November 18, 2018

The Saudade of Cake

Aside from the fact that my father is a remarkable storyteller, he has been swimming upstream for many of his 79 years on Earth, and I’ve been along for much of the ride and inadvertently have followed in his footsteps.

In 1966, he left the relative security of his close-knit Bulgarian family in Israel and plunged into the great abyss of New York City. He had very little money to his name and a wife and small child to support. My mother had little desire for adventures like these and was struggling enough with the responsibilities of being a new mother. She also didn’t speak more than a few words of English.

Back then, New York City was not the gentrified Disneyland of today but a rough-and-tumble town with opportunities and dangers in equal measure around every corner. My father says he was so thin then that he and his friend, another Israeli emigre, could effortlessly squeeze through the subway turnstiles together so they could ride on one fare. When he rode the subway, he carried an umbrella in case he needed to fend off would-be muggers.

My father reinvented himself again and again, always carrying us along, bolstering my mother and me with his seemingly never-ending fountain of optimism and energy. He moved us to six states before I was 11 years old, pushing forward ahead of technology until finally building a successful company. We even did a brief stint back in Israel, the intended goal from the start, before both my parents realized that they felt more comfortable in the once-foreign land of America that had accidentally become their home.

“To ground myself, I decided to use my challah dough to make a version of Kozunak.”

Because I now live in Uganda and my parents are still in the U.S., our time together when I visit is limited and can be somewhat fraught with tension. We race to tell one another stories and fill in details of conversations that shouldn’t have started on the phone in the first place. While my husband and I struggle with jet lag and the cold weather that chills our Africa-thinned blood, my parents fill the inadequate time with us by passing on their knowledge and experiences from which they think we might benefit.

During my most recent visit, I found myself marinating in stereotypical reverse culture shock. After not living in the U.S. for 15 years, I began lamenting the “old” version of America I once knew. An America where people weren’t staring at smartphones and wearing headphones in public places. I longed for the days when there wasn’t a minimum of two Starbucks on every corner, and the city still had grit and flavor. I was experiencing saudade (sow-DAH-jeh), a Portuguese word that means a constant feeling of absence or sadness for something that’s missing.

Perhaps sensing my discomfort, my father told me a story about his childhood that mirrored the saudade I was feeling. During World War II, Jewish residents of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, were expelled from the city and forced to move to surrounding villages. Because my grandfather was an officer in the Bulgarian army, he had the opportunity to relocate his family to the destination of his choosing. They ended up in his birthplace, Pazardzhik, a small town 70 miles southeast of Sofia. There, they were fortunate to spend the war years without experiencing much hardship. Food was plentiful, and they considered themselves among the fortunate ones, even if the austerity of the village in wartime granted them few of the luxuries they were accustomed to before the war.

My father was 9 years old when his family returned to Sofia after the war. In the summer, he and his friends would travel via electric tram to enjoy the swimming pool in a city park named after King Boris. They also were drawn to the park by a special treat sold in a stall there, a Kozunak, a sweet, cakelike bread from Eastern Europe, known as babka by American Jews. My father told me he still remembered the smell and taste of that cake, such a treat after years of wartime deprivation.

Back in Uganda, saudade struck me again, this time in reverse. After having been in the States for a month, I had become accustomed to the abundance in the grocery stores. I now felt stifled by the lack of choices. I also missed my parents, my mother’s food and my friends. I realized I was, indeed, stuck — not feeling at home anywhere.

Because I cook for a living, I had no choice but to go back to work and immerse myself in the bakery. To ground myself, I decided to use my challah dough to make a version of Kozunak, perhaps to indulge myself in the sweet memories of my father.

I cut 40 ounces of the dough in half, rolled each half out into a rectangle and smeared each with pastry cream. In honor of Tu B’Shevat, I then layered each half with fig jam, chopped dates, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, slivered almonds and a sprinkling of brown sugar.

I rolled up each half jellyroll-style. Then, with a sharp knife, I cut each roll through the middle horizontally to expose the layers. I braided the four, layered strands and placed them in a large loaf tin to double in size.

After the loaf had risen, I brushed it with butter, sprinkled almonds all over it and baked it into a puffed bronze braid. I then doused the hot pastry liberally in a simple syrup made with honey for added moisture.

Standing in my kitchen at work, inhaling the scent of still warm challah with sweet fruit, I suddenly understood how the intoxicating aroma of this sweet cake could make my father’s childhood memory — even 70 years later — feel like it came from yesterday.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Must A Jewish Baker Decorate An Agunah’s Wedding Cake?

Two little groom figurines hover above today’s Supreme Court’s arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. By next summer, the justices will decide whether a state can force a baker to design a cake that celebrates an event like a gay wedding that conflicts with his deeply held beliefs.

Don’t believe the media’s claim that Masterpiece embodies the conflict between non-discrimination and religious liberty – because baker’s supposed homophobia is so flimsy it can hardly be called anti-gay discrimination. Here’s the key fact:

Baker Jack Phillips happily serves gay customers like me. He just won’t design our wedding cakes.

