Hamentashen for Purim, latkes for Hanukkah, cheesecake for Shavuot… Jewish holiday foods are easy — a given, even. They are the things you expect to see on the table when “that time of the year” rolls around.
But we Jews like to mark life-cycle events similarly. So much so that I currently am teaching a class on it: Baking your way through the Jewish life-cycle! Weddings! Funerals! Confirmation! Birth celebrations! Yalleh!
(PS: There’s a preeeettttttttty good chance you’ll ALSO be learning a lot about Jewish life-cycle events as I chronicle them here over the next 16 weeks.)
As such, last week my Chai School students (8th and 9th graders) got an overview of Jewish funeral practices and then whipped up — seriously — these wonderful cakes from Germany called “Gesundheitskuchen,” or “Good Health Cake.” They take ten minutes or less to prep (faster if you’re a pro with a whisk!) and require very few ingredients — certainly ones most of us have on hand — which is good, because many occasions that call for cake don’t allow days to decide on a recipe, shop, and then bake. It calls for lemon zest and juice, but honestly, if you left them out (and added just a little more liquid to compensate for the missing juice), you’d probably still have a delicious cake with fantastic crumb and a dense, buttery consistency.
Jewish funerals start as soon as possible after a death, ideally within 3 days. Brit milah (and often simchat bat) ceremonies are held 8 days after the baby is born. We’re not talking tons of time for planning here, people! And although these are some wonderful, bright kids, none of them have spent much time baking; if they can pull these cakes off with stellar results, you will too.
“This is the kind of cake that can be prepared quickly for unexpected occasions and guests. It is a simple, soothing cake, appropriate for shiva, but also birthdays, and celebrations for the birth of a child.”
There’s a lot that can be said about the comforting properties of cake, and Jewish tradition suggests you bring very plain, basic foods to mourners, like breads and non-fanciful cakes (for other suggestions, see here). It says, “I care,” but the recipient won’t feel like you fussed and fussed.
I’m also convinced that you’re going to love this cake so much that it will enter into regular rotation. Should that happen, I suggest you top it with some rich, beautiful, dark berries. Maybe some whipped cream. It might feel like summer. Maybe. I’m just sayin’.
Gesundheitskuchen (“Good Health Cake”)
From Jewish Holiday Cookbook, by Joan Nathan
Makes: 1 large or 2 small cakes; serves 8-10
3 large eggs
1 C sugar
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter or pareve margarine, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla extract
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon (optional but recommended)
1 C milk
2 ½ C unbleached all-purpose flour
1 heaping Tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1/3 C poppy seeds (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and lightly flour a Bundt pan or two 9- by 5- by 4-inch loaf pans.
- Beat eggs in a bowl. Whisk in sugar.
- Continue whisking and add the cooled butter (minus any milky residue), the vanilla, lemon zest and juice, and milk.
- Gradually add the flour, baking powder, and salt, beating slowly (or on low speed if using an electric mixer) until smooth.
- Pour the batter into greased pan(s) and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out and cool completely on a rack. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar just before serving.