Vox Tablet

From Babka to Za’atar

Gil Marks made his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish food available to the rest of us

November 9, 2010
The Middle Eastern spice mixture za'atar, flavoring lavash.(Flickr/Emilie Hardman)
The Middle Eastern spice mixture za’atar, flavoring lavash.(Flickr/Emilie Hardman)

“Jewish food” means different things to different people. Some think of Jewish food as kugel, the Ashkenazi casserole, others bimuelos, a Sephardic Hanukkah specialty, still others kibbeh mahshi, a Syrian meat-and-crust dish. Gil Marks—the rabbi, chef, and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author who died this past December—thought of all of these and much more. His Encyclopedia of Jewish Food collects Biblical, historical, and cultural references to foods from all over the world and across millennia that in one way or another have played a role in Jewish life. No food is too humble (mustard) or too remote (gozinaki, a Georgian walnut and honey candy) for the encyclopedia’s 650-plus entries. Back in 2010, Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry spoke to Marks about the research involved in this enormous undertaking, about eating as a form of time travel, and about the flavor of grasshoppers.


Makes one 10-inch tube cake, one 13- by- 9-inch cake, or two large loaves [pareve]
3 cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour, or 1½ cups white flour and 1½ cups rye flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or 1 teaspoon ground ginger, or 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon ground cardamom, nutmeg, or allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup (11.75 ounces) honey
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 cup (8.5 ounces) dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup strong liquid coffee (from about 1 tablespoon instant coffee) or tea (from 2 tea bags)
1 to 1½ cups raisins, diced candied citron, mixed candied fruit, or chopped toasted walnuts or pecans; or ½ cup raisins, ½ cup chopped dried apricots, and ½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease one 10-inch Bundt or tube pan, one 13-by-9-inch baking pan, or two 9-inch loaf pans, line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, and regrease.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, oil, honey, and sugars. Add the coffee. Stir in the flour mixture until smooth. If using, add the fruit.
3. Pour into the prepared pan and place on a baking sheet. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly touched, about 1 hour for a Bundt or tube pan, 40 to 45 minutes for a 13-by-9-inch pan, or 45 to 55 minutes for loaf pans. Do not overbake or the outside will burn and the interior will dry out. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then transfer the cake(s) to a wire rack and let cool completely. Wrap in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and let stand for at least 24 hours. The flavor improves as the cake matures for a day or two.


Makes about 20 dumplings [dairy]
16 ounces (2 cups) farmer or pot cheese
1 to 3 tablespoons sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)
½ teaspoon table salt or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons softened butter or olive oil
About ½ cup fine cornmeal

1. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, blender, or electric mixer, combine the cheese, sugar, zest, and salt. Add the eggs and beat until smooth. Beat in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in enough cornmeal to produce a firm but soft dough. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a low boil. With moistened hands, form heaping tablespoons of batter into 1½-inch balls.
3. Drop the dumplings in the water. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes (they are done about 5 minutes after they rise to the surface). Remove the dumplings with a slotted spoon. If not serving immediately, keep warm in a 200°F oven.

Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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