Lawyers for self-designated “cake artist” Jack Phillips told the court the baker “is happy to create other items for gay and lesbian clients.” Further, he would refuse to design a gay wedding cake even if the purchasers were straight – and he’d enthusiastically take gay money to design a straight wedding cake. He’ll also design cakes for LGBT people (like two bisexuals) who have an opposite-sex wedding. If he’s trying to discriminate against people who are gay, he’s picked a strange strategy for doing so.

By contrast, the artisans unjustly fined and run out of business in the name of “equal rights” are asking for no more than their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression – to participate only in events they agree with.

Since gay marriage still raises so much dander, consider a hot-button Jewish analogy that has nothing to do with homosexuality:

The most abominable ogre for traditional Jews like me is not pork or suicide bombers – or gay marriage, for that matter. It’s the remarriage of a woman who has not received a religious divorce. The offspring of such women (called agunot) are mamzerim (“bastards” is an imperfect but not untrue translation) whose innocent descendants face harsh personal-status restrictions for eternity.

The remarriage of agunot gives traditional rabbis and laypeople nightmares, and they schvitz nonstop to prevent mamzerim. The Orthodox Jews I know would not only refuse to provide such events with creative services – like baking cakes or writing calligraphy for ketubot (marriage certificates) – but many would resist providing non-creative services like catering and wedding halls as well.

As with Masterpiece, nobody is discriminating against agunot. Orthodox Jewish bakers would gladly sell them bagels or hamentashen. They just can’t participate in an event they abhor.

Look, I get it. American Jews are allergic to discrimination. Our collective memories of quotas and restrictive covenants prod us toward fair and equal policies whenever possible. But this case pits expression against discrimination, and a loss for the bakers could have real consequences for American Jews, well beyond highly charged situations like agunot:

  • ketubah calligrapher could have to design a marriage certificate for Messianic Jews.
  • Jewish wedding bands might be forced to perform at intermarriages.
  • An owner of a Jewish newspaper, perhaps, couldn’t decide for himself to include or not include wedding announcements from gays, intermarried couples, and Messianic Jews.

To their shame, the Anti-Defamation League (once again opposing Jewish interests) and the Reform movement have urged the court to restrict free expression if it dissents from America’s increasing gay-marriage consensus (the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel weighed in on the other side).

The Jewish community is wide and diverse, and faces real threats in the face of anti-Semitism and assimilation. So every American Jew – left, right, and center – who is truly concerned about klal yisrael (Jewish unity) needs to defend every other kind of Jew against government intrusion. Orthodox Jews should worry about High Holiday policies in public schools even though their own children rarely attend them, and Reform Jews should provide vigorous support for an eruv on public property even if their own approach to Shabbat doesn’t require one.

Well, the Orthodox opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t going away. For altruistic reasons, the entire Jewish community should support religious Americans who don’t want to express ideas about gay marriage they abhor. But also for self-interested reasons – to retain the right of American Jews to make their own decisions about agunah remarriages, interfaith weddings, and Messianic Jewish ceremonies – every Jew should sympathize with the plight of a Christian baker who doesn’t want to be rushed off the public square before he has time for his dough to rise.

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal and a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or Facebook, or E-mail him at

For Yom Haatzmaut, Israel literally takes the cake

My family’s tradition of baking birthday cakes for Yom Haatzmaut started innocently enough.

On our first Israeli Independence Day as Israelis, in 2001, my husband and I wanted the kids to really appreciate the concept of the birth of the State of Israel. They were young, and we thought that a yummy birthday cake frosted white with a waving blue flag did the trick. We decorated similar cakes for the next three years.

Then we decided to get more creative. For Israel’s 57th birthday we created a map of the country shaped like a Heinz ketchup bottle. The family we get together with each year for a Yom Haatazmaut barbecue –  they made aliyah the same year we did and were among the first friends we made in our community — said they could not wait to see what we would do the next year. A challenge.

The next year we made a cake with Noah’s ark since 58 in Hebrew letters is nun-chet, or Noach.

For the 61st we drew a map of the convergence of the new Route 6 and Route 1 leading to Jerusalem, where on the road as you are driving you see a six and a one together. For the 64th, a box of Crayola crayons touting the “many brilliant colors of Israel.” Last year, we quoted from the 65th chapter of Isaiah talking about the homes and the vineyards planted in the land of Israel.

While my husband is the cake decorator/artist (it’s always a white cake with white frosting), we all tell him how we want it to look. He and I solicit ideas from the kids, but the grownups get final say.

Each year in advance of the barbecue, our friends try to guess what the theme will be. Last year, we photographed small parts of the cake and texted them as hints.

For this year — 66 — my 12-year-old son came up with the idea. It’s top secret until tomorrow’s barbecue, so stay tuned.

Taking a modern approach to Passover desserts

At Passover, because tradition rules, I’m willing to bet that, at most seder tables, undistinguished sponge and honey cake, coconut macaroons and probably some dried fruits cooked into a compote are trotted out at meal’s end, met with no discernable oohs and aahs of rapture from those at the table.

