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A California Persimmon Cake Finds New Life in Tel Aviv

A California Persimmon Cake Finds New Life in Tel Aviv

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Recipe Roots: Palo Alto, California > Tel Aviv
Shared by Adeena Sussman

Growing up in Palo Alto, California in the 1970s, Adeena Sussman’s family wasn’t like her neighbors. They were one of the only Orthodox families in the area. On Shabbat, as her family walked to synagogue, well-meaning neighbors would stop and ask if their car had broken down and if they needed assistance. Finding kosher ingredients wasn’t easy either. The family picked up kosher meat at a nearby Conservative synagogue that was shipped from Chicago once a month. Kosher certified cheese was so difficult to find that her parents Steffi and Stanley started a small cheese business out of their garage as a public service for other Jews living in the area. 

“When it came to kosher desserts there was really nothing,” Adeena explained to us during a recent interview in her sun-filled Tel Aviv kitchen. That left the task of baking to her mother, Adeena and her sister Sharon. “We’re only living 20 miles from Chez Panisse, but we are so far removed from that world,” she adds. Still, California crept into their kitchen. Their neighbors had fig, loquat, and persimmon trees and would share their bounty. “My mom started making this persimmon bread, which is really a cake but we called it persimmon bread,” Adeena adds. The recipe, she explains, likely came from an edition of western lifestyle magazine Sunset, which was always in their home. 

The cake, like many of the recipes Steffi made, was pareve, made without milk or meat. “We joked that her kitchen was like Switzerland,” Adeena says. It made the recipe versatile, so it could pair with any meal. On Saturday afternoons, when friends and family would stop by and play Scrabble, Steffi would serve the bread. “We loved it as is, but really the best way we ate it was the next day toasted. She would put it in the toaster oven and then we would spread cream cheese on it and that’s like the classic childhood snack,” she adds.  

As an adult living in New York, the persimmon bread faded from Adeena’s life. And when Steffi became ill and passed away, the recipe disappeared. It returned when Adeena moved to Tel Aviv several years ago. Living near the Carmel Market, fruit like plump orange persimmons was often at hand. “I saw persimmons everywhere,” she adds. 

While working on her new cookbook Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen, Adeena started to recreate her mother’s recipe, adding her own spin to it. She borrowed from a pumpkin loaf she and Sharon make for their annual bake sale to raise funds for awareness around ovarian cancer. Adeena also worked in three types of ginger: fresh, candied, and powdered to add complexity to the flavor. The result is a warmly spiced cake with a moist and fruity undercurrent. 

“I miss my mom,” Adeena says. “I think the recipes become more important as you get older.”

From Adeena: Once a week during high season my mother would make her persimmon bread, a dense loaf cake with caramelized corners we’d warm in the toaster oven after school. The edges would almost burn, turning crispy from the combination of sugar and that intense toaster heat. We couldn’t spread the cream cheese on top fast enough, so much so that half of it would slide off while we burned the roofs of our mouths with each bite. Here is a slightly springier, lusher version that’s great fresh out of the oven, even better the next day—and best toasted, with a schmear of labneh or cream cheese.

Triple Ginger Persimmon Loaf

Makes: One 9-inch by 5-inch loaf
Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

Ingredients
¾ cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
3 medium (1 pound) very ripe persimmons, preferably Hachiya variety*
2 large eggs
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 
1 cup sugar
1¾ cups all-purpose flour 
1½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg 
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon chopped crystallized ginger, plus more for topping the loaf (optional)
1½ teaspoons freshly grated ginger 
Labneh or cream cheese, for serving

Preparation
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan with vegetable oil and line with parchment paper.

2. Cut off the tops of the persimmons. Scoop the ripe flesh into a large bowl and mash it with a fork or potato masher until very smooth, or puree in a food processor or blender for 10 seconds. 3. Whisk in the ¾ cup vegetable oil, the eggs, water, vanilla, and sugar until well blended. 

4. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Stir the dry ingredients into the persimmon mixture until just blended, then gently fold in the crystallized ginger and the fresh ginger. 

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, top with additional candied ginger, if desired, and bake until the loaf is a deep burnished brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool the loaf completely in the pan, then slice and serve with labneh or cream cheese.

Cook’s Notes: Longer, tapered Hachiya persimmons get softer—and more quickly—than the rounder, smaller Fuyus, but both can work. Just make sure they’re really soft. If you need to, blitz the scooped flesh in a blender or food processor. If persimmons aren’t in season, you can substitute one pound of very ripe apricots or mango, peeled, pitted, and puréed in a food processor until smooth.

Za'atar Roasted Chicken over Sumac Potatoes

From Adeena: On countless visits here before I made Israel my home, I’d buy giant bags of za’atar from the shuk; that way, after I left and no matter where I was, if I was pining for the sun and spice of this magical place, I could sprinkle it back into my life, if even just for the duration of a meal. For something that takes 10 minutes to throw together, the roasted chicken is a masterpiece. I rest the bird right on top of the potatoes, so the za’atar-scented drippings coat the tangy, sumac-coated potatoes while they cook in unison. If you’re having a crowd, throw this in the oven during cocktail hour, then pull it out for oohs and aahs. If you’re feeding a smaller group, be happy because this chicken, pulled off the bone and tossed into a salad, makes a killer next-day lunch.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 2 hours

Ingredients
4 to 5 medium red potatoes (1½ pounds), scrubbed
4 medium shallots, quartered
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
2 tablespoons sumac
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 small lemon
5 tablespoons za’atar spice blend 
¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes 
1 small roasting chicken (about 3½ to 4 pounds), patted dry
2 garlic cloves
6 thyme sprigs

 Preparation
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Cut each potato into 6 wedges. In a 9-inch  by 13-inch metal or glass baking dish, toss the potatoes and shallots with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the sumac, salt, and black pepper. Set aside.

2. Zest the lemon into a small bowl, halve the lemon and set aside. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the bowl along with 4 tablespoons of the za’atar and the red pepper flakes.Gently stir to combine and set aside. 

3. Season the cavity and exterior of the chicken well with salt and pepper. Stuff the lemon halves, garlic, and thyme sprigs inside the chicken, then rub the chicken all over with the za’atar mixture. (If you want to, you can tie the legs of the chicken together; it’s easier than doing a full chicken trussing, which is impressive but not necessary for a dish like this.) Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of za’atar. 

4. Place the chicken, breast-side up, on top of the potatoes. Roast the chicken for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350°F and continue to roast until a chicken leg jiggles when pulled, the juices run clear, and the potatoes underneath the chicken are soft  while the ones on the edges are crisp and golden, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. (The rule is 23 to 25 minutes per pound of chicken, but the high roasting temperature at the beginning of the recipe shaves off a little time.) 

5. Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes. Remove the lemon, garlic, and thyme springs from the cavity, discarding the garlic and thyme. Carve the chicken right on top of the potatoes, letting the juices coat the potatoes, then squeeze one or both halves of the reserved lemon  over the chicken and potatoes.

Both recipes are from SABABA by ADEENA SUSSMAN, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by ADEENA SUSSMAN

Sussman Family Blintzes

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

From Adeena: Religious Jews in Northern California would come from to the Sussman garage to buy cheese. Among the cheeses was farmers cheese, which her grandmother Mildred called hoop cheese and used to make blintzes. Adeena has updated the recipe, taking inspiration from frozen blintzes that were also part of her childhood and chef Thomas Keller’s crepe recipe. These homemade crepes can be stuffed with either potato-cheese filling or sweet farmers cheese. If you opt for sweet, top the blintzes with jam and sour cream. For the savory version, make a simple mushroom cream sauce.

