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Shabbat Traditions: ‘Caterpillar Cake’ and Hamburgers

The first time I saw my Granny putting ice in her hamburger mixture, I thought she was crazy, but it’s something she did nearly every Friday night when I visited as a child. She would prepare her specialties — meatloaf or hamburgers, salad with extra garlicy dressing, and icebox cake for dessert — in her Manhattan kitchen. There’s nothing Jewish about burgers and cake for Shabbat, but it was my favorite and each dish’s recipe involved a special family custom.

Adding ice cubes to raw hamburgers is an old family tradition: an inexplicable one. “But why ice cubes?” I probed Granny. She told me there was no real reason except that her mother, grandmother, and so on had done it. “Maybe we do it to keep the meat cool until it’s ready to be cooked,” she answered to my persistent questioning. (A little later research revealed that ice can help well-done burgers stay juicier, but I’m sticking to Granny’s theory.)

I recently moved across the country to a place where many daily parts of my life suddenly feel unfamiliar. To make home feel a little less far away, I’ve been practicing traditional family eating habits. In true ‘next generation’ form, I’ve added my own twists to these practices. Last Shabbat I had a successful experiment adding a dash of heavy cream to the family salad dressing to make a more luscious consistency. In the interest of making things a bit healthier, I substituted full-fat coconut milk in place of traditional dairy for Granny’s famed icebox cake. These are the family traditions I’m happy to continue, while others seem as ridiculous as ice cubes in hamburgers.

Many culinary traditions on my Granny’s side of the family just don’t make much sense. Why do we serve a neon orange Jell-o mold every Thanksgiving, just to let it go untouched? Why do we save just one bite’s-worth of leftovers? Why do we repeatedly dine in restaurants where each experience is worse than next, just because these places are considered ‘family favorites’? These questions have no real answers. We keep these traditions because they make us feel like we are preserving some part of the past. We continue to keep them out of habit, because we simply can’t not do it.

Other family traditions make more sense. Granny’s icebox cake, or ‘caterpillar cake’ as I used to call it as a child, makes a lot of sense on days when you can’t bear to turn on the oven. Chunky garlic dressing, just like Granny prepares it, makes sense to add on any delicious salad. Sometimes, just to indulge in the ridiculousness, even putting an ice cube in a hamburger makes sense.

Granny’s Creamy Garlic Dressing

Originally just a traditional vinaigrette, I’ve incorporated my own creamy twist to this dressing with the addition of heavy cream. Just a small dash is all you need, and it’s totally optional. Makes 4 servings.

1/2 tablespoon wholegrain mustard
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into small chunks
1 tablespoon chives, parsley, dill, or whatever fresh herbs are available, chopped
1/2 tablespoon heavy cream
Dash salt and pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl until well combined. Let the dressing sit for a few minutes before serving, to let the flavors combine. Serve with your favorite green salad or chopped vegetables.

Granny’s Icebox Cake aka Caterpillar Cake

Traditionally made with whipped cream, this lightened version substitutes heavy whipped cream with surprisingly uncomplicated coconut whipped cream. It’s essential to use full-fat coconut milk, as the recipe will not work with a lower fat content. Makes 6 servings.

14-ounce can unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon raw turbinado sugar, or sweetener of choice
Dash vanilla extract
1 box thin chocolate wafer cookies, such as Nabisco

Place the can of coconut milk in the fridge overnight. After a night of chilling, remove the can from the fridge and flip it upside down. Open the can, and at the top (technically the original bottom of the can) you will find the liquid. Discard the liquid into a bowl for another use. Below the liquid you will find condensed, pulpy coconut cream that’s hardened at the bottom of the can. Scoop all the coconut cream into a bowl and whip until fluffy. Incorporate the sugar and vanilla to taste.

Place a cookie on a serving platter and cover the upward-facing side in a thin layer of whipped cream. Place another cookie directly on top of the whipped cream-covered cookie. Continue alternating cookie, then layer of whipped cream, until you are about 8 cookies high. Make multiple stacks until the ingredients are depleted, saving extra whipped cream for topping. Carefully place the stacks on their sides. Cover the horizontal stacks with the remaining whipped cream, or leave them plain and a little jagged, thus resembling a caterpillar. Enjoy cold!

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