Putting the Jew back into Jodetert

Putting the Jew back into Jodetert
Jodetert, from Koekedoor by Errieda du Toit, published by Human & Rousseau

Jodetert is neither a tart nor made by Jews but it is layered – like life.

See a recipe for Jodetert here

Have you ever had one of those baking projects that seemed like a great idea at the start but then, half way through, amid a sea of stickiness, became utterly overwhelming? Some people obsess over piping perfect macarons, others struggle with sourdough. My epicurean odyssey is Jodetert. Sometimes referred to as Russiese tert, this tiered biscuit and custard cake is an icon of the Afrikaner teetafel and kerk bazaar. Commonly considered to be the highest of high skill tuisnywerheid treats, platteland reputations and ribbons have been won and lost amid its multi-layered majesty.  

My stickiness is both literal and figurative because, in addition to attempting to perfect Jodetert’s taste and texture, I am also seeking to resolve the culinary conundrum of why a recipe named “Jewish tart” is neither a tart nor made by Jews. 

It is not just that Jews don’t make Jodetert. Very few modern South African Jews even know about “their” eponymous cake. Froma Sacks, National Secretary of the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa, echoed the sentiments of many when she wrote that: “Until your email, I had never heard of Jodetert. I googled it and it is interesting to see that most of the posts were in Afrikaans! It looks yummy but I have never come across it before!” Subsequent queries on the Joburg Jewish Mommies WhatsApp group and a Friday night food Facebook page supported my sense that, even amongst the minority of Jews who have heard of Jodetert, it is not considered to be a part of modern South African Semitic culinary culture. 

Before I could prove provenance, I needed to master the method. Practice makes perfect and I have discovered that making Jodetert is not so much difficult as time consuming. First there are the seven biscuit-like layers to be rolled and baked – which makes for a lot of harried dancing back and forth between oven and countertop. Remember seven, the significance of which will be revealed as we continue cooking. Then there is the tedium of fashioning a silky-smooth crème pâtissière. Followed by meticulous layering and interleaving into a tower. After which there is the blitzing of biscuits to create crumbs with which to coat the cake. Remember the crumb coating – it may also be indicative of origin.

The bad news is that after all the effort of rolling, baking and stacking instant gratification does not ensue. Once assembled, Jodetert’s cookie and custard stack must rest in the fridge for at least a day so as to meld the flavours and securely set the architectural construction. Following a few flops (one of which literally toppled over and ended up in a heap at the bottom of my fridge) I learnt to rectify the slant by building my Jodeterts inside a cake ring to stabilise the sides. 

The good news is that the end result is absolutely worth the wait. Jodetert is exactly the sort of heavenly balance of sweet, creamy, custardy lightness amid supportive yet tender biscuit tiers that might move epicurean Aristotelians to rhapsodise about Golden Means and suchlike. 

Aristotelian waffle aside, there was still the question of epicurean ancestry. Here I have been significantly less successful. It all seemed so simple at the start. Whether it was referred to as Jodetert or Russiese tert, acknowledgement of lineage was apparently right there in the name. So, why was I struggling to find the proof in my pudding? The more I looked, the less I knew. 

One of the few things that I know for sure is that a Jodetert is not actually a tert at all. In pastry parlance the word “tart” and its Afrikaans equivalent “tert” mean a simple, baked, open-faced pie without a lid. Tarts do not have multiple layers. Conversely, the French word “torte” and the Slavic equivalents “tortas” and “tort” describe a multilayered baked item with a denser crumb than a sponge cake and a filling between each layer. To torte is also used as a verb in pastry kitchens to describe the slicing of layers. In terms of this definition, Jodetert is clearly a torte, tort and tortas rather than a tert or tart. My money is on tort or tortas. Errieda du Toit, author of Share/Saam (2019) which pays homage to over a century of South African community cookbooks, observes that: “Many of the Afrikaans language fund raising recipe collections include Jodetert and it stands out as completely different to other bakes. The way in which it is made is very different to most of our baking. Letting it stand overnight in the fridge for a day to let the cookie layers soften is a method not typical of our cake baking traditions. That is much more like Eastern European baking styles.” Errieda’s theory is supported by an interaction I had with Ian Lurie, the recently retired former owner of Nussbaum’s Kosher Butchery, Glenhazel, Johannesburg. Mr Lurie didn’t know the name Jodetert but when shown a picture of it from the Huisgenoot 500 Wenresepte (2006) exclaimed: “That’s it! That’s what my Russian Bobba made.” 

