Simchat Torah is the celebration of the never-ending circle of Torah. One wonderful way to celebrate is by baking cookies in the shapes of the first word in the Torah.
Simchat Torah services begin at sunset. The last chapter of Deuteronomy is read, followed by the first chapter of Genesis. This is the only time of the year that the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark at night.
The first phrase in Genesis is “In the beginning.” In Hebrew, this is written in one word, “Bereishit.”
The whole family can have fun mixing sugar cookie dough, rolling it out, and cutting out the shapes of the Hebrew letters. You may use Alef-Bet cookie cutters, or a knife. A fun tactile activity is to sculpt the letters with the dough. This is much less fussy than rolling and cutting it.
Refrigerated sugar cookie dough is perfect for this if you are pressed for time. Alternatively, if you are too busy to bake, you may purchase some Alef Bet cookies. If you like, you may decorate your cookies with icing and colorful sugar sprinkles. As you bite into each sweet letter, you will be reminded of the sweetness of learning Torah.
Photo by Manidipa Mandal https://www.flickr.com/photos/rodosee/
Romania is blessed with rich earth and hot summers. When Sukkot is celebrated in the fall, the Romanian larder is rich with the summer harvest. Romanian Jews make use of this plenty when they prepare two famous specialties to enjoy in the sukkah: guvetch and mamaliga.
Guvetch is a vegetable stew, reminiscent of the French ratatouille. Sometimes, more than 20 different vegetables are used in its preparation. This recipe goes back to ancient times, when the Romans controlled the area that is now Romania.
Traditionally, clay pots are used, giving the stew a distinctive flavor. Guvetch is not heavily spiced, allowing the natural flavors of the vegetables to dominate.
Photo by By E4024 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Slice the eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Allow to rest for 30 minutes.
Rinse the eggplant, and pat dry.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pan.
Sauté the eggplant until golden-brown. Set aside.
Sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Set aside.
Oil a casserole dish, preferably clay.
Cover the base of the casserole dish with eggplant.
Layer the peppers, zucchini, okra, carrots, and green beans on top of the eggplant.
Spread the sautéed onions and garlic over the mixture.
Top with tomato slices and parsley.
Pour the vegetable broth into the casserole.
Season with salt, pepper, and sugar to taste.
Bake uncovered for 2 hours.
The traditional accompaniment to guvetch is a type of Romanian polenta called mamaliga. This dish also originates from Roman cuisine. The Romans subsisted on millet gruels, which were cheaper than bread.
In the mid-1600s, Venetian merchants imported maize, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes from the New World. The Ottomans introduced these new plants to their empire. The Romanian climate was beneficial, allowing these tropical vegetables to thrive in their new home. Corn quickly replaced millet as the grain of choice for mamaliga.
Customarily, mamaliga is served by slicing pieces with a thin wire. Consisting of only three ingredients, mamaliga is very easy and inexpensive to prepare.
Palma de Mallorca Photo by Andreas Schauer-Villanueva.
Who serves a cake whose name means “lard” on Rosh Hashanah? The secret Jews of Mallorca have been surreptitiously celebrating with such a cake since 1492. Their signature confection is called ensaïmada. The word saïm, derived from the Arabic shahim (fat), means “lard” in Catalan.
In 1492 Spain’s Catholic monarchs, Isabelle and Ferdinand, issued the Alhambra Decree, which required Jews to convert or leave Spain. Some Jews converted for the outside world, while continuing to practice Judaism in secret. One strategy these “New Christians” employed to prevent detection was to consume pork in public. What better way was there to disguise their beloved Jewish pastry then to name it “lard”? Jews had brought this sweet to Spain long before the expulsion.
The Jews came to the Balearic Islands, an archipelago in the Western Mediterranean Sea, more than 1,000 years ago. They imported the tradition of baking sweet coiled yeast cakes from the Middle East. The round shape of the cakes symbolized the circle of life. These confections were called bulemas.
Mallorca was under Muslim rule between 711 and 1229. A legend in Mallorca says that a Jewish baker offered one of these cakes to King Jaume I of Aragon when he conquered the island in 1229. Traditionally, bulemas were prepared with sheep’s milk butter. After 1492, the butter was replaced with lard, and the bulema was renamed ensaïmada.
Ensaïmadas are traditionally served at Carnival, baked with pork and crystallized squash. Most intriguingly, the oldest cookbooks from Mallorca from the 14th century have a recipe forensaïmadas in which the lard is substituted with extra-virgin olive oil. They are fried and drizzled with orange blossom honey. These ensaïmadas are served during the celebration of Tots Sants, All Saints Day, on November 1. As the Jewish lunar calendar does not have a fixed date for Rosh Hashanah, this date is a close approximation, giving Mallorca’s secret Jews a perfect cover.
In 2011, the descendants of Mallorca’s crypto-Jews were recognized as Jewish by Israel’s Beit Din Tzedek (rabbinic court) of Bnei Brak. The ensaïmada is symbolic of their steadfastness in maintaining their faith and identity.
Ensaïmadas are prepared with sweet yeast dough, which rises for 24 hours. The dough is rolled into a rope, and coiled like a turban. The ensaïmadas are baked, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar. For Rosh Hashanah, try the recipe from the 14th century that omits the pork, and uses olive oil and honey instead.
When the Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel in 1984, they brought with them a spice mixture called berbere. Like curry, berbere is a combination of spices that gives Ethiopian cuisine its distinctive flavor. These flavors are one of the newest additions to the fusion that is modern Israeli cuisine, especially for shabbat dinner.
Although modern Ethiopia is a landlocked country, it has a long history of spice trading. In the 5th Century BCE, the Kingdom of Axum included modern Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, northern Sudan, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia. Square-rigged trading ships departed Axum via the Red Sea. Unlike the Roman vessels, they did not follow the longer, slower coastal trade route. The Axumites knew how to harness the Monsoon winds, opening up a sea route from Africa to India via the Arabian Sea. This journey took only fourteen days! The sea route to India enabled them to reach the Silk Road, giving them access to goods from China. Cinnamon, black pepper, clove, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cassia, and turmeric were some of the spices brought back by the Axumite galleys.As these spices made their way to the Axumite open-air markets, local cooks were intrigued, and sprinkled them into the food. By experimenting with what was at hand, each family came up with its own individual signature spice mix. These recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter, and the recipe is a family secret. The essential ingredients of berbere are fenugreek and hot red pepper. Other spices that are commonly mixed in are allspice, salt, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and black pepper. In modern Ethiopia, families traditionally make their own spice mixture. Some families prepare a dry spice mix, toasting several spices together in a heavy pot over a fire. These spices are then ground with a mortar and pestle, and are ready to flavor the food. Other families prefer to prepare a wet spice mix, or a paste, combining the toasted spices with oil or water when grinding them with the mortar and pestle. The berbere mix is different in each region of Ethiopia. I have adapted a recipe for berbere from The Congo Cookbook. The Congo Cookbook is a collection of recipes from Africa compiled by epicurean Peace Corps volunteer Ed Gibbon. The recipes posted “are not new, unless they are new to you.
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 to 6 tablespoons of a combination of ground cayenne pepper (red pepper, dried chile peppers, or red pepper flakes) and paprika
1 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon garlic powder
It is traditional to begin with the whole spice, such as the allspice berries and cinnamon bark. Dry roasting the spice releases its essential oils, maximizing its aroma and flavor. To make a dry berbere mixture, take a cast iron skillet and warm it over medium heat. Place the spices in the skillet and toast them, stirring continuously. After about two minutes for whole spices, and a few seconds for powdered spices, place the spices in a bowl and leave them to cool down. When they are no longer hot, grind them together in a food processor or a mortar and pestle. To make a wet berbere mixture, substitute the powdered ginger for fresh, grated ginger. Add 2 tablespoons of minced onions or shallots, and substitute the dry garlic powder for fresh, finely chopped garlic. Add ¼ cup of vegetable oil or water to the food processor when grinding the spices. The berbere will retain its flavor if it is stored in an airtight container, in a cool dark place. The wet berbere should be stored in the refrigerator.Berbere is the foundation of the wots or thick stews served in Ethiopia. A special technique is used to cook them. First, red onions are chopped and stirred in a hot, dry skillet until most of their moisture has evaporated. Then fat, (usually clarified spiced butter called niter kibbeh) is added. The onions continue to be cooked in the fat with added spices before any other ingredients are added. By sautéing the onions in this way, they are dehydrated. When the other ingredients are added, the onions serve as a thickener for the wot.
