“Tell me about the apple cake,” said the Lady in Plum. Oh dear. I wanted to let this one go, but I just couldn’t.
“For the holiday?” I replied.
“Yes. What’s in it?” asked Plum.
“Apples. Cinnamon.” Pause. “Cake.” I was being truthful.
At this point, Plum started gesturing with her hands. “Is it a tall cake? A low cake? Is it low like that plum…?” asked Plum pointing to an almond edged galette cooling on the rack.
Without missing a beat, I gestured right back, hands raised. “Yes, it’s quite high, the apple. Unlike the plum, (hands lowered) which is low.” It looked like we were playing a curious version of charades.
“And the apple cake…?” she trailed off, hands indicating confusion.
In these cases, it’s always a fine idea to insert the word ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ or ‘grandmother’ into the conversation, punctuated with a little finger pointing for emphasis. I used all three in one sentence, threw in a few pointed fingers just for the hell of it, then wrapped it up with the words ‘cider glaze’ before slithering back to the bench. In the distance, I heard Plum use the phrase ‘dairy free.’
Let’s get one thing straight about ‘dairy free.’ Long before that expression peppered our baked goods vernacular, cookbooks were filled with recipes for oil-based cakes. Oil-based cakes relied on oil instead of butter, making them (unless you added buttermilk or sour cream) dairy free. Grandmothers swore by them because they were moist and good keepers. Were they good lookers? Not necessarily, but as my grandmother liked to say, once you got to know them, you were bound to love them.
When cakes were attending a dinner in a kosher household, dairy and meat didn’t sit at the same table. So you would never send a butter-based dessert to a meal featuring meat. Additionally, the Jewish holidays tend to linger, lasting more than one day, promising a table full of relatives and perhaps a few unannounced guests. Our grandmothers were smart cookies, always anticipating, always preparing a little extra. It was unclear when, but quite certain that eventually someone would have a hankering for a little nosh after dinner. Grandmothers knew that a few slices of cake would be targeted for morning coffee or a mid-morning snack. The cakes chosen for the Jewish New Year were plentiful, baked in pans allowing for multiple slivers, thick slices, plates piled high with generosity. Apple cakes and honey cakes fell into this category, and were perfectly suited to a holiday based on the premise of sweet. So you can call it ‘dairy free’ all you want, but these are the same old oil based cakes Jewish grandmothers have been baking and serving for generations.
The holiday cake and pie seekers of our little village propel me to fixate on other things. Pouring eggy batter into deep tube pans, layering them with cinnamon sugared apples, I have been dreaming of a loaf of fresh challah, and I simply cannot let it go.
When Master/Master attended grad school in Boston, we would visit him in the comfortable neighborhood of Brookline. A fixture on the corner of Harvard Street is Kupel’s Bakery, known for chewy bagels, cakey black/whites, and triangular hamantaschen filled with tooth-clinging poppy seeds. They also know their way around a golden blond, multi-strand challah. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for the hard-working kosher bakery,
We are a challah desert in Maplewood, hours away from the promised bakery land of Brookline. Whole Paycheck offers a commercial version of a vaguely familiar braided yeast bread, but it pales in comparison to the genuine article. The only solution to my challah hankering was to make my own.
On Wednesday morning, after ushering apple cakes into the oven, just before filling nagging pie shells with mounds of apples, I lined up a small arsenal of ingredients on a sheet pan. This challah was now officially ‘a thing,’ and I couldn’t help but punctuate my conviction by uttering the words, “There will be wine and there will be challah.” It was a suitable mantra, providing inner calm to the external holiday storm.
A little shy of twelve hours later, Master/Master, Blondilocks, Mr. Sweet as Pie and one very tired baker assembled around the dining room table, faces illuminated by candlelight. Yes, there was wine, and yes, there was challah and in keeping with family tradition, there was enough in case anyone had a hankering for a slice for breakfast.