Αlmost Αunt Rachel’s Cake

Today a ramble about a great cook and some cakes.

Of all the great cooks in my family, my grandfather’s sister Rachel (ra-SHEL) was the one who blew everyone else out of the water.  Like a molecular chef without the gimmickry, Αunt Rachel knew how to turn everyday ingredients on their heads. Her flavors were huge and delicate at the same time, and textures light as a feather, yet so satisfying, you never felt underfed for eating so ethereally. I remember a salad dressing of hers that seemed to hover above the lettuce leaves. (For real). There was something rare and astonishing about her hand. Among those who knew her, the pleasures of Aunt Rachel’s cooking were legendary, and invitations to dine chez Tante Rachel were the stuff of envy.

Like so many great cooks of her generation, she took most of her culinary secrets to the grave, but there was one she recorded – one – and I was given a cherished copy.

The first time I set out to make Aunt Rachel’s Cake (which we’ve only ever called Aunt Rachel’s Cake), I was living in a tiny mountain village outside of Rome, where days were long, supplies were limited, and my kitchen gadgets consisted of a box grater, two flimsy wire whisks, and a mortar and pestle.

Mandela, Lazio. My cake was born in the tall bright house to the right of the cluster of trees. Photo mine, taken in 2005.

Aunt Rachel was gone several years already, and had retired from the kitchen long before that. (She lived to be 102). Continue reading

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Filed under History, Holidays (fiestas judias)

Teach your children well… in Ladino.

It’s Pi Day, so here’s something to chew on.

Most parents aren’t prepared to teach their children a first language, let alone a second one. They just talk to their babies who, being babies, soak it all up, and before you know it they’ve figured out how to make themselves understood around the house. The next time languages come up, the kids are turning twelve and on their way to junior high. I believe this is the real reason so many Sephardim of my generation never learned to speak Ladino.

El Call 011b

As small children, my siblings, cousins and I already knew we belonged to something very special. Even so, we were kept a little bit apart from our culture, observers as much as willing participants in our living heritage. We learned to cook. (Delicious!). We learned our family history. (Fascinating!). We learned traditional melodies. (Beautiful!). But when it came to their utterly charming language, most bets were off. Though we may have heard it every day, my elders more often spoke at us in Ladino (typically to shower us with endearments) than with us. Nor with my dad, who they adored ( in case you’re wondering), and he had even taken up Spanish when he was dating my mom. Continue reading

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What do you call a Sephardic butter pastry (besides divine)?

My grandmother was born in Turkey and used to make bourekas and montees, which were essentially the same but shaped differently. The bourekas were turnovers filled with potato and cheese or rice or meat and onions, or spinaca. The montees used the same dough (oil, water, flour), but were made like spiral spanakopita. I’ve never found any info on montees anywhere on the web, and everyone I could ask is gone. Have you heard of them and can you tell me the origin of the name?
Thanks very much
Len

Sure, Len!

First, let’s get you back on track with the spelling. “Montee” should be mantí, a pastry better known as mantikos.

Though your grandmother made her mantí from an oil dough, the name refers to its original star ingredient: butter. The word comes from manteca. In modern Spanish usage, “manteca” on its own brings to mind lard – emulsified pig fat – but the formal meaning indicates any emulsified fat derived from animals or plants. In the past, the specific fat was understood from context; under kosher law the consumption of fat from cow, sheep, and goat meats is forbidden, hence in a Sephardic kitchen, manteca would only mean butter. Continue reading

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On dining every day, even over pizza.

To read so many recipe columns, you’d think Sephardic Jews eat nothing but lavish, exotic party food. Well, there is life between holidays and social visits, and it is no less enjoyable.

Everyday meals, as much as holiday food, define our cuisine and our philosophy about eating. In examining them what comes through is the value we place not only on food that tastes good but on healthful eating, and sharing a pleasant experience at the table. Though not every day is a festival, every meal should be special, no matter how uncomplicated the recipes.

Some basic ingredients of the Sephardic kitchen.

Some everyday ingredients from a Sephardic kitchen – mine!

Balanced composition, good fresh ingredients, and a few simple techniques are all you need to make a delicious Sephardic meal every day – that and a properly set table. Jewish dietary laws aside, we are rigorous about the content, composition and presentation of our meals. Eating is also a time to take pause and enjoy one another’s company. You’d think these concepts are universal, but I have eaten among people who slap slop on the table, let the forks and knives fall where they may, clutch them like shovels, have no use for napkins, and clear the table while people are still eating. (I have dined among savages). Continue reading

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