German Caramelized Onion Tart

Jewish motherhood and culinary tradition

Cultural preservation is a major theme in food history, and in culturally-specific cookbooks like the ones found in the AJHS archive. So many of the books I have found there deal with the preservation of family recipes, traditions and customs, and the complicated ways we hang onto them amid pressures of assimilation. Mothers (and grandmothers) especially, given the historically feminine world of the kitchen, come up a lot. Last month, for example, we explored Violeta Autumn’s memories of her mother’s kitchen in Peru, and the month before we were cooking Bulgarian cheese bread from the recipe book of Viviane Alchech Miner’s Sephardic grandmother. This month’s cookbook seeks not to preserve one family’s culinary memory but rather celebrates the whole concept of maternal food traditions, and the concept, really, of Jewish moms. 


How To Cook Like A Jewish Mother was published in 1969 by June Roth, and is one part cookbook, one part historic preservation project, and one part heartfelt tribute to the balabusta -- a Yiddish term meaning an exceptionally skillful homemaker and master of the domestic domain. For a better explanation of the word than I could ever give you, check out this video. 


Historically speaking, women have occupied an integral role in cultural preservation, both in and out of the kitchen. With duties relegated to the home and the upbringing of children, it was seen as a mother’s responsibility to instill in her children not only knowledge of cultural traditions, but a passion for them. Although often denied access to formal positions of leadership or control within various communities, women were cultivating a relationship to identity, heritage and culture at home. When it comes to Jewish communities, a balabusta does more than keep her home clean and tidy, she also (in some cases) keeps a kosher home, and through food and other traditions, teaches her children to take pride in their Jewish identity. 


One thing distinguishes a balabusta, according to Roth, and it’s tam, literally meaning ‘good taste’, but in the case of the archetypal Jewish mother, it means ‘the right taste’. Someone with tam just knows how the recipe ought to be, and how the food ought to taste. This is a sentiment I see come up a lot in historic cookbooks, those I find at the AJHS archive in particular -- the women whose recipes we preserve in these pages, perhaps ironically, often did not use written recipes at all. I’m sure, if you are interested in family recipes, you’ve encountered that snag -- the person you ask for a recipe, perhaps your mother or grandmother, can’t give you one, because she just knows how to make it. Or perhaps, the recipe you do get…..just doesn’t taste the same. That, for better or worse, is the power of tam. 


I encountered a bit of tam myself, attempting to prepare this onion cake, or Zwiebelkuchen, from How To Cook Like A Jewish Mother. Although Zwiebelkuchen translates to ‘onion cake’, and the recipe is listed as such by June Roth, most American cooks would recognize this as a tart. With short-crust pastry and an eggy, custard-like onion filling, it much more closely resembles a quiche than a cake. The dough recipe written in the cookbook, Roth explains, is actually a nineteenth-century German one, passed from mother to daughter until it reached her friend Lenore. Another friend of Roth’s, Gerda, adapted the recipe for an American kitchen, and Roth reprinted it in her book. I think what we have here with this dough recipe is a lot of tam and a little game of telephone. I have made hundreds of doughs in my life, and I cannot make heads or tails of this one. Not only that, I cannot find a similar dough anywhere to compare this recipe to. Part short-crust, part laminated dough, I diligently attempted this recipe and the result was a wet, buttery mess. I am willing to take some responsibility for the results -- if you’ve got tam, maybe you will know what you’re working with here. But I’m also willing to bet that somewhere in the Lenore-Gerda, Gerda-June handoff, something got (literally) lost in translation. The pastry, before you start spreading softened butter on it and folding and rolling it like a croissant dough, is a classic German muerbeteig pastry (short-crust dough bound with egg rather than water). In my version, I’ve provided an alternate dough -- still muerbeteig, just not laminated.


Once you’ve caramelized your onions, made sense of your pastry, and baked the tart, you get a warm and savory dish with flavors reminiscent of rye bread and onion bagels. I could easily see this served as part of a larger savory meal or on its own at lunchtime. The caramelized onions can be done ahead of time, get sweet and jammy, and fill the kitchen with an absolutely delicious smell. This recipe uses ingredients you likely already have in your home -- if you’ve purchased a bag of onions and a carton of sour cream ahead of making latkes for Hanukkah, you’re well on your way to Zwiebelkuchen, which is itself a seasonal autumn treat in Germany. 


Food history isn’t just found on the shelves of a cookbook archive, it’s in family gatherings, stories about grandma’s famous desserts or childhood holiday memories. Food history is trying to decipher a recipe, hand-written in cursive on yellowing paper, and struggling to find what you must have missed (or wondering, in the back of your mind, if it was intentionally mis-written so no one would ever top the original). We are all engaging in food history every time we cook; whether we make an old family favorite, use a cookbook, or create something new that future generations might think of with nostalgia. 


For a more in-depth discussion of the role of Jewish women in shaping the American Hanukkah tradition specifically, and a live cooking demonstration of this onion tart, please join us on Thursday, December 2 at 12:30 ET on Zoom -- an RSVP to get the link can be found here. 


German Caramelized Onion Tart (Zwiebelkuchen)

Recipe from How To Cook Like A Jewish Mother by June Roth

Adapted by Aurora Clare 

2 tbsp vegetable oil 

¼ tsp salt  

6 onions (about 2 lbs 

2 tsp caraway seeds  


250g flour  

125g butter  

Pinch salt  

1 beaten egg 


3 eggs  

¼ cup sour cream  

Pinch salt and black pepper 


To Caramelize Onions:  


Slice 6 onions by cutting them in half through the root, peeling them, and then thinly slicing, cut side down on the cutting board.  


Heat vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and ¼ tsp salt - the salt will help the onions release liquid and soften gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften and turn slightly golden. Then reduce heat to medium, add caraway seeds, and allow the onions to caramelize slowly, which could take half an hour or longer. Stir occasionally, scraping up any browning on the bottom of the pan. If you notice them browning too quickly or there’s browning you can’t scrape off the bottom, add a splash of water and adjust the stove temperature.


The onions won’t brown much more once in the tart, so let them get nice and dark, like a deep, rich caramel. The more browning, the more flavor! Just be sure to keep an eye on them so they don’t burn.


Allow the onions to cool completely before putting them in the pastry. 


To prepare pastry:  

Mix flour and salt. Add butter (make sure it is very cold) and rub butter into flour with your fingers, working quickly, until you reach a coarse cornmeal texture. Add beaten egg and stir until the dough begins coming together. Sprinkly 2 tbsps ice water on top. Knead dough to bring it together completely - do not over knead! 20-30 seconds of gentle kneading will do the trick. 


Form dough into a disc, wrap in cling film and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes in the fridge.


Roll out dough and press into prepared 9” cake round, making sure it comes about halfway up the sides. Prick the bottom with a fork and par-bake at 425℉, filled with pie weights (rice, dried beans, uncooked pasta and even pennies work), for 10 minutes or until just barely browning. Remove weights and bake for another 5-10, or until the edges have browned and the bottom is lightly golden. 


To prepare filling:  

Preheat oven to 350℉. Whisk sour cream into well-beaten eggs. Don’t worry if the sour cream seems to separate - just keep whisking until it incorporates. Mix in caramelized onions, and season with a pinch of salt and some black pepper to taste.


Pour into the parbaked pastry shell and bake for 20-25 minutes or until firmly set. 


Allow to cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes - serve warm, with another dollop of sour cream. 


*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Aurora loves to bake, and especially loves to put food in broader historical context -- she catalogues her historical sweet tooth on Instagram at @historybakes.

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