Inspired by Bobba I sought out Russian recipes. Russian Tort Medovik (known as Tortas Medutis in Lithuania) looks almost identical to Jodetert and has the same stack and wait method but the ingredients list calls for both honey and sour cream, neither of which are found in Jodetert. Tort Napolyeon is actually an ancient recipe but was patriotically repurposed to celebrate the 1812 Russian victory over the French army. It has a fine biscuit crumb topping which is said to symbolise the snow that thwarted Napoleon. It uses custard (like Jodetert) and is similarly assembled and set aside but the layers used are generally flaky pastry. Generally, but not always.

The recipe which most closely resembled our cake was listed as a Napolyeon Tort but was distinctly different. It came from the Kitchen Stories community cookbook (published in 2018 as a fundraiser for the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda region, Israel) and was supplied by Leningrad-born émigré Stella Shurhavetsky. Mrs S’s layers are made using the same ingredients and virtually the same quantities that South Africans use in a Jodetert. One tablespoon of brandy in the custard and a teaspoon of vinegar in the biscuits is all that separates this Russian, Jewish Napolyeon recipe from the Russiese tert in the Suid-Afrikaanse Vrouefederasie’s 1964 Uitgesoekte Resepte

Mrs Shurhavetsky also offered an intriguing theological explanation for the seven layers in her recipe – which, as with Jodetert, is actually six layers in the stack and one layer crumbled up as topping. Seven represents the Shivat Haminim, Seven Species of produce for which the Land of Israel is praised in Deuteronomy 8.8, the seven days of Creation, the seven laws of Noah and the seven times Israelites encircled the walls of Jericho before they fell. In South Africa meaning has been lost but the number remains. As one Free State baker observed: “I don’t know why but I just do it that way. It is seven because it has always been seven – that is what my ouma did.” 

It seems likely that Jodetert’s precursors arrived in South Africa between 1880 and 1910 with the approximately 40,000 Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Russia. Since Lithuania was part of the Russian empire until 1918, the terms “Russian” and “Lithuanian” were (and sometimes still are) used interchangeably by the migrants themselves and the receiving communities. Many of the new arrivals lived, worked and significantly assimilated into rural Dutch/Afrikaner communities. In such situations recipes and aspects of migrant food culture are often absorbed into the broader culinary context. Assimilation and antisemitism ran along parallel paths and the 1930s saw Nazi ideology influencing the establishment of Grey and Black Shirt movements across South Africa. The ostensibly cultural Ossewabrandwag adopted imagery and methods similar to those of fascist organisations in Europe. 

Community cookbooks wherever they occur are a statement of identity. In Jewish and Afrikaner South African community cookbooks we see transitions in the mid-century sense of self made manifest through the journey of Jodetert. Post war Jewish food identity carried with it trauma marked through taste. An assessment of South African Jewish community cookbooks from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s reveals a significant move away from Eastern European recipes. It seems likely that old world recipes infused with painful memories were set aside as “never again”, often made manifest in recipes that focused on the forward motion of modernity. Eastern European-style Jewish food was increasingly confined to religious holidays. Everyday eating emphasised gadgets and processed food rather than laborious, old world home bakes. I ploughed through endless South African fundraising Jewish Community cookbooks looking for Jodetert or Jodetert-like recipes. My futile search included The Union of Jewish Women Cape Town Branch Union Cookbook (1951), The Johannesburg Women’s Zionist League, Yeoville Branch recipe book (1954), The Society for the Jewish Handicapped (Benoni) Cookery Capers, (1960), The Welkom Women’s Zionist Society Recipe Roundabout (1969), The Arcadia South African Jewish Children’s Home Recipe Book and Household Guide (1970). Not even the 1957 Union of Jewish Women’s Snowflake Recipe Book mentions anything even remotely similar to a layered Jodetert. 