Why not bend tradition a bit in the name of making the last course as delectable as the dishes that precede it? Adhering to the albeit fluid rules that proscribe chemical leavening, and flour- and corn-based products, there’s still a whole world of modern and delicious desserts that can grace the Passover table.

Arid though the desert was that our ancestors had to endure during their captivity, dry cakes were not part of the deprivations and don’t need to be today. Pastry chef that I am, I am not content to end the meal on a blah note.

Three factors are key: First, whip the eggs and sugar for the cake bases until they are light in color and fall in wide ribbons from the whisk attachment of the mixer. Second, fold the dry ingredients into the base with a light hand (and I do mean hand — splay the fingers of your hand, and lightly comb through the beaten base as you add the dry ingredients, folding only until the dries disappear into the mix). Third, keep an eye on the cakes as they bake to avoid drying them out by over-baking. Ethereal and moist cakes are the goal.

Here’s a recipe for a pistachio cake with a creamy citrus curd that will leave your Passover guests asking for more.


This is a moist pistachio-flecked sponge cake (made with matzah cake flour), which is drenched in a syrup flavored with the juice and zest of seasonal citrus (tangerine, low-acid Oro Blanco grapefruit, pink-fleshed pomelo and lime) and filled with a creamy starch-free citrus curd. Filets of the citrus fruits adorn the top of the cake, which is then crowned by a shard of pistachio crunch flecked with bits of sea salt. Complex in taste, simple to execute, this cake is a fitting ending to any seder but is truly a dessert for all seasons. Just choose fruits in season to create the syrup and the garnishes.


1/3 cup pistachios, finely ground (if possible, use commercially made pistachio flour, which is more finely ground and uniform in texture)
Scant 1/2 cup matzah cake flour
Scant 1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, separated
Zest of 1 medium lime
Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray or flavorless oil. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper. Spray the paper lightly and set the pan aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Sift together the ground pistachio flour and matzah cake meal; discard any larger pieces that remain in the sieve.

In the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and half of the sugar until the mixture is light and lemon-colored and falls from the whisk in a thick ribbon. Fold in lime zest.

In a clean, dry bowl with a clean whisk, beat the egg whites until frothy. With the mixer running, add the remaining sugar and beat until stiff but shiny peaks form. Lightly but thoroughly, fold the pistachio flour-

matzah cake meal mixture gently but thoroughly into the beaten egg yolk base. Then fold the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture. Immediately scrape the mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the cake feels firm to the touch and is slightly browned. Do not overbake. Remove the cake from the oven and set on a cooling rack.

When cool, remove the cake from the pan and place it on a cake cardboard set on a turntable. Using a long serrated knife, cut the cake into two even layers and set aside.


1 medium pink grapefruit
1 medium white grapefruit
1 medium blood orange or navel orange
1 large tangerine

Using a small serrated knife, cut a thin slice from the top and bottom of each citrus fruit. Then, following the contours of the fruit, remove the white pith surrounding the fruit. Over a bowl to collect the juices, which will be used in the citrus syrup, release each filet from the fruits by working the knife just adjacent to the connective membranes, making the first cut toward the center of the fruit and then next cut away from the center. The filets should then neatly release from the connective membranes of the fruit. Remove and discard any seeds. Continue until all filets have been removed, keeping each variety separate. Store, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to assemble the dessert.


1/2 cup fresh squeezed citrus juice (a combination of tangerine, grapefruit and lime works well here)
4 large eggs
Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-ounce pieces, softened

Place the juice, eggs and sugar into a stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan half-filled with simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water. Cook the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it becomes as thick as a thin mayonnaise. Remove from the heat. Press through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean heatproof bowl. Whisk in the butter, piece by piece, keeping the mixture emulsified. When cool, place the curd, covered, into the refrigerator until ready to assemble the cake. (Note: You will have leftover curd to use for another dessert if you use it as a single layer between the two layers of cake, rather than spreading it on the top layer of the cake as well, as noted below.)


1 cup mixed citrus juice, sieved (made from the juice that has collected when preparing the citrus filet garnish)
Simple syrup (1/3 cup each of granulated sugar and water, boiled until the sugar dissolves completely), as needed, to lightly sweeten the citrus juices

Combine the mixed citrus juice and enough simple syrup to lightly sweeten. Brush the layers of cake liberally with the citrus syrup and set aside at room temperature, covered, to prevent drying out. Reserve the remaining syrup in the refrigerator for use when plating and serving the dessert.

Note: Depending on the size of the fruits and how juicy they are, it may be necessary to supplement the juice by extracting the juice from additional fruits.


Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
Scant 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted in a preheated 350 F oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until lightly brown and fragrant, and kept warm until combined with the syrup below
Fleur de sel or other sea salt, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Ten minutes before you begin making the pistachio crunch, place a Silpat-lined baking pan into the oven to heat.

