Photograph by Susan Barocas
Sweetly Sephardic for Passover
Have you ever heard of mesas de alegria? Literally meaning “tables of happiness,” this is such a delightful way of describing the delicious Sephardic food tradition of presenting one or more tables full of postras (desserts), pasteleria (pastry) and dulses (sweets). After a meal, the Sephardic custom for centuries has been to serve fresh fruit, but special occasions and visiting company call for these special cakes, cookies, candies and more, often served with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, mint tea or a glass of raki or ouzo, anise-flavored liqueur made from grapes, so it can be kosher for Passover.
Even within the culinary rules for Passover, Sephardic tradition offers a wide variety of these sweet treats. Pan de espagna/espana or pan esponjado (sponge cake) is perhaps one of the best known and widely made of the Sephardic pastries for Passover. Sutlach, a rice-flour pudding, highlights rice (as kitnyot, considered kosher for Passover by most Sephardim, but not at all by Ashkenazim), while tishpishti, a syrup-soaked cake often called Sephardic honey cake, is often adapted for Passover.
Even though postras means “desserts,” it describes kinds of sweets, not that they are served at the end of meal as is more the custom today. Cookies such as ashuplados (meringues) and marochinos (a.k.a. marunchinos and mustachudos) are all cookies made with ground nuts, eggs and sugar—perfect for Passover. Almendrada or marsipan combines those same ingredients into a cohesive, pliable almond paste used in cookies, cakes, stuffed into dates or shaped on its own balls or small diamonds.
Also among dishes made especially for the holiday is babanatza, a raisin pudding; koopeta, Passover candy with walnuts and matzah meal; and bumuelos/birmuelos de matza, sometimes called a Passover doughnut because they are fried patties or balls of crushed matza or matza meal served with honey or jam.
The dulses have their own unique tradition of being served to welcome guests and to break the fast at Yom Kippur. Some dulses are presented to each guest on a special “tavla de dulse” that features beautiful small bowls filled with fruit preserves—also called “spoon sweets” because the tray always includes a small spoon and small glass of water for each guest to serve themselves a taste of the treats. The preserves are made most often from cayeçi (apricots), bimbrio (quinces) or mansana (apples) When cooked longer and pureed, the preserves become candies, Sephardic favorites along with susam made from sesame seed and honey.
Many of the sweets on the mesas de alegria include nuts, especially almonds. Almonds have been used by Sephardim since the Moors conquered most of Spain in the 8th century, bringing with them from North Africa the techniques of growing and irrigating almond trees. Cooking and baking with ground nuts and nut pastes became popular in both medieval Jewish and Islamic cultures, just one of the many culinary traditions shared by the two cultures.
Whatever sweet treats you’re making for Passover, may all your tables be mesas de alegria! Wishing you a Pesah Alegre!
All recipes by Susan Barocas.
TISHPISHTI PARA PESAH
Honey-Syruped Cake for Passover
Tishpishti is one of the traditional Sephardic pareve pastries. Made year-round, it is popular at holidays like Rosh Hashanah, when it’s often called the “Sephardic honey cake,” Sukkot, Purim and Passover, when it’s easily adapted for the holiday by using matzah cake meal instead of all-purpose flour. Like so much food, there are variations according to cultural roots and families, but using ground nuts and drenching in a sweet syrup that gets absorbed into the cake are essential to tishpishti.
Makes 25-30 pieces
- 2 cups matzah cake meal
- 2 cups almond meal*
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup good neutral vegetable oil (avocado, sunflower, safflower) or a nut oil
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest (optional)
- About 30 raw or toasted whole almonds, almond slices or a handful of almond slivers
*Almond meal can be purchased already prepared, usually from unpeeled almonds. It is not as finely ground and powdery as almond flour, but still has a little texture to it. You can make your own almond meal by grinding whole raw almonds (peeled or unpeeled) in your food processor to a texture a bit like fine sand.
- 1 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup honey
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1-2 tablespoons orange blossom water (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8×11.5- 9×13-inch pan.
