Crypto-Jewish Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake

Photo by Andreas Schauer-Villanueva https://www.flickr.com/photos/schauervilla/

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 for ensaïmadas 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.

Olive Oil – Honey Ensaïmada

Photo by Lisa Stevens https://www.flickr.com/people/13803858@N05

Photo by Lisa Stevens.

Adapted from Spain Recipes.

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 13 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • orange blossom honey
  1. Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Cover with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 1 hour.
  3. Roll the dough like a snake, and coil in the shape of a turban.
  4. Place the dough on an oiled baking sheet.
  5. Cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow to rise overnight.
  6. Heat extra virgin olive oil in a heavy pan.
  7. Fry the ensaïmada until it is golden-brown on both sides.
  8. Drizzle with warm orange blossom honey.

Alexander the Great’s Hanukkah Treats

photo (10)Who is responsible for the foods we serve for Hanukkah today? The answer might surprise you.

Sephardic Hanukkah specialties, many of which consist of deep fried dough flavored with honey and sesame seeds, all originate from a special honey cake introduced to the Levant by Alexander the Great.

Judea was conquered from the Persians by Alexander in 332 BCE. It was under Greek rule for 191 years, until the Maccabees created the Hasmonean state in Israel in 141 BCE.

The Jews of the upper classes of Judea became Hellenized under Alexander. Josephus explains in his book, The Jewish War, that one of the reasons for the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE was a civil war between the wealthy, Hellenized Jews of Jerusalem, and the traditionalist Jews of the countryside.

The Hellenized Jews wanted to discard all Jewish traditions, including circumcision, while the traditionalists ferociously guarded their rituals, which ended up sparking a civil war between them. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes sided with the Hellenized Jews, and decided to try to crush the traditionalists.

Antiochus’ prohibitions against practicing Judaism and desecration of the Temple led to the Jewish Revolt, which lasted two years. In 165 BCE the Maccabees were victorious. They cleaned, purified, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, and then celebrated the Festival of Lights for eight days. This celebration included feasting, and one of Alexander’s signature treats was on the menu.

What foods did Alexander introduce to Judea?

One ancient Greek recipe that goes back to those days is for honey-sesame fritters. These treats were served at the Greek symposia, “drinking parties.”

Tiganites me meli, “honey cakes,” were believed to absorb alcohol. They remained in the Jewish cuisine in the form of loukoumades, “honey doughnuts,” flavored with sesame seeds, which are served by Sephardic Jews in honor of Hanukkah. Here is the recipe introduced by Alexander.

Honey-Sesame Fritters: Arxaies Tiganites Me Meli K

Adapted from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.

  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
  • olive oil
  1.  Mix the flour, water, and 1 tablespoon of honey in a bowl.
  2. Heat the olive oil over a medium flame in a heavy frying pan.
  3. Drop a tablespoon of batter into the hot oil.
  4. Flip the pancake over when it is golden-brown.
  5. When both sides have cooked, place the fritters on a serving platter.
  6. Drizzle a tablespoon of honey over them.
  7. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. 

Rosh Hashanah Honey Bread From Beta Israel

One of the most exotic foods for Rosh Hashanah comes from the Ethiopian Jewish community, or Beta Israel.

Yemarima yewotet dabo is a special type of bread, sweetened with honey and infused with spices.

The Kaffa province, located in southwestern Ethiopia, is famous for its mountain rainforests covered with coffee trees. This is where coffee originated. The province also has Africa’s largest population of honeybees. These bees produce a very special type of honey, flavored with the nectar of the coffee tree flowers.

The coffee plant is related to the gardenia family, and the honey produced from its nectar is light and aromatic. Ethiopians have historically taken advantage of this abundance of honey and incorporated it into their foods and drinks.

Baking yemarima yewotet dabo is a very ancient tradition. The dabo is baked in a traditional clay pot called a shakla dist. The Beta Israel women are renown for their pottery making skills, a craft which is passed from mother to daughter.

photo (9)In the thatched hut villages of Ethiopia, a fire was started to make charcoal. The dough for the bread was mixed in a wooden bowl.

The inside of the shakla dist was lined with fresh banana leaves. This was to prevent the dough from sticking to the vessel.

After the dough was poured in, more banana leaves were layered over it. Then the pot was tightly covered.

This “Dutch oven” was placed on the hot coals, and then some coals were positioned on top of its lid. After about 30 minutes, the pot was removed from the fire. The banana leaves were peeled off, and the aromatic bread was ready.

In 1984, Beta Israel came to Israel with Operation Moses, and brought their distinctive Rosh Hashanah bread with them. You may bake some honey dabo in your oven.

Yemarima Yewotet Dabo: Spiced Ethiopian Honey Bread

Adapted from What’s 4 Eats  photo (7)

  • 5 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup organic wildflower honey
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 egg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  1. Place the yeast in a bowl with ¼ cup warm water. Allow to rest for 10 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the honey, egg, salt, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and coriander.
  3. Add the yeast mixture to the honey and spices.
  4. Pour in 1 cup of warm milk and 6 tablespoons of melted butter.
  5. Mix in the flour.
  6. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 90 minutes.
  7. Take the dough out of the bowl, and knead.
  8. Shape into a round loaf.
  9. Place the loaf on a cookie sheet covered with banana leaves or parchment paper.
  10. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  11. Allow the dough to rise for 30 minutes.
  12. Bake the bread for 60 minutes.