In a heavy saucepan, cook the sugar and water, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 320 F on a cooking thermometer. Combine the syrup with the warm nuts and quickly pour the mixture onto the heated baking pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake until lightly golden. Remove from the oven, immediately sprinkle the salt lightly and evenly over the crunch and store in a cool, dry place. Break the crunch into irregular-shaped shards just before plating the desserts.


Assemble the cake by spreading half of the citrus curd on one cake layer. Top with the other cake layer and press lightly to compact. If desired, spread remaining citrus curd on top of the top layer of cake. Otherwise, reserve leftover curd to serve over berries or lightened with whipped cream for a nice secondary dessert. Chill the cake until just before serving.

To serve, cut the cake into 8 equal portions. Top each portion with a filet of each type of citrus fruit and garnish with a shard of pistachio crunch. Place the portions onto serving plates and pour an equal amount of citrus syrup onto each plate. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 cake, 8 servings.

Illuminated Reflections: On view through May 8, 2011, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,  Los Angeles, CA 90049; (310) 440-4500.

Robert Wemischner is the author of four books, including his latest, “The Dessert Architect” (Cengage Learning Inc., 2010). He teaches professional baking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. To learn more, visit his Web site,

For more Passover recipes visit

Israel’s Melting Pot Is on The Stove, in the Oven

Just want the recipe? Click here.

As the melting pot of the Jewish people, Israel has produced a melting pot of Jewish and world cuisines. Through historical narratives, vibrant illustrations of local eateries and practical recipes, Janna Gur’s recent “The Book of New Israeli Food” (Schocken, 2008) captures the story of Israeli food coming into its own as the fusion of Ashkenazi and Sephardi, the exile and Zion, the old and the new.

“For me it wasn’t just a cookbook, but a very personal project to try and convey something about Israel through the food,” Gur said in a telephone interview from her office in Tel Aviv, where she serves as editor-in-chief of Israel’s leading gastronomic magazine, Al HaShulchan. “I tried not to give recipes but insight into lives of people, places, atmosphere, even mentality.”

The term “new Israeli food” also may sound like a tautology. At 60, Israel is a relatively new country. But the inventiveness and wanderlust of well-known Israeli chefs who make appearances in the cookbook, have led to imaginative upgrades of Israeli and Jewish classics.

“It’s ‘new’ because it’s the result of what we’ve seen now,” Gur continued. “Restaurants are experiencing an amazing food renaissance in the past few decades. In restaurants you see things that weren’t around before — a kind of fusion between Palestinian cooking and Jewish ethnic cooking, with something from California, New York and the Far East.”

Gur’s recipes, some basic, some more involved, should soothe any Israel lover nostalgic for the nation’s cafes, bistros, Mizrahi family diners and falafel joints. They cover a cross section of Israeli society, including the simple Arabic salad, fish falafel, couscous soup, Iraqi kubbe, traditional chopped liver and green matzah ball soup.

Gur forays into the historical development of Israel’s food industries — olive oil, fishing, bread, coffee, cheese and wine — making the book read like a coffee table book at times, yet establishing it as an authoritative guide to contemporary Israeli cuisine.

Flourless Chocolateand Pistachio Cake

by Barry Sayag, Tatti Boulangerie, Givatayim

(from “The Book of New Israeli Food”)

Ingredients (for 1 loaf pan)

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 cups pistachio nuts, coarsely ground

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

3/4 cup almonds, finely ground

3/4 cup chocolate chips

2 egg whites

1 1/2 tablespoon melted butter

Preheat oven to 310 F.

Beat the eggs and the egg yolks in a mixer with 3 ounces of the sugar to a thick and fluffy cream.

Add the pistachio nuts, almonds, cocoa powder and chocolate chips and mix to a smooth batter.

Beat the 2 egg whites with the remaining sugar to form soft peaks, then fold in the nut and egg mixture. Stir in the melted butter.

Pour the batter into a well-greased pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out dry with a few crumbs adhering. Serve at room temperature.

Janna Gur will be visiting Los Angeles in April as part of her American book tour. Watch for details in an upcoming Calendar.


RECIPE: Flourless Chocolate and Pistachio Cake

For the full article, click here.

Flourless Chocolateand Pistachio Cake

by Barry Sayag, Tatti Boulangerie, Givatayim

(from “The Book of New Israeli Food”)

Ingredients (for 1 loaf pan)

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 cups pistachio nuts, coarsely ground

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

3/4 cup almonds, finely ground

3/4 cup chocolate chips

2 egg whites

1 1/2 tablespoon melted butter

Preheat oven to 310 F.

Beat the eggs and the egg yolks in a mixer with 3 ounces of the sugar to a thick and fluffy cream.

Add the pistachio nuts, almonds, cocoa powder and chocolate chips and mix to a smooth batter.

Beat the 2 egg whites with the remaining sugar to form soft peaks, then fold in the nut and egg mixture. Stir in the melted butter.

Pour the batter into a well-greased pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out dry with a few crumbs adhering. Serve at room temperature.


Sweet somethings for that special day

While the image of a wedding cake at the center of a reception table is iconic, many couples and their guests will admit they are not exactly “layer cake” kinds of people. For this reason, having a sweet table is a must, not just alongside a cake but sometimes instead of one.

