Purim began at sundown last evening, the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. One of the most festive holidays on the Jewish calendar, Purim celebrates the biblical story of the Jews’ deliverance from Haman, minister to the Persian king. Queen Esther of Persia, a resilient and brave woman, along with her cousin Mordecai, foiled an evil plot, saving the Jewish people from certain doom. I know these facts not because I was paying close attention in Hebrew school, but because hamantaschen and a costume parade coincided with the lesson plan.
The tri-cornered pastries known as hamantaschen are symbolic of the hat worn by Haman. Originally, the pastries were filled with “mohn” or poppy seeds, thick jam, or nuts. The Settlement Cookbook calls yeast-risen sweets Purim Cakes or Haman Pockets. Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking offers both yeast-risen and cookie dough recipes under the heading of Hamentaschen. In Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, a recipe for beigli or kindli is included; a yeast risen cookie served at Purim, flavored with wine and filled with rum spiked poppy-seeds, raisins, and figs.
Contemporary versions of the triangular cookie have veered off course from the Hamantaschen road our grandmothers traveled. Bakers have reimagined the simple cookie, zhushing them with unicorns, rainbows, s’mores, and blizzards of sprinkles. I’ll admit old hamantaschen habits die hard; make mine mohn or jammy, please. Currently, I’m pining for the strictly-from-scratch poppy seed version crafted by @beerswithbrahms in Toronto.
Recently, I’ve learned about a totally different Purim sweet; the shikkera babka, which translates to ‘drunken grandma.’ Before you accuse me of blasphemy, let’s take a stroll through the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Within the pages of the food-centric encyclopedia, renowned food historian, the late Rabbi Gil Marks, explores a tipsy babka known as the shikkera babka. An un-filled yeast bread drizzled with a whiskey or rum laced syrup, the pastry closely mirrors both the French savarin and the baba au rhum. Marks goes on to suggest that the shikkera babka might have resembled the Polish babka because of its turban shape.
Fascinated by this new piece of knowledge, I turned to Mrs. Simon Kander and the ladies of the Settlement cookbook, plus Jennie, Joan, and an entire bookshelf dedicated to Jewish baking. Not a single book turned up the babka mentioned in the encyclopedia, but there were more than enough solid babka recipes for inspiration.
My tipsy babka experiment yielded an orange zested yeast bread swirled with dates and hazelnuts, lavishly doused with Cointreau. More of a commitment than a jam stuffed triangular cookie, it was well worth the whole dough megillah of resting, rising, and weaving. For the next one, I’m envisioning a swirl of poppy-seed filling and some dark chocolate.
In celebration of the cooled babka, I paraded around the kitchen with a thick slice, leaving behind a trail of hazelnuts and sticky crumbs. Though my grandmother would have opted for whiskey syrup over Cointreau, I’m fairly certain she would have approved.
We live in a world where interactive, live-streaming baking classes are taught by professional chefs and intimately hosted on Zoom. This was not always the norm. In a world long ago and far away, baking classes were an in-person experience. Students and instructors met together in a shared kitchen space. Armed with clean, white linen service towels, a notebook, and a hunger for a new skill, students observed and participated, sharing in the tactile experience.
Before 2020 interrupted our lives, teaching hands-on classes was something I managed to squeeze in whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also gravitated towards taking classes under the tutelage of instructors I admired. New skill sets are just as important as a sharp kitchen knife, a small offset spatula, and a properly calibrated oven.
Quite a few years back, 2004 to be exact, my friend Nancy and I traveled from Philadelphia to Manhattan to attend a baking class taught by the formidable Carole Walter. Diminutive in size but with a prodigious knowledge of pastry, Carole led us through an afternoon of baking that teetered on exhaustive. More of a coach than a helicopter instructor, the James Beard award winning culinary professional shared baking secrets and dispelled myths. The one thing I remember most vividly was Carole’s demonstration of “how to measure.” Armed with measuring cups and spoons, we were instructed to “fluff” our flour before measuring, spooning in the dry ingredient before painstakingly leveling off the requisite amount. Additionally, in stressing the importance of technique, Carole told us, “If you are a ‘shaker,’ a person who is accustomed to shaking the measuring cup while spooning in flour, STOP.”
Good advice for anyone without a kitchen scale.
Carole meant business and after the measuring tutorial, we dove into our prep list. In short order, we baked an array of sweets; a rich coconut cake, a very crumb-y, (but in a good way), coffee cake, brown sugar cookies, and slender chocolate biscotti. When instructed to plump the raisins for the coffeecake, Nancy, a talented baker in her own right, but more of a landscape artist, paused and whispered,“They look fine to me.” Carole was already one step ahead, stirring chocolate chips and walnuts into biscotti dough. We were woefully behind. Because my classmate had taken the place of someone else whose name remained on the class roster, Carole spent the afternoon referring to Nancy as Margie.
With cakes barely cool enough to slice and a mountain of cookies and biscotti to divvy up, we over-filled white bakery boxes and gathered up our notes. Carole had recently written a book dedicated to cookies, and our tuition entitled us to an autographed copy. As we stepped up to the stainless steel worktable, Carole looked up at Nancy wearing a name tag that said Margie. “Please make it out to Nancy,” my friend asked, and the award winning pastry chef complied with the raised eyebrow of a woman wondering if this student knew her own name. Carole added, “Good luck!” with an exclamation mark for emphasis.
“See?” I said as we headed towards Penn Station, our arms filled with cookbooks and butter stained boxes. “Carole really liked you.” Margie/Nancy shook her head.
Carole’s book, Great Cookies, sits comfortably on my kitchen bookshelf alongside her compendiums, Great Cakes and Great Pies & Tarts. A treasure trove of detailed recipes, I turn to these books not only for what to bake, but how and why. This week, armed with too many open jars of peanut butter and way too many bags of lightly salted peanuts, I leafed through Great Cookies until settling on one of my favorite Carole Walter recipes. With my baker's scale set to zero, I weighed the flour but not before giving it the slightest little “fluff.” It made me think of Nancy.
In its early days, upside down cake was a cast iron skillet cake, cooked over an open-fire. Once supported by legs, the heavy skillets were dubbed ‘spiders’ which lead to the moniker, “spider cakes.” The advent of flat-bottomed cast iron skillets opened the oven door to new possibilities.
The ingenuity of James Dole, the “Pineapple King,” coupled with the invention of the pineapple ring cutter would make the once elusive tropical fruit readily available to home bakers. In 1925, Dole Pineapple sponsored a contest for pineapple centric recipes, amassing more than 2,500 variations on the upside-down cake theme.
By the 1930s, rings of pineapple and neon maraschino cherries were making indelible memories in kitchens across America. When boxed cake mixes arrived on supermarket shelves, pineapple upside down cake became an easy to prepare ‘busy day cake.’
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s version, adapted from “The Cake Bible,” is my favorite. Pineapple sprawls across the top and also around the sides, cradling a rich yellow batter. Some might frown upon my use of Wisconsin cherries over maraschino, but either will happily compliment the caramelized brown sugar. The only enhancement might be a dollop of whipped cream.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm