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For a Sweeter Passover, Old and New Sephardic Delights


By Joan Nathan, The New York Times, March 28, 2007

ON the 500th anniversary of Spain’s expulsion of Jews, King Juan Carlos went to a synagogue in Madrid and said, in essence, mistakes were made, welcome back.

A little late, but Ana Benarroch de Bensadón appreciated it. She hadn’t felt very warmly welcomed in 1963 when she and her husband moved to Madrid from Tangiers, in Morocco, where their families had lived for centuries until the instability following Morocco’s independence forced them out.

But since the king’s pronouncement in 1992, she said, “We are applauded, and everyone is curious about our culture.”

That curiosity included a greater interest in Jewish food, one reason her book of Sephardic dessert recipes gathered over several decades has been so popular. “Dulce lo vivas: La Repostería Sefardí,” it is called, “May Your Life Be Sweet: The Sephardic Pastry Kitchen” (Ediciones Martínez Roca, 2006).

“Mrs. Bensadón carries with her the somehow forgotten recipes,” said the Spanish chef José Andrés, an owner of Café Atlántico and other highly regarded restaurants in Washington, and a fan of her work. “Many dishes didn’t belong only to one but to all — Jews, Christians and Muslims, who were living together in the important towns of Spain before the 15th century.”

An animated 63-year-old with short-cropped gray hair, Ms. Bensadón spoke over coffee at her daughter’s home in northern Miami, which she visits each year to help prepare the Passover seder.

She shifted into Spanish, French and Haketía (sometimes spelled Haquetía), a Sephardic dialect, as she searched for words to describe sweets like hojuelas (fijuelas) en almíbar, a flowerlike fritter dipped in honey, and tortitas cribadas, a savory lacelike cracker that I tasted recently at the home of one of Mrs. Bensadón’s friends in Tangiers.

These are recipes of home and of exile with deep roots in Jewish, Spanish and North African culture, some hundreds of years old and some contemporary.

No dish is as Spanish as a creamy flan. But hers is made with oranges, almonds and sugar, with no cream or condensed milk that would keep it from sharing a kosher table with meat dishes. Dishes like these were also cooked by Jews who stayed in Spain after the expulsion and pretended to convert to Christianity.

“To prove that they were like Christians, the Jews made flans, but used orange juice, sugar water and almonds so they could eat the flan with a meat meal,” she said.

Olive oil makes Mrs. Bensadón’s bittersweet chocolate mousse kosher for a meat meal.

“This is a contemporary dessert from Tangiers, a city with a blend of cultures,” she said. “Originally this recipe included butter and cream, but we replaced it with olive oil, making it ‘parve’ or neutral.”

Almendrados, which date from the 15th century or earlier, are cookies made of ground blanched almonds, lemon zest, egg and sugar. They are left out to dry for a day before baking. (In the recipe given here, I’ve called for 12 hours in the refrigerator.) I have tasted this type of cookie in many guises, and often the dough spreads out too thinly. But with Mrs. Bensadón’s method it kept its shape perfectly.

“We have found examples of these cookies from 1491,” said David M. Gitlitz, professor of Hispanic culture at the University of Rhode Island. After the expulsion, he said, a Jew who was passing as a Christian “was accused by the Inquisition of buying almond cookies from the Jewish quarter in Barbastri in Aragón.”

Mrs. Bensadón began gathering recipes at 17, when her mother died. “I realized then that I wanted my mother’s recipes,” she said. “But they weren’t written down.”

So she visited her grandmother and aunts and carefully transcribed the art of making sweets like letuarios, candied eggplants, squash and tomatoes that she describes in her book.

She gathered more recipes from the tight-knit Jewish community in Tangiers. She wrote to an in-law in Bulgaria, who sent back recipes written in Ladino, a language of Sephardic Jews. Then her search spread around the world to Jewish cooks in Colombia, Montreal, Venezuela and Israel who traced their roots to Spain.

Testing was hard, she said: “People sent recipes with instructions like ‘take butter the size of a real’ ” — a Spanish coin — “How can cooks outside of Spain measure a real of butter?” And since the real no longer exists, that’s hard also for cooks in Spain.

