The Basic (But Best) Chocolate Cake
The Israeli birthday cake goes upscale. Rabbi Debbie Prinz/JW
active: 45 min
total: 2 hrs
Israelis are meshuga for delicious chocolate cake such as this, especially at the time of birthday celebrations. Janna Gur, editor of Al Hashulchan: A Gastronomic Monthly and author of The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey explains,
... this is THE cake moms make for their kids’ birthday parties, especially when you need large quantities. It is customary to bring [it] to school or to a kindergarten, so you need enough cake to feed 30 plus kids. Also, it is very easy to make. I once heard that somebody called it "working moms cake." The ingredients are inexpensive (no real chocolate). The texture is relatively stable (not the melt in your mouth chocolate volcano). It is easy to cut into portions and serve on paper napkins. The flavors are kid-friendly. And the cake can be made in a very large baking pan.
In our family, this sweet adorned the buffet for each bris of our grandsons, Ami and Pele. The first, in Brooklyn, was slathered in a frosting from a mélange of quality chocolates. The second, in Jerusalem, was Elite through and through: cocoa powder and dark chocolate. There was something distinctly tasty and authentic about using Elite, or maybe it was the Jerusalem air. Ugat Yomledet was the perfect welcome to for these sweet, newly birthed lives.
Our Israeli friends have fond recollections of it as well. Yigal Ben Aderet’s Turkish-born mother mixed up this “big deal,” spongy, moist, chocolaty cake, sometimes frosted, sometimes with whipped cream, and not just for birthdays. He ate it with milk and dunked it in milk. Yigal Rechtman’s class mothers and the expert bakers on his kibbutz made the very dark, unfrosted, somewhat coarse, round cake with a hole in the middle for very special occasions. That may have required a trip to Jerusalem to acquire the cocoa powder. Gur of Al HaShulchan, from which this recipe is adapted, reminisces that this popular birthday cake was a big part of her life when her children were little. She would usually buy it in the neighborhood pastry shop, where they made really nice chocolate cakes. The only time she baked it herself was when her daughter Noa was 4 and completely enamored with the "Little Mermaid." Noa begged for a "sea cake" so Janna baked a plain round birthday cake and decorated it with whipped cream tinted by blue food coloring and shaped like waves.
Ancient rabbinic tradition counts 5776 years since the creation of the world. While Jews may differ over whether to take this reckoning literally or figuratively, Rosh HaShanah’s mix of personal and communal renewal and re-creation deserve this classic cake. For those of us with chocolate deeply embedded into our psyches, this thickly frosted chocolate cake kick-starts the New Year perfectly – maybe without the 5776 candles.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Jews around the world. Her book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao, was published in 2013 by Jewish Lights and is in its third printing. The book is used in adult study, classroom settings, book clubs and chocolate tastings. Download lesson plans and discussion guides.