In the foreground, a plate of pistachio and lemon masapan. Photo © Janet Amateau.
MASAPÁN (“mä-sä-PÄN) – To most people outside of Spain this is marzipan, but the similarity ends there. Traditional Sephardic masapán is made from fresh, ground almonds (or a mixture of almonds plus other Mediterranean nuts), sugar and water, and may be scented with a few drops of rose water. It is delicate in flavor, texture and color – neither gummy nor icky-sweet, and tinted only with the hues of its natural ingredients: creamy ivory from blanched almonds, delicate brown from hazelnuts, soft green from pistachios, pale yellow from lemons.
Masapán is a compound word formed from “masa” (dough) and “pan” (bread). The recipe contains no grain flour, however, for which it is presumed to have originated as a Passover confection. Whether or not invented for that specific holiday, it is Jewish in origin and identified as such in documents from the Spanish Inquisition.
Masapán is still a prized confection in modern Spain, where it is a specialty of Toledo (a city of major importance in Sephardic history) and of various orders of nuns.
I moved to Spain in 2005 to do Sephardic culinary research at the oldest source: Sepharad. Spain. I am half Sephardic and grew up in a New York suburb eating ridiculously delicious food, Spanish-Jewish food, in the style of the Island of Rhodes. I’ll get to that eventually – and often – but for now back to what brought me to Spain.
When I began teaching Sephardic cooking my own repertoire was limited, and in trying to learn more I read whatever “Sephardic” cookbooks I could find. The more I read, the angrier I got. Typically, the books I found in English – those most readily available – were not written by Sephardim, and they were just plain bad on several levels: either not particularly good recipes; or recipes so adulterated as to no longer be Sephardic; or filled with outrageously inaccurate information about Sephardic history, culture, language. Like the notion that we’re all dead and gone – tell that to all my relatives. Too much “authoritative” information based on heresay or on very, very lazy research, about my soul food, my heritage, and Spain‘s and the world’s. So I started a website. And then, inevitably, I moved to Spain and started digging, and without even trying very hard I found a goldmine of information. It’s all here if you know what to look for and how to ask (and who to ignore).
Last year I opened a restaurant up the coast from Barcelona, so my free time has dwindled down to, uh, none at all. No more traveling for now, little time to write and less time to maintain the website, which I haven’t updated in eons (and am taking offline). But I do want to share what I know about our food – why its made a certain way, or why it’s called by a certain name, where this dish or that comes from, how it survives in the mainstream Spanish culinary repertoire. And my ongoing discoveries. All of this matters, not just to me personally, or to the Sephardic community in general, but for the sake of historical accuracy.
As does how to prepare it so well it’ll knock your socks off. Of course I’ll get to that.