Archive for October, 2009

Rainbow cake

Last week, in honor of Parshat Noach, I baked a rainbow cake.  My friend Heather (you remember the one with the corrupting influence?) introduced me to the idea from this blog.  She made the cake when we visited them last summer for a birthday celebration for her daughter and Peach (who were born three days apart six years ago).  Once the batter was made and dyed, here is how she layered it in the baking tins:

Rainbow cake batter

And here is the big moment when she cut the first slice:

Rainbow cake slice

I did the minor decorating job on Heather’s cake, piping some white flower-shaped tufts of “cloud” with the icing and the scalloped border.  The main difference between Heather’s cake and mine is that hers was entirely store-bought and mine was entirely homemade.  What I discovered is that a compromise is good for this cake.  I recommend the finest store-bought ingredients for the cake (Heather used the whitest mix she could find, and Wilton gel food colors), and a good homemade buttercream frosting for the outer decoration.  Cake mixes have a denser batter and hold the dye better; my homemade batter was too slushy and the result was more of a tie-dyed cake than a rainbow one.  And store-bought frosting (in the cardboard can) is too soft to hold any kind of shape when spread or piped on a cake. Here are a couple of shots of my recent decorating job.  (Sorry the sloppy, tie-dyed effect couldn’t be displayed; it was cut on Shabbat.)

Jen's Rainbow Cake top view

Jen's Rainbow Cake side view

The cake as a whole is almost sickeningly sweet, and barely looks like food.  But if you want to make friends and establish influence with members of the child set, this is the way to go.

For those who are looking for a good buttercream frosting recipe, here is the one I use, based on the recipe I was given at the Wilton basic cake decorating course:

150 g margarine or salted butter, fresh out of the refrigerator

2 tablespoons water (or milk or whipping cream)

1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, orange, rum, etc.)

1 tablespoon meringue powder (Wilton makes this, and it can be purchased online or in a craft store like A.C. Moore or Michael’s)

560 g powdered (confectioner’s) sugar (1¼ lbs) (do NOT use superfine sugar; the frosting needs the cornstarch to give it consistency and bind)

Pulse margarine in food processor.  Add liquids and meringue powder and pulse together until blended.  Add sugar about 100 g (or 1 cup) at a time, pulsing in between to combine.  I recommend using a spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the food processor bowl and pulsing a little more to be sure to incorporate all of the frosting.

This method makes frosting with a stiff consistency, suitable for making roses.  For medium consistency (other flowers) add an additional 1-2 teaspoons water or milk and blend thoroughly.  For spreading (also vines, leaves, and lettering), add an additional 2-3 teaspoons water or milk and blend thoroughly.

If I know I’m only making frosting to spread on a cake, I simply reduce the amount of powdered sugar I add to the food processor.  Test frosting with a spreading knife between additions, adding the last 200 g of powdered sugar gradually.

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Kosher Cooking Carnival #46

Mimi of Israeli Kitchen hosts this month’s Kosher Cooking Carnival.  My jam tart recipe is included, along with other mouth-watering dainties and kosher food commentary.  Check it out!

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Knitting revolution

Caution: The following post may be esoteric and tedious to non-knitters.

When I first learned to knit, I acquired skills slowly.  First knitting, then purling.  Then casting on (in the inelastic knitting-into-the-same-stitch mode) and binding off.  I never learned seaming or picking up stitches, or anything more complicated than simple cables.

Then I set it aside for a couple of decades.

Since I’ve come back to it, I have endeavored to learn multiple casting-on and binding-off methods as well as fancier things like running stitches, bobbles, complicated braided cables, lacy patterns, the works.  I can seam, increase, decrease, and am on the brink of doing some colorwork.  I’ve purchased several books with intricate patterns and methods (basic, Celtic, Viking, Fair Isle, among others).  I own a reliable reference book for basic techniques from knitting and purling to finishing techniques.

But one thing has always bothered me: I’ve been a slave to knitting patterns.

When I was first learning to knit, I couldn’t read a pattern.  (What Dumbledore sees in them in the sixth Harry Potter book is beyond me.)  My mother interpreted them for me when I was younger, and over time I’ve learned to decipher them, but I’ve still not been satisfied.  Just because I can read a pattern does not mean (to me, anyway) that I am a really good knitter.  Like cooking, there is a difference between someone who must follow a recipe and someone who can alter a recipe to taste (or to what is in the larder) or create something entirely new.