“I am seeing a huge movement away from traditional wedding cakes,” wedding planner Melissa Barrad said. “In fact, I am seeing lots of cupcakes, especially among couples who are normally not huge fans of cake. I have seen everything from chocolate fondue fountains to chocolate-covered strawberries. I recently had clients who were fans of Krispy Kreme donuts who picked them up the morning of the wedding and arranged them in tiers.”

While cupcakes, from mini to maxi, have gone from “Sex and the City” trendiness to the shelves of most bakeries across the city (including Hansen’s Cakes, where Patrick Hansen notes couples will buy different flavors in large quantities and arrange them in tiers), Krispy Kreme is a surprisingly easy option. In fact, all ingredients are kosher and the mix is certified kosher. While not every Krispy Kreme kitchen is kosher certified, the company’s Web site can aid fans in locating kosher shops.

Delice Bakery is noted for traditionally elegant sweet table fare such as bakery-style cookies and petit fours, and Hansen’s Cakes is now offering brownies, cookies, fudge and other sweets boasting a “home-made” consistency.

Schmerty’s Gourmet Cookies in Santa Monica features a Bukspan-certified collection of classic kosher flavors, while New Jersey-based Mya Jacobson offers cookie-loving couples throughout the United States their cookie fix through her Feed Your Soul Cookies, which offers cookie adornments for everything from the bridal showers to party favors to the sweet table, with ribbons and wrappings that color coordinate with the wedding. Sweeter still, a portion of the proceeds from the purchase will be donated to a charity of the couple’s choice.

It is also important to remember that there may be people out there who love other types of cakes, such as homespun and decadently rich bundt cakes. From the Hollywood gifting suites to the sweet table, bundtlets from Nothing Bundt Cakes in Thousand Oaks have caused a great deal of excitement, thanks to their unusual presentation as well as their prolific array of flavors red velvet, white chocolate raspberry, lemon, cinnamon swirl and an ever-changing offering of seasonal and specialty flavors.

Of course, there is also the notion that if you want to do the job right, do it yourself. Many couples are doing just that to, literally, make the culmination of their wedding day their very own.

“The sweet table is a wonderful way to incorporate favorite family cookie recipes to further personalize the wedding,” Barrad, who founded event planning company I Do … Weddings, noted. “I have also seen mini-cup cakes and petit fours adorned with baby pictures of the couples.”

If your sweet tooth extends to jelly beans, licorice and sour gummies, Munchies in the heart of Pico-Robertson features kosher candy and chocolates as well as dried fruits and nuts in bulk.

No matter how you serve up your wedding, you ultimately want your guests to leave with a good taste in their mouths. Though you’re dealing with many individuals with individualized tastes, all the options guarantee you will be able to do just that.

Krispy Kreme
(800) 4KRISPY

Delice Bakery

Hansen’s Cakes


Feed Your Soul Cookies

Nothing Bundt Cakes


L.A. bakers suggest ways to make picking your cake a little sweeter

In Los Angeles, with today’s foodie culture in full tilt, there is no “one-size-fits-all” option when it comes to choosing a bakery to create the perfect wedding cake. And since it is the bride who usually makes the cake decisions, she’ll soon realize that it can be as complex as finding (and fitting into) her perfect wedding dress.

In fact, there are so many cake trends coming from all directions it would even make Martha Stewart’s head spin. Patrick Hansen of Hansen Cakes, Julien Bohbot of Delice Bakery (the only French bakery in the United States that is certified kosher by Kehilla of Los Angeles), Leigh Grode of The Cake Divas and San Diego-based wedding planner Melissa Barrad, all have very different notions on what the “it” cakes are this year and how to go about getting the “right one.” However, they all insist couples consider the cake basics knowing your budget, your crowd and yourselves before committing. There is also one critical, often-overlooked step they all touch on repeatedly-being sure ahead of time your venue of choice will allow you to bring in food from your caterers and bakery since rules vary from hotel to hotel and venue to venue.

“Doing different-flavored tiers offers your guests options, especially if the wedding cake is going to be your only dessert,” advised The Cake Divas’ Grode on the importance of offering something for everybody. “We usually suggest picking two flavors so the guests will have even amounts of each choice and won’t run out of either flavor. It is usually best to offer one chocolate choice and one non-chocolate choice.”

Grode notes that for many couples, classic white-on-white cakes are not only traditional, but also traditionally crowd-pleasing because of their simplicity. That being said, she notes that this year’s bridal customers are approaching her with such hot-button flavors as caramel, Meyer lemon and almond. Although she says buttercream frosting is beloved from a flavor standpoint, there are times when, based on the shape and design of the cake, the fondants (hard, sheet-like frosting), dark chocolate or whipped cream may be preferable. For strictly kosher clients, meanwhile, her bakery offers several good common sense alternatives.

“For kosher clients, we can create a pareve cake, or we can create a faux cake for display and the ceremonial cutting and then allow the client to provide sheet cakes from their favorite kosher bakery,” Grode said. “You can have a smaller cake for the strictly kosher guests, or have the entire cake made kosher.”

