Flavorings, Toppings and Fillings

Chocolate Fruit & Nuts
Onions Seeds & Spices

OVER THE CENTURIES, bakers have added a rich array of flavorings to their doughs - savory herbs and spices, dried and fresh fruits, sausage, cheeses - limited only by imagination. The Jewish bakers of Eastern Europe were constrained not just by the availability of ingredients, but equally important, by poverty and dietary laws that prohibited certain common ingredients, such as lard, as well as strict rules on what kinds of foods could be baked together and under what circumstances.

America broadened their repertoire. Foods that had been rare or unknown in Europe - citrus and coconut, pineapple and pecans, for example - were readily available in the goldene medina, the Golden Land.


Who doesn't love chocolate? Volumes have been written about the universality of this extraordinary food and its mystical effects on the human mind, body and spirit. Except for the wealthy and urban, few shtetl Jews even heard of chocolate, let alone tasted it; it was only after the great immigration to America that it entered into the baking repertoire.

During the Golden Age of Jewish baking, chocolate was - and remains, in the handful of surviving Jewish bakeries - everywhere. Melted and tempered, it enrobed rainbow cookies, seven-layer cakes and checkerboard cakes. Swirls of it marbled wonder cakes. Drops of it decorated the centers of French cookies. Coatings of it graced the ends of sandwich cookies and almond horns. Melted and unsweetened, it is the focal point of chocolate cakes. Shaved, it forms the filling for chocolate babka, schnecken and rugelach. Dried into powder, it performs its magic on butter creams and simple icings.

Types of Chocolate

The bakers used chocolate in three main forms:

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Chocolate Coating (Couverture)

One of the great challenges home bakers face is get an even, glossy coating of chocolate on their cakes, cookies and pastries. The pros have perfected the art of tempering chocolate, while most home bakers find it easier to use non-tempering chocolates like Wilton or Merkens candy melts. However, if you do decide to temper your own chocolate, here are a few facts that might help.

Fruit and Nuts

Fresh & Dried Fruit

Fruit figures prominently in Jewish cookies, cakes and pastries. Fresh berries and stone fruits - peaches, plums, cherries and apricots - went into buns, turnovers and Danish; fresh apples into apple cakes. Stewed in syrup and thickened, they became fillings for pastries and toppings for cheesecakes. In winter, when fresh fruit wasn't available, the bakers used dried apricots, prunes and raisins, which they boiled with sugar and mashed into a smooth puree.

Citrus zest, oil and extract

Citrus zest is the outermost colored portion of citrus peel - pomerantz in Yiddish - attached to the bitter white pith, which contains a wealth of intensely flavored essential oils and esters (the organic compounds that are responsible for taste and aroma). In cakes and pastries, they add a citrus tang and sharp, pleasant aroma that contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the sugar and the rounder, softer fragrance of vanilla.

Citrus oil is the liquid pressed from the zest; according to one manufacturer, it takes almost 50 oranges, 65 lemons and 80 limes to produce one ounce/28ml of oil, making pure citrus oils very expensive. To bring the price down, many manufacturers simply dilute the oil with alcohol to produce extract, which may contain only 20% oil.

Although the pros prefer to use citrus oils for reasons of convenience, shelf life and ease of measurement, we recommend zest, since the cost of one or two small bottles of extract will buy you a microplane zester that will last a lifetime.


Likewise, nuts offer a welcome addition to cakes, cookies and pastry. Rich in oils, fragrant - especially when toasted - and crunchy, nuts add flavor, aroma and texture to any baked goods that contain them.

Nut paste generally refers to either almond paste, which is made of finely ground almonds, sugar and water, or macaroon paste, which is almond paste with ground apricot kernels added. Both add a subtle sweetness to pastries, cakes and cookies in doughs, batters and fillings. The main difference between the two is that macaroon paste has a more aggressive almond flavor than pure almond paste, along with a slightly bitter finish that some people prefer against the sweetness of the sugar. Marzipan consists of either almond paste or macaroon paste, mixed with additional sugar and egg whites.

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As a major food crop throughout Eastern Europe, onions are used extensively in Yiddish baking as a filling and topping for bialys, pletslach and onion rolls, and as the main flavoring ingredient in onion rye bread, pumpernickel and savories like onion kichel. In the bakeries, dehydrated chopped onions were more common than fresh, since they posed fewer storage and spoilage problems. Soaked in boiling water, the onions not only were milder and less moisture-laden than fresh, but the soaking liquid also was used to acidify rye sours and as an addition to onion roll and bialy dough.

Seeds and Spices

Seeds and spices add zest and texture to baked goods: What can compare to the crackle of poppy or sesame seeds on a fresh bagel, or the mellow astringency of caraway against the complex sweet-sour taste of an authentic corn rye, or the perfume of vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom filling the room as the bakba, danish and coffee cakes bake?