A couple of years ago, the Cap’n and I took the kids to the States.  While we were there, I visited a large knitting store (WEBS in Northampton, Mass.) where I shlepped my new knitting books around and tried to find yarn to suit the sweaters I wanted to knit.  I asked a store salesperson for help, and she guided me to yarns for each project.  I made my selections, dropped a small fortune at the cash register, and boxed my things to bring back to Israel

On that same trip to the States, my friend Heather gave me a copy of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Workshop.  It’s a small volume filled with wisdom and techniques for making a few basic sweaters for any sized person—without a pattern.  I loved Zimmerman’s opinionated views on knitting (including her hatred of seaming) and devoured the book.  I also ordered a similar book called Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, which is a more in-depth exploration of the history of the knitted sweater and how to design a sweater, including shape, fit, and color or textural design, all without a pattern.

But at the time, I was still too inexperienced and too timid a knitter to embark on a serious study of this oh-so-independent discipline.  I had my yarn and my patterns, and was set with projects for a few years.

But during the intervening time, I have discovered two things: 1) despite the salesperson’s assistance, many of the yarns I purchased are inappropriate for the projects I had in mind, and 2) over the last couple of years, I’ve fallen out of love with some of the projects I had planned on knitting.  What am I to do with all this yarn I have if I don’t have patterns that suit it?  I’ve tried to find new sweater patterns I could knit with what I have, but there is little in my books that suits.  So last week I spent hours on the Internet looking at patterns, with little success.  (Nearly all of the projects were unsuitable to my taste, climate, and basic sense of modesty.  I mean really, what woman in her 40’s wants to walk around in a dishtowel with a couple of shoulder straps?  Even with a shirt underneath…)

In the end, faced with a stock of really nice yarn with no certain future, I’ve gone back to those books and read them more carefully.

After really absorbing their message this time, I feel as though I’ve had a conversionary experience.  I learned how to knit in the first place so I could make exactly what I want in a sweater rather than relying on whatever the stores stocked—and pattern books are the equivalent of stores, in my opinion.  It’s not cheaper to handknit—not when you add up the cost of materials, knitting equipment (needles aren’t cheap) and time spent knitting (which is time not spent working, doing laundry or dishes, or driving the kids somewhere, though I do find it easy to knit while I help a kid with homework), but it is pleasurable and rewarding.  And with a handmade sweater, I should be able to choose the materials, the design, the exact fit, and the finished product should look better on me and be better made than anything I can buy retail.  When I rely on patterns, I give up a large measure of that independence.

This does not mean I’m finished with patterns.  There are some really wonderful designers out there (I really like Jo Sharp, Alice Starmore, and Ann McCauley) who design some smashing-looking sweaters.  What it does mean is that if I want to knit a pullover in the round, a cardigan in one piece, or steek a sweater I’m supposed to knit in 5 flat pieces, there are resources I can use to help me figure out how to do it.  If Jo Sharp’s sweaters are too boxy or shapeless for me (or my kids), I can alter them to make them more fitted.  If Ann McCauley designed a gorgeous knitted pattern but I don’t have the right yarn to make the exact project she designed, perhaps I can adapt her pattern to an entirely different sweater.  Knitting has always been enjoyable for me, but from now on, it will never be the same—in a really good way.

It’s a bit like the experience of discovering Orthodox Judaism, where the traditional has come to look revolutionary in the modern world.  Lehavdil.

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The Goldstone Report

I don’t know what it’s been like in the rest of the world for the past few weeks, but it seems like every day here in Israel there is talk about the Goldstone Report, a 575-page report submitted to the UN Council for Human Rights by a committee headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist (who also happens to be Jewish), in which Israel is accused of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead, aka the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009.

The remarks about the report include the fact that Goldstone, in choosing to chair this committee and sign his name to the scurrilous report they produced, has given it weight and credence because of his stature as a prominent member of South Africa’s Jewish community.  They include the fact that he could have recused himself from that particularly onerous job, but didn’t.  (Although Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and nowadays an international political player with no great love of Israel, could smell a stinky job a mile away and turned it down.)  They include the fact that he’ll never eat lunch in the South African Jewish community again.  And they include the fact that in an international landscape in which Israel is routinely vilified, represented most publicly by the UN, this report is another assault not only on the Jews, but on the truth.

