Dulce lo vivas – May you live sweetly!

Dulce lo vivas – la reposteria sefardi by Ana Bensadón (Ediciones Martinez-Roca, Madrid, 2006)

There are many wonderful Sephardic cookbooks – actually written by Sephardim, for a change – that for whatever reason are not available in English. This is a shame, but I suspect that with the growing mania for all things Sephardic, it won’t be long before a publisher or two snap up some rights and get busy translating. They should.

I came across this book one day in the spring of 2006, in a tea salon in Barcelona’s Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter). Small and unassuming, it caught my eye – a straightforward recipe book with no drawings, very few photographs, and the briefest of introductions.  Most of the recipes bore little semblance to the sweets and baked goods I knew from my family’s Ottoman tradition, but there was an approach, a style – delicate, at once elegant and simple – that was undeniably Sephardic. I flipped.

For context, you need to know that Spanish food isn’t exactly known for lightness of texture or subtlety of flavor. Also, that as a consequence of the Inquisition, anything that could be singled out as a Jewish recipe might level charges of heresy, heavy fines, jail or worse. So, zealous converts took to ‘Christianizing’ their Jewish recipes, typically by the addition of some form of pork and often to the extreme where, alas, it has remained for five centuries. The most egregious example I can think of is ensaimada, a Danish-sized pastry from Ibiza. Saim is Catalan for lard; ensaimada means “enlarded,” i.e. something to which lard has been added.  Ensaimada is actually a rosca or small challah (the Sabbath bread) in the symbolic coil shape reserved for the High Holy Days, made with lard. Yikes. Apart from the deep offense to one’s religious or cultural sensibilities, lard may make a flakier pie crust, but used with a heavy hand in a sweet roll?  You won’t be fighting for that second piece of Danish (I don’t imagine I’m going to make many Spanish friends with that statement).  So to find a mainstream, Sephardic pastry book in this context was, to me, amazing.

I wrote about it on my website and moved on. Not more than a few weeks later, to my sheer amazement, the author called to thank me for the writeup.  Little did I know the book had just been published.  She invited me to the book launch, which was to be held at the synagogue in Toledo, so off I went on an endless drive through desolate rock country that looks a lot like Utah, a zillion hours from Barcelona to Toledo (Spain is big).

Stick with me here.  The Sinagoga del Tránsito was commissioned in 1336 by Samuel ha-Levi, who was treasurer to the king of Castille. Completed in 1357, it is Toledo’s main attraction, and for good reason. The interior is drop dead gorgeous, built in defiance of the rules of the day pertaining to synagogue height and ornamentation, with walls covered in ornate, elegant, mudéjar (Moorish-style) carving that is dazzling. As a Spanish Jew, seeing it for the first time is very personal, a very big deal.  The presence, power and sophistication (and for many, material wealth) of Jewish society in pre-Expulsion Spain is suddenly tangible.  On the flip side,  the intensity of the sheer and unrelenting hatred that wiped it out hit me like a ton of bricks.  It was quite a moment.

In that frame of mind, I took my seat in the audience and listened as Mrs. Bensadón described a journey similar to my own – a disciplined pursuit of authenticity, the hours of trial and error spent in fine-tuning imprecise recipes, the total devotion to her project and profound love of her culture. Between the setting and the uncanny way we’d met, I was welling with a sense of pride you can’t imagine.  And then… I spied the pastries. There, down in front and maddenly close to me, was a table laden with sweets made by the master herself, looking so light that they might float up off the table.  I had to have them.  All of them. Suddenly, everything else faded away – the gorgeous synagogue, the speakers, the whole, moving experience. There was nothing in the room but me, those pastries, and the rows of people keeping us apart. I focused on that table like a buzzard on a mule (pathetic, I know). Speeches over, lots of applause, and I cut through that crowd to the pastry table like a hot knife through butter (no more metaphors today, I promise).  I sampled them all, far more times than could reasonably be called polite. But I’d come a long way.

Later in the week Mrs. Bensadón received me at her home in Madrid in true Sephardic fashion: in the parlor, for good conversation over tea and pastries served with unassuming elegance. We found that, though our approaches to preserving and promoting Sephardic culinary heritage are different, our reasons for doing so are born of the the same desire to set the record straight.