In terms of what will be, well, the icing on the cake, Grode observes that black-and-white designs within the frosting and cake toppers are making a comeback. Couples are further personalizing their cakes by replacing the familiar bride/groom topper with sleek monogram designs, crystals and family heirlooms. She also notes that creating cake layers with different shapes for a modern look is often requested.

Although Hansen’s Cakes has been a Fairfax Avenue fixture for decades, the favorite destinations of celebrities and studios still stands as one of the most trend-setting cake studios in town so much so that there are also Beverly Hills and Tarzana locations to meet the heavy demand. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this all-things-to-all-people bakery has actually had a kosher kitchen (certified by Kosher Overseers Associates of America) from the very beginning.

The soft-spoken Hansen, who recently assumed the helm from father Gary, notes that the all-time wedding cake classics white cake with white buttercream and chocolate chocolate chip aren’t going anywhere. However, he says what’s new and exciting in wedding cakes are cake fillings (ranging from cream cheese-based preparations to custards and mousses) as well as cakes with a decidedly healthy twist.

“People are becoming more inventive with sauces used on and inside the cakes,” Hansen said. “Yet the most exciting new trend we’re seeing is the demand for cakes that are gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan and with no trans fat. The market is definitely shifting toward healthier alternatives.”

Although Hansen’s Cakes offers a full complement of frosting styles, Hansen says their fresh-made buttercream is the hands-down winner. Frosting style notwithstanding, he says couples need to come into the store fully prepared.

“If couples come to us ready with their dietary issues to the number of guests to what they have in their budget, to what hotels, synagogues and venues will allow them to bring in our products, we will be flexible and be able to work with them as well as their rabbi, if needed, on a very personalized level,” he said.

While Patrick Hansen’s particularly sweet on buttercream, Delice Bakery founder Julien Bohbot’s all about taking on the hard stuff marzipan, fondant and icing as they have their practical side as well as an adherence to authentic French dessert preparations.

“I do marzipan, fondants and icing styles of frosting because the cakes will hold up better, both during the delivery process from bakery to venue and during the dinner itself,” Bohbot affirms. “The look is sleek and smooth, verses buttercream, which often needs to be touched up every time it hits another object. Our cakes remain beautiful all night long. While other bakeries offer sponge cakes and cream, we can guarantee that what customers sample and order in our store will be what they get on their wedding day. If you want a cake that will be remembered for its elegance, less is more.”

Pico-Robertson’s Delice Bakery features a distinctively European experience, with such options as Opera, Tiramisu or Mont Blanc Cake, all with recipes true to their origins. Although customers can request multilayer cakes in different flavors, multiflavor cakes will cost much more from an ingredients and labor standpoint at Delice. However, as Delice is also noted for its diverse array of sweet table options, Bohbot suggests one way to approach offering guests a choice is to substitute one traditional cake with customized individual cakes for each guest who has confirmed attendance.

Wedding planner Barrad, of I Do …Weddings!, says she has observed myriad trends from different bakeries from satellite cakes (ensuring kosher layers will not be touching non-kosher layers) to couples ordering cakes made with fresh seasonal fruits. However, as dancing always follows the wedding dinner, she recommends fresh, lighter alternatives to deep dark chocolates, such as lemon and citrus-based cakes for summer and heartier flavors like pear/spice for fall and winter.

When it comes to the tradition of saving a slice for the first anniversary, some controversy remains. Based on her own personal and professional experience, Barrad does not recommend the practice. Instead, she suggests approaching your bakery about doing a small reproduction of the cake for the first anniversary and notes many bakeries she’s worked with will do that service for free or a small, reasonable charge.

Hansen and Bohbot can produce a mini-anniversary cake for a fee, but they also say cake preservation can be done as long as you wrap the cake pieces securely with plastic and foil over that. Bohbot says storing wrapped cake pieces in a bakery box also helps. But everybody can agree on one thing cake is best enjoyed on the big day.

Fourth Bar Mitzvah No Piece of Cake

“Fourth bar mitzvah. This must be easy for you,” my friend Maureen says.

“I’m a loon,” I answer.

“But you’ve already done this three times.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter, because I still have to make sure that Danny learns his eight aliyot and his haftarah, writes his d’var Torah, d’var haftarah and personal prayer and fulfills our synagogue’s mitzvah requirements for a Gold Kippah.

It doesn’t matter, because I still have to compile a guest list, pick out invitations, type an address list and deal with delinquent R.S.V.P.s. I still have to find a party venue, decide on decorations, sort through 13 years of photographs for the video montage and order kippot. And I still have to needlepoint a tallit bag and atara (collar) for the tallit.

It doesn’t matter, because each child is different, and each bar mitzvah strikes a different point in our family’s trajectory.

“Every bar mitzvah is the same, and there is none like any other,” Morley Feinstein, our senior rabbi at Los Angeles’ University Synagogue, says.

