Jewish food. Is there really any such thing? Most of the dishes we think of as Jewish are delicious borrowings from the many places we have wandered throughout millennia. Only two dishes were truly invented by Jews. But more about that later (no peeking).
Stuffed cabbage—that must be Jewish food, right? Not really.
“During the medieval period, peasants in either Turkey or Persia began stewing cabbage leaves wrapped around grains and pounded meat as a way of producing a more substantial dish and stretching limited resources,” writes Gil Marks in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” Stuffed vegetables were introduced to Ukraine and Poland during the sixteenth century, and cabbage as the most readily available, became a popular vehicle, taking various names, such as holishkes, golubtzes or prakkes. Tomato sauce wasn’t added until the 19th century.
Recipes vary geographically as well. “Jews from Hungary, Italy, Romania and northern Poland prefer a savory sauce, Sephardim enjoy a tart sauce made by adding a little lemon juice, and those from Galicia and Ukraine favor a sweet-and-sour sauce,” Marks explains. “Mommy’s Stuffed Cabbage” from “Our Table” (Artscroll) by Renee Muller is typical of the Ashkenazic versions popular in America: sweet and sour with more meat and the addition of rice. A little intimidated by the prospect of rolling the cabbage? Muller provides a video at www.artscroll.com/ourtablevideos.
Muller grew up in Lake Lugano in southern Switzerland, and “Our Table,” her first cookbook, is a culmination of her Northern Italian culinary upbringing and her experience as a food stylist and columnist. She invites you to gather a tavola, at the table. “A tavola is where we gather. To talk, to socialize, to catch up…and to eat. Our table is where it all comes together. It is not only about the food; it is about stopping whatever we are doing and carving out some much-needed time to nourish our souls and our bodies in the company of our loved ones. Our table is where life and food meet.”
For pastry you couldn’t get more Jewish than babka – a delightfully rich filled yeast cake. It actually originated in Poland and Ukraine, however, taking its name from the Slavic word for grandmother, babcia. While the Polish form was tall with fluted sides, the Jewish version evolved from the Sabbath challah in Poland in the early 1800s “when housewives prepared extra dough, spread it with a little jam or cinnamon, perhaps sprinkled some raisins over the top, rolled it up, and baked it alongside the bread, providing a delicious snack for hungry children on busy Friday afternoons or a special treat for the Sabbath,” Marks notes. They replaced the butter that their Polish neighbors used with oil to keep it pareve. (Muller solves that problem neatly using non-dairy margarine.) Streusel was added in the mid twentieth century. The cake gained its 15 minutes of fame on an episode of Seinfeld when Elaine brings one to a dinner party exclaiming, “You can’t beat a babka.”
So we didn’t invent stuffed cabbage and we didn’t invent babka. Nor did we invent knishes or kugel or bagels or any of the myriad foods we think of as Jewish. The only two foods Jews really invented are (drum roll) matzo (you probably guessed that one) and cholent, the Sabbath stew begun before sundown on Friday and cooked slowly overnight to provide a hot, festive meal for the Sabbath. (Some claim haroset as a third. While fruit and nut recipes abound elsewhere, no one imbued it with quite the same meaning as we have.)
Mommy’s Stuffed Cabbage
For ease of peeling, freeze cabbages for at least one week. Defrost overnight in colander in sink.
1 large and 1 medium cabbage
For the filling
1/4 cup oil
3 medium onions, finely diced, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup uncooked rice
1 tablespoons paprika
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered chicken soup mix
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 pounds chopped meat
2 large eggs
For the sauce
2 (15-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 cup duck sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar, plus more to taste
1/4 cup powdered chicken soup mix
3 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more to taste
1 Filling: Heat oil in large saucepan over low heat. Add half the onions and cook until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Add garlic for last minute of cooking. Stir in rice, paprika, sugar, soup mix, salt and pepper. Let cool.
2 Add cooled mixture and eggs to meat. Mix well.
3 Core cabbage and carefully peel. Cut larger leaves in half and remove and reserve thick ribs. Roughly chop cabbage pieces and stems and add to large roasting pan with remaining onions.
4 Place 1 heaping tablespoon to 1/4 cup filling onto center of each cabbage leaf, depending on size. Roll leaf around filling, tucking insides to secure. Fit filled rolls snugly into roasting pan over diced onions and cabbage.
Sauce: Combine tomato sauce, duck sauce, 1/4 cup brown sugar, chicken soup mix and 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Spread over cabbage rolls. Bake 2 hours in preheated 350°F oven. Remove from oven; add lemon juice and or brown sugar to taste. Return to oven additional hour (uncovered if you prefer and thicker sauce, but cover if rolls begin to burn). Stuffed cabbage freezes very well, raw, baked, or half baked.
Yield: 36 swirls or 3 large babkas
For the dough
1 1/2 tablespoons dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (110-115°F)
5 cups flour plus more, if necessary
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) margarine, softened
1 egg, at room temperature
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 cup nondairy coffee whitener
For the streusel
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) margarine, softened
3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
For the filling
1/2 cup Dutch processed cocoa powder
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
I teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) margarine, divided
1 egg, lightly beaten, for egg wash
1 Dough: In small bowl, place yeast, 1 tablespoons sugar and warm water. Stir. Wait until bubbly, 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, place flour, remaining 1/2 cup sugar, margarine, and eggs into bowl of stand mixer fitted with dough hook. Add 1/2 cup of the coffee whitener and yeast mixture. Knead full 10 minutes, adding coffee whitener by the tablespoon, until dough is soft and elastic. Transfer to large bowl sprayed with vegetable spray. Cover: let rise one hour.
2 Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray metal (not disposable) muffin pan cups thoroughly.
3 Streusel: In bowl, combine streusel ingredients with your fingers until crumbs form. Add up to 1 tablespoon water to form pea-sized balls, if necessary. Refrigerate until ready to use.
4 Filling: Combine cocoa and sugar in small bowl.
5 After dough has risen, divide into 3 equal parts. Working with one part at a time—keep other parts covered – using rolling pin, roll into a square as thin as possible without ripping holes. Smear square with 1/2 stick margarine. Spread 1/3 of the chocolate filling evenly over margarine. Roll jelly-roll style from one end. Using sharp knife, slice into 12 equal swirls. Place into prepared muffin cups. Repeat with remaining dough. (For traditional babkas, fold each row in half; then twist 3 times. Transfer to large parchment paper-lined loaf pans.) Brush with egg wash: immediately sprinkle with prepared streusel. Cover with towel; let rise 20 to 30 minutes.
6 Bake Babka Swirls until golden, 15 to 25 minutes. Remove from muffin pans while still hot as oozing chocolate hardens and sticks when cool. (Bake large babkas until nicely browned, 30 to 40 minutes.)
Recipes adapted from “Our Table” by Renee Muller
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.