And so, back to the book. Dulce lo vivas (loosely, ‘may you live sweetly’) is a generous collection of well-researched dessert and pastry recipes gathered from personal sources around the globe. Mrs. Bensadón, who was born and raised in Tangiers, specializes in the Moroccan Sephardic tradition. I’ve never seen Sephardic pastries made to such visual perfection. The photographs are few but beautiful, varied and inspiring. There are recipes here for cakes, cookies, preserves, meringues, things fried, filled, soaked in syrup. That said, I reiterate, these are not Ottoman Sephardic. If that is your tradition, many of these will be unfamiliar to you but no less worth trying or appreciating – on the contrary!  They’re not all traditional, either; many riff on traditional themes with great results. One of my favorites hands down is for Tangerinas, cakelike coconut meringues filled with whisky-lemon curd (at the pastry table in Toledo I developed an instant addiction to these).

In others, however, you will easily recognize the connection to Ottoman-Sephardic traditions. Though perhaps emphasizing different flavorings or technique, these are the recipes we hold in common, with their roots firmly planted in Jewish Spain or simply in Judaism. Buñuelos (bimuelos)… almendrados… marronchinos (maruchinos)… I was fascinated to discover Tortitas Cribadas (“sieve-like flatcakes”) little anise & sesame crackers with the same shape and open cutwork as the traditional Italian matza illustrated in The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews (reviewed here). And indeed, Mrs. Bensadón notes that in olden days, tortitas cribadas were large and were baked in a town’s public oven.  Just like matza.  I would surmise that here may be another example of a profoundly Jewish food being altered through the ages – perhaps to conceal its origins, perhaps just because someone had a great idea. All told, the recipes are authentic, professional, researched and developed with great care, love and the deeply ingrained sensibility – no doubt encoded in our DNA – of knowing in your gut what is your own.

The book is written in Spanish and available throughout the Spanish-speaking world, including the United States.  Forgot your high school Spanish?  Time to brush up.



Filed under Other Reading, Recipes

4 responses to “Dulce lo vivas – May you live sweetly!

  1. eva

    I’ve been fascinated with this book since the NYT reviewed it a couple of years ago. Thanks for the article. I am however a bit skeptical about your conclusory statement regarding the history of the ensaimadas. As Mallorca was a major center of Jewish culture in the early middle ages, it is very likely that it has its origins in the jewish tradition, but to assume such a conclusion just because the name means larded strikes me as far fetched. Indeed many pastries take the name of their main ingredient, almendrados for instance being the perfect example.

    • Janet Amateau

      Hi, Eva. It is precisely for the reason you state – the deeply rooted Jewish history of Mallorca – that I believe my hypothesis is valid. An apple pie is obviously made with apples, too, but the difference is that no one has a centuries old tradition of incorporating apple pies into religious ceremonies (wouldn’t it be fun to find out otherwise!). I point out ensaimada specifically for that reason.

      Not just substance but form, too, plays a very important role in Sephardic baking; many shapes are imbued with precise meanings expressing Jewish themes or qualities. The coil is deeply symbolic in Judasim, representing either the ascent of the soul or eternal life (personally I go with the ascent of the soul). It appears repeatedly in Judeo-Spanish cuisine – as the Rosh Hashana bread I refer to, in rodanchas (filled filo pastries), buleymas (filled yeast dough pastries), fijuelos/hojuelos (crisp deep-fried dough coils), et al. Jews first lived in the Balearic Islands a thousand years ago; Jewish baking began making its way into Christian Spanish gastronomy coincident with forced conversions. But a food that was recognized as being connected to Jewish religious practice (to wit, the challah), would also have had to be “Christianized” or the preparer or consumer could be accused of heresy (the tactic of the Inquisition). Spain is filled with examples of traditional pastries that a Sephardi can easily identify as Jewish and associate with one Jewish custom or other. To a non-Jewish Spaniard, the same food may generally be regarded as a generic, albeit “very old,” traditional food, associated not with any event or holiday, although perhaps with a season or a location. With very little exception, this has been my experience throughout my investigation here.

      Old habits die hard; when one tradition is precise and incisive and another is vague, I’ll favor the precise one as being the primogenitor. – JA

  2. Chef Dave Galasso

    Delightful. Delicious. Loved the style and content of your review. Recently did a somewhat late-in-life career shift and after 3 1/2 years of culinary school, am finishing up my thesis on La Cocina Hebraica Italiana. Found your review as part of a search for the saying, “¡Dulce lo vivas!”, which as you certainly know is said when giving sweets during Pésaj. This whole trip has been, and continues to be, a wonderful journey of discovery.
    Hope you keep writing.
    Chef Dave Galasso

  3. Celia Sigalow

    I have the book and have used the recipes quite often. I also lived in Tangiers and grew up eating all those delicious food from the book, my mom was a great baker.
    I had the great pleasure of meeting Mrs Bensadon in March when I was in Madrid, it was very exciting. She is a great lady, she has written a second book, which unfortunately is not available here in the States. I would highly recommend «  Dulce lo Vivas » as a staple book for your kitchen.

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