Tu B’Shvat Almond Tart

One knows that Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees, has arrived when the almond trees begin to flower in Israel.

Photo credit: Foodie Baker

Photo credit: Foodie Baker

The beautiful pink and white blossoms signal that winter is over. The almonds themselves, however, will not be ready for harvest until the fall.

This year, Tu B’Shvat begins on February 3, at sundown. You may use almonds from last year’s crop to prepare a festive almond tart in honor of the holiday.

Almond Tart

Adapted from David Lebovitz

  • 1 frozen pie crust
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 1 cup ground almonds
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons Grand Marnier
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 7 tablespoons butter
  1.  Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  2. Place the frozen pie crust on a cookie sheet.
  3. Mix all the other ingredients, except for the sliced almonds, in a bowl.
  4. Pour the almond mixture into the pie crust.
  5. Sprinkle the sliced almonds on top of the filling.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes.

Sweet Phyllo Scrolls for Simchat Torah

— by Ronit Treatman

The holiday of Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings. The name of the holiday means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” The eve of Simchat Torah is only time of the year that the Torah is taken out at night in the synagogue and the penultimate Chapter is read (up to Deut. 33:26). The following morning, the last part of the Torah is read. In many synagogues each congregant is given an opportunity to be called to the Torah. We then immediately begin reading the first part of Genesis from another Torah scroll emphasizing that study of Torah never ends. These Torah readings are followed by the beginning of the book of Joshua showing the continuation of the narrative after the conclusion of the Torah.

Sweet foods that resemble a Torah scroll are a traditional part of the festivities. Phyllo scrolls filled with a sweet almond paste are edible stand-ins for Torah scrolls.

The delicious recipe follows the jump.
Sweet Almond Scrolls (Adapted from Israel Aharoni)

  • Frozen phyllo dough, defrosted
  • 14 ounces blanched almonds
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange or lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Olive oil
  • Honey
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. In a food processor, combine the blanched almonds, sugar, vanilla extract, and zest.  
  3. Unroll the phyllo dough onto a work surface.
  4. Brush the dough with olive oil.
  5. Cut the dough into 4-inch squares.
  6. Place 2 teaspoons of filling on each square of dough.
  7. Roll it up into a scroll.
  8. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
  9. Brush with olive oil.
  10. Bake for 30 minutes.
  11. Place on a serving dish, and drizzle with honey.

Glazed Almonds: a Love Potion for Tu B’Av

— by Ronit Treatman

From the depths of despair experienced on Tisha B’Av, we are elevated by the pursuit of love on Tu B’Av (July 22 this year). According to the Talmud (Ta’anit 30b), on the fifteenth day of Av, “the daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards,” and “whoever did not have a wife would go there,” to find a bride. Those maidens would wear white dresses, and dance under a full moon. If you were searching for your bashert, how could you ignite the passions of the person you desire? Maybe you could prepare a Biblical “love potion.”  

Since ancient times, almonds have been used as an aphrodisiac. Samson courted Delilah with fragrant almond blossoms. It is believed that their perfume arouses women’s passions. The omega-3 fatty acids in almonds boost the production of testosterone in men, enhancing their virility. Perhaps as a result of this, candy-coated almonds are traditional in many Jewish weddings. To entice your love interest, cook up a batch of glazed almonds.

Recipe after the jump.
Glazed Almonds

  • 1 cup raw almonds
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup rose or orange blossom water
  • 1/4 cup water
  1. Place the water, sugar, and rose/orange blossom water in a pan.
  2. Bring to a boil.
  3. Boil for about 15 minutes, to make the liquid into a syrup.  
  4. Heat a heavy skillet.
  5. Roast the almonds, stirring constantly.
  6. Pour in the syrup and mix it in to coat the almonds.  
  7. Place the glazed almonds on a piece of parchment paper and allow them to cool.  
  8. Break apart the almonds that are stuck together.

The old-fashioned way of presenting these roasted almonds is to place them in a small paper bag. If your love interest likes his or her snacks crunchy and sweet, with a hint of floral essence, this “love potion” may cast a spell on them.  

Sweet Almonds For Simchat Torah

— by Ronit Treatman

To me, Simchat Torah tastes like candied almonds.  This holiday, which means “rejoicing in the Torah,” is one of the most joyous celebrations in the Jewish tradition.  

This is the evening when we read the last page of the Torah, and then start all over again at the beginning. It is the only time of the year when the Torah is read at night in the synagogue, during evening services. My earliest memory of attending synagogue is of sitting on my father’s shoulders during the Simchat Torah service. We danced hakafot, or circuits, with the Torah around the synagogue seven times. The synagogue was filled by the voices of all the celebrants chanting traditional tunes. The Torahs were splendid in their velvet covers and silver crowns.  Why seven hakafot? Seven is a very symbolic number in Judaism. Very appropriately, it is the Divine number of completion.  

