Chocolate Babka; Passover, Food and Memory

This post by Aaron Vallance, Wimbledon Synagogue Cookbook contributor (amongst many other accolades), first appeared on his blog 1-Dish-for-the-Road. It’s such a great article we asked him if we could reproduce it on wimshul cooks which he has kindly agreed to. Happy Passover!

by Aaron Vallance

Honey and co Chocolate BabkaFood memories. They’re possibly the most powerful memories we have. There’s some science behind it – our perception of food is primarily streamed through our nasal olfactory system, a region of the brain closely associated with long-term memory. But beyond the biology, food memories form such a large part of our own life story, they cannot help but evoke a potent sense of longing and reminiscence. The weekend roast. Our first sip of wine. School pudding. (I didn’t say all memories had to be good, mind you!)

When we recollect a food memory, we are remembering a time in our lives that food made meaningful. Alternatively, food memories may emerge because of their association with a particular person, place or time. However they became, whatever their provenance, they’re then woven into our tapestry of experience and assimilated into our own life story. And there they remain, little nuggets that we stumble upon again and again.

For me, my fondest and most indelible food memories relate to the week-long Jewish festival of Passover, which this year begins on Monday night. There’s a myriad of reasons why this is so, all of which inter-connect like an intricate dance.

Firstly, Passover is associated with a very distinct and specific assortment of foods. It’s a festival commemorating the biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. So rushed were they in their epic escape, their dough had no time to rise. So instead of bread, they came out of Egypt with crackers, which if nothing else proved a handy storage solution for long-distance travel.

And so millennia later, there remains the Passover tradition of abstaining from bread and other foods that use flour as a rising agent. Instead, it’s matzah crackers all the way, plus a plethora of almond or coconut-based patisserie, whose appeal usually starts keenly enough but has pretty much waned by Day 3.

Secondly, the festival is highlighted by the seder – a family meal that includes an eclectic smorgasbord of symbolic foods, as well as wine, songs, prayers, and other rituals. I warmly remember these large family gatherings from my childhood. And on reflection, it’s probably where my passion for food actually began.

In particular are the various food rituals that episodically pop up as the seder progresses. A glass of wine and a crunch of matzah commence the proceedings. Soon follows a sprig of parsley, symbolising, by turns: the freshness of Spring, the miracle of life reborn, and the fundamental hope of human redemption, no less. Quite a lot projected onto a humble herb, you may well ask – but hey, welcome to religion!

If that’s not already reaching symbolism overload, the parsley’s then dipped into salt-water, the tears of slavery – those of our Israelite ancestors and those wept by all humankind – past, current and future – afflicted by the heinous bonds and trauma of slavery.

As a child – and goodness knows what other child would relish a sprig of herb with such unbridled enthusiasm – I would devour the parsley so keenly, focusing intently on its refreshing grassy notes and tones, joyously raptured by the little crunch of the stalk, and finally the breezy tang of salt-water dripping from its leaves like the early morning dew. (Yep, I guess food blogging was gonna beckon at some point..)

Next up, the searing-hot slivers of horseradish: these bitter herbs symbolising the cruelty of slavery. Then the Marmite love-it-or-hate-it apple n’ nut paste of charoseth, representing the cement and mortar of arduous labour. And finally the egg, reflecting the onset of Spring and the birth of a free people.

Thirdly, these festivities are repeated year on year, layers upon layers of memory and connection. So bedded down are these memories into my own life story, that each year I celebrate, I automatically circle back to all those previous years, as though the intervening months are but passing interludes. And, in this way, it’s also a time that brings alive my family members who are no longer around.

Take my Auntie Ruth, for instance, the fierceness of her home-prepared horseradish couldn’t have contrasted more with her ebullient and infectious optimism. Then there’s gentle kind Grandpa Reuben, who’d not only lead the seder service with his customary earnestness, but invariably knock over a wine glass (or two) with such unerring regularity, that this accidental act became very much ingrained in family ritual, each time greeted with a chorus of knowing cheers. Then of course there’s Grandma Beryl, who’d continually be casting a caring eye over her family, quietly checking in with each and every one of us with a fleeting glance or gesture.

And then – and here’s the magic – there are the family stories relating to events and characters from times even before I was born, as if buried deep into the family’s collective psyche. Like how every time we get to the “Nishmas” prayer, we’d recount how great great uncle Barney would recite it as “mish-mash”. Or the time when my great uncle opened the front door – part of the seder ritual of ‘letting in the angel Elijah’ – and found a street urchin curled up in the porch.

And in recent years, it’s now a case of lovingly passing down these ancient traditions to my own kids. But these days, there’s the added benefit of some educational YouTube animations, particularly the one where a UFO descends on Moses, and the aliens help the Israelites cross the Red Sea. (I occasionally have to remind them that this was an unlikely scenario, until they ask me where God comes from, and does he have a UFO..)

Yes, Passover will always remain a special time of year for me, one close to my heart. But why the chocolate babka, you may ask? Why make my dish for the road about the most “farbotn” food you can eat at this flourless time of year. Am I being mischievously rebellious or provocative, dangling this forbidden fruit in front of the eyes?

No, it’s because babka – or some other similar cinnamon-based kuchen – is what my family have traditionally ended Passover on. And of course endings are as an important part of any a process as beginnings and middles. It’s a farewell, a transition, and a recognition of all that has been just before.

And if there’s a babka to end all babkas, well it has to be Honey & Co’s. I first tried it without planning to – isn’t that the start of many a find? – when the in-house baker strolled past me with a whole log o’ babka in hand, a treasure chest with beguiling riches buried inside, a warm cinnamon aroma wafting alluringly behind. As it glided across my vision, my eyes were pulled across their sockets as if under a powerful magnetic force. I ordered a slice then and there.

It came still warm.. sigh.. its outer crust rough and crisp; I peeled it back in anticipation. Inside.. oh inside.. I can’t even begin to describe what delights lay inside!

Meandering through the cakey fabric were great molten rivers of dark chocolate. Atop these chocolate tributaries floated a flotsam of hazelnuts, whose crunch divinely cut through the pillowy softness. I dived headlong into those rivers – you could almost hear the splash – the chocolate running down my chin with abandon, the marshmallowy dough swaddling my tongue. It’s like being cradled by cupid masquerading as confection.

Okay, you may think I’m getting a bit carried away. And maybe I need some of that dark delicious bitter coffee, such a fine foil for the babka. But I love this confection so much. And I love Honey & Co, with its enticing blue and white geometric tiles, those magnetic cakes on the counter, that dazzling array of multi-coloured jam jars which boogie like a 70’s disco along the shelves. Not to mention the outstanding Israeli / Middle-Eastern inspired food.

So this Passover, I’ll again be joining family, going through the same songs, rituals and foods. Remembering departed family, so dearly missed. And as the week progresses, my yearning for bread will grow, and my mind will increasingly cast to my childhood days, and of ending Passover with a babka. Happy Passover!

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