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
That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows they were built by extraterrestrials…
Whatever your own theory about who built the pyramids (bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar), several hundred years ago my female ancestors chose to commemorate the monumental labor with a monumental Passover cookie: the mustachudo.
Hazelnut mustachudos (Sephardic spice pyramids)
Any Sephardi whose family came from Rhodes (and a few other places) has some kind of mustachudo recipe. Mustachudos are soft, chewy cookies made from ground nuts. They weren’t always shaped like these neat little pyramids. That’s my doing. Continue reading
Harosi isn’t just for the Seder plate. Make a good one and you’ll find any excuse to eat it.
Malus domestica, from Medizinal-Pflanzed by Franz Eugen Köhler (1897) This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.
So long as my grandfather was alive, making harosi each year was one of his favorite cooking projects. He made huge batches of it. Vats! At the Seder there were always a few large bowls of it on the table, and on our way home Gramps would gift each family member a jar or two – personalized with our names, and swaddled in acres of paper toweling and rubber bands – so we could keep spreading the love throughout the week of Passover. We spread it on matza. We spread it on cake. On cheese. Over ice cream. On spoons – it’s great straight from the jar. Ottoman Sephardim alreay eat spoon sweets, and to us harosi is just one more. Continue reading
I’m thinking about artichokes today, because it’s Passover and in our family – in many Sephardic and Italian Jewish families – artichokes are a traditional component of the Seder dinner. No religious significance there, it’s just a delicious little luxury that’s available in the springtime.
Edible artichokes have been around a long time, though they nearly went extinct and were scarce during the Middle Ages. But they were brought back through cultivation by the Arabs and reintroduced to the world during the Renaissance, thanks to the Italians and surely more than a few Jewish traders. Catherine de Medici went crazy for them in the late 1400’s, and they’ve been considered a luxury every since. An interesting little tidbit I read says they were brought to her in Florence from Naples, and also “showed up in Venice as a curiosity.” It’s not so curious if you know anything about Jewish communities of the Italian Renaissance. Continue reading