are, chances are that at some point during the season you’ll end up with someone placing a napkin containing either a slice of Honey Cake or Sponge Cake in your hand. Honey Cake evokes both the apples and honey tradition of welcoming a sweet new year, and the European Pain d’Epice influence earned from thousands of years of the Diaspora.

On the other hand, Sponge Cake is the Jewish Wonder bread.

Ah well, I come here not to bury Sponge Cake but to make peace with it, kind of like striking up a conversation about politics with a cranky old uncle. (Good luck.)

Perhaps I am painting with too broad a brush. Perhaps it is not Sponge Cake that is the enemy, but poorly made Sponge Cake, baked way too far in advance, and wrapped tightly in plastic. (Mmmm. Sounds yummy, right?)

The Sponge Cake to which I am referring, a staple of High Holiday supermarket fare, is actually Chiffon Cake. Chiffon Cake was created by an American named Henry Baker. (Baker! I love it when peoples’ names work out like that: Tommy Tune is a musical theater performer and director. We had a relative (by marriage) named Ike Oven who was also a baker. A friend swears he knows a Dr. Doctor. By those rules my last name should be Thinksheisawriter.)

Chiffon Cake differs from Angel Food Cake or Jelly Roll sponge (biscuit) because of the addition of oil. While the oil does provide moistness, it also makes for a damp cake, and lacks the rich flavor of butter—a potential pitfall in a cake that lacks other flavorful ingredients.

Don’t blame baker Henry Baker; he didn’t intend for Chiffon Cake to be served plain. He piled it with fruit, custard, whipped cream—anything to dress it up. His Chiffon Cake was the canvas, the other stuff was the paint.

So there you go: we’re serving the canvas. No criticism from me though, because I understand why: convenience. Chiffon Cake is a “little something” traditionally served after observing a long worship in temple when the blood sugar of millions of Jews has crashed lower than yesterday’s Dow. When I was a kid you got cake and grape juice. Chiffon Cake was cheap, easily obtained, and ready for a crowd with just a few swipes of a knife. Also, kids wouldn’t get it all over their clothes.

There used to be something so essentially Jewish about cake. The comedian Jackie Mason has made it the subject of a whole routine: “It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let’s have some cake!'”

When the comedian Rosie O’Donnell was trying to thank Barbra Streisand for being on her show she brought her cake. (Streisand was an aficionado of the late, lamented Ebbinger’s bakery chain. O’Donnell had one of the Ebbinger’s recipes recreated for the occasion.)

Mason’s riff on cake always made me think of a Sour Cream Coffee Cake my mother used to make. Even now it brings to mind cinnamon, brown sugar, and walnuts. Chiffon Cake? No.

None of this solves the issue of bad Chiffon Cake, but I would do well to mind the old adage, “One man’s feast is another man’s famine.” Translation: just because I don’t like Chiffon Cake doesn’t mean the world shares my opinion.

As a test I decided to make my own Chiffon Cake therefore putting to rest the debate about whether or not fresh, homemade Chiffon Cake makes a difference. For this little contest I held myself to one rule: it had to be baked in a loaf pan to match the format of the supermarket brands.

The supermarket brands have an indeterminate sweet, cakey flavor. I thought it might make my cake more interesting if it made a specific choice, as if it could say, “Hello, I am a Citrus Chiffon Cake.” My old trick ingredient, frozen concentrated orange juice, was nominated, as was fresh lemon zest and juice, plus a bit more vanilla extract than usually called for. No need for subtlety here as the hefty amount of eggs in the recipe tends to blunt the sharp edges of any added flavors.

The result is springy in texture, bright in flavor, but still unquestionably the High Holiday Sponge Cake I’ve come to know and be bored by. Still better than the fossilized supermarket loaf, but screaming for some ice cream and strawberry sauce.

I don’t need a holiday for that.


Click here for my Citrus Chiffon Loaf.

Also good for the High Holidays: Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake and Challah.


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Sweet tweet (complete)

Back From the Beach

Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake

This is one of THOSE years: the Labor Day weekend is late and the Jewish holidays are early; in fact, they commence just a couple of days after the weekend. I’m no sooner rinsing the beach sand from my feet when I have to start thinking about dessert for the family Rosh Hashanah dinner — my yearly assignment. Luckily I have had a little something stored in the back of my mind for a few weeks.

When I wrote about blueberries a few weeks ago I mentioned — almost in passing — the famous blueberry muffins from Boston’s beloved but now dearly departed Jordan Marsh department store. I haven’t been able to get those off my mind. When you have an itch you’re not supposed to scratch it, but I’m only human: I can’t resist.

