Schmoo torte’s quintessentially Winnipeg origin story revealed

Winnipeg-

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

It’s a line from an old western, often misquoted over the decades, that can double as a phone game.

From the haunted room of the Fort Garry Hotel to the crimson city of the Manitoba Legislative Building, just like in the Wild West, Winnipeg too is home to countless urban legends whose origins are somewhat mysterious.

Another such example can be found in many Winnipeg dessert cases – the schmoo torte.

A classic schmoo pie is made with layers of angel food or chiffon cake tossed with pecans, topped with whipped cream, and drizzled with mounds and mounds of caramel sauce.

Order a slice of schmoo at most out-of-province bakeries and you’ll likely be served a confused expression. In Winnipeg, it’s greeted with a knowing smile.

Barbara Reiss founded the catering company Desserts Plus in the 80s. Even then, schmoo reigned supreme.

“It was just one of the best pies we’ve ever made, and it was the de rigueur of every pastry table,” she said.

Beth Grubert has been serving slices of schmoo at Baked Expectations for 39 years. She said it remains one of her most popular menu items.

However, anyone looking to learn more about schmoo’s early life will find an oft-rewritten and never-sourced anecdote; “The Schmoo torte was first invented by a mother for her son’s bar mitzvah in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The mother in question is never named. A simple Google search also does not reveal the creator of the cake.

It’s also a mystery to people in Winnipeg’s food community.

“There were always rumbles from the start,” said Beth Grubert, owner of Baked Expectations.

Schmoo was on the menu when Grubert began serving towering tortes and succulent slices at the iconic Osborne Village confectionery 39 years ago.

“It was one of the most popular cakes and it remains so,” she said. “(The name) goes back to the Li’l Abner comic strip, but it was sort of a reference to all that is good and plentiful.”

Over the years, Reiss has heard many stories about who created the pie. Notably, she heard that Alyshia restaurant was one of the first restaurants to serve it, noting that it was also popular in the Ukrainian community.

THE SWEET SUCCESS OF A WOMAN ENTREPRENEUR

When asking the Jewish community about the inventor of the iconic dessert, a name not found in the history books was also reported – Dora Zaslavsky.

A Russian immigrant who arrived in Winnipeg in 1914, Zaslavsky showed a talent for cooking from an early age, helping her family in the kitchen.

“She was extremely good at it, but not in a measured, ‘let me put my finger and taste’ kind of way,” recalled her granddaughter Shannon Aceman, who spoke to CTV News from her home in Vancouver, Kenya. British Columbia.

Dora Zaslavsky is an icon of Canadian Jewish baking. She founded and ran a Winnipeg-based international restaurant business that enjoyed a 60-year career at a time when women entrepreneurs faced countless obstacles. (Image source: Shannon Aceman)

According to an interview with Zaslavsky and archived by the Center for Jewish Heritage of Western Canada, she first started selling candy to help support her family when her then-husband Mayer died. get sick.

Then she hosted a wedding for 50 guests, then another for 350. Soon word of mouth about her delicious cooking spread through the Jewish community. This inspired Zaslavsky to start a catering business in his North End home called Menorah Catering.

“Then when they moved the business about 15 years later and took up space on Main Street, they were hoping to attract more than just a Jewish audience, so they changed the name of the business to Galaxy Catering. , and that’s really where things took off,” Aceman said.

It eventually spread across Canada and into the United States.

Zaslavsky was famous for his festive sandwiches, dipped maraschino cherries and towering chocolate pies.

However, it was not until 1948, when her son Murray celebrated his bar mitzvah, that she prepared the dish that would become the sweet specialty of Winnipeg culinary fables.

“He wanted a special cake that wasn’t on everyone’s bar mitzvah,” recalls Aceman, who is Murray’s daughter.

“She came up with something called a schmoo torte, which was basically a mix of about three or four of her other best-known recipes for cakes with the rum pie, and you ended up with the most flavorful mix. delicious.”

Winnipeg baker and caterer Dora Zaslavsky is pictured in a family photo with her sons Irving Zaslavsky (left) and Murray Zaslov (right). According to the family, it was for Zaslov’s bar mitzvah in 1948 that Zaslavsky first prepared a schmoo torte. (Image source: Shannon Aceman)

It was even a favorite of Harry Belafonte, the multi-talented Jamaican-American singer, actor and activist.

Aceman joked that his baba was in love with him, following him on tour from show to show.

“She started sending him schmoo tortes for him and his team to enjoy after the show,” she said.

“They actually became friends, and he was asking his tour manager to call him and give him all the tour dates in several key cities, and she would arrange to have this special cake for Harry Belafonte and his team. of scene.”

According to Shannon Aceman, Harry Belafonte was a big fan of his baba Dora Zaslavsky’s schmoo torte and arranged for it to be sent to his various tour stops across North America. (Image source: Shannon Aceman)

HOW JEWISH CULTURE AND TRADITION AFFECT CANADIAN FOOD

Jewish food historian Kat Romanow said schmoo is reminiscent of nusstorte, a Central European dessert popularized in the 17th century. She said it’s common for dishes to take many iterations through waves of immigration.

When Jews fled Europe and settled in Canada, she explained, they brought food from their home country, but sometimes had to make some adjustments depending on what was available there. local grocery store.

“Some of these dishes retained their character but also took on a new character because they couldn’t necessarily get the exact ingredients they were originally made with,” Romanow said.

Just as Canada influenced the dishes of Jewish immigrants, the Canadian food landscape is indelibly shaped by Jewish recipes and traditions, notes Romanow.

“In many cases, the dishes that Ashkenazi Jews brought with them to Canada have become signature dishes of their new homes. So for example, in Montreal, we have bagels and smoked meat, there are blueberry buns in Toronto and schmoo torte in Winnipeg.

A TASTY WINNIPEG TRADITION

Decades after Zaslavsky baked his first schmoo pie for that fateful bar mitzvah, it remains a Baked Expectations favorite.

Grubert said he will always have a place on his menu.

“We love having it. We love that people know that we’re known for it, that we’ve been here so long and it’s still there when they come,” she said.

With layers of angel food cake, ground pecans, whipped cream and caramel sauce, Baked Expectations owner Beth Grubert describes the schmoo torte as “the most delicious blend of flavors.”

Reiss, who has since hung up her dining apron herself, has previously been mentored by Zaslavsky, even taking over her Main Street dining space.

She had never heard that Zaslavsky was the inventor of the schmoo, but said that would not surprise her.

“Of course,” she said. “Dora was the start of it all.”

Although his name is yet to be etched in the digital history books, Aceman said his baba remains a legend in the Jewish community, extending even beyond the borders of Manitoba.

“I don’t know how many people have come up to me in the past 30 years since I’ve lived (in Vancouver) to say, ‘Your grandma served my bar mitzvah’ or ‘I remember baking. at such a marriage.’ It has really made history in terms of Jewish baking,” Aceman said.

Despite its enduring popularity on Winnipeg menus, she said no schmoo holds a candle to the original.

“I really have a hard time eating someone else’s schmoo,” Aceman said. “None of them are as good as my baba’s, but I’m biased.”

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