Recent articles about Goldstone include observations that he’s backpedaling to the Jewish world about the report, softening his criticisms of Israel to Jewish audiences, while standing staunchly by the report in front of international listeners.  In a conference call with US rabbis last week, Goldstone is said to have urged Israel to carry out an independent investigation of its military prosecution of the war, saying “If the Israeli government set up an appropriate, open investigation, that would really be the end of the matter,” as far as Israel is concerned.

Perhaps I’m jaded, but I’m not terribly shocked to see a Jew signing off on such a report against Israel.  While his daughter claims that Goldstone “is a Zionist and loves Israel,” there are many Diaspora Jews like him out there who say they feel an attachment to Israel, but who nonetheless find it irresistible, expedient, or therapeutic to accuse Israel of atrocities while overlooking the violent, civilian-targeting behavior of Israel’s terrorist enemies.  Many Jews are uncomfortable with the power that Israel possesses to defend itself, embarrassed to see it in conflict with poor, oppressed-looking dark-skinned people, preferring instead to see the Jewish people (and Israel as the international, public face of the Jewish people) as pacifists, victims of others’ violent attacks, and committed to turning the other cheek (a Christian notion).  Many Jews find themselves exhausted emotionally and unable to maintain a front of support for Israel, in effect “losing their love for Israel.”  (See also Daniel Gordis’s response to the author of the previous article.)

Many such Jews in the world have lost their feeling of the Jews as a people.  (Daniel Gordis’s piece in Friday’s Jerusalem Post describes this well.)  Such Jews have come to see Judaism as a Western, liberal, democratic tradition.  Such Jews labor under the impression that Judaism is a religion of individuals in a multi-cultural society.  Such Jews have apparently lost the sense of Jews as a community and a nation which is not only permitted, but obligated, to defend itself from enemies who seek to destroy it.  Such Jews are half-blind to their own tradition.

They are right that Judaism values the life of each and every person, regardless of whether that person is Jewish or not.  This is why the IDF in Operation Cast Lead did everything within its power to limit the damage to life and property of non-combatants in Gaza.  They are right that abuses of power are wrong on the part of a military force.  This is why the IDF investigates each individual complaint of abuse on the part of its soldiers, even in combat situations.  They are right to believe that when the IDF or the Jewish State commit errors or abuses, those errors or abuses should be pointed out, investigated, and dealt with.

Where they are wrong, however, is to think that jumping on the bandwagon of Israel-bashing (i.e. calling Israel a “fascist” or “racist” state, or accusing the IDF of “disproportionate force” or “collective punishment”) is an appropriate response.  There may be very smart people doing this—academics in the UK, Swedish journalists and newspapers, European diplomats, not to mention the many smart Arabs who claim to care about the Palestinian Arab “refugees”—but this does not make it right.  Were these intelligent entities to apply the same standard of behavior to Hamas and other terrorists, they would be quoting the Geneva Conventions, criticizing Hamas for using the Gazan population as human shields, dressing combatants in street clothes to make them indistinguishable from civilians, using ambulances to transport weapons and mosques to stash explosives, and firing rockets from the basements of office buildings and hospitals.

By the same token, it would praise Israel for voluntarily ceasing hostilities for hours every day to allow humanitarian supplies into the enemy zone.  It would laud the IDF for dropping countless fliers and sending thousands of text messages to Gaza residents urging them to flee the area before sorties were carried out.  It would acknowledge that Israel’s military did its best to execute surgical strikes, to avoid harming civilians, and to heal the hurts of those hit by building a hospital at the Erez border crossing to provide free medical care to Gaza residents.

But we don’t live in a world where those who decide what’s moral and ethical can see such things.  We live in a world where such people have selective hearing, see what they want to see, and have their minds made up before the facts are ever presented.  I don’t like to raise the nasty issue of anti-Semitism, but if someone can provide me with a different explanation for why Israel is subjected to standards not applied to any other country in any other situation at any other time in history, I’d be glad to hear it.  Goldstone’s report is a juicy steak thrown to slavering hellhounds hungry for fresh meat.  His may not be the only offering, but it’s definitely one the dogs will find hard to resist.