Doro Wot is the national dish of Ethiopia. It is a stew prepared with chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and berbere. Ethiopian Jews serve Doro Wot for Shabbat dinner. Below is a recipe for Doro Wot adapted from Ethio-Israel — a kosher Ethiopian restaurant in Jerusalem.
Doro Wot: Chicken Stew With Berbere
4 tbsp. olive oil
2 large red onions
4 garlic cloves
Salt to taste
1 1/2 tbsp. berbere
3 lbs. chicken drumsticks
2 cups of water
4 hard-boiled eggs
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over low heat. Chop the onions and add them to the pot. Stir the onions until they become golden brown. Mince the garlic and add to the pot. Add the salt and berbere, stirring well. Stir in the chicken. Add 2 cups of water and turn the heat up until the pot boils. Then lower the heat, allowing the chicken to simmer for about 40 minutes. Check the seasoning and if necessary add salt or berbere to taste. Add the boiled eggs, and allow to heat through.
Doro Wot is traditionally served with injera, a sourdough crepe made from teff. Teff is a type of grass native to Ethiopia. The grain it produces is gluten free and rich in iron, fiber, protein, and calcium. To prepare injera, you have to mix teff flour with water and allow the mixture to ferment for about three days. It becomes a type of sourdough starter. This dough is then baked into a crepe over a wood-fired clay oven. See this video of injera being prepared in Ethiopia.
Injera: Ethiopian Crepe
Mix 1 1/2 cups ofteff flour with 2 cups of water. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature for three days. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over low heat. Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet. When little holes appear on the surface of the pancake, remove it from the skillet onto a platter. Do not cook the injera on both sides! The injera is supposed to have a slightly sour taste due the fermenting process.
The way to present the Doro Wot is to place one injera crepe on a large, round platter. Then, spoon the Doro Wot onto the injera, artfully arranging the chicken, eggs, and sauce. This platter is placed at the center of the table. Additional injera is served on the side, usually beautifully folded like a napkin. The injera is the plate, the utensils, and the bread! Everyone helps themselves from the communal platter. The way to enjoy Doro Wot is to rip off a piece of injera, scoop up some wotwith it, and eat. The injera lining the platter soaks up the gravy. As you eat it, you will experience layers of flavors and textures. The slight acidity of the injera will be the perfect counterpoint to the flavors of the berbere.
I wanted to know where to buy berbere spice mixture in Philadelphia, so I headed over to Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant. This is where many members of Philadelphia’s expatriate Ethiopian community gather to watch Amharic television, drink Ethiopian beer, and talk. Among them, I have met members of Philadelphia’s minute Ethiopian Jewish community. One young man shyly spoke Hebrew to me. Another gentleman, whom everyone addressed as “Doctor” left Gondar as a child. His family walked to Sudan, and was then airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984. He has two brothers in Haifa, who “have become really religious and wear kippas!” When I asked him where he gets his berbere, he said, “you should go to Mohamed’s Halal Center,” on 4525 Walnut Street. Mohamed is from Tigray, in Northern Ethiopia. Jewish and Muslim Ethiopians had a history of peaceful coexistence here. My daughter and I wandered around his store discussing the products in Hebrew. He welcomed us warmly, asked us what language we were speaking, and then showed us that all his products are Halal, Kosher, or both. He sells berbere that is imported from Ethiopia. You have to ask for it, because he keeps it behind the counter. I prefer this imported berbere, because to me it has an authenticity that is very difficult to duplicate. Mohamed’s imported seasoning includes ground korarima seeds, from the ginger family, and long pepper or pippali, a hot pepper from Indonesia. This is the right place to avoid all the work involved in cooking your own injera. Mohamed prepares fresh injera every day right at his store. Most of Philadelphia’s Ethiopian expatriates purchase their injera ready-made from Mohamed rather than making their own. They just warm it up in the microwave right before serving.
