A New Cookbook for the New Year

This past week we celebrated Rosh Hashanah much as we do usually, but more quietly. I made my usual head-on fish (a Sephardic tradition). This main course insures that the head of the household will continue to lead the family.

Whole fish from Rosh Hashana past

I also made my long-time honey cake recipe (recipe below). Honey cake is an Ashkenazi tradition introducing sweetness expressing hopes for a week year ahead for all.

Honey Cake on Pomegranate Plate

I also did something quite different this year. A new Sephardic cookbook, Sephardi Cooking the History, Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora, from the 13th Century to Today, by Hélène Jawhara Piñer was recently released.

It is a beautifully illustrated, coffee-table type of cookbook. Recipes primarily based on medieval Spanish Inquisition trial testimonies are prefaced with brief notes about the author’s research in Arabic and Catalan cookbooks from the Middle Ages. This new book can be viewed as a modernization of and addition to the groundbreaking 1999 book, A Drizzle of Honey, The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews by the late David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Richardson.

In the past so-many long months that many of us have been confined to our personal Hotel Californias (finally, we are slowly leaving and breaking the spell cast by the Eagles’ song), Jawhara Piñer made a dozen or so zoom presentations demonstrating some of her recipes, most of which appear in the book. The presentations, of course, were to promote the forthcoming cookbook.

I’m writing a review of the book. Constant Companion urged me to test several recipes to include in the review with commentary on the text, many people read cookbooks as literature as well as using them for the recipes. Both he and Daughter skimmed through Sephardi Cooking the History to make several choices that appealed to their tastes. Thus, I carefully (making none of my usualy substitutions) cooked a Swiss chard stew with meat and chickpeas (Acelgas con garbanzos), Maimonides’chicken soup (Puchero), Meatballs cursed by Jews, and Wheat grain and chicken stew (Oriza). Because we had eggplants in the larder, my own choice was Cacuelas, Eggplants with saffron and Swiss Chard for a Converso Wedding. Daughter particularly favored the first two dishes.

I’ll not provide the recipes here; they were more complex and time consuming than my normal cooking routine. A few can be found on-line. Instead, I’ll offer some reflections. The source of the Swiss chard stew with meat and chickpeas was at least one 1590 Inquisition trial record and also came from one of the author’s grandmothers.

Stew with a pumpkin challah roll

The the chicken soup attributed to Maimonides’ Regime of Health is given a modern Spanish name, Puchero. I can see the resemblance, but not the need for the contemporary name Nonetheless, Daughter particularly enjoyed this soup, rich with rice and garbanzos alongside the requisite onion, celery, and carrots.

Some months ago, I watched Jawhara Piñer demonstrate the dish mysteriously named Meatballs Cursed by Jews in an early Arabic cookbook. In the book, she promises a yield of twenty-five walnut-sized meatballs. I eked out fourteen following the instructions.

I added the eggplant dish because this purple bulbous vegetable has long been identified as a food eaten by Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain. I wished that the text had given more insight to this attribution.

Finally, the explanation for the name the author gives the Wheat grain and chicken stew (Oriza) was confusing. Accordingly, the name is related to the Arabic harisa recipes. Many cooks of today know harisa as a spicy Moroccan sauce. They are not aware of the intricacies of Arabic linguistic, and the 2 different “h”s that distinguish the two different dishes. This recipe I did improvise with as the author recommended using chicken breasts; I cannot imagine someone in medieval Spain not using the whole bird.

I enjoyed reading Sephardi Cooking the History and attempting to master a few of the recipes. My family enjoyed adventures in historic and cultural eating. It will now join my collection of Sephardic cookbooks.

Honey Cake (I apologize that I do not know the source of this recipe)

Start with the usual – preheat the oven to 350 degrees, oil a loaf pan well.

Mix together the dry ingredients: 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour, 1 tsp cinnamon, 3/4 tsp baking soda, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking powder, and 1/2 tsp ground ginger. Beat together 2 large eggs and 1/4 cup of brown sugar with an electric mixer on high for 3 minutes. Whisk together 1 cup of honey, 2/3 cup vegetable oil, 1/2 cup brewed strong coffee and 2 tbsp whisky or bourbon. Add to eggs, mix for 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and mix til just combined Finish mixing with a spatula, then pour into the prepared pan. Bake 30 minutes. Cool for 1 hour. This makes a tasty and moist loaf.

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