I chose to bake the bread much as it had been prepared in Ethiopia.

I purchased frozen banana leaves  and followed the package directions. First, I defrosted them for a couple of hours. Then, I rinsed them with cold water, and dried them off with paper towels. This removed the sap and white powdery substance that naturally occur on the leaves.

I lined my baking dish with the leaves, and using scissors, cut them to the desired size. I placed the dough in the baking dish and put it in the oven. As the bread started baking, the banana leaves imparted a smell reminiscent of tea steeping. The leaves themselves are not edible.

After one hour, the dabo was finally ready. I pulled out the golden, crusty loaf, which gave off an earthy aroma. Impatiently, I sliced it while it was still hot. It had a wonderful, moist, spongy texture, with a crackly crust. It was not too sweet, with only a hint of spices.

This bread is delicious on its own, or with more honey, and of course, a cup of Ethiopian coffee.

Melkam Addis Amet: Shanah Tovah!

Food Series with Chefs of Citron & Rose and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik!

In anticipation of the new restaurant, please join us for an exciting Food Series featuring the engaging, creative and funny wisdom of Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and the culinary talent and skill of the chefs of Citron and Rose, Michael Solomonov and Yehuda Sichel.

First part of the series for Rosh Hashanah follows the jump.

Honey: How to Truly Bee Jewish
Honey has been associated with Jewish celebrations for over one thousand years.  What is it about the miraculous beehive that is so significant? And how can understanding honey’s symbolism guarantee that our new year will be sweeter?

  • When: Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 7:30 pm
  • Where: Chabad of the Main Line, 625 Montgomery Ave, Merion Station, PA 19066. Future installments will take place at the new Citron and Rose!
  • Cost: Suggested $18 donation will support local Jewish Day Schools.
  • RSVP: Space is limited, so you must reserve a spot. Please RSVP to [email protected] by Friday, September 7, 2012
  • Who:
    • Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik is the Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.
    • Michael Solomonov is the executive chef and co-owner of Zahav, and the executive chef at Citron and Rose.
    • Yehuda Sichel is a sous chef at Zahav and chef de cuisine at Citron and Rose.

 

Beekeeping to Save the World


— by Hannah Lee

Do you know that a world without bees means a world without food?  Farmers — from industrial to small-scale, artisanal ones- depend on these hard-working bees to pollinate the fruit trees.  These tiny creatures are like the “canary in the coal mine” for agriculture and their recent episodes of Colony Collapse Disorder have concerned scientists and environmentalists as well as agriculturalists.

More after the jump.

Among my favorite vendors at the Headhouse Square Farmer’s Market, the largest in Philadelphia, is Toni Price, a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper and honey bottler, for their Busy Bee Farm located in Tabernacle, N.J.  

Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens. She’d invited my family to visit during the lavender harvest, so I visited her on a hot, sunny day in early July.

Their 22 pastel-colored beehives are scattered on their property on the Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands, a heavily forested area of coastal plain stretching across southern New Jersey, according to Wikipedia.  The Prices are now in Year Two of a three-year pollinator habitat grant: In Year One, they planted 35 trees and shrubs that are native to the Pine Barren.  In Year Two, they are adding perennial flowers and shrubs; and in Year Three, they’ll add native grasses.  They have sought out other federal sources of funding: an irrigation grant; a forestry grant, and a grant to build up to organic certification.  The last one cited is to finance the construction of a deer fence — some 8′ to 10′ high —  to protect the lavender.  The soil is sandy, not loamy, in the Pine Barrens, and that affects which crops thrive there, such as asparagus, sweet potatoes, and blueberries.  Their son’s friend is trying to grow organic hops on a corner of their property — hops are used in beer-making — and the 30-feet-tall decommissioned telephone poles used to stake the plants are a sight to behold.

Honeybees are not native to this country — they are actually from Africa — but the local bumblebees do not produce honey.  If you wish to learn more about Colony-Collapse Disorder and the crucial role that honeybees play in American agriculture, do try to find a showing of Queen of the Sun, a documentary directed by Taggart Siegel that has collected numerous film-festival awards.  

Some good news in beekeeping is the growing movement to appropriate unused land for beehives.  One such example is at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport where “1.5 million bees now call the airport home.” Not only is it a “creative, sustainable, and productive way to use otherwise wasted open space,” the beehives also provide employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated adults.  This movement has been growing in Germany since 1999 when “scientists realized honeybees could be helpful for monitoring air quality,” but O’Hare is the first American airport to get an apiary.  In fact, “it’s a return to the airport’s agricultural roots,” since O’Hare was founded on a former apple orchard and that’s memorialized in the airport’s three-letter abbreviation, ORD.  Now, that’s what I call a sweet story of synergy and it is a fitting message for the Jewish New Year.