Hanukkah favorite, and more

Dessert: Jewish Apple Cake is one of many so-called Jewish dishes that have become part of various national cuisines.

December 01, 1999|By Joan Nathan | Joan Nathan,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

As I began planning my menu for the first night of Hanukkah, which begins Friday evening, I recalled a visit to Mrs. Kitching's Boarding House on tiny Smith Island in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.

To my surprise, I tasted what was billed as "Jewish Apple Cake." Frances Kitching, the proprietress, had in fact met very few Jewish people in her long life but had discovered the recipe in a church cookbook. Since then I have found recipes for the cake in many other American church cookbooks. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, a Catholic friend told me she was bringing "Jewish Apple Cake" to a potluck dinner at my home.

Interestingly, it is the same apple cake that my husband lovingly remembers from his childhood when his mother, Paula, and his aunts often made it. The recipe has been passed down orally for generations in his Polish household. Although I sometimes substitute plums, peaches, apricots or pears for the apples, this one-two-three dessert is still a favorite in my family at Hanukkah.

Unlike most American butter-based cakes, Jewish Apple Cake is made with vegetable oil, thus making it acceptable after a meat meal under the Jewish dietary laws that prohibit mixing meat and milk. In addition, cooking with oil at Hanukkah symbolizes the miracle of the drop of sacred oil found by Judah Maccabee and his brothers in the rubble of the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. This tiny amount of oil lasted not one, but eight days, and thus Hanukkah candles are lighted in a menorah for eight days.

Like Jewish Apple Cake, there are many other so-called Jewish dishes that have become part of various national cuisines. Interestingly, it is the use of vegetable or olive oil instead of butter or the prohibited lard that seems to make them "Jewish."

Take Fried Fish Jewish Style, a popular recipe in 19th-century England. Most non-Jews, when they made their fish and chips, cooked them in lard or beef drippings in the period before Spry, Crisco and other vegetable shortenings.

Jews, however, could not use lard, made from the prohibited pork, so they fried their fish in olive oil, after it was first salted and dipped in flour and water.

Alexis Soyer, the noted 19th-century chef of London's exclusive Reform Club, described the dish in 1855 in his "A Shilling Cookery Book for the People." "Here is another excellent way of frying fish, which is constantly in use by the children of Israel, and I cannot recommend it too highly," he wrote.

Soyer was not the only one to recommend this dish; the early American colonists also prepared it. It must have been a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, as a recipe for Fried Fish Jewish Style appeared in a manuscript written by his granddaughter, Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist, around 1800.

Across the continent in Italy, several ingredients have been called "Jewish" for centuries, namely fennel, eggplant and artichoke. Fried unpeeled eggplant bits comprise a dish I have seen in Italian-Jewish homes as well as in kitchens as far from Italy as Tbilisi, Georgia -- same recipe, but using different spice combinations.

Carciofi alla Giudia, Artichokes Jewish Style, earned its fame during the regime of Benito Mussolini, who brought heads of state to Piperno, a restaurant in the old Roman ghetto. "The recipe itself has existed since Jews first came to Rome about 2,000 years ago," said Edda Servi Machlin, author of "Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews" (Giro Press, 1993).

The classic way to make this dish is to remove and discard the outer deep-green leaves at the base of the artichoke, then hit one artichoke top against the other to open them up. They are then fried slowly in the oil until golden brown.

In Poland, where I suspect Jewish Apple Cake originated, Carpe a la Juive, pieces of carp simmered and then cooked in oil with sauteed onions and shallots, is not only a staple of Jewish tables, but it is also one of the seven fish dishes served in Polish Christian homes on Christmas Eve.

For all their historic differences, Jews and Christians in Poland and elsewhere seem to have shared some common culinary traditions.

Jewish Apple Cake

Serves 8-10

5 large apples, unpeeled, cored and sliced into eighths

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups unsifted flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Place apples in large bowl and sprinkle with cinnamon and 5 tablespoons sugar.

Beat eggs and gradually add remaining sugar, oil, orange juice and vanilla.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Combine with egg mixture.

Grease 10-inch tube pan and dust with flour. Pour 1/3 of batter into pan. Layer with 1/3 of apples. Repeat for 2 more layers, ending with apples on top. Bake at 350 degrees 1 1/2 hours until golden on top. Let stand few minutes and then unmold.

Eggplant Bits Jewish Style

Serves 6 as an appetizer

2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled

1 tablespoon salt (about)

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 green onions, chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

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