Cooked sweets – purees, compotes, marmalades, pastes, hard candies and whole preserves – are an important component of the Sephardic culinary tradition and social custom. Whole fresh and dried fruits, citrus peel, flower petals, seeds, nuts and even vegetables are transformed into confections of various textures, forms and colors, to be served, with tea or coffee, when folks come a callin’. My own grandparents and great grandparents favored sweets made from quince, almonds, apricots, citrus peel, rose petals, apples, dates, figs and sesame. Depending upon where in the Mediterranean you might be you’d also enjoy sweets made from lemons, pears, sour cherries, grapes, plums, tomatoes, pumpkin, eggplant – you name it. The Moroccan recipe in these pages for Berenjenitas en Dulce – candied baby eggplants – is a fine example. The list is endless.
What makes these confections Sephardic per se is not only how they are prepared but how and when they are incorporated into Sephardic life. As with other Sephardic foods, many sweets, too, carry some specific symbolism or association with key events – holidays, weddings, circumcisions, baby namings, bar mitzvas, etc. They may represent sweetness, purity or, in the unique case of harosi (haroset), even the mortar of the Egyptian pyramids (at the religious school I attended, I was convinced those Ashkenazi ladies who made the haroset they served up really meant for us kids to eat mortar). But never mind that. When it comes from a Sephardic kitchen, harosi is rendered a luscious spoon sweet. Candied almonds may be served at weddings, masapan adds “sweetness” to all celebrations. And so forth. Others are perhaps more quotidian, though no less special, saved for social visits both planned and impromptu. Or for your own household, of course.
Everyone’s got their personal favorites and specialties, which keeps things interesting and provides ample opportunity for showing off your confectionary skills. Around our house my mother collected tangerine peels, as did her mother, to make dulse de mandarina – tangerine marmalade – studded with pine nuts. One of my great grandmother’s specialties was dulse de kondja’ – rose petal jam made only from deep red roses, picked only in the morning when the dew-covered petals are at their most fragrant. Most fitting for a woman from The Island of Roses. Grandpa was mad about bembriyo, quince paste, which he cooked up in batches each fall during that fragrant fruit’s very short season, as he’d seen his mother do before him. Old habits die hard. Lucky for me, quince paste is a household staple in Spain (where it’s called membrillo). It’s out of this world with semi-soft cheese.