Tag Archives: customs

In a Sephardic Kitchen, Tradition Is Where You Make It – and Keep It (Pandespanya)

Note (3/19/2010):  The original post begins with the note just below.  It’s centered around Rosh Hashana, but no less relevant at this time of year; I’ll add a post following this one about flour substitutions at Passover.

Note (9/26/2008):  A slightly longer version of this article was originally published in Barcelona in 2006.  For now, a sweet reminiscence and the best sponge cake recipe you will ever find, anywhere. Period.

Among the elements included in the meal at Rosh Hashana are fruits and syrups, to symbolize the hope for a sweet year ahead, and things round or coiled to symbolize the cycle of life. Autumn fruits – figs, quince, apples, dates, sweet grapes and sour plums may all make their way to the table in various guises to play these roles, joined inevitably by honey. In Ottoman-Sephardic tradition, fresh fruit is served alongside nut cakes and pastries soaked in syrup: pinyonate, travados, tishpitti, kadaif, baklava. These were all dishes my great-grandmothers made, and my grandmother, too, but that I grew up only hearing about and didn’t learn to make until well into adulthood. In our family, the dessert of choice has always been my mother’s sponge cake.

Food – really good food – is a key component of Sephardic family life. Preparing it, eating it, analyzing it, sharing techniques, improving how we make things, but sticking like glue to the traditional flavors which, in our case, come mostly from the Island of Rhodes. Before every holiday the women all start phoning and e-mailing to see who wants to make what. We plan menus, swap recipes, and from one year to the next may take turns at preparing every dish except one: the sponge cake. This is strictly my mother’s territory, and no celebration in our home is complete without it. No matter how many other desserts there may be on the table, no birthday, no holiday, no special occasion goes by without her superb and simple pandespanya with its roots, like ours, in Sepharad. It’s her signature dish, made with love, always there and always welcome, like another member of the family.

Mind you, Mom has been known to tinker with the recipe.  For my brother’s second birthday party, she iced the cake in chocolate and told the kids it was made from real sponges and covered in mud.  No one touched it except my brother, who knew better and got to eat a lot of cake.  At Passover she uses matza cake meal instead of regular flour, although one year when Passover coincided with my niece’s birthday, she begged grandma to make her a real sponge cake, not a “fake” Passover one. But Suzette is her own harshest critic, comparing each cake to the last one she made and making sure she doesn’t deviate too much from such a winning – and traditional – recipe. As a family we’re also very attuned to its nuances, but every time we eat one we all swear that it’s the best one she’s ever made, and in that moment it really is.

Circular, tall and golden, the inside is moist and yellow from egg yolks and fresh orange juice, with a delicate sweetness and seductive texture that render it addictive. Handled with care it can rise in the oven to six inches – impressive for a cake with no leavening. When we were very young children and my mother a very young (and fairly neurotic) housewife, each time she put a sponge cake in the oven we had to be quiet for an hour while it baked. “No slamming doors!” she would say. “Don’t make any loud, banging noises! Talk in a whisper!” as if even our voices might cause the fragile cake to collapse. My sister always figured Mom had just wanted an hour’s respite from three rambunctious kids, but when I reminded my mother not too long ago of her sponge cake baking routine, she said, “I did that?” and assured me she hadn’t been as clever as my sister assumed. Then she mused “Boy, was I a jerk,” and we had a good laugh.

My own first attempt at making Mom’s pandespanya was so disastrous I declared myself an incompetent baker and didn’t even try it again for another 28 years. That second attempt was only very recently, on the occasion of a big family reunion (what else?) in Los Angeles. Alas, disaster struck once more. It rose quickly, promptly collapsed and was seriously overdone after only 30 minutes. To my horror, my cousin served it anyway. When I returned home from L.A. I made one more attempt, still clouded by jetlag but determined more than ever to succeed. Which I did, and beautifully. I was so excited I called my mother in New York to give her the good news. “How many eggs did you use?” she asked. “Orange or lemon?” “How long did you keep it in the oven?” “Did it come out of the pan easily?” She was pleased, and so was I. At eighty years old she could finally breathe easy about passing the torch.

