Keepin’ Chanukah with traditional Scottish ‘keepin’ cakes’

November 11, 2018 by JNS
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Get ready to light the first Chanukah candle, sing songs, play dreidel games, and, of course, eat. (Hanukkah takes place this year starting on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 2, and lasting through the evening of Monday, Dec. 10) But are we ready to indulge in all the rich holiday dishes in honour of Judith the Jewish heroine?

Report from: Ethal G. Hofman

Diet, be damned! I’ll bake, serve and savour every morsel of my mother’s buttery cakes. Memories, unbidden, flash through my mind; I’m transported to my mother’s Shetland Island kitchen. For Jean Greenwald, Chanukah was more than latkes, though she fried up dozens every night, only to be devoured by me and my brothers as soon as they were cool enough to eat.

But it was her Chanukah cakes that spring to mind all these years later. “Keepin’ cakes,” she called them. She was probably influenced by the extensive make-ahead baking that Scots do in preparation of Hogmanay (the riotous Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration). Rich, buttery (and a different oil of sorts), and studded with dried fruits and spices, they were baked in advance, and tightly wrapped and stored.

The highlight for the first night of Chanukah was Whisky Fruit Cake. Forget the tough, tasteless, shamefully “lacquered” fruitcake that appears every winter in stores throughout our nation. My mother’s version was baked six weeks earlier. The whisky-infused cake was crowned with a layer of marzipan, toasted, and again wrapped in whisky-soaked cheesecloth before storing in an airtight container. Unwrapped, each slice was moist, rich and aromatic with a kick. What else when it had been doused with Dad’s best single-malt whisky?

These “keepin’ cakes” won my mother the highest compliment: “a superb baker.” On our island home, doors were never locked. Friends and neighbours would drop in unannounced, especially during the eight days of Chanukah. They were sure of a welcoming pot of tea, kept warm under a padded tea “cosy” (cover) and a luscious variety of Jean Greenwald’s “keepin’cakes.” Tea, cakes and gossip, repeated every afternoon in our bright, warm kitchen.

At these tea times, my mother never failed to  tell the story of the biblical Judith, who fed Holofernes, the enemy general, enormous quantities of cheese (possibly a smooth rich ricotta or cream cheese that slips down easily), then plied  him with copious drafts of heavy red wine to quench his resulting thirst. As planned, he fell into a stupor so deep that he was quickly beheaded by Judith. Without their leader, the enemy fled, and Judith’s town was saved. Her bravery is said to have inspired Judah Maccabee and his followers to clean and re-dedicate the sacred Temple in the second century BCE.

Not only at Chanukah, but year-round, Roly-Poly was a hands-on favourite. A cross between cake and cookie, it’s a catchall for the last spoonful of jam left in the jar, any variety of dried fruits and candied peel, even a diced apple. My mother made her own flaky pastry—a laborious job. No need these days. We can pick up frozen puff pastry at the market, thawed and ready to use. I can still smell the spicy sweet aromas greeting me when I came home from school on cold winter days. Half a dozen cakes, including Glazed Cherry Loaf, Caraway-Seed Cake, Coconut Coffee Cake and that star—Whisky Fruit Cake—resting on wire racks with several more still in the oven. When the cakes were completely cooled, I helped wrap each one tightly in greaseproof paper (the British version of our wax paper), sealed with adhesive tape and tied with string.

Although my mother’s “keepin’ cake” custom originated many years ago, the bake and store-ahead method fits in admirably well with contemporary frantic schedules. Other than the Whisky Fruit Cake, these desserts—all rich in butter—can be stored three to four days before serving. Wrap and store in a cool, dry place; the day of serving, bring to room temperature. All of these cakes may be frozen, removed from the freezer about four to six hours before serving.

Ingredient lists are simple. You probably have most of them in the house, such as eggs, sugar, butter and flour. A list of ingredients to buy and cook’s tips are included with each recipe.

Happy Chanukah from the Shetland Islands!

General Tips and Tricks:

*No need to use a heavy Mixmaster, which I’ve relegated to the basement (just in case one far-off day I should need it.) A hand-held electric mixer does the job, and it’s easy to clean.