Follow these links to purchase ingredients online:
For a special shabbat dinner, treat yourself to berbere-spiced Doro Wot with injera. If you would rather experience an Ethiopian dinner in a restaurant, you live in the right place. Philadelphia has one of the bigger Ethiopian expatriate communities in the U.S. There are many good restaurants to choose from. Our “little Ethiopia” is in West Philadelphia. My favorite is Abyssinia Restaurant. Other Ethiopian restaurants in the neighborhood are Dahlak Restaurant, Queen of Sheba Restaurant, and Ethio Café and Restaurant. For something different, yet exotically Jewish, try berbere!
In 1948 Jews around the world celebrated the United Nations vote to establish an independent Jewish state. Jews would have the right for self determination the first time since Shimon bar Kokhba ruled over Judea in 132 CE. In Jerusalem, special sweets were prepared and shared to mark the occasion.
Malka Cohen Giat was one of those celebrants. She prepared sweet fillo pastries filled with the Turkish delight lokum. This pastry reflects the 400 years of Ottoman influence over Jerusalem.
Adapted from Gizar Kon Gozo by Matilda Koen-Sarano.
Every year, like many in Israel, Jerusalem’s veteran Jewish families gather for a nature outing to celebrate Independence Day. A part of a special tradition, they forage for wild mallow with which they later cook a simple green soup, reminiscent of the staple that sustained them during the siege of the city in 1948. Please continue reading in The Times of Israel.
When the Israelites left Egypt more than 3,300 years ago, they were in a bit of a hurry and didn’t wait around for their bread to rise. Observant Jews still commemorate their exodus by skipping the leavening, and during the eight days of Passover, regular flour is not used in food preparation for fear that it may have come into contact with water, thereby activating the rising process. I see baking without flour made from grain as an opportunity for creativity. In that spirit, here are two historic Jewish recipes and a modern Israeli one that comply with the special rules of Passover.
One of the oldest recipes for nut flour cakes comes from the Piedmont region in Italy. Italy boasts the longest continuously residing Jewish community in the world. The first Jews arrived in the 2nd Century BCE. Italian Jews adopted local ingredients to prepare dishes for their holidays. Here is a traditional hazelnut cake recipe that is perfect for Passover.
Mix the butter, sugar, egg yolks, salt, and ground hazelnuts.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
Fold the egg whites into the hazelnut mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.
Bake for 40 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool completely before inverting it onto a serving platter.
Judeo-Spanish recipes have been preserved in the communities of North Africa and the former Ottoman Empire since the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Here is a wonderful Passover cake that is still baked by Turkish Jews, which traces its origins to Spain.
Judeo-Spanish Almond-Orange Cake
Adapted from The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden
1 1/2 cup ground almonds
2 navel oranges
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tbls. orange blossom water
For the orange puree:
Place the oranges in a pot.
Cover the oranges with water.
Bring to a boil.
Lower the flame, and simmer for 2 hours.
Drain and allow the oranges to cool.
Cut oranges in half, remove and discard seeds and puree in a food processor.
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the orange puree and all the other ingredients in a large bowl.
Pour the batter into an oiled 9-inch cake pan.
Bake for 60 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool completely.
Turn the cake out onto a serving platter.
Israeli food has been influenced by Jewish communities from around the world. This delectable chocolate cake was inspired by the pastry chefs of central Europe. The first time it was baked in Israel was in a kibbutz kitchen for the collective Passover Seder.
Israeli Passover Chocolate Roll
Adapted from Bel Alfandari
For the cake:
6 eggs, separated
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tbls. Dutch cocoa
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler.
Beat egg yolks with 1/3 cup sugar and the salt.
Mix in the melted chocolate.
In a separate bowl, whip egg whites with the remaining sugar.
When the egg whites are stiff, fold into the chocolate mixture.
Oil a cookie sheet and cover with parchment paper.
Spread the batter evenly over the cookie sheet.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven, and cover cake with two clean, damp kitchen towels.
After 5 minutes, remove the towels and cut around the edges of the cake with a sharp knife.
Invert the cake over a new piece of parchment paper.
Remove the parchment paper that the cake was baked on. Sprinkle one tablespoon of cocoa over the cake.
Roll the cake with the parchment in place.
Allow to cool completely.