Many of the organisations responsible for their production of Afrikaans language community cookbooks were explicitly part of the Afrikaner Nationalist project and the inclusion of Jodetert offers insight into who the authors considered to be community. In this context it seems significant that there is no recipe for Jodetert in the 1938 Almanak van Poedings published by the Vroue Landbouvereniging van Kaapprovinsie. This calendar offers a sweet treat for all 365 days of the year but found no space for a Jodetert.

Despite many Afrikaner Nationalist politicians having begun their careers as Nazi sympathisers, the post Six Day War period saw Zionist Israel become the object of widespread admiration among Afrikaner Nationalists who took inspiration from the shared “covenant mindset”. Both groups considered themselves to be Chosen People with a sacred claim to a promised land about which they were in dispute with other occupants. As the relationship rose so too did the prominence of Jodetert in Afrikaans community cookbooks. 

South Africa’s Jodetert experience is intriguing but not entirely unique. Canadian food writer Kristin Olafson Jekyns’s book The Culinary Saga of New Iceland: Recipes from the Shores of Lake Winnipeg documents the history and culinary traditions of immigrants from Iceland who settled in North America at the end of the 19th century. Among the recipes is gyðingakökur, which translates to “Jewish cookie”. Olafson Jenkyns is not sure how they came to be part of the culinary canon of the Canadian “New Icelanders”, since there is no record of Jewish Icelanders being part of the migration into North America. She postulates that gyðingakökur came to Iceland by way of Danish traders and to Denmark by way of Holland and into Holland with 15th century Sephardic refugees who merged “their Moorish-influenced Iberian fare with the local Scandinavian cuisine. Instead of olive oil, they used the butter found in great quantity in Dutch cookery to create small rich morsels, still called Joodse boterkoeke (Jewish butter cookies) in Holland”.

In 2020 Jodetert still sells out first at NG Kerk bake sales and home industry stores. It is also increasingly available in the fine dining arena where a new generation of cake designers and pastry chefs have begun to play with its ancient and modern motif. Mari Louis Guy’s recipe in the Koekedoor Bak book (2015, Human & Rousseau) is based on her Afrikaans grandmother’s recipe but crushes raspberries into the custard and tops the cake with handmade, miniature raspberry marshmallows. Perhaps Napoleon might have made it to Moscow if his soldiers had been wading through pink marshmallows. It is almost impossible to imagine anything further from the shtetl than the 2017 Christmas menu at La Motte, Franschhoek which included a Jodetert with white chocolate and candied ginger biscuits, garnished with edible glitter and preserved figs. 

And yet, life, like Jodetert, is layered. All good things take time. Last week I received an email from Sharon Lurie (author of the Kosher Butcher’s Wife cookbook series) which read: “You won’t believe it! I made this tart on Friday night last week! Biggest hit! OMG! And with coconut oil and coconut milk to keep it non-dairy. So, a twist on the old one!” Sharon subsequently initiated a discussion about Jodetert on her Chai FM cooking show. Who knows where we go from here but there are small signs that South African Jews may be ready to reestablish a relationship with Jodetert. DM/TGIFood


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ilana Stone says:

    I loved this fascinating examination and origin story of a dish that was previously unknown to me. It just goes to show how much we can learn about our history and culture through the lens of food, and how we can breathe new life into the old and the traditional by going below the surface.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    Enjoyed this immensely……. what a pity the article is spoiled (for me) by the reference to Afrikaner nationalists and Nazi’s. Really, Anna? I don’t know about you but I get so depressed when I read anything about our country in the news and invariably there is always, always some reference to apartheid. There is so much more to our country than apartheid. There is so much more to Afrikaners than nationalists who admired the Nazi’s.

  • Richard Goode says:

    Really, Garth? What a pity that historical fact spoiled (for you) sensory pleasure in cake. Nazi sympathizers and Afrikaner nationalists do have a shared past. Fortunately it is not the only story. As you say there is so much more to our country than apartheid. Thank you Anna for showing us that history and cake are complex and layered. Everyone has agency to make moral choices, history and cake.

  • Judith Shopley says:

    I love the story behind the cake.What is also fun is knowing about the various community Jewish recipe books from another era

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