When it’s cold, gray and pouring rain outdoors, it’s a treat to be indoors pouring over a cookbook full of warm inspiration from sunnier places. Lately I’ve been doing just that in a tiny rural town in Galicia, where I’ve been on an extended visit since last summer, wrestling my ancestors and reacclimating, after fifteen years in the Mediterranean, to an Atlantic climate. Sunny Portugal may be a stone’s throw from my doorstep, but winter here has felt more like the Orkneys (right now it feels like Siberia) – minus a crackling fire, or good scotch, to keep me warm.
For that, I’ve got Jennifer Abadi’s new cookbook, Too Good to Passover: Sephardic & Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and so far, it’s doing a fine job.
A good idea is only as good as your ability to get it done, so I was pleased to see this book finished at last after nine years in the making. At more than 670 pages, it was a huge undertaking, and worth the long wait. Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen, was relentless in her pursuit of Passover memoirs, family traditions, and recipes from communities of the non-Ashkenazic world – many of them not often heard from, or even about, or now only extant in exile. What began as a simple inquiry into different Passover traditions (Abadi’s original idea was to build a framework for recipes she teaches in her cooking classes), became a commitment to honor the communities and families that shaped them.
Last weekend I went to see the Medieval Haggadah exhibition that’s just opened at the Barcelona History Museum. For the first time since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, eight illuminated Haggadot produced in Catalunya in the 14th & 15th centuries are in their country of origin, after having been smuggled out hundreds of years ago to save them from destruction.
I was hoping one or two of them might be opened to illustrations of a Medieval Catalan Seder table (like the illustration to the right), and that among the foods represented I might spot a mina. It wasn’t an unrealistic expectation. Mina is a meat pie that’s unique to Spanish Jews, essential to our Passover meal, and as significant for us as any ritual element of the Seder. But the why of its importance has been a huge mystery for generations. I grew up without ever hearing any explanation for its presence on the table, only that it must (!) be there. And no wonder: it took me years to unravel the mystery myself, and I had to move to Spain to finally get to the bottom of it. Today I begin to explain it all for you. If pies could talk… Continue reading
Today a ramble about a great cook and some cakes.
Of all the great cooks in my family, my grandfather’s sister Rachel (ra-SHEL) was the one who blew everyone else out of the water. Like a molecular chef without the gimmickry, Αunt Rachel knew how to turn everyday ingredients on their heads. Her flavors were huge and delicate at the same time, and textures light as a feather, yet so satisfying, you never felt underfed for eating so ethereally. I remember a salad dressing of hers that seemed to hover above the lettuce leaves. (For real). There was something rare and astonishing about her hand. Among those who knew her, the pleasures of Aunt Rachel’s cooking were legendary, and invitations to dine chez Tante Rachel were the stuff of envy.
Like so many great cooks of her generation, she took most of her culinary secrets to the grave, but there was one she recorded – one – and I was given a cherished copy.
The first time I set out to make Aunt Rachel’s Cake (which we’ve only ever called Aunt Rachel’s Cake), I was living in a tiny mountain village outside of Rome, where days were long, supplies were limited, and my kitchen gadgets consisted of a box grater, two flimsy wire whisks, and a mortar and pestle.
Mandela, Lazio. My cake was born in the tall bright house to the right of the cluster of trees. Photo mine, taken in 2005.
Aunt Rachel was gone several years already, and had retired from the kitchen long before that. (She lived to be 102). Continue reading
That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows the Pyramids were built by extraterrestrials…
Whatever your own theory about who built the pyramids or how, several hundred years ago my female ancestors chose to commemorate the monumental labor with a monumental Passover cookie: the mustachudo.
Hazelnut mustachudos (Sephardic spice pyramids)
Any Sephardi whose family came from Rhodes (and a few other places) has some kind of mustachudo recipe. Mustachudos are soft, chewy cookies made from ground nuts. They weren’t always shaped like these neat little pyramids. That’s my doing. Continue reading