There is a charming Rosh Hashanah tradition in Israel: Family members and friends send baskets of sweet goodies to each other, with wishes for a happy new year. One of the most ubiquitous Rosh Hashanah treats is a round cookie, flavored with honey and spices. It is called a duvshanit («small honeyed cookie»), and no gift basket is complete without it.
The Ancient Egyptians were the first known bakers of duvshaniot. They prepared honey and ginger cookies for ceremonial use. In the 11th century, the crusaders brought ginger from the Middle East to Europe. The ginger was transported encased with honey and spices, so it would not get spoiled.
Initially, only the very wealthy were able to experiment with ginger in their kitchens. Gregory of Nicopolis, an Armenian monk, brought the recipe for honey-ginger cookies to the French monasteries. In French, these cookies were called pain d’épices (spice bread). At first, these biscuits were considered medicinal, and sold as digestives in medieval pharmacies.
In the 18th Century, the cost of importing ginger decreased, making it more widely accessible. Honey-ginger cookies became traditional at the Christmas markets all over Europe, where they were called «gingerbread.»
In my family, we had never baked our own duvshaniot until this year. My mother insisted on buying the ones that she considered to be the best. They were imported from a German monastery, and called lebkuchen. This year, I decided to bake my own duvshaniot. I found a recipe in an Israeli baking blog called The Hopping Rolling Pin.
«The Gingerbread Baker» by Hans Buel, 1520.
- 3 cups unbleached flour
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- Powdered sugar
- Mix all ingredients, except for the powdered sugar, in a bowl.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
- Sprinkle some powdered sugar on a plate.
- Retrieve the cookie dough from the refrigerator. Pinch a walnut sized piece of dough, and roll it between your palms to make a ball.
- Roll the dough ball around in the powdered sugar, and place on the parchment paper. Make sure to space your cookies, as they will expand during baking.
- When all the cookies have been formed, bake them for about 11 minutes.
Originally published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice