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A Cake to Build Your Life On

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I love an anniversary. I am a sucker for any chance to stop and review where I am and the path that got me here. Lucky for me my first “Jewish Birthday” is this week, so I don’t have to work very hard to find an anniversary to think about. What that means is I’m spending a lot of time this week thinking about my journey to Judaism.

I was originally attracted to Judaism because a lot of my very best friends are Jewish. When I was coming out, my Jewish friends were the most supportive people in my life. They took me in and became my family. They gave me love and acceptance in a way that I had not known. Then I met and fell in love with my Jewish husband and that basically set the whole thing in stone. We were living a Jewish life, so why not make it official?

Of course it’s far more complicated than that. I could go on forever about my love of the Jewish tradition and its rituals, but who has time for that? Converting is serious business. You aren’t born with a backlog of history to guide your new identity; you have to create that link. You have to build it from the ground up.

One of the ways that I found helped me build a connection is food. Don’t laugh—think about it. Every holiday that you’ve celebrated recently has some pretty serious food rules. Matzo. Brisket. Applesauce. We are a people glued together by our dinner plates. Who doesn’t love to eat? Not anyone I want to know.

What we eat informs who we are. It connects us and gives meaning to those endless holidays. We come to expect those weird matzo concoctions. We crave our not-so-cute latkes. Those foods have power and meaning. They are what we’ll remember. They are part of what holds us together.

One of the foods that I have a special fondness for is my husband’s grandmother’s coffee cake. It’s not the superstar of the dessert table at the holidays. It’s not the most gorgeous or fancy thing you’ll find, but it’s—at least in my mind—a cornerstone of our family.

Grandma Lillian died a few years ago, but she lives on every year on the dessert table through her coffee cake. I think of Grandma Lillian a lot. I think of how she is, in some small way, responsible for my little Jewish family. I wish she were here to celebrate my Jewish Birthday this week. I guess her coffee cake will have to do.

A Cake to Build Your Life On photo



½ lb. butter
1 pt. sour cream
4 eggs
4 cups flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts
Extra cinnamon and sugar for coating middle layer and top of cake


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the softened butter and sugar with a mixer (or by hand if you’re old school), then add in the eggs one at a time along with the vanilla. In a separate bowl mix the baking powder, baking soda and flour. Once all of this is ready you’ll start to add the dry ingredients and sour cream alternating between the two until everything is mixed together. Once everything is combined, pour half of the batter into a greased 9x13 pan. Top this layer with cinnamon and sugar mixture. There’s no hard and fast rule here; you just want to basically cover this layer lightly. If cinnamon is your favorite thing go crazy…if not…a light sprinkling should do it. This is also where you’ll add half of the walnuts. Once you’ve finished this middle layer spread the remaining half of the batter over the first layer. Top with cinnamon and sugar and walnuts just like you did with the middle layer until well covered.

Bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

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