More after the jump.

When the hakafot are concluded, a portion of the last part of Deuteronomy (33:1-34:12) is read from the first Torah scroll. It is the tradition that Deuteronomy is never read until the end in the evening service. This is immediately followed by Genesis (1:1-2:3), recited from the second scroll. Thus continues the never ending cycle of reading Torah.

Why do I associate Simchat Torah with almonds?  Our neighbors always made them as a special treat.  Almonds originated in the Middle East.  The Book of Genesis 43:11 describes the almond as “among the best of fruits.”  In Numbers 17, almond flowers grow from the rod carried by Aaron.  It is said that sweet almonds grew on one side of this rod, and bitter almonds on the other.  If the Israelites were true to G-d, then the sweet almonds ripened.  If the Israelites strayed, the bitter almonds flourished.  It is customary among Sephardim to celebrate Simchat Torah with candied almonds.  These almonds are served to symbolize the sweetness (sugar) of learning Torah, which offsets the bitterness (almonds) that life may bring.  My Sephardic friends and neighbors always prepared candied or sugared almonds at home.  Here is the recipe.

Almendras Garrapiñadas (Candied Almonds)

  • 1 cup raw almonds
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  1. Place all the ingredients in a pan.
  2. Stir over medium heat until the water evaporates and the sugar crystallizes.  
  3. Turn off the heat, and continue stirring the almonds until they are completely coated with sugar crystals.

The blessing that is said over candied almonds is:

ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, בורא פרי העץ.‏

Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech haolam borei pri ha etz

Blessed are you G-d, our Lord king of the world who creates the fruit of the trees.

For Your Indian Cooking Adventure: International Foods & Spices

by Ronit Treatman

Where can you find tamarind, sour mango powder, and jaggery in Philadelphia?  I found out serendipitously the other day when I got lost.  As I drove past the intersection of 42nd and Walnut Street I noticed a store called International Foods & Spices.  It intrigued me, so I decided to take a detour and see what it was.

More after the jump.
The shop’s unassuming front gave no indication of the treasures within.  As I opened the door and stepped inside, I was greeted by huge sacks of Basmati rice, imported from India.  Sitar music played subtly in the background.  As I strolled around the store, overhearing conversations, I realized that its name is very appropriate.  I introduced myself to the other customers and met people from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Ethiopia.  Residents from Center City and students and faculty residing in University City were also shopping there.  All of them raved about the quality of the spices.  Every imaginable type of dried bark, seed, root, fruit, nut, and herb is available here.  There are whole spices and ground spices, most of which are imported from India.  The essentials of Indian cuisine such as ginger, cardamom, star anise, turmeric, coriander, cumin, allspice, and peppercorns are on the shelf.  Cinnamon is available; ground, in stick form, or as pieces of bark, which really take us to its source, the Cinnamon tree.  Tamarind and sour mango powder are for sale, “to add tartness to curries.”  Jaggery, a molded cake of unrefined sugar dried from the sap of date palms or sugarcane, is on the shelf, to be used in both sweet and savory dishes.  I saw bags of exotic dried spices, with no name on them.  Mr. Singh, the proprietor of the store, explained that they are for chewing, like gum.  There are also curry and masala spice mixtures for sale, ranging in color from gold to crimson.  One of the Indian customers I chatted with told me that no self-respecting Indian would ever cook with that.  “We mix our own,” she sniffed.  The dried fruit, of superior quality, is imported from Israel.  Especially delicious were the natural dried dates still on the branch.  The most exotic were the small, brown Persian dried limes.  I asked the Iranian customer I met there, ” What do you cook with that?”  “We add them to stews,” she told me.  “To add just a touch of sour.”

The Indian lady I chatted with encouraged me to purchase a block of compressed tamarind to prepare a different, refreshing summer drink.  Tamarind is a tart, reddish-brown fruit.  Indigenous to Africa, it grows on a tree.  The tamarind fruit is a pod, with a hard, brown peel.  It is very healthy, full of vitamin B and calcium.  Tamarind is a common ingredient in chutneys and other condiments.  This woman makes a restorative summer drink with it.  She generously shared her Southern Indian recipe with me.

Refreshing Tamarind Cooler

  • 1 block of compressed tamarind
  • 1-½ cups boiling water
  • 1-quart cold water
  • Sugar or jaggery to taste
  • Pinch of salt

    Soak the block of compressed tamarind in the hot water for half an hour.

    Pour the water and tamarind into a blender and mix well.

    Add the cold water.

    Sweeten to taste.  If desired, add a pinch of salt.  It should have a sweet-tangy flavor.

    Serve chilled over ice.  Garnish with a fresh mint leaf.