Still, there are pitfalls in the book. Mrs. Bensadón takes certain terms and techniques for granted, as when she says in her flan recipe to “make a caramel,” without saying how.

She called her work an act of history and nostalgia.

“My idea is to leave a legacy for the young women,” she said. “It is very important to maintain fidelity to our traditions and to transmit them to the new generation.”

Her daughter Deborah Singer, the mother of two small children, agrees.

“I love that my mother and father come,” Mrs. Singer said. “My kids are able to taste the foods I ate when I was small and my mother ate when she was small.”

Mrs. Bensadón is helping many Spaniards taste the foods of her youth too.

She recently appeared on Mr. Andrés’s television show in Spain, meeting him at a kosher bakery. She brought him a Sephardic beef and barley stew called horisa (orisa) and two tins of cookies — almendrados and reventones, made with almonds and walnuts.

“I love avant-garde cooking,” said Mr. Andrés, a practitioner of cutting-edge cuisine, “but Sephardic is one of the examples of cooking we need to know more about it.”

Orange-Almond Flan

Adapted from “Dulce lo Vivas,” by Ana Bensadón (Ediciones Martínez Roca)

3 cups granulated sugar
8 large egg yolks
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3/4 cup whole blanched almonds, finely ground, or 1 cup finely ground almonds.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water. Stir until completely dissolved. Place pan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until syrup begins to bubble. Stop stirring and allow pan to sit until syrup begins to turn golden at edges, brushing down any sugar crystals with a brush dipped in cold water. Occasionally rotate pan to mix syrup without stirring it, then replace over heat. Continue doing this until syrup is evenly golden brown. Pour caramel into an 8-inch round flan mold or cake pan, or 10 to 12 3-inch fluted molds, tilting to spread caramel evenly along bottom. Set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan, mix together remaining 2 cups sugar with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool until lukewarm.

3. Whisk together yolks and whole eggs until blended, then pour through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Add orange zest, orange juice and ground almonds. Whisk in sugar syrup. Pour into caramel-lined mold or molds, filling to just below rim. Cover mold or molds tightly with foil.

4. Place mold or molds into a larger pan. Pour enough hot water into large pan to reach halfway up side of flan mold. Bake until a knife inserted halfway into flan comes out clean, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on type of pan and oven used.

5. Allow flan to cool, then refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 2 hours. Just before serving, warm base of pan by dipping it briefly in a pan of hot water. Invert onto a plate, and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings with large mold; 10 to 12 with smaller molds.

Chocolate and Olive Oil Mousse

Adapted from "Dulce lo Vivas," by Ana Bensadón (Ediciones Martínez Roca)

11 ounces bittersweet (60 percent cacao) chocolate
8 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons kosher for Passover brandy.

1. In a double boiler, melt chocolate over low heat. Cool slightly. Beat egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar until light. Whisk in olive oil, brandy and melted chocolate.

2. Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, whisking until stiff but not dry.

3. Fold whites into chocolate mixture so that no white streaks remain. Spoon into an 8- or 10-cup serving bowl or divide among 8 or 10 dessert cups or glasses. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours before serving.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

Almond-Lemon Macaroons (Almendrados)

Adapted from "Dulce lo Vivas," by Ana Bensadón (Ediciones Martínez Roca)

2 cups whole blanched almonds, plus about 30 almonds for decoration
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon.

1. Using a food processor equipped with a metal blade, grind 2 cups almonds very finely. Add 3/4 cup sugar, the egg and lemon zest, and pulse to make a cohesive dough. Transfer to a medium bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick liner. Place remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl.

3. Pinching off pieces of dough about the size of a walnut, roll them first into balls, then into sugar. Gently press an almond point first into top of each cookie, so that half the almond can be seen. Arrange cookies one inch apart on baking sheet.

4. Bake until cookies have barest hint of color but still remain soft, 8 to 10 minutes. (Cookies must be soft when removed from oven to avoid excess hardening when they cool.) Cool completely, and store in an airtight container.

Yield: About 30 cookies.

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