Sourdough baker Maaryasha Werdiger, who lives in Melbourne, Victoria, has a special connection with her paternal Ashkenazi Jewish grandmother, Nechama. All they talk about is cake; it's their connection.
Werdiger says her grandmother mostly bakes with her intuition, but has also picked up tips and tricks from her friends over the past 85 years, which she keeps in her handwritten recipe book. Werdiger says, "I find baking with her a great bonding experience where we get to hang out and chat."
One of their most favourite cakes to discuss is Nechama's streusel cake. Before Werdiger was born, Grandma Nechama, an Orthodox Jew, made a simple butter cake to break the fast after Tisha b'Av and Yom Kippur. "For some reason, one day she decided to put on some streusel topping and my grandfather loved the crumble so much so that my grandmother kept adding more streusel," says Werdiger. "The family liked the streusel better, eating only the crumbs and leaving the sponge cake intact, so she kept on adding crumble until eventually there was so much that the cake sunk."
"One day she decided to put on some streusel topping and my grandfather loved the crumble so much so that my grandmother kept adding more streusel."
Determined, Nechama kept testing and trying ingredients until she found the perfect balance. Then, she experimented with ingredients and dosages until her recipe didn't require a mixer. Now, the recipe is just right.
Nechama, with her parents and two brothers, fled Samarkand, Uzbekistan when she was nine because they weren't allowed to be Orthodox Jews. After spending four years in Paris, they migrated and settled IN Melbourne's St. Kilda East in 1949. Werdiger's paternal grandfather, Nathan Werdiger, a holocaust survivor from Poland, arrived in Australia that same year.
"My grandmother [Nechama] grew up hungry in Communist Russia, so she always dreamed of food, and ever since it's been her comfort, specifically coffee and cake," says Werdiger. "There isn't a time when you'll walk into her kitchen and not find some kind of cake in her cupboard."
Right after breakfast every day, Nechama will split coffee into several cups and cut a slice of cake into small, equal pieces. "This way she'll enjoy a weak cup of coffee and a small piece of cake several times throughout her day," says Werdiger.
"Grandma always gets depressed during our fasts, because for 25 hours she can't have her cake and coffee. But once it's time to break the fast, she boils the kettle pulls out her streusel cake, she specifically makes for these occasions and all her children and grandchildren will join her in breaking the fast with coffee and cake."
Hosting Jewish holidays
The centre of the Werdiger family home is the kitchen, where they gather to cook, eat and chat.
"[My] mum Shyrla was the main cook in our family and cooked probably fresher and healthier than most Ashkenazi Jewish mothers I knew, with a slight Italian influence of beautiful pastas and lasagne," Werdiger says.
Shyrla went vegetarian at one stage when she was younger, then dabbled in macrobiotics. She settled on chef and food show host Jamie Oliver's food philosophy: fresh, simple and not overly finicky.
As the oldest of seven children, Werdiger remembers cooking in the kitchen every Friday right after school from a young age — perhaps from age five or six — with her younger sister Itta. They helped their mum prepare for Shabbat and host their guests.
Werdiger's mum still made traditional Ashkenazi food, including challah, chicken soup, lokshen kugel, schnitzel and cholent, but also Italian-influenced cuisines like fresh pesto, ratatouille and other fresh salads.
"Mum didn't like complicated baking, but I enjoyed trying more complex recipes and I was lucky to find the same love for baking in my cousins, my aunt Michelle and my grandmother Nechama," she says.
Together they would bake chocolate yeast cake, also known as babka, among other more demanding cakes like Napoleon.
By age 16, Werdiger began baking all the tricky Passover flourless chiffon cakes. "By age 22, I would host people over on Saturday Shabbat mornings for coffee and cake which I would personally prepare, plus for our Purim festival, I would have 500 people over for a party. I looked for every excuse to bake, connect with people and give them a good time."
Travelling and baking
Werdiger moved to live in Israel in 2007 with her husband Shaya who was studying there. When someone gave her a sourdough starter, she went on a mission to bake sourdough bread.