    The products in this store inspired me to try cooking some authentic Jewish Indian recipes.  I decided to cook a fish dish from the Bene Israel community of Mumbai, India.  The Bene Israel are descendants of Galilean Jews who escaped from the Romans in the 2nd Century BCE.  They were sailing away from Israel when they were shipwrecked.  The survivors made it to Mumbai.  This community remained completely disconnected from other Jews until Baghdadi Jewish traders rediscovered them in the 18th Century CE.

    Fish Curry
    Adapted from Claudia Roden

  • 1 ½ pound flounder
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1-teaspoon cumin
  • 1 cup toasted, shredded coconut
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoon Toasted Sesame oil
  • 1 green chili pepper
  • 2 cups cilantro
  • 1 lime
  • 7 garlic cloves, minced

    Blend the cilantro, cumin, turmeric, chili pepper, coconut milk, and shredded coconut in a food processor.  Sautee the garlic in the sesame oil.  Add the coconut paste and stir until hot.  Add two cups of water, some salt, and squeeze in some lime.  Stir, bringing the mixture to a boil.  Add the fish, and simmer for fifteen minutes.

    You can serve this dish with steamed basmati rice, or you can choose from the large selection of frozen specialty Indian breads, such as naan and paratha, for sale here.  Also in the freezer, you can find all natural tamarind, tomato, cilantro, and coconut, and mint chutneys.  They defrost quickly, and are the perfect accompaniment to the curried fish.

    If you don’t have the time or the patience to cook with these delicious spices, this store is a great source of Kosher, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free prepared foods. They are imported from India.  Some of them come vacuum-sealed, and will keep indefinitely without refrigeration. Many of them are kosher, with a seal from the Kosher Inspection Service of India, based in Mumbai. In the frozen foods section, one freezer is dedicated only to vegetarian foods.  One really exotic appetizer that I discovered is Patra leaf roulades.  Patra leaf is the leaf of the Taro root plant.  The leaves are sautéed and flavored with coconut and coriander.  There are a variety of Pakoras, seasoned Indian vegetable fritters, and Muthia, steamed cabbage dumplings, seasoned with peppers and sesame seeds.  From Southern India, there are Mendu Vada, “crispy, golden lentil fritters.” There is a whole aisle of jarred Indian pickles and preserves to choose from that would go well with any of these dishes.

    One of my favorite discoveries in International Foods is Nashta.  Known as “Indian snick snacks” in our family, Nashta is a blend of nuts, pulses, puffed Basmati rice, dried noodles, and sun dried potato chips.  This is flavored with different spice combinations, ranging from mild to really spicy.  I serve them at get togethers instead of chips.  These mixtures also add an unexpectedly crunchy, spicy kick to my grandmother’s chicken soup.  

    To conclude your meal, you can choose from the refrigerated case of Mithai, or Indian desserts.  They are made with coconut, cardamom, almonds, raisins, pistachio, and cashew.  There are also exotic mango, pistachio, saffron, and rose water ice creams for sale.  

    I wanted to prepare my own dessert, so I tried another Bene Israel recipe called Kheer.  It is a type of coconut rice pudding.  This is a dairy free, gluten free dessert.

    Rose Kheer
    Adapted from Chef Sanjeev Kapoor

  • 2 tablespoons Chopped Pistachios
  • 2 tablespoons Slivered Almonds
  • 1/2 teaspoon green cardamom powder
  • 2 tablespoons Rose syrup
  • 2 tablespoons jaggery
  • 1 cup Water
  • ¾ cup Rice flour
  • 3-¾ cup Coconut milk

    Slowly bring the coconut milk to a boil.  Mix the rice flour and water in a bowl, and then add the paste to the boiling coconut milk.  Stir until the paste is incorporated into the coconut milk.  When the mixture has thickened, add the jaggery and green cardamom powder.  Set aside to cool.  Mix in the rose syrup.  Pour the pudding into a serving dish.  Decorate with the pistachios and almonds.  Refrigerate for two hours.

    Mr. Singh is a chef from Punjab, and owned a restaurant before he opened International Foods & Spices.  When I felt ready to create my own Indian specialties, his help and advice were invaluable to a novice like me!  How did my dishes turn out?  The Bene Israel curried fish was rich and velvety in its voluptuous coconut sauce.  The tamarind cooler, which we served with lots of ice, was tart and refreshing on a hot summer evening.  The rose kheer was very exotic and different.  I loved its nutty crunchiness.  When I garnished it with fresh rose buds and petals, I felt like I was serving the dessert of the Rajas.    

    International Foods & Spices

    4203 Walnut Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19104

    Tel:  (215) 222-4480

    Fax: (215) 222-5912

    Email:  [email protected]

    Website: http://intlfoodsandspices.com/…

    Business Hours

    11 am to 8 pm
    Closed on Tuesdays