On paper the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is an unlikely star: oversized, sugar-crusted, less muffin than cake, and perhaps even a bit on the dry side, although the better for dunking because of it.

(Does anyone still dunk? Never my cup of tea — pardon the pun — dunking was best demonstrated by Clark Gable in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Yeah, they still call them “Dunkin’ Donuts” but I don’t think anyone still does. Please correct me if I am wrong.)

Ask any Bostonian, current or former, about the Jordan Marsh muffin and you will likely get some kind of fond memories recalled about Aunties or Grandmothers bringing them on visits, not to mention quick side trips to “Jawdin’s” bakery counter whilst in the store on other business. While muffins are usually reserved for breakfast or Hollywood gift giving (muffin baskets are big business out there), we were never shy about occasionally eating the Jordan Marsh muffins for dessert.

Like dunking, the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is no doubt the product of a different age. For a big chunk of the mid-twentieth century, the big department stores always had in-house bakeries. Granted many, including Macy’s (which absorbed the Jordan Marsh chain some years ago), still do. But with rare exceptions the fare is trucked in from a vendor. The stuff they sell is hit or miss. The old time department store bakery was likely a bit more modest in scope, with muffins, cakes, cookies, and brownies (the Jordan Marsh nostalgia silver medalist) being the focus. I have a fond memory of my Mom returning home with a B. Altman’s Chocolate Cake from a trip accompanying my Dad to New York City. That was a few years ago — B. Altman’s is a library now — but I remember that big swirly-frosted cake as if it was last week. The latter will likely produce a phone call from my Mom remarking on my elephantine memory.

But I mention that cake as an illustration of the aesthetic I am trying to highlight. I can’t say for sure that everything those bakeries sold was golden, but it was good dependable stuff that didn’t try too hard.

This brings us back to blueberry muffins and an early Rosh Hashanah. I thought it might be nice to let summer influence the choice of desserts this year. They usually are tinged with the rustier flavors and colors of the fall season, like my pumpkin cake from last year. This year they’ll be bright and summery, and the aforementioned idea of serving blueberry muffins for dessert seems apt.

Two problems, or shall I say, minor roadblocks, require equally minor detours: The first is that “Jawdin’s” is gone and so are their muffins. The second is that I can’t serve muffins at a holiday dinner. Serving muffins as dessert is a cute trick best saved for another time.

Luckily, I can easily swerve around both roadblocks. Jordan Marsh may be gone, but with a bit of internet digging the real, real, recipe (as opposed to the real recipe) is not hard to find. And if I don’t want to serve muffins for dessert I can just pour the batter into a cake pan or two and serve it as a cake.

I did just that, using two five inch cake pans which gave them great height. But feel free to use one standard eight or nine inch pan.

My only real problem was my own nagging desire to bring my own twist to this recipe. Luckily a little experimentation quickly made me retreat from that idea. I thought it might be nice to serve this as a real cake, including frosting. Bad idea. I tried a simple white frosting which had the double whammy of making the whole thing too sweet while completely obliterating the blueberry flavor. Ditto a really nice lemon frosting: triple whammy. Too sweet, no blueberry, all lemon.

So, going back to basics, I decided to let the cake shine as is, in all its basic mid-century home-spun glory, kind of like an edible version of thumbing through an old copy of Life Magazine. For the holiday dinner, if I decide to gild the lily at all it will be by dabbing a bit of barely sweetened whipped cream on the plate, as much for looks as for the blueberries and cream simulation.

Bear in mind that the highlights of these muffins, the crunchy sugar crown, the thick brown crust, and the abundance of blueberries are the things that require just the slightest extra attention while mixing the batter: be sure to carefully fold in the blueberries with a rubber spatula using caution to break the berries as little as possible. And the sugary, crusty crown? Just use a heavy hand with the sugar. As with any muffin, mix this relatively heavy batter as little as possible.

And if you’ve just got to make muffins, I say, “Go for it,” but be sure to fill the muffin tins almost to the top so they develop a big crunchy “crown,” Don’t use paper liners or you won’t get the trademark brown crust.

Everybody out of the water! Fall is here!


Click here for the recipe for “Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake.”


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Happy New Year!

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

Pumpkin Apple Praline Cake

No, I am not calendar-challenged; this Friday marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year holiday, which starts with Rosh Hashanah, and ends the following week with Yom Kippur. 