"I found the result of my first few attempts at baking sourdough bread to be very dense and I wanted to make the bread lighter," she says.
She began experimenting in her home kitchen until she made a loaf she was happy with. She was inspired by home and professional bakers on Instagram doing the same thing.
She also made her grandma's streusel cake in Israel. "I was 16 when she taught me and my cousins how to make it and she wrote down the recipe for me, but it was from watching her make it that I picked up on her techniques," she says. "When I was in Israel and I tried for the first time to make it on my own, I had to call her to make sure I got the order of the ingredients right as that was vital for the correct consistency."
While she thinks it's a relatively simple cake to bake, the streusel must be the right density and not too dry or oily.
"There isn't a time when you'll walk into her kitchen and not find some kind of cake in her cupboard."
When Werdiger returned to Melbourne in 2014, mostly so her kids could have a relationship with her grandparents, she continued home baking.
Every Saturday morning for Shabbat, she hosted friends who agreed that they'd never tried such good sourdough bread before. "In the end, I had five families coming over for Shabbat morning and I would spend the whole week baking for them and that's where I spent a lot of time doing my hobby baking," says Werdiger.
"Soon after, I started teaching sourdough bread making workshops and subsequently people started asking me to bake for them."
Werdiger sold her sourdough bread from her home garage every Friday. "Somehow that took over my life and turned into a business." She currently owns a tiny kosher sourdough bakery called Zelda in the inner Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea, which she opened in February this year.
Werdiger is happy that her grandmother has visited her bakery. "Like my grandmother, I also love putting crumble on cakes. I add crumble to all our babkas, apple galettes, cheese danishes, pretty much any chance I can get," she says.
But she says her grandma is a tough food critic. "We're both about texture and taste and when she tried my cakes, she analysed every mouthful. I'm glad to have received her seal of approval."
Werdiger wants to continue the streusel-cake tradition with her own family. "It brings me great joy at every level to connect to my grandmother through baking her streusel cake, serving it to others and eating it with a coffee, while picking at all the crumbs."
This cake has just the right amount of streusel — any more would sink the cake. During the summer my grandmother adds fresh blueberries, tossing them into a bit of flour before folding them gently through the prepared batter. The flour prevents the berries from sinking to the bottom.
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup plain flour
- 1 cup self-raising flour
- 200 g butter, at any temperature
- ½ cup orange juice
- Preheat oven to 170°C.
- Grease your tin or use greaseproof paper. My grandmother greases her tin with softened butter, then sprinkles sugar and flour around the bottom of the tin and shakes it off. This greases the tin and adds texture to the bottom of the cake. If you're using baking paper to line your tin, just sprinkle some granulated sugar at the bottom of the tin.
- In one bowl, whisk together all the ingredients except for the butter. The batter should feel smooth and not clumpy.
- Soften the butter. This can be done by putting the butter in the microwave for 15 seconds or so, depending on how cold your butter is. The butter should be almost melting but not quite. My grandmother puts the butter in her tin, puts the tin in the oven on low heat for a minute or so, and that both softens the butter while simultaneously greasing her tin.
- Add the butter to the batter and whisk until incorporated. This will take another minute or so. Pour the batter into the cake tin and smooth the top with a knife or offset spatula.
- 50 g butter, room temperature
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup plain flour
- ½ tsp cinnamon (optional)
- In the same mixing bowl, put 50 g butter, ½ cup sugar and ½ cup plain flour. Rub with your fingertips until it's the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Make sure there are no lumps of butter as these will melt and sink into the cake. Add the cinnamon if you like.
- Sprinkle the streusel with your fingertips onto the surface of the batter in the pan and bake the cake for 40-45 minutes at 170°C. Test the cake with a toothpick. When the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is done. It should be a golden-brown colour. Do not overbake.
- Let the cake cool on a rack for 20 minutes before eating. While I prefer to cool a cake out of a tin, my grandmother is insistent on not trying to take the cake out of the pan, lest the streusel falls off.
- This cake can be wrapped in foil and stored at room temperature for 3 days. Or, like food any immigrant grandmother makes, it freezes very well.
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