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German Caramelized Onion Tart

November 29, 2021
by Aurora Clare

So many of the books I have encountered in the AJHS historic cookbook collection deal with the preservation of family recipes, traditions, customs, and the complicated ways we hang onto them amidst the pressures of assimilation. Mothers and grandmothers are frequent figures in these books, given the historic gender roles which assigned the world of the kitchen to the women. How To Cook Like A Jewish Mother seeks not to preserve one family’s culinary memory, but to celebrate the concept of maternal food traditions, and, really, of Jewish moms. 

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

According to Roth, the one thing which distinguishes a balabusta from the rest is tam, or “good taste.” However, in the case of the archetypal Jewish mother, it means “the right taste.” Someone with tam knows just knows how the recipe ought to be, and exactly how the food should taste. This is a recurring theme in the historic cookbook collection, and presents a fundamental irony: the women whose recipes we preserve in these pages 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 while attempting to prepare this onion cake, or Zwiebelkuchen, from How To Cook Like A Jewish Mother. Though Zwiebelkuchen is German for “onion cake,” and Roth lists the recipe as such, most American cooks would recognize this as a tart. Indeed, with short-crust pastry and an eggy, custard-like onion filling, it much more closely resembles a quiche than a cake.

The dough recipe 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 the American kitchen, and Roth reprinted Gerda’s adaptation in the book. And 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 could not make heads or tails of this one! Not only that, but I couldn’t find a comparable dough recipe anywhere!

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’d know what you’re working with here. But I’m also willing to bet that somewhere in the Lenore-Gerda-June handoff, something was, quite literally, lost in translation. So I’ve done my best to fill in the blanks. The pastry is a classic German muerbeteig pastry (short-crust dough bound with egg rather than water). In my version, I’ve provided an alternate dough recipe–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, and you likely already have the rest of the ingredients for this recipe in your home.

German Caramelized Onion Tart (Zwiebelkuchen)

Recipe from How To Cook Like A Jewish Mother by June Roth, adapted and updated by Aurora Clare.

Ingredients

  • 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 of salt and black pepper 

Directions

To caramelize the onions:  

  1. Slice 6 onions by cutting them in half through the root, peeling them, and then thinly slicing, cut side down on the cutting board.  
  2. Heat vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
  3. Add onions and ¼ tsp salt-the salt will help the onions release liquid and soften gently.
  4. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to soften and turn slightly golden.
  5. 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 if 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.
  6. Allow the onions to cool completely before adding to pastry. 

For the pastry:  

  1. Mix flour and salt.
  2. Add cold butter, and rub into flour with your fingers, working quickly until you achieve a coarse cornmeal texture.
  3. Add beaten egg, and stir until the dough starts coming together.
  4. Sprinkle 2 tbsp ice water on top of dough.
  5. Knead to bring it together completely–do not over knead! 20-30 seconds of gentle kneading should do the trick. 
  6. Form the dough into a disc, wrap in cling film, and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes in the fridge.
  7. After the 15-20 minutes have passed, remove the dough from the fridge, roll it out, and press it into a 9” cake round—it should reach about halfway up the sides of the round.
  8. Prick the bottom with a fork and partially bake at 425℉, filled with pie weights (rice, dried beans, uncooked pasta and even pennies work), for 10 minutes or until just barely browning.
  9. Remove weights and bake for another 5-10 minutes, or until the edges have browned and the bottom is lightly golden. 

To prepare the filling:  

  1. Preheat oven to 350℉.
  2. Whisk sour cream into well-beaten eggs. Don’t worry if the sour cream seems to separate–just keep whisking until it incorporates.
  3. Mix in caramelized onions, and season with a pinch of salt and some black pepper to taste.
  4. Pour into the pastry shell and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until firmly set. 
  5. Allow to cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes.
  6. Serve warm, topped with another dollop of sour cream.