PART II: La Culture Quiche (It’s all French to Me)
A multi-cultural marriage is nothing if it isn’t a life of concession and compromise. I showed up on my wedding day wrapped in a cloak of family heritage, carrying a bagful of traditions and joined my lot to a man with a different set of unmatched luggage. Religious beliefs (spiced, for one of us, by a very large pinch of skepticism), holidays and festivals, national pride, habits and ideas of the way things should work have been put to the test, talked over, played with, balanced out. Some points have been conceded, rituals pared back, concessions made, certain traditions eliminated and others adopted and all in the name of a happy marriage and what simply works best in the country and culture where we set up house and unpack the suitcases.
And nowhere is this more obvious than in our culinary traditions. We may travel the world, move from one country to another, experiment with this dish or that, but one thing we all carry with us, the one aspect of our culture that generations of immigrants have kept close to their hearts, loathe to leave behind, is our cuisine and the rituals that surround it. And as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers before us adapted their Old World recipes to New World ingredients, new cooking methods and a new life, we try and prepare our childhood and family favorites, the traditional dishes of our ancestors, the celebratory and festive meals as we know them yet are often inspired by a new culture or simply by necessity to adapt, change, transform. Over time we merge recipes, toss in a new spice or herb, lighten an otherwise heavy dish or blend cultural influences and in the process we end up creating an entirely new and very personal culinary repertoire.
Joan Nathan’s newest cookbook, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous (My Search for Jewish Cooking in France) is all about this culinary phenomenon. Just flip through the book and you will see a seemingly incomprehensible mish-mash of French, Yiddish, North African words and recipes. But look closer and you will see a fascinating blend of communities, origins, styles and flavors and once you read her culinary history of the Jews in France you’ll understand completely. “Even though some of the oldest Jewish recipes have been subsumed into French regional cuisine, you can often recognize ancient cooking in the dishes the Jews are serving today,” Ms. Nathan explains. She goes on to show that “between intermarriage, travel, expulsion, changing food ways, and different waves of immigration, it is often difficult to trace with precision the path of Jewish cooking in France.” Their history is a complex one and reflected in their delicious and diverse yet wholly traditional dishes.
My own cooking is a perfect example of this cultural fusion: Latkes are served every Hanukkah but now have that special touch of caramelized shallots. Passover finds us enjoying Matzoh Brei like my mom made but now it is served with a luscious slice of smoked salmon and a dollop of crème fraîche. An Alsatian fish choucroute now makes a fabulously festive holiday meal paired with a dense, golden Challah. And that Challah, the sweet brioche-like bread traditionally baked, braided and eaten every Shabbat eve, pairs so well with a good, nutty French comté or salty Roquefort and a tad stale makes a dynamite Pain Perdu, French toast. And now, thanks to Joan Nathan’s fabulous Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous, on we go. My recipe index for holidays as well as every day has just gotten thicker, my discovery of a whole panoply of new flavors and dishes adds zest to my cooking. Her intriguing look at the evolution of French Jewish cooking illustrates this merging of cultural influences, the blending of religious and secular components, the marriage of Jewish and French all leading to the creation of a tantalizing, original yet still thoroughly traditional cuisine unique to the Jews of France. The history Ms. Nathan recounts as well as the fantastic, mouth-watering array of recipes is fascinating not only to the Jewish cooks among us but will appeal to everyone. Why? Across the world and over time most cuisines have traveled, evolved and been transformed into the foods and dishes we recognize today. Each culture holds their traditions dear and close to the heart but revels in the gustatory changes that time and movement allows for.
Once again, I have chosen 3 recipes from this wonderful book and, once again, we were absolutely delighted with each of them. The first is a North African-inspired Chicken dish tangy with cured black olives and preserved lemons with an unusual touch of honey and simmered in a very French white wine, cultural fusion at its best. My husband selected the second recipe: a French cake or quick bread filled with fresh goat cheese and comté, redolent of mint and studded with either chopped dried apricots (Ms. Nathan’s version) or dried cranberries (my version). And finally, a dessert. I knew that I couldn’t go for very long without delving into her fabulous selection of sweet treats and I stumbled upon one that is doubly perfect: Gâteau de Hannouka, a Polish Hanukkah Apple Cake. As we are right in the middle of Hanukkah celebrations, I wanted to make something special for this festive occasion, but I also knew that any cake with apples is a favorite of my husband’s. A slice of my Jewish heritage served up with something ooh-la-la so French.