Seven years ago, with our first bar mitzvah, Larry and I were dealing with a 5-, 7-, 9- and 13-year-old. The biggest challenge was getting the four boys in and out of outfits for the Friday night dinner and service, the Saturday morning bar mitzvah and the evening celebration. And keeping track of 12 pairs of black socks in three different sizes.

Seven years ago, with Danny in kindergarten and Zack just 13, we were bemoaning the loss of our last preschooler and apprehensive about entering the turbulent world of teenagers.

Seven years ago, my father was alive.

Now, Danny can legitimately see a PG-13 movie, and Larry and I qualify for AARP membership. There are no more children, only teens and a post-teen.

“It’s bittersweet,” Larry says.

“No, it bites,” I reply.

And so, refusing to acknowledge this familial tectonic shift, I concentrate on how many tricolor light sticks to order and how to create place cards that resemble bookmarks. I concentrate on buying new towels for the bathroom and new plants for the living room. And I concentrate on finishing the atara.

“I don’t want this bar mitzvah to happen,” I tell Rabbi Feinstein, blinking back tears.

But beyond my distractions and denial, I can see that this rite of passage, which was created in the Middle Ages, has a life and insistence of its own. That this is the natural and ineluctable progression from Danny’s bris, where Larry and I promised to bring him up to a life of Torah and good deeds and, eventually, marriage. And a time when Larry and I will hand down the Torah to our grandchildren.

And beyond my distractions and denial, I can sense something transcendent happening as Danny prepares for his bar mitzvah, which, seemingly contradictorily, celebrates both change and continuity, and which connects Danny to both his ancestors and his descendants.

“What is unique about Judaism is that we mark the beginning of adulthood with acts of learning and acts of loving kindness, rather than some physical activity,” our cantor, Jay Frailich, says.

Indeed, rather than banishing our adolescent to some isolated wilderness, tempting as that sounds, we surround him with family and friends to mark this rite of passage publicly. And with months of preparation, with time to contemplate, question and, in my case, complain, we mark this rite of passage consciously. Danny is not slipping unaware into adolescence, nor Larry and I into immutable middle age.

And so, I begin to think about what I want to say to Danny on the bimah. This child who was born with an innate sense of right and wrong; who can hold his own with three older brothers, actually commanding their respect; who sticks up for other people.

This child who reads sections of three newspapers daily; who loves to debate and watch the Dodgers; who hates George Bush.

This child who became an adamant vegetarian at age 8; who wants to be a litigator, economist or therapist; who loves poker and “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader”; who is a world-class worrier.

This child who constantly says, “If I weren’t here, you and dad would have a hole in your heart, and you wouldn’t know why.”

But he is here. And he is becoming a bar mitzvah.

Beyond my tears, I am grateful that Judaism gives us the ritualistic framework to stop and take stock of life’s significant transitions.

Beyond my tears, I am grateful for this son who has filled an unknown hole in my heart. And for this family that nourishes and sustains me, and that now can keep track of all their own socks.

Jane Ulman is a freelance writer who lives in Encino with her husband. She has four sons.


Winning the Great Sponge Cake Battle


It’s that time again. With Pesach here, it’s time for my annual wrestling match with my nemesis, the dreaded sponge cake.

Aunt Estelle was famous for her mile-high sponge cakes. Years ago she sent me her recipe, outlining every step in exquisite detail. Yet every time I try it, mine comes up short.

It seems so simple. Whipped egg whites, trapping tiny air bubbles, expand to six or seven times their volume, creating an ethereal confection. But when I try it, the only thing that gets whipped is me — to a frazzle. This year I’m determined to reach new heights, but I need a little help from my friends. (And as they say, it’s not what you know, but who you know.)

“What am I doing wrong?” I asked Marcy Goldman, author of “The Best of” (Ten Speed Press, 2002).

“Are you using a strong, stationary mixer?” she asked.


“Are you using the size eggs called for in the recipe?” Goldman said.

Check again.

“Separate your eggs when they are cold, but whip the whites at room temperature,” she said. “And make sure your eggs are fresh. Stale whites will not whip up well.”
Hmm, maybe saving money on those five-dozen egg packs that languish forever in the fridge isn’t such a hot idea.

I asked Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” (William Morrow, 1988), why sponge cake recipes always warn you to beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.

“When egg whites are overbeaten,” she explained, “they start to lose their moisture, airiness and smoothness and break down when folded into other ingredients. And egg whites will never beat to stiff peaks if they come into contact with any grease, either from the bowl, beater or even a bit of broken egg yolk.”

Except on Passover, Beranbaum recommends adding 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar for every egg white when they start to get frothy. But, alas, kosher-for-Passover cream of tartar is hard to find and not all that effective.

“Use salt instead,” advised Joan Kekst, author of “Passover Cookery” (Five Star Publications, 2001). “Add 1/8 teaspoon of salt to every four egg whites after 60 seconds of beating, when the whites are foamy and starting to softly peak. Adding salt first delays foaming, and if you add it after beating, it won’t incorporate. And use an absolutely clean, round-bottomed metal bowl, preferably copper.”

