On Being Jewish + GF Honey Cake

Growing up, my Jewish identity was more of a cultural than a religious one, and mainly culinary at that. It meant gathering every once in a while to eat good food together. I never fasted on Yom Kippur, nor did I attend services regularly (however, when my parents moved to the States in 1976 and were desperate to find a familiar place, they joined a synagogue for a while, which looking back is so surprising to me, given that they had never practiced religion before or after that brief interlude; that’s what being an immigrant can do). In the Buenos Aires of my youth, it was no big deal, as I was surrounded by peers with similar levels of Jewishness.

When I moved to Spain in 1998, I had to hear people say to me more than once “It’s the first time I’ve ever met a Jew”. That reaction, though based on utter ignorance and not derogatory, changed my perspective of what it meant to be Jewish. The singling out was uncomfortable, and couldn’t but remind me of the persecution my ancestors suffered.

At the beginning of grad school in Barcelona, I joined a research group on the discourse of war in literature, and although I tried to circumnavigate it at first, it soon became almost inevitable that I ended up writing my dissertation on Holocaust literature. With the silence and ignorance around it in my new setting, I felt the responsibility to talk about it and take it on. Moreover, as the only woman in the research group, I took on that minority as well, and ended up writing about women survivors’ literature of the Holocaust. Go figure.

When my kids were born in Barcelona, I knew that if they were ever to possess any degree of awareness of their own Jewish identity, it had to be something I purposefully taught them, as they wouldn’t pick it up osmotically in the environment, like I had in Buenos Aires.

My parents didn’t teach me anything about Judaism, really, as they had not received much of it in their education either. My dad was born to European Jews who ended up in Argentina, because it was where they were able to flee Hitler. My grandfather, a Viennese Austrian, arrived first, and my grandmother escaped occupied Poland on a cattle train in 1940, well after the war was underway. Very soon after that, her entire family would go through the experience we all now know about: ghetto, then Auschwitz. Two of her sisters survived; her parents and another sister didn’t.

Because of the extremity and the trauma, these things were never talked about in my father’s home; in fact, my grandparents decided to baptize their children, in case the war made it to Argentina. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I started asking my grandmother (and one of her surviving sisters, who also ended up in Argentina after the war, and was my third grandmother, perhaps my most beloved one) questions.

My husband is a fervent Atheist, and not too happy about me passing on any form of religion to our kids. Having grown up in Spain, with its lack of religious diversity, perhaps he doesn’t fully get the part about Jewish identity being cultural and not religious.

When Bruno was around five years old, I felt the need to take action, did some research, and found out about a small nomad Jewish organization, and bought tickets for the two of us to join them to celebrate Passover. I’m pretty sure my story came as something completely out of the blue to him, and I’m not sure how much he understood at the time (Olivia was still too young), but if felt good to be doing something to make up for how different the place I had chosen to raise my kids in was from my place of origin.

When we moved to Berkeley in 2013, this aspect of things became familiar again. Coincidentally, all of Bruno’s closest friends turned out to be modern Jews (and when I say modern, I mean it: my good friend Jenny is a Chinese-American Buddhist who married a Jew and many years later, converted to Judaism and beautifully celebrated her Bat Mitzvah together with her twin sons, one of whom is Bruno’s best friend). My friend Alice went to services once a year for Yom Kippur, and sometimes I joined her, but her family members didn’t, and my kids only very occasionally.

Moving back to Barcelona means, of course, that we don’t have this familiarity any longer, though we have others. You win some, you lose some. Again, the migrant’s story. I’m sure there is by now a small Jewish community in the city (probably mostly made up of Argentinians) and maybe I’ll find the will to seek them out at some point.

This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, took me entirely by surprise, as we were unpacking our boxes (yes! our container has finally arrived!) and putting things in place. Last week I wrote about baking with no equipment; well, by now my stuff was finally here and the least I could do was bake a honey cake, if nothing else. Honey is a traditional Rosh Hashanah food, symbolizing a sweet entrance into the new year. These sweet wishes come at a great time, marking many new beginnings for our family: the new school year, and our new life here. I tweaked a version I found online (my cookbooks are still coming out of boxes) and was extremely happy with the results. It also became a sweet breakfast for the kids’ first day at their new schools.

The recipe I based this off of called for a 1-to-1 GF flour mix, but when I looked into GF flour mixes here in Spain, all of them included additives I would rather do without, so I ended up combining the flours I had on hand. I’m always amazed at how some substitutions tend to work out just fine in baking for me.

I’m not sure whether that whole deal about utter precision in baking is a scam, a way to scare people out of making their own food. Maybe I’m not a perfectionist when it comes to baking. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far (or dare I say, have learned enough about cooking to be able to substitute intuitively?).

In any case, the cake came out so light and spongy, that my kids never even noticed it was GF (which for Bruno is sort of a bad word), until they saw me eating it like crazy. My husband didn’t try it; he doesn’t like honey.

L’shana tova, a good, sweet year.

GF Honey Cake



2 large eggs

3/4 cup coconut oil, melted

1 cup dark Tie Guan Yin oolong tea, heavily steeped (or coffee)

1tsp baking soda

1/2 cup coconut sugar

3/4 cup raw honey (I used a rosemary honey)

1 Tb lemon juice

1 1/2 cups brown rice flour

1 cup buckwheat flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 325ºF/160ºC. Rub coconut oil on a silicone bundt pan.

Steep the tea by bringing water to a boil and letting the tea leaves sit for a few minutes, so that it’s a very dark steep. Strain out the leaves and add in the baking soda. Reserve.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or food processor with dough blade, add eggs, sugar, coconut oil, honey, and lemon juice and beat for a couple of minutes until creamy.

In a separate bowl, add flours, baking powder, and spices.

Add in about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the bowl of the mixer, and mix on low speed, alternating flour with the tea/baking soda mix. Keep adding and alternating until all ingredients are combined. This batter is very runny, so don’t worry.

Pour into pan and bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for about 15 min. on a cooling rack in the pan before flipping onto a plate. Optionally, sprinkle with powdered sugar.