In the meantime, Goldstone urges Israel to conduct an open investigation of its own into its behavior during Operation Cast Lead, claiming that were it to do so, “That would be the end of the matter.”

If only.

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What a tart!

I was once a barmaid in Cambridge, UK.  Sitting around, enjoying our complimentary beverages at the end of a night, the bar staff would occasionally discuss some of the looser-moraled patrons after they’d had cleared out for the night, using the expression that is the title of this post.

But it’s also what I say when I make this embarrassingly easy and utterly delicious Shabbat dessert.  It was originally billed as a recipe for a Czechoslovakian cookie, but since there is no more Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, and because it works better as a tart, I call it a tart now.  The crust is still a cookie crust, flavorful and crumbly as a fine European pastry, and when made with raspberry preserves, is guaranteed to knock your socks off.

1 C. parve margarine, softened

1 C. sugar

2 egg yolks

1 t. vanilla

2 C. flour

1 C. chopped nuts (I use coarsely ground almonds to great effect)

¾ C. jam

Cream margarine and sugar.  Add yolks and vanilla; cream well.  Blend in flour and nuts.  Press dough into greased 9” tart pan, saving extra aside.  Spread jam over dough.  Shape remaining dough into flat circles (I make mine different sizes) or cut out with cookie cutter, and arrange on top of jam.  Bake at 325° for 1 hour.

Ordinarily, I suggest using butter in a recipe that has so few ingredients, but margarine really works just fine, and then you can enjoy it after a meat meal.  It is delicious with tea, and decadent with vanilla ice cream.  Bon appetit!

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Fall foliage

One of the things I knew I would miss when we made aliyah was the incomparable fall foliage in New England.  Israel in the spring is stunning, but it’s nothing like the sensory blast one gets from the yellow birches, red maples, and green and brown oaks of the northeastern US.

But today, I was heartened to see this gorgeous photo in my email inbox.  It was taken by Yehoshua Halevi and is on his photo blog, “Israel the Beautiful” (to which I subscribe and receive weekly photos of Israel).  He took the photo here in Gush Etzion (of which Efrat is a part).  Check out his other photos of Israel in all her seasons at his blog.


I heard someone once say that Israel is supposed to contain a little of everything that is in the rest of the world, but in miniature.  Mini-Sahara (the Negev), mini-Mt. Everest (the Harmon), mini-Lake Superior (the Kinneret).  And now mini-New England, here in Gush Etzion.  Who knew?

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Who does motzi?

In Newton, Massachusetts, where the Cap’n and I adopted most of our practice and traditions for keeping Judaism modern Orthodox-style, we observed that in about half of the families we knew, the lady of the house said the blessing over the challah on Shabbat (“motzi”).  Kiddush was nearly always said by the male head of household (though in at least one household I observed, the woman said kiddush for one of the meals), and in a few households, the male head also said motzi.

In our house, I have continued to say motzi on Shabbat.  This is not generally the practice among the English-speaking families we know in Israel.  In fact, I may only have seen one other household in the three years we’ve been here where a woman says motzi.  But to us it makes sense.  We both contribute to the running of the household and the creation of the Shabbat meal.  The Cap’n makes kiddush since he does nearly all of the shopping (and grape juice is definitely something we buy rather than make at home).  I make motzi since I do nearly all of the food planning, prep, serving, and clean-up.  (The Cap’n makes the phone call when we invite people for a meal.)  While I rarely make my own challah, it’s symbolic to me of the home-made part of the meal, for which I deserve full credit.

I imagine there must be many reasons for the man to make both kiddush and motzi.  Men get most of the speaking parts in Judaism (remember the wedding ceremony?), and this is another speaking part.  There is a tradition that a person should say 100 brachot a day, and since this is probably more binding on a man than a woman, this gives him an extra bracha to say.  In some households, I suppose the man is considered the founder of the feast, even if his responsibility for it began and ended with earning the money toward it.  (This doesn’t hold up in many families today, but families today look less like they did 100 or more years ago, when these practices get cemented into tradition.)

That’s how we do it, anyway.  If anyone has more accurate information on why men do both in most households, feel free to share it.

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