As American as Apple Pie and Cheesecake

The acclaimed Jewish food historian Gil Marks, who quietly made aliyah last week, has been working on a new book about the rich history of American Cakes.

Last Thursday, Gil Marks picked up his new teudat zehut, an Israeli ID card, in Jerusalem and became an Israeli. Thus the award-winning cookbook writer and acclaimed author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, quietly made aliyah last week.

Marks, who has a large family in Israel and has been going back and forth over the years, feels very comfortable in his new home. Now a citizen of the Jewish state, he suddenly found himself becoming “misty-eyed when they sang Hatikva at the airport.”

Marks’s last book, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, was a James Beard Awards nominee and the star of many best-cookbooks-of-the-year lists across the country, including the Washington Post and Saveur Magazine.

He would love to see it translated to Hebrew, and I’m surprised no one took on the challenge. The truth is, though, that the Jewish cookbook market in Israel is different from the American one. While there are many Israeli books that collect and document traditional recipes, usually of one Jewish cuisine, or one origin, it’s rare to find an Israeli/Hebrew cookbook that does real thorough research of the origin and meaning of the dishes, many of them are still popular in most Israeli households.

Maybe the reason is exactly that.

Traditional food from the Diaspora, any diaspora, is part of everyday life in Israel. The need to preserve and research its origins is not urgent yet. And maybe that’s why the most significant research on the history of Jewish cooking was done mainly outside of Israel, by authors like Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, and Marks himself.

Marks did not rest on his laurels after publishing the encyclopedia. In the past two years he’s been working on his new book, this one about the American cake. Marks, a history major, who in his previous books told the story of the Jewish people through their food, will now try to look at the history of the United States through its cakes. Sounds delicious.

“What we think about food is many times total bubbe meises,” says Marks over the phone from his new home in Israel. And he's going to make sure we get the real story.

Jewish Americans, by the way, were among those who contributed to the cakes we now see as all-American.

Society, technology and culture all changed over time and with them changed the food we eat. Take for example the American cheesecake. In the early days of colonization, the pastry world was dominated by the British, and the English-style cheesecake, which was made with rose water, was popular in the colonies. Cheesecake’s popularity began to fade in 19th century America, until the German-style cheesecake was brought over by German immigrants. Their recipe called for quark cheese, a fresh cow’s milk cheese that was not available in America, so they started using cottage cheese instead. (By the way, quark cheese is still the most popular cheese in Israel, where it is known simply as “white cheese”). 

In the late 19th century, cream cheese was developed, and in early 20th century, with the development of pasteurized cream cheese, new options for baking with cheese were opened.

In 1929, a Jewish restaurateur from New York City named Arnold Reuben (yes, the same Reuben from the famous sandwich) is said to have been the one who came up with the first cream cheese cheesecake, the cake that is now known as the New York style-cheesecake.

Later, Charlie Lubin, a Jew from Chicago, made the first line of freezer cheesecakes. He decided to call his company after his daughter. Sara Lee.

The gingerbread is another example that demonstrates how changes in society, culture and technology helped shape the way we eat.

Gingerbread is mentioned first in the 14th century Canterbury Tales, but these early cakes were more of a confection than the cakes we’re used to today. They were made by mixing breadcrumbs with honey and spices. Only in the early 18th century were the breadcrumbs replaced by flour, and later eggs were added for a little lighter version.

In the middle of the 19th century, baking powder and baking soda were invented in America, and bakers began experimenting with them. (Turns out even the Irish soda bread is an American invention). The Hungarian development of finer milling flour, around the same time, also contributed to a more refined and lighter cake.

Gingerbread changed once again with the introduction of the iron home oven that was invented in Vermont in 1830. Home bakers moved from using brick or Dutch ovens to iron ovens that could be adjusted to a more exact temperature, and enabled more precise baking.

The first cake mix was introduced in 1929: a gingerbread cake.

It’s interesting to note that the most common flavoring for any cakes in America were rose water (that’s still very popular in the Middle East), cinnamon, and nutmeg. In the 19th century vanilla slowly took over.

Chocolate started replacing the ginger in cakes only in the 20th century. (The first mention of chocolate cake was in Mary Randolf’s cookbook from 1824, The Virginia House-Wife, but the recipe is for cookies that are served with chocolate drink on the side). At first the chocolate was incorporated into the icing only, and only later into the batter itself.

And cupcakes? At the end of the 19th century bakers started using cups instead of pounds to measure cake ingredients (measuring volume instead of weight), and so the cup cake became an alternative to the pound cake. With the invention of the iron oven, cast iron manufacturers came up with new utensils to go with it. Small individual cups were first used to bake quick breads and later for cupcakes, similar to the ones we all crave today.

Marks’s book will not only educate readers about the history of America through its cakes, but will also enrich them with 250 recipes of the cakes that shaped the nation. And although we have our differences on the issue of cheesecakes (Marks prefers the rich New York cheesecake, while I’m sure that a few more months in Israel will convince him that the Israeli cheesecake is the best), I’m happy to share here two recipe from his new upcoming book, the New York style creamy cheesecake and honey carrot cake  just in time for Rosh Hashanah.