On this short list are a few cookbooks that I really like, in no particular order. In each the author has honored Western Sephardic heritage with integrity through unique, authentic, and deeply personal expressions of our cooking, culture, and experience.
Sephardic Baking from Nona and More Favorites
by Linda Capeloto Sendowski
Cuisine: Rhodes, Çanakkale, Gallipoli, & American Sephardic baking
Linda Capeloto Sendowski, whose family roots are in the coastal cities of northwestern Turkey and Rhodes, grew up in Seattle in the 1950’s, luxuriating in the tastes and aromas of her mother’s and grandmother’s traditional kitchens. Her own baking reflects that environment in the best possible way; the book invites you to experience Ottoman Sephardic baking as warm and welcoming comfort food, a voluptuous, rustic treat for all the senses.
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 close-ups of beautifully executed recipes on pretty pages with a rustic look and feel that I find appealing and appropriate to the content. Memoirs are not the main point here. Instead we’re given an inviting workbook that inspires you to roll up your sleeves and get baking right now. Read full review here or find the book here.
Los placeres de mi cocina judía* / Les bonheurs de ma cuisine juive dans la tradition sépharade
by A. Rivka Cohen
Cuisine: Istanbul Sephardic
Language: French, Spanish
This utterly charming book is written with love and the unassuming, sweet lightness that exemplifies the Sephardic character. Whenever I read from it, it’s as if I’m eavesdropping on scenes I recall from childhood, when my grandparents and many great aunts and uncles doted on the children, and it seemed through my young eyes and ears they were forever smiling, singing, and ready with easy laughter.
The recipes have the more “exotic” flavor many people expect (mistakenly) of all Sephardic cuisines. Rivka Cohen’s parents left their native Istanbul for Brussels in the 1920’s, bringing family recipes bathed in the warm spices – saffron, turmeric, sweet paprika, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove – that give golden tones and gentle heat to savory dishes. Nuts and dried fruits add texture and sweetness to others. These are flavors of the ancient spice routes; they recall al-Andalus as much as Istanbul.
The soup-to-nuts collection includes close to 300 recipes (including nearly four dozen just for holidays) for the entire range of foods you’d find in a traditional Ottoman Sephardic home. It is also filled with delightful line drawings, Ladino proverbs and song lyrics, and memoirs that are brief, anecdotal, and lighthearted, in keeping with the book’s title. Alas, there is no English language edition. Find it here. *Note: Apparently this book is no longer in print, so it’s become hard to find at a realistic price, which is a real shame. I’ll keep looking, and you should, too!
A Pied Noir Cookbook: French Sephardic Cuisine from Algeria
by Chantal Clabrough
Cuisine: Algerian and French Sephardic
Growing up in Montreal Chantal Clabrough knew no other Algerian Jews, so her sense of cultural identity was limited to her immediate family experience. Coincidence and curiosity led her to investigate and produce this award-winning book of recipes, a short history of the vanished Sephardic communities of Algeria, and homage to her own family.
Eating from this book is a simultaneous visit to North Africa, Sepharad, and France. Many of the savory dishes are cooked with bold spices – paprika, saffron, turmeric, cayenne, cumin and caraway – adding a depth that makes my mouth water. But heat is a sidekick in this cuisine, not the star, so it is used with a light hand, except in a few sauces and condiments. Beef may be simmered with spinach, paprika and chickpeas, with onions and turmeric, or saffron and capers; chicken may be cooked with green olives and lemon, in red wine with mushrooms, or, for simple comfort, with carrots and rice. Whole fish is baked with cumin and fresh cilantro. These are not timid flavors, but you can turn the heat down, or up, to suit your taste.
There are several recipes for couscous, and sweet North African treats like date fritters and almond-filled ‘cigars’. French touches are mellow, comprised mostly of vegetable gratins, savory tarts and quiche (spinach, of course), and some of the baked desserts, all of which you’re encouraged to wash down with homemade mint tea.
French and Arabic recipe names may throw a person used to Ladino, but look to the recipes themselves and find the familiar: one-pot meals of meat and legumes, filled savory pastries, piquant vegetables. For dessert, an aunt’s orange marmalade, a feather-light almond flour cake, almendrados, bimuelos, meringues, crumbly courabié… they’re all there, scented with orange flower water, anise, vanilla.