Every culture develops its traditions slowly, over time, and each family adds its own personal touch. I make the syrup and nut desserts now, and my niece is learning to make them also. Each is delicious and well worth repeating but, having skipped a generation in our family, we’re still rediscovering them. It’s too soon to think of them as “our” traditional Rosh Hashana sweets, even if they once were and will no doubt be again. But the sponge cake? Of Judeo-Spanish origin, imbued with its own sweet, cherished traditions and very much representing for us the cycle of life, Suzette’s sponge cake is equally at home on our Sephardic table at Rosh Hashana as it is on any other special day. And while I wait for the nuts and syrup to regain their place in our family’s gastronomic repetoire, I know that every time I make my mother’s sponge cake – for the rest of my life – I will be reminded of a lifetime’s worth of happy occasions shared with those I have loved the most.




Filed under Holidays (fiestas judias), Recipes

Introducing Sephardic Sweets

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. Continue reading


Filed under Holidays (fiestas judias)

More on Boyos: a revised conclusion / Mas Sobre Boyos

Your participation is not only encouraging but proving to be very, very helpful; it is our collective personal experience that leads me toward what I believe are the right conclusions for so many unanswered questions about Sephardic food. 

Recently, for example, I’ve been wondering why there are so many variations of boyos that, apart from the name ‘boyo’,  seem to bear no resemblance whatsoever to one another.   Why on Earth would cookies and biscuits  be categorized as buns (which is what ‘boyo’ means)?   I did draw one conclusion, based on how recipes evolve, which I included in the glossary (read that post here).  But that conclusion, for all its logic, didn’t quite satisfy me.  Thanks to your participation, I now know why:  The common denominator is one of technique.  Continue reading


Filed under Glossary

Who Made It First? Laying Claim To Traditional Foods

Throughout human history people have been crisscrossing the Mediterranean and leaving their influence all over the place. The longer you live here, the more the lines of distinction begin to blur. Never mind the empire builders, I’m talking about the most fundamental things that take hold and endure: language, food, genes. Pizza. Pitta. Pita. Round, flat, Mediterranean bread. As old as the hills. If you’re from Italy you put things on top of it and if you’re from Greece you put things inside it. But it’s basically the same thing. So, which came first? Surprise! Here’s a quote from Wikipedia about pita:

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary attributes it to the Hebrew פת (pat), for “loaf” or “morsel”. The word pita (as פיתא) exists in the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud, referring to bread in general.”

Aha! So, traditional handmade matza (matza, pizza), too, is round, not square. That’s news if you’ve only ever gotten your matza from the supermarket. Move over, Maneschewitz. There’s a fabulous book on Italian Jewish cooking and culture called The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin – well researched, authoritative and lovingly written – with photos of round, albeit oblong, Mediterranean matza the way they made it in Pitigliano for eons. But the Greeks get the credit for giving pita to the world and, in its modern, puffy, stuffable form (I get superb pita here), they probably did. Let’s face it – while the Jews were wandering around in circles trying to figure out how the heck to get out of the desert, the ancient Greeks were sailing back and forth all over the Med. Does it matter? If you’re Greek it does. And why shouldn’t it? It’s important. It’s bread.

Before my Greek products importer would work with me he wanted to make sure I was the real deal. Two Catalan sales reps (a father and son whose faces, by the way, were Greeker than Greek) came up to my restaurant and brought a bunch of samples for me to try, including a jar of rose petal jam. “Oh, wow,” I said, “my great-grandmother used to make this.” Their eyes popped in amazement, as if I had just broken their secret code. Later that day, when I got on the phone with the boss, he grilled me about what I’d be serving at the restaurant. When I mentioned dolmades, he took on this fiercely suspicious tone just to ask me “…with meat or rice?” I felt like I was on Dragnet. “Meat?”  I said, “That’s yaprak. That’s Turkish. Dolmades are Greek. They only have rice.” He was satisfied.

I thought he was kind of a jerk (which he is), but I understood his protectiveness. It’s his culture, he’s proud of it, and he doesn’t like to see it treated with casual disregard. Nor do I mine.

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Filed under History