*For fail-safe turnout, line the bottom of baking pans with wax paper after spraying with nonstick baking spray.

*To soften butter, cut into six or seven pieces. Leave in a covered bowl at room temperature overnight.

Glacé Cherry Loaf (Dairy)

Glacé Cherry Loaf. Credit: Ethel G. Hofman

Serves 10-12

Cook’s Tips:

*Cut cherries in halves with kitchen scissors.

*Toss with 2 teaspoons flour to avoid sticking and dropping to bottom of cake.

*In a pinch, use vanilla extract instead of almond.

Buy: Glacé cherries, almond extract


1 cup glacé cherries, halved

2 cups all-purpose flour

1¾ sticks (7 ounces) butter, softened

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon almond extract

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon allspice or nutmeg


Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line the bottom of a medium-size loaf pan (8½ x 4½ x 2½ inch) with wax paper. Spray bottom and sides of pan with nonstick cooking spray with flour. Toss the cherries with 2 teaspoons of the flour. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter, sugar and almond extract until pale, 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, along with about ¼ cup of the flour. Mix well.

Add the baking powder, allspice or nutmeg, and the remaining flour, gradually mixing to blend. Using a wooden spoon, fold in the cherries. Transfer mixture to prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top with a spoon.

Bake in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until risen, golden and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in centre. Cool completely before wrapping.

Coconut Coffee Cake (Dairy)

Serves 10-12

Instant coffee for wake-up flavour; unsweetened coconut gives crunch.   

Cook’s Tips:

*If using sweetened coconut, omit the honey.

To buy: Unsweetened shredded coconut 


1½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar

3 large eggs

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1¼ teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons instant coffee granules

2 tablespoons honey, warmed

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

Shredded coconut to sprinkle


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan with wax paper to fit. Spray with nonstick cooking spray with flour. Set aside.

Cut the butter into 6 pieces. In a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy (about 1-2 minutes).

Add the eggs, one at a time, along with about ¼ cup flour. Beat in the remaining flour, baking powder, coffee and honey. Stir in the coconut. Transfer to prepared baking dish.

Bake in preheated oven for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan to cool completely. Cut into squares to serve.

Caraway-Seed Cake (Dairy)

Serves 10-12

In the autum, armed with a tin cup, I was sent to gather the pungent seeds of the caraway plants that grew wild by the roadside. Caraway is a popular Scottish (and Jewish) flavouring. If you love seeded rye bread, then this is your cake!

Cook’s Tips:

*Substitute frozen orange-juice concentrate with 2 tablespoons orange juice and ½ teaspoon orange extract.

*Buy caraway seeds and spices from a general spice store or natural-foods market, where you can measure exactly what you need. It’s much fresher and cheaper than buying premium glass jars of seeds at the supermarket.

To Buy: Caraway seeds, frozen orange-juice concentrate OR orange juice and orange extract


¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

3 large eggs

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon frozen orange-juice concentrate, thawed

1½ teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons caraway seeds


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line bottom of 1½ quart cake pan, ovenproof soufflé dish or 9x5x3-inch loaf pan with wax paper cut to fit. Spray with nonstick cooking spray with flour.

In a medium bowl, cream butter and sugar until pale (about 1-2 minutes). Beat in eggs, one at a time, with about ¼ cup flour. If curdling occurs, don’t panic! Add 2-3 tablespoons flour and whisk on. Cake will not be compromised.

Add the orange-juice concentrate, or orange juice and orange extract. Mix well. Add in remaining flour and baking powder, about ¼ cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the caraway seeds. Turn into prepared pan, smoothing top with a spoon.

Bake in preheated oven 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool slightly. Loosen edges with a round-bladed knife before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Roly-Poly (Dairy)

Serves 8-10

Cook’s Tips:

*Purchase puff-pastry sheets from the supermarket in the frozen-food case.

*Any dried fruits or a mixture of them, such as raisins, currants or apricots, may be used.

*Use up that jam/preserves at the bottom of the jar. If crystallized, microwave 12-15 seconds until melted.