Makes: 10 to 12 blintzes
Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Ingredients
For the crepes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
⅛ teaspoon fine sea salt
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1¼ cups whole milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled, plus more for cooking the crepes
1 tablespoon minced chives (for the savory crepes)

For the sweet cheese filling:
One 16-ounce package farmer’s cheese
1 egg, plus 1 yolk
⅓ cup honey
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

For the potato-cheese filling:
1¼ pounds russet potatoes (about 2 large), peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 medium onion, finely diced
Kosher salt, to taste
Pinch of ground white pepper, to taste (optional)
5 ounces kashkaval or kaseri cheese, shredded (1½ cups)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives, plus more for garnish

For serving:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Sour cream (for the sweet blintzes)
Jam (for the sweet blintzes)
Creamy mushroom sauce (for the savory blintzes; recipe below)

Preparation
1. Make the crepes: Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl and make a well in the center. Whisk the eggs and milk together and pour into the well. Whisk the batter until smooth, then whisk in the melted butter.

2. Strain the batter through a fine-mesh sieve and, if making savory crepes, stir in the chives.

3. Heat an 8-inch nonstick crepe pan or skillet over medium heat until hot. Brush lightly with butter, then ladle about 3 tablespoons of the batter into the center of the skillet. Rotate the skillet in a circular motion to swirl the batter and coat the bottom of the pan evenly with the batter. (If you hear it sizzle in the pan, your heat is too high.) Cook until the crepe is just set, 30 seconds to 1 minute; you shouldn’t have to flip it. Use a small offset spatula to gently loosen the sides of the crepe and gently slide it onto a wax or parchment paper-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining crepes, very lightly brushing the pan with butter as needed and layering the paper and crepes.

4. For the sweet cheese filling: Combine the farmer’s cheese, egg, egg yolk, honey, lemon zest, and salt in a bowl and mix until smooth.

5. For the potato-cheese filling: Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with 2-inches of cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until very soft, about 15 minutes.

6. While the potatoes are cooking, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until the onions are soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

7. When the potatoes are soft, drain them in a colander and return them to the pot. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, and season to taste with salt and the white pepper, if using. Mash with a potato masher or fork until soft and creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the onions, cheese, and chives until combined. Cover and let the mixture rest until cool enough to handle.

8. Fill the blintzes: Place ¼ cup of filling on each crepe about 2 inches from one end, shaping it into a 3-inch by 1-inch log. Fold the lower edge of the crepe over the filling, then fold the sides inwards and continue to roll the blintz, burrito-style. Repeat with the remaining crepes and filling.

9. Cook the blintzes: Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add the blintzes seam side-down and cook until deep golden brown on each side, flipping once, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a platter and repeat with the remaining blintzes. Cover them loosely with foil to keep warm.

10. To serve the blintzes: Serve the sweet cheese blintzes with sour cream and jam; serve the potato-cheese blintzes with creamy mushroom sauce (recipe below).

Make ahead: The crepes can be made in advance and stored between wax or parchment paper sheets in a large resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to one day. The filling can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days. Alternately, the crepes can be filled and stored in an airtight container for 1 to 2 days before cooking.

Creamy Mushroom Sauce
Makes: 1¾ cups
Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces white button mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (2 cups)
4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (1½ cups)
4 ounces oyster or shimeji mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (1½ cups)
1 teaspoon picked thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
Kosher salt, to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup heavy cream
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper (optional)

Preparation
1. Melt half of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the mushrooms and thyme and cook, turning once, until the mushrooms are browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Season the mushrooms with salt and transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining butter, mushrooms, and thyme. Season with salt and transfer them to the plate with the rest of the mushrooms.

2. Lower the heat to medium and add the garlic to the skillet. Cook until fragrant, stirring constantly, about 10 seconds. Add the cream, white pepper,if using, and the reserved mushrooms. Cook, stirring frequently, until the cream has thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste and spoon over the warm blintzes. Garnish with additional thyme and chives if desired.

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