The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen 3

December is a month of celebration for many faiths, the season to give and receive. It is in this spirit that author and cook Amelia Saltsman presents her newest book, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen. Within the realm of six seasons of the Jewish holiday calendar, Saltsman is able to envelop the reader in her home, the culture of Jewish identity, if not religion and a welcoming table. 

More than a collection of recipes, the book acts as a primer for the uninitiated into the rites of Jewish food traditions and a warm reminder for those that practice the faith. Each two month section coincides with the holidays that it contains: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (September/October), Hanukkah (November/December) Tu b'Shvat (January/February), Purim, Passover (March/April), Shavuot, Lag b'Omer (May/June) and the months of garden bounty (July/August). So many of the foods involved in each holiday have symbolic meaning, from bitter herbs at Passover to potato latkes fried in oil at Hanukkah. Saltsman illuminates all of the symbolism beautifully.

Not only do the recipes coincide with holidays, they use the best of each season's natural harvest. Saltsman grew up visiting the family farming collective and has great insight into what is fresh and seasonal, letting the ingredients that are naturally available in each time period do the talking. 

All in all, this book is a beautiful addition to any kitchen. Its knowledge and wisdom goes beyond kitchen techniques and dives into tradition, family and how to connect with a cultural tradition and a faith. A must read for any one interested in the delicious Jewish heritage. 

Blood Orange and Olive Oil Polenta Upside-Down Cake 

Makes One 10 by 2 inch cake of 12 servings

Syrup-soaked cakes, usually made with semolina and called tishpishti or namoura, are popular throughout the Middle East. With its stained-glass effect from the variegated colors of blood oranges, this upside-down cake, which gets its nubbly texture from sunny cornmeal, is drenched in a sophisticated ruby-red blood-orange syrup. Use fine-grind cornmeal or polenta; stone-ground meal doesn’t get tender enough in baking.

For the cake 

4 blood oranges

²⁄3 cup packed light brown sugar

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

²⁄3 cup cornmeal (not stone-ground)

1 teaspoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

²⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan

¾ cup granulated sugar

3 eggs

For the syrup

½ packet unflavored gelatin

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons Cointreau

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350°F . Using a Microplane grater, grate zest from 2 of the blood oranges and reserve. Juice the 2 oranges and reserve. Cut both ends off of each of the remaining 2 oranges, then cut each orange crosswise into rounds ⅛ to 1/16 inch (3 to 2 mm) thick. Cut all but one of the slices in half and discard any center pith.

Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the bottom of a flameproof and ovenproof 10-inch skillet (a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is perfect) and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the orange juice. Heat skillet over medium-low heat until most of the sugar is bubbling. Remove from the heat.

Starting at the outer edge of the pan, lay the halved orange slices in the melted sugar with the “scalloped” edge of each slice touching the edge of the pan. Fit as many orange slices as you can into the circle, pinching the corners as you set them into the hot sugar (use a knife point or tongs to adjust the fruit as needed). Some slices will have a “prettier” side; make sure those are placed face down in the sugar. Arrange the remaining halved orange slices in concentric circles toward the center, finishing with the reserved whole slice in the center.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the oil and granulated sugar on medium speed until thickened and golden. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition until mixture is thick and creamy gold, 3 to 5 minutes total. Beat in the zest and 1 tablespoon of the juice. On low speed, add the flour mixture in three batches, beating after each addition just until blended.

Pour batter evenly over the orange slices and gently smooth the top. Bake the cake until golden brown, the top springs back to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Run a thin-bladed knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the cake sides. Invert a serving plate over the cake, invert the pan and plate together, and lift off the pan. If any fruit sticks to the pan, loosen it with a spatula and place it on the cake. While the cake is hot, use a fork or bamboo skewer to make holes in it without going all the way through.

While the cake is baking, make the soaking syrup. Fill a medium bowl one-third full with ice and a little water and nestle a smaller bowl, preferably metal, in the ice bath. Pour ¼ cup of the remaining orange juice into a small pot, sprinkle the gelatin on top, and let soften for 5 minutes. Stir granulated sugar, Cointreau, and lemon juice into the remaining orange juice, then stir the mixture into the softened gelatin. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and stir to dissolve sugar and gelatin, about 1 minute. Do not allow to boil. Pour syrup into the waiting bowl and stir from time to time until it thickens to the consistency of maple syrup, about 15 minutes. Spoon or brush some of the syrup over the cake. Allow it to soak in, then spoon or brush on more. Repeat until you have used all the syrup.

Allow the cake to cool completely before slicing, then cut into wedges with a serrated offset knife to serve.