*Instead of ricotta cheese, a mild grated cheese like Muenster or white cheddar may be used.

*No chocolate chips? Grate any chocolate you may have on hand.

*Keep cinnamon- sugar on hand. Mix 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar with 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon. Store in a tightly lidded container in the kitchen cupboard. Use as needed.

To Buy: frozen puff-pastry sheets, ricotta (or other) cheese, mixed dried fruits, chocolate chips


1 sheet (about 8 ounces) frozen puff pastry, thawed

1-2 tablespoons preserves

3 tablespoons ricotta cheese

½ cup mixed dried fruits

¼ cup chocolate chips or grated chocolate

1 teaspoon cinnamon sugar


Preheat oven to 410 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with foil. Spray with nonstick baking spray with flour.

Unroll the pastry sheet and lay on a flat surface. Spread with preserves to within ½ inch of edges. Repeat with ricotta cheese. Sprinkle dried fruits and chocolate over top.

Brush the top edge with a little water. Roll up loosely, and press ends and top edge to seal. Place sealed-side down on a prepared baking sheet. Prick all over surface, about 10 times, with a fork.

Bake in a preheated oven 25-30 minutes, until risen and nicely browned. It should be firm to the touch. Cool slightly on a wire tray. Slice 1-inch thick. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Whisky Fruit Cake (Dairy)

Serves 15-20

Don’t be put off by long ingredient list! After all, it’s a once-a-year holiday. To help it along, measure everything out the night beforehand. Put dry ingredients in one bowl, and fruits and nuts in another. Then mix and bake.

Cook’s Tips:

*May substitute brandy for whisky.

*Marzipan or almond paste is available in spice shops and supermarkets. Do not refrigerate.

To Buy: Ground almonds, brown sugar, currants, raisins, chopped walnuts, diced candied orange peel, glacé cherries, marzipan (optional)


1½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup light-brown sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1¼ teaspoons baking powder

3 tablespoons finely ground almonds

1 teaspoon nutmeg

2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper

1 cup currants

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup glacé cherries

½ cup diced candied orange peel

3-4 tablespoons whisky, plus whisky for infusing weekly

Optional topping: 2 tablespoons apricot jam, melted; 10 ounces prepared marzipan, softened


Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with wax paper to fit. Spray bottom and sides with nonstick cooking spray with flour. Set aside.

Cream softened butter and sugar in a large bowl (about 1-2 minutes). Add eggs, one at time, with ¼ cup of the flour. Add the baking powder and remaining flour gradually, about ¼ cup at a time, mixing well. Stir in all the remaining ingredients. Mixture will be stiff and sticky.

Transfer mixture to prepared baking pan, smoothing top with a spoon. Bake in preheated oven for 1 to 1¼ hours, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in centre. If cake seems to brown too quickly, cover loosely with foil. Cool slightly before removing from pan.

While still warm, prick the cake all over the top with a metal skewer. Use a teaspoon to pour in the whisky. Allow to soak in thoroughly.  Cool and wrap in cheesecloth, then in foil. Store in an airtight container in a cool dry place, though not in the refrigerator.

For optional topping: Turn cake upside-down so that the top is flat. Brush top and sides with melted jam. Set aside. Roll the marzipan on a lightly sugared board in a circle large enough to cover the top of the cake. Place on cake, pressing lightly. (Don’t worry if some of the marzipan hangs down onto the sides of the cake.) Mark the marzipan with a metal skewer in a diamond pattern. Place under a preheated broiler just until beginning to brown. Watch carefully; this takes only seconds! Cool and wrap as above.


2 Responses to “Keepin’ Chanukah with traditional Scottish ‘keepin’ cakes’”
  1. Diana Sandler says:

    One has to read’ mackeral at Midnight’ written by Ethel G Hoffman
    a very interesting book on growing up on a remote Scottish Island.being Jewish- did not seem to be a big problem- Where there was a will- there was a way.. her mother Jean segal Greenwald had that will ,keeping her Jewish values & tradition along with her ‘haimishe’ cooking. etc.

    coming from Glasgow myself -it was so nostalgic…..
    Thank you for today’s article!

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