For the filling:
1 cup heavy cream
3 tbls. vanilla sugar
Whip the cream with the vanilla sugar.
Unroll the cake, unpeeling the parchment as you go.
Spread the whipped cream evenly over the cake.
Roll it up like a jelly roll and carefully place on a serving platter.
Garnish with more whipped cream, strawberries and chocolate shavings.
If you are intimidated by the idea of making a rolled cake, you can just bake the batter in a 9½ inch pan for 35 minutes. After the cake has cooled completely, top it with the whipped cream, strawberries and chocolate shavings.
Why do we always have to serve fish for Passover? I get this question every year from the non-pescatarian participants in our Seder. They clearly do not share my childhood memories of preparing for the holiday of matzahs.
When I was a kid, purchasing and preparing the fish was an unforgettable experience. Serving fish during the Seder is a tradition that goes back to the Talmudic Era (70 BCE). At that time, fish was an affordable specialty that would elevate any celebration. No Passover or Shabbat table was considered complete without it.
My grandmother Devorah kept the traditions of her native Poland her whole life. Even though she had a perfectly good refrigerator in her kitchen in Israel, we would purchase a live carp on the day before the Seder. When we brought the fish home, our bathtub would be half filled with water. The carp was allowed to swim there, while the children played with it. Due to Israel’s water shortages, the fish was the only one who was ever allowed to take a bath! The rest of us very conscientiously showered, using the minimum amount of water necessary.
When the time came, my father would take his heaviest wrench, and slam the fish on the head, killing it with one blow. Then, he would slice it open, and remove its intestines and organs. He would fillet the fish, extricating the delicate flesh from the spine and skin. Carps have lots of tiny bones, so getting them all out was a lot of work. After rinsing the fish, he would hand-grind it. Now it was good enough for savta Devorah’s gefilte fish!
Despite all the jokes about gefilte fish, I have to admit that I loved hers. She mixed the freshly ground fish with chopped almonds, eggs, matzah meal, salt, black pepper and just a touch of sugar. She prepared a broth with fish heads she had purchased from the fishmonger, carrots and onions. The fish balls were poached in this broth. When they were ready, the delicate patties were removed from the broth with a slotted spoon. My savta would arrange them on a serving platter, decorating each with a carrot medallion from the pot. The broth was strained into a glass jar, and both the fish and the broth were refrigerated until the next day. After all the symbolic foods of the Seder were eaten, Shulchan Orech or “the festive meal” was announced. The first course to be served was the gefilte fish.
Savta Devorah’s gefilte fish would have been very familiar to the Jewish housewives of New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century. Because the bulk of Jewish immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe, American Jews immediately associate Passover with gefilte fish.
Ashkenazi Jews do not have a monopoly over the consumption of fish during the Seder. This Passover, you can be adventurous by trying fish recipes from different Jewish communities around the world.
For something exotic, you may experiment with the flavors of the Jewish community of Bombay. Merchant traders from Baghdad founded this community about 250 years ago. They adopted the foods of India, and added influences from Arabia, Turkey, and Persia. Here is a recipe for sardina, a fish served cold for Shabbat and Passover. You may prepare it a day or two in advance, and keep it ready to serve in the refrigerator.
Adapted from “Indian-Jewish Cooking” by Mavis Hyman.
Sprinkle some curry powder and salt over the fish fillets.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan.
Fry the fish on both sides until it flakes easily.
Place the fish in a large bowl, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Flake the fish with a fork.
Mix in the mangoes, scallions, tamarind concentrate, and chili pepper.
Adjust the seasoning.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Serve cold, garnished with cashew nuts.
One of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world is in Georgia, in the Caucasus. The Jews fled to Georgia during the Babylonian Exile, in the sixth Century BCE. Georgia is blessed with a mild climate and rich soil. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts grow abundantly, and are featured in Georgian cuisine. One of the most popular ways of preparing fish in Georgia is with a rich walnut sauce. It is served cold, garnished with pomegranate seeds.
In the 14th Century, Catalonia was the home of one of the most cultured Jewish communities in the world. It is here that some of the most famous illuminated haggadahs were commissioned. However, when in 1492, the Catholic monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree, Jews were officially expelled from the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and the Jews there had two choices: either convert to Catholicism, or flee.