Note to self: buy copper bowl!

“Once you start beating the whites, do not stop,” she added. “They won’t mound properly if interrupted.”

Kekst also cautioned against using egg substitutes.

“These are whites with preservatives and color,” she said. “Pure egg whites are usually available for Passover and will work fine for cakes. I’ve even used them for meringue cookies.” When folding in the beaten whites, combine one-quarter into the base mixture first to lighten it and then fold in the remaining whites in three additions.

“Folding should take two to three minutes or the egg whites will deflate,” Kekst said.

“Don’t grease the pan,” said Elinor Klivans, author of “Fearless Baking: Over 100 Recipes That Anyone Can Make” (Simon & Schuster, 2001). “These cakes must climb slowly up the pan as they bake and stay put.”

But perhaps the best advice she gave me was to take your time when baking. Multi-tasking is a great idea in the office, but a bad idea in the kitchen.

“Whenever I try to hurry,” she said, “I find that I have made some sort of major mistake. That is when I see the cup of sugar on the counter that I forgot to put in my cake. Check to see that you have all of your ingredients on hand before you begin. And, most important, have a good time!”

Will my sponge cake reach new heights this Pesach? Oh, well, it’s only a cake. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If your sponge cake sinks, do as I do. Cut it in half and frost it!

Aunt Estelle’s Mile-High Sponge Cake

9 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar, sifted
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon extract
1 tablespoon orange extract
1 heaping cup (packed) Passover potato starch

Preheat the oven to 325 F.
With an electric mixer at medium-high speed, beat the yolks, very gradually adding 1 cup of the sugar until the mixture is very thick and very light yellow, making sure the sugar is completely dissolved. This may take 15 minutes or more. Beat in the lemon and orange juices, lemon and orange zests and extracts. Reduce the speed to low and very gradually add the potato starch until blended. Set aside.
With clean, dry bowl and beaters, beat egg whites at medium-high speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff, about 90 seconds more. Mix 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Carefully fold in the remaining beaten egg whites in 3 additions.
Transfer the batter to an ungreased 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom. Sprinkle the top with a little sugar if you want a crust on top. (Eliminate this step if you prefer a soft top.) Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Strawberry Filling
1 pint fresh strawberries, rinsed and dried
1 pint Passover nondairy whipping cream

When cake has completely cooled, split in half horizontally. Whip nondairy topping according to the package directions and spread on the bottom layer. Distribute strawberries on top of the whipped topping, leaving some for garnish around the plate. Cover with top half of cake.

Chocolate Frosting
1 cup Passover semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup Passover non-dairy whipping cream
1 tablespoon margarine
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
Combine the chips, whipping cream and margarine in a 2-cup measuring cup or bowl. Heat in microwave on high power one to two minutes, stirring once until smooth and chocolate is melted. Frost top with chocolate and drizzle some down sides of cake. Sprinkle with toasted almonds. Let stand until chocolate is set.


Let Them Eat Cake

Birthday parties. Bat mitzvahs. Weddings. Anniversaries. While so much of daily life in Israel has changed — or stopped — due to the security situation, life does go on: children celebrate birthdays, teenagers become b’nei mitzvah and couples marry.

In these bitter times in Israel, Rachel Miskin adds sweetness to celebrations, with her cake-designing business, Temptations. From Harry Potter to Picasso, Miskin designs original, made-to-order cakes that are so intricate, that sometimes her clients are hesitant to eat them (the Picasso cake, for an art student’s graduation, wasn’t cut for two weeks because the family wanted to show it to everyone, Miskin said.)

A Canadian Jew who moved to Israel in 1993, Miskin, 32, fell into the cake business accidentally while catering a party for her niece. She started off making brownies, pastries and all types of desserts, but has since concentrated only on personalized cakes.

She’d discovered that it wasn’t the baking that she liked, but the decorating. “It’s creative,” Miskin said, describing a process which can take anywhere from four hours to two days and cost $60-$800 — the top end for tiered wedding cakes and other labor-intensive designs.

“It’s not your run-of-the-mill chocolate cake that you pick up for the weekend,” she said. “I almost never repeat myself, so what you’re getting is practically an original, mainly because I convince people not to do the same thing — it bores me.”

Some of her recent designs include a cake for someone who made aliyah, featuring a map of America and Israel on the cake; another, for someone who loved the beach, had flip-flops, palm trees and sunglasses (all edible); the Harry Potter birthday cake had multidimensional owls flying out of the cake, and the famous lightning-bolt font.

While Miskin probably isn’t the only cake designer in Israel, she particularly caters to the Anglo market, often receiving orders from North American parents for their children in one-year yeshiva program. (Her cakes are all made with badatz, kosher-certified ingredients.)

The security situation hasn’t affected her business, she says. “People in America want to support Israeli business, so I’ve gotten more customers that way,” she said. “People are always having birthdays, and a lot of people are overwhelmed by the thought of making a cake.

“There are always going to be events,” she added.

For more information, visit  or call 011.972.2.5639.668. — Staff Report