To make the syrup, stir ingredients together in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Stop stirring, turn the heat up to high and bring the mixture to a fill boil, then reduce heat to a gentle boil. Cook about 15 minutes until the syrup thickens. Don’t let boil too long or it will harden as it cools. Turn off the heat, remove the cinnamon stick and let cool while preparing the cake.
In a large bowl, whisk together the cake meal, nut meal, cinnamon and cloves until well blended.
In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until a little lighter in color and foamy, about 2 minutes. Add the oil and beat well. Mix in zest if using. Gradually stir dry ingredients into the wet, blending well. The batter will be thick and pliable.
Put the mixture into the greased pan and gently press and flatten the batter with your hands so it is spread evenly and the edges are even and straight. (A rubber spatula helps with the edges.). The cake will be thinner in the larger pan. With a sharp pointed knife, score the cake about halfway down into small diamond shaped pieces, about 30 total. If using raw almond slices or slivers, press one slice or 2 to 3 slivers on top in the center of each piece. Bake about 40-45 minutes until golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean
Take the cake out of the oven. Let it stand for 5 minutes, then pour up to half the syrup evenly over the still warm cake, which will absorb the syrup as it cools. If using toasted nuts that you haven’t put on the cake before baking, gently press a whole nut, a slice or 2 to 3 slivers onto the top of each piece. Wait a few minutes, then follow the scoring to cut all the way through the pieces. Pour the rest of the syrup evenly into the cuts and over the cake. This cake is best when left for at least 3 or 4 hours, or even overnight, so the syrup completely soaks into and penetrates the cake. Keep the cake covered out of the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days or refrigerator for 7 to 10 days. Let come to room temperature before serving.
SEPHARDIC ALMOND COOKIES
A bit crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, marochinos (marunchinos) are one of many kinds of nut cookies popular in Sephardic baking. They are pareve, easy to make and store well, making them popular year-round and perfect for Passover as well.
Makes 20-24 cookies
- 2 cups almond meal
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- 5 large egg whites
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- About 24 whole raw almonds or almond slices
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Make sure the oven racks are in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease the pans.
Use a whisk to combine almond meal, sugar, salt and cinnamon, if using, in a mixing bowl. In a separate mixing bowl, lightly beat the egg whites and extracts about 20 seconds just until foamy. Add the almond mixture and stir together with a wooden spoon about 10-15 seconds just until the mixture is well blended, being careful not to overmix.
Drop the mixture by the teaspoonful about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Use the back of the spoon to gently round the edges and just slightly flatten the top of each marochino. Very gently press one whole raw almond or an almond slice onto the center of each.
Bake for 15 minutes, then switch the baking sheets to the other rack, also turning each around 180 degrees for even cooking. Bake about another 10-12 minutes or until lightly golden brown on bottom. Don’t overcook or the cookies get too dry. Cool on the sheets a few minutes, then transfer to a rack and cool completely. Marochinos keep up to a week in an airtight container in a cool, dry place with the layers of cookies separated by waxed or parchment paper. They also freeze well when packed this way. Defrost and, if desired, re-crisp in a 350-degree oven for 2 minutes. Dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.
MASA DE VINO
Passover Wine Cookies
This simple cookie is more like a biscuit, delicious with coffee or tea and easy to pack and transport. What kind of wine you use will influence the taste and color, but it’s hard not to enjoy the results.
Makes 24-30 cookies
- 1 cup good neutral oil
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup sweet white or red wine
- 3 cups matzah cake meal
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 1 or 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Beat together oil, sugar and wine. Gradually stir in the cake meal. Use a teaspoon to scoop pieces of dough and roll into walnut-sized balls. Arrange the balls on the prepared baking sheets and flatten each with a fork, creating lines or a crisscross pattern with the tine marks. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until golden. Store for a couple weeks in an airtight container or freeze.
Writer, chef and cooking instructor Susan Barocas is passionate about healthy, no-waste cooking and Jewish food, especially Sephardic history, culture and cuisines. She is co-founder/co-director of the new project, Savor: A Sephardic Music & Food Experience (savorexperience.com). Follow Susan on Instagram and Facebook using her name.