Whenever Sephardic food is mentioned, our thoughts typically go straight to baked goods. This is where Linda Capeloto Sendowski has focused her first cookbook, Sephardic Baking from Nona and More Favorites.
Linda Sendowski grew up in Seattle in the 1950’s, luxuriating in the tastes and aromas of her mother’s and grandmother’s traditional Sephardic kitchens. Her own baking reflects that environment in the best possible way; the book invites you to experience Sephardic baking as warm and welcoming comfort food, a beautiful, rustic treat for all the senses.
What constitutes Sephardic food? Beyond the traditional recipes so easily recognizable as “ours” – the borekas, boyos, haminados, etc. – our cuisine has been shaped by religion, migration, and a complex history. We are not just cooks; we are guardians of our culture and heritage. This responsibility always weighs on the mind of a serious Sephardic cook. Yet we are also enthusiastic assimilators. Both spirits are at work in Sendowski’s recipes.
The majority are classics from Çanakkale and Rhodes, with a few Sephardic and Ashkenazi selections from other continents, and others of her own invention. Everything comes together through Sendowski’s filter and the sure hand she inherited from her mother, whose memory and bendichas manos she lovingly honored by making this book.
In her remarks, instructions, and ingredients I see the values that are so important in Sephardic cooking. Some are rules of the kosher kitchen, others reflect our predilection for certain flavors and textures, the importance we place on quality, on taking no shortcuts, on adhering to time honored traditions even as we invent.
Very specific techniques, textures and flavors serve as our anchor, but also as springboards to invention. Sendowski is at once a traditional Ottoman Sephardic cook and an American one, faithfully preserving and creating through these two filters. Hers isn’t a casual mishmash of cultural appropriation, it is a knowing assimilation guided (at times perhaps even unconsciously) by deeply ingrained cultural sensibilities.
This is the real way of the Sephardic kitchen. Our food is no more frozen in time and place than we are. It reflects many migrations and cross-cultural interchanges while retaining its own distinctive character. Our heritage guides us, but nostalgia is for one’s own childhood, and good food worth celebrating is to be found wherever in the world a person has called home. Rhodes cuisine alone includes recipes and influences of Turkey, Italy, Greece, and Sefarad; in Sendowski’s Sephardic American kitchen, it’s a logical leap from baklava to pecan sticky rolls.
Pecan sticky rolls? Whoa! Be warned: this is not a book for the calorie-conscious, and you’ll be rapidly seduced into not caring. Linda Sendowski bakes voluptuous food. Most of the recipes are Sephardic classics: savory and sweet pastries of many textures, shapes, and fillings – pastelicos, borekas, boyos, travados, kezadas; she makes fritadas and beautiful scented challas; nut cookies; citrus spoon sweets, and some treats for the major holidays. They are complemented by biscotti and cantuccini, Argentinian alfajores, cherry strudel, Middle Eastern butter cookies, pissaladiere, and a spectacular looking Moroccan bisteeya filled with chicken, almonds, and warm spice. A Turkish sweet tradition shows not only in baklava but in original confections made from marzipan, pistachios, caramel. Blackberry crisp reflects her Seattle upbringing. Hamentaschen dough gets a Rhodes-style lift from orange juice and vanilla. And of course, there is chocolate. Her personal taste and style are well defined; no recipe seems contrived or out of place.
Sendowski ventures a little bit into gluten-free territory, and also includes some of the simpler everyday treats, like biscochos and pandericas (pretzels) that give a home its Sephardic flavor. I was charmed to find the sugar cinnamon toast my own mother casually made for us to snack on as small children.
Commentary is kept to a minimum, with the focus where it belongs: on the baking. Sendowski’s real passion is for the recipes (and for the satisfied smiles of family and friends), and it shows each time she describes a process of experimentation. An accomplished baker and experienced cooking teacher, she understands the importance of explaining not only how to do something, but why. She wants you to achieve good results. (Her long list of tips for making challah is excellent).
It’s rare that a cookbook inspires me with more than a few recipes; here I find myself staring down dozens, savory and sweet. Both my Sephardic receptors and my American ones are fully engaged. There are mouthwatering closeups of beautifully executed baked goods, and a rustic look and feel that I find appealing and appropriate to the content. Short on memoir and generic history, instead we’re given an inviting workbook that inspires you to roll up your sleeves and get baking right now.