For a Sweeter Passover, Old and New Sephardic Delights
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.”