Me and my big ideas

Recently a reader questioned my theory about the origin of  ensaimada, a traditional pastry from Mallorca made with lard that I believe began life as challa, or perhaps as rosca  (see my post about the book ‘Dulce lo vivas’).  Okay, challenged more than questioned it.  She called my idea far fetched.  Hmm.  Well, I love a good challenge, and especially where Sephardic vs. Christian or secular Spanish gastronomic traditions are concerned it can be challenging to determine which is the chicken and which is the egg.  But there is a method to my madness, which I explained in my reply.   For others who may also wonder how I draw certain conclusions (and who don’t make a habit of reading blog comments), I’ve repeated the conversation here.

…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.  – Eva

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

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Me and my big ideas

  1. Interesting. I discovered an unusual sweet bread in La Mancha that was folded and twisted, which I suspect was derived from Sabbath bread. What fat do you suppose was used in the ensaimada when it was Jewish? butter or olive oil? Are there still breads made with other fats?

    • Janet Amateau

      Fats and oils vary globally based on accessibility but also according to religious proscription. In Spain, it came down to pig vs no pig, not vs some other animal, because the fat of choice was otherwise oil (baking with butter and/or other animal fats is traditional north of the Pyrenees). Recipes using lard were either Christian in origin to begin with or Christianized versions of Jewish or Arab recipes. Today there are recipes for ensaimada that put the lard right into the dough (replacing the oil), and others that use oil in the dough but brush the lard over the coiled pastry before baking it, in the same way a challa is brushed with an egg wash before baking.

      That’s the (very) short answer – this is a huge topic!

  2. Scholarly and delicious. Thanks for the great post. Will you be doing a Rosh Hashana post? I’d love some unusual Sephardic recipes.

    • Janet Amateau

      Thanks, Chaya! I hope you enjoy the Rosh Hashana recipe, too, which is posted today on the front page. Happy New Year!

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