On the lunar-based Jewish calendar this year will be 5770, and yes, I agree, time flies: seems like it was just 5760.

Here’s the “Emily Post”: Yes, by all means wish your Jewish friends a Happy New Year, but do not say, “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is all about fasting to atone for your sins, and mourning those we’ve lost. Stick with, “Happy New Year” and you’re covered.

In spite of the fact that the holiday includes a day of fasting, as with any big holiday there is also a big meal. My baby niece (that’s what I call her in spite of the fact that she is a college graduate) is the event planner. I have been tasked with providing desserts. Baby Niece (or “BN” as she will heretofore be known) assigned me this task as much for my skills in the kitchen as for the fact that we are simpatico when it comes to our choice of which desserts should be served on any given holiday.

The tradition of desserts on this holiday is not a particularly rich one. Traditional Jewish New Year desserts include apples dipped in honey (a symbolic gesture of hope for a sweet new year,) Honey Cake, Sponge Cake, and Taiglach, which could be wonderful, but ends up being soup nuts coated with “honey” (I use that term loosely), and tossed with chopped almonds and a few confused-looking maraschino cherries. This is usually sold in a disposable aluminum pie tin.

Maraschino cherries in a disposable pie tin. Tempting. If you’re a smelter with a sweet tooth.

Jewish food is basically a reflection of the various places we have lived; for some this means a largely Eastern European influence, and for others a largely North African and Southern European influence.

As I am several generations removed from the Eastern European experience, I think it is time to reflect (and celebrate) the rich traditions of the place where I grew up.

Welcome to “Extreme Makeover: Jewish New Year Desserts” edition.

The sponge cake is the first to be shown the door. The role has been recast with Lemon Yogurt cake, a simple recipe from Ina Garten, a/k/a the Barefoot Contessa, which has a fizzy lemon intensity that belies its humble name. (My family and I do not observe kosher laws, so we can have a cake made with yogurt, a dairy product, in the same meal as meat.)

I have a few ideas for the Taiglach, but they’ll need some work in the lab before I can use them, so I’m moving on, for now, to the honey cake, which is joining its sponge cake buddy in blessed retirement.  Perhaps they’ll drop us a note now and then.

BN and my mom have been tempted of late by pumpkin which I think fits the harvest celebration aspect of the New Year beautifully.  But flabby, over spiced pumpkin loaf recipes abound, and frankly, with the homey simplicity of the Lemon Yogurt cake something equally rustic, but slightly more stylish is needed. There’s also the fact that I learned my lesson about over spicing pumpkin several Thanksgivings ago when my mom, between shovelfuls of my Pumpkin Pie paused long enough only to breathe and say, “Delicious! But I can’t taste the pumpkin.”

So, a light hand with the spice. The earthy intensity would come from the use of brown sugar and maple syrup which would sweeten the cake, and reflect my New England background. A few wisps of orange zest would supercharge the pumpkin flavor. With a nod towards the apples and honey tradition, there would need to be apples in the cake, but more fun I thought, if the apples could be sliced and end up on top of the cake. The goal is like the lovechild of a cake and a clafouti.

Then I had second thoughts.  It sounded good, but the lily needed a bit of gilding: the cake still seemed a bit plain, and I like things to have a bit of crunch, which, unless I was clumsy with an eggshell, is not something for which cake is usually known.

Hmmm…my mind lingered for a moment on the almonds and honey in the Taiglach. What if the honey and almonds could somehow be a source of crunch on the cake? This is frequently done using crushed praline, which is simply sugar cooked with nuts, then allowed to harden, and crushed into a powder. Why not do the same thing with honey and almonds?

The story, I’m happy to report, has a happy ending. A trial run revealed the need for a few adjustments: a bit less orange zest here, a slightly greener apple there, and the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour to dry the crumb a bit. But all in all, a wonderful makeover for that tired old honey cake.

The cake, once cooled, was first dusted with confectioner’s sugar, then with the honey praline. The apples were cooked on the bottom of the pan so they would be on top when the cake was turned out of the pan. Combined with the confectioner’s sugar they formed a thin, almost “jammy” layer. The pumpkin cake retained the buttery brightness of the pumpkin and orange zest, but revealed the smoky sweetness of the maple syrup. The praline was the best surprise of all, starting and ending each bite with a toasty, honeyed crackle that said, “Happy New Year!”

And the good news is that the cake is perfect for any occasion during fall and autumn, from a gathering as big as Thanksgiving, to one as intimate as coffee with a chum.

Click here for my recipe, and “L’shana Tova!”

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