It’s always fascinating to see how recipes shared by all Jews in medieval Spain evolved differently from one continent to the next while clinging so clearly to their common roots. In Clabrough’s home, méguena celebrates the pleasure of eating ground beef pie, outlawed under the Spanish Inquisition, by dispensing altogether with the matza crust of mina, its Turkish cousin from Sepharad. This is one to serve any time, not just at Passover.
This is a modestly-sized but well-rounded, satisfying collection for the home cook, a nice introduction to a little-known style of Sephardic cuisine and to the history of the Algerian Sephardim. Instructions are clear, concise, and easy to follow. A word of caution if you observe kashruth: a handful of recipes in this book are either not kosher for Passover or not kosher at all, but can easily be adapted. Find it here.
The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews
by Edda Servi Machlin
Cuisine: Judeo Italian, some Sephardic
Edda Servi Machlin’s now classic book has become an important reference as much for its recollections of Jewish life and customs in her native Pitigliano, Tuscany, where her father was rabbi to the Jewish community, as for its excellent classic recipes. She writes about both with authority, care, and loving pride.
Ottoman Sephardic and Italian Jewish cuisines have such an old and close kinship, I feel very much at home with Mrs. Machlin’s food. Her recipes transport me with great nostalgia to friends’ homes in Italy, even as many of them could have been lifted straight from my great grandmother’s kitchen in Rhodes, or my mother’s in New York. There are many centuries of shared experience between Spanish and Italian Jews, and our cuisines bear witness to that history.
This cuisine relies more on herbs than on spices for flavoring. Parsley, sage, fennel, basil and rosemary dominate. Nutmeg and cinnamon are used rarely and sparingly. Occasional piquant notes may come from lemons, vinegar, capers, wine, anchovy, and a light hand with garlic. There’s a full complement of antipasti and egg dishes, soups, pastas, risottos, polentas, flat breads, and borekas – spinach, of course, with a nod to their Spanish origins. Desserts are mostly baked, and nearly all are recognizable Jewish traditions shared throughout the Mediterranean: made of nut flours or meringues, seasoned with cinnamon, oranges, anise, brandy.
Among the most impressive dishes are hamins and a spectacular, elaborate couscous that Mrs. Machlin calls “the very symbol of Italian-Jewish cuisine,” even while noting its importation by North African Jewish settlers. The collection is a joy for vegetarians, too, especially lovers of artichoke, spinach, celery, squashes, legumes, and eggplant. Well over half the more than 200 recipes are vegetarian, and others are easily adapted.
When I’m hungry for my soul food, and there’s no feta or kashkaval in the house but plenty of parmigiano, I find this an ideal book for inspiration. Find it here.
Edda Servi Machlin has also written these other titles:
The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews II
The Classic Dolci of the Italian Jews, a World of Jewish Desserts
Classic Italian Jewish Cooking: Traditional Recipes and Menus
Dulce lo vivas – la reposteria sefardí
by Ana Bensadón
Cuisine: Moroccan Sephardic patisserie & desserts
A substantial collection of primarily Moroccan Sephardic pastry and dessert recipes, traditional and modern. I discovered this book when I’d barely arrived in Barcelona, and soon afterwards I had the pleasure of joining Mrs. Bensadón to taste cakes from the book that she herself had made. They were as light, refined, and delicious as they were beautiful.
Ana Bensadón is a respected master of patisserie, and her artistry extends to the visuals, as well; she turns out intimidatingly beautiful confections. The book’s few photographs are gorgeous and inspiring, motivating the baker to reach for Mrs. Bensadón’s level of perfectionism. And why not!
In describing her childhood experiences and the Franco-Moroccan influences on the Sephardic cuisine of her native Tangiers, she has kept her personal story to a minimum, preferring to focus on the recipes, a selection of her own plus many others gathered from family and friends in Spain and around the globe, and refined through the author’s patient reworking. With around 170 recipes of all variety – baked, lightly fried, boiled, syrupy, creamy, crumbly, crunchy- there is something for all tastes, holidays, special occasions, and the sweeter moments of daily life. Find it here.