A Caribbean native, allspice earned its name because the Englishmen who first encountered it thought that its was a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. And like those three, allspice too is best used in fillings or chemically leavened products because of its antifungal properties.

Caraway seed

Crescent-shaped and astringent, the essential oils in caraway seeds - kimmel in Yiddish -- add a strongly astringent flavor and aroma to rye breads and salt sticks. Interestingly, rye breads made with caraway are denser than those without because one of its oils, limonene, is a yeast-killer.

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One of the world's most expensive spices, this strongly aromatic member of the ginger family has a pungent taste reminiscent of both ginger and citrus. Originating in Southeast Asia and India, cardamom is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking and throughout Europe. Of the two varieties, green and white - named for the paperlike pods that contain the seeds - green is the more intense (and expensive). Fortunately, a little goes a long way, and because the seeds lose their potency quickly, it's best to buy whole pods and keep them in an airtight container until you need them.

Chernushka (nigella) seed

Also known as black caraway and kalonji, chernushka seeds are deep black and angular, with a unique bitter-astringent taste. Cultivated in the Ukraine and Georgia, they often take the place of caraway seeds in Russian rye breads.


The second most widely used spice in Yiddish baking is cinnamon, or tsimering, which is made from the bark of a tree native to Sir Lanka. Because of its high price, however, a lot of what's sold as cinnamon - especially in the U.S. - is actually ground cassia bark, which is similar in taste and aroma, but which has a peppery aftertaste, as opposed to true cinnamon, which tastes sweet. Mixed with sugar, both spices are used as fillings for pastries of all kinds, from rugelach and elephant ears to coffee cake and Danish rings.

Note, however, that cinnamaldehyde, one of its primary flavoring agents, is a powerful fungicide, making it an extremely efficient yeast-killer, which is why bakers only use cinnamon in fillings and not as a flavoring that's added directly to yeast doughs.


Called gevirtz and neygelach ("nails") in Yiddish, cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree belonging to the myrtle family. Because they are very potent, cloves, used sparingly, add a sweet and strongly astringent smell and taste to baked goods. However, like cinnamon, cloves are only used in fillings, since they also contain a pair of powerful antifungal agents, carvarcol and thymol, which are fatal to yeast.


Like cloves, nutmeg comes from a member of the myrtle family, but unlike cloves, which are the dried flower buds, nutmeg is the seed of the tree. (Mace, which is similar in taste to nutmeg, is the covering of the seed, making the nutmeg tree the only plant to produce two different spices). Nutmeg has a wide range of European culinary applications, from seasoning potatotes and cream sauces to lending its sweet, peppery, citrusy taste to a variety of baked goods. Unlike cinnamon and cloves, however, nutmeg is only selectively antifungal, and can be used as a dough flavoring, rather than just a filling.

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Poppy seed

The tiny, dark, nutty and slightly bitter seeds of the opium poppy have been used as food for thousands of years. In Yiddish cooking, you can find them as a topping for breads and rolls, an ingredient in cakes and cookies, and, boiled with sugar and honey, as a filling for homentashen, cookies and pastry.


Saffron is the world's most expensive spice because it takes over 200,000 of these fine, orange-tipped-red threads from Crocus sativus flowers - each one of which must be harvested by hand. Fortunately, a very little goes a very long way: half a dozen threads, steeped for an hour in boiling water, will give your challah a beautiful yellow color, as well as imparting a subtle earthy flavor and aroma. Because of its value, counterfeit saffron - either safflower threads, which have a similar red color, or other dyed fibers - is not unknown. Although powdered saffron is also available, we like the threads because they're virtually impossible to fake.

Sesame seed

Sesame seeds, which are rich in fragrant oil and have a distinctive sweet-nutty flavor, originated in North Africa and the Middle East and were not a meaningful part of the European Yiddish cooking repertoire. In America, where the seeds are common and plentiful, they're widely used on challahs, rolls and especially bagels, adding both crunch and flavor.


No other flavoring agent is as pervasive in baking as vanilla, and with good reason. This essence of orchid adds a degree of depth and richness to sweet goods that is unmatched by any other ingredient, and despite the best efforts of food scientists who have devoted years to finding a synthetic substitute, none has come close.

Vanilla most commonly is available in three forms:

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Starch derived from corn, potatoes, tropical rhizomes and other grains and vegetables have a variety of uses in baking. First and foremost, it's used to thicken fruit fillings and custards, which prevents them from running during baking and keeps them together when the product is cut and served. Secondly, cornstarch in particular can substitute for flour ounce-for-ounce, gram-for-gram, up to 10% - 15% of flour weight when you want to reduce gluten content in order to get a lighter angel food or chiffon cake, for example.

Each type of food starch behaves differently, depending on how it's used.

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