Now, on my previous post I offered you all three recipes for Joan Nathan’s Chicken with Apples and Cinnamon, the French Potato Salad with Shallots and Parsley and the Parisian Pletzl. But I can’t give all of her recipes away, now can I? I have decided to share with you one of the recipes yet my opinion of all three.
QUICK GOAT CHEESE BREAD with Mint and Apricots
A savory bread definitely meant to be eaten fresh from the oven, this Goat Cheese Bread – or cake, as the French would call it – is chock full of not only crumbled fresh goat cheese but nutty Comté, Gruyère or Cheddar cheese as well, whichever you prefer. While the recipe calls for chopped dried apricots, I preferred to use a cup of dried cranberries, which added a marvelous tangy sweetness to offset and compliment the nuttiness of the cheese. A handful of fresh or dried mint adds something fresh and colorful to this beautiful bread. A wonderful treat to serve simply alongside a salad or a bowl of soup for a complete meal. As easy and quick to put together as the name indicates, this bread has found its way onto my “bake-me-often” list of recipes.
HONEY-COATED BAKED CHICKEN with Preserved Lemon
Although Ms. Nathan offers us a more straight-forward traditional Moroccan Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons, I decided to make her Honey-Coated Baked Chicken with Preserved Lemons which is more of a fusion dish, combining “a Moroccan flavor to classic French roasted chicken.” I loved the addition of sweet honey – I am crazy about sweet & sour meat dishes – and found that baking the chicken simmering in honey and wine produced fragrant, extremely tender meat. As my own baking dish is smaller than the recommended 9 x 13-inch casserole, I used less chicken and therefore cut back the preserved lemons from 4 to 3. We still found that the flavor of these citrons confits was too strong and next time I make this dish – which I definitely will – I will use only two preserved lemons. And after I had made the Chicken with Apples and Honey I learned my lesson and poured only enough of the liquid over the chicken to come about 2/3 the way up, allowing the surface of the pieces to stay above the liquid in order to brown. A gorgeous, flavorful dish to serve simply with couscous.
GÂTEAU de HANNOUKA (Polish Hanukkah Apple Cake)
A whole lot of apples for not a lot of batter makes for one delicious cake. This recipe calls for vegetable oil which 1) makes it perfect for Hanukkah as foods cooked in or with oil are traditional, 2) makes this cake parve, allowed with either meat or dairy meals following the laws of Kashrut and 3) makes for one super moist yet extremely light cake. I made this apple-filled, cinnamon-infused cake in my dad’s old, original Bundt cake pan as Ms. Nathan does but the amount of apples in the batter makes it a tad difficult to hold together attractively (as if Jews ever cared about food being attractive as long as it is fabulously delicious!). The next time I will find a 9 x 13-inch baking pan so I can simply slice and lift out huge squares of it to serve along with a cup of coffee. JP gave this fruity cake a two thumbs up and called it really, really good. And it is. Overflowing with chunks of sweet and tart apples tossed in cinnamon, the cake is moist, tender and absolutely delicious. I can just picture my Bubbe, my grandma, asking for seconds. And thirds. Well, so did my French husband.
1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
5 apples (3 Fuji and 2 Granny Smith or Reines-des-Reinettes, or any combination of sweet and tart apples which, when baked, become meltingly tender yet hold their shape), peeled, cored and cut into ½-inch (1 cm) cubes, about 6 cups of chunks
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon *
1/3 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped **
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 Tbs chopped almonds (I used 2 Tbs ground almonds)
1 ¼ cups + 2 Tbs sugar, divided
4 large eggs
¼ tsp almond extract
* I had no lemons so I eliminated this. I tossed about a teaspoon of vanilla extract with the cinnamon and apples instead.
** As JP cannot eat walnuts, I did not add them and found the nutless version perfect!
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease either a Bundt pan or a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.
Toss the cubed apples with the zest and juice of the lemon*, the walnuts** and the cinnamon together in a large bowl.
Pulse (in a food processor) or mix (with an electric hand mixer) together the flour, baking powder, salt, chopped or ground almonds and 1 ¼ cups of the sugar together. With the processor or mixer running, gradually pour in the eggs, oil and almond extract, processing or mixing just until well blended.
Spoon 1/3 of the batter over the bottom of the prepared pan. Scatter the apples on top then cover the apples with the remaining batter, smoothing. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons (you’ll need less if using a Bundt pan) evenly over the top of the cake.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until golden and cooked through. The cake will take the shorter amount of time if using the shallower baking pan than in the Bundt pan.
Allow to completely cool on a cooling rack before loosening the cake and turning it out of the pan.