By Fire, By Water, By Turrón

Turrón is a Spanish holiday treat similar to nougat, and over the Christmas, New Year and Three Kings celebrations, incredible amounts of the stuff is sold and consumed. So imagine that this innocuous, delicious candy once sealed the fate of Jews during the 1480s, and in a twist of fate, the fate of the Santángel family.

The name of Santángel was brought to my attention recently when I devoured Mitchell James Kaplan’s stunning debut novel ‘By Fire, By Water’, which tells the story of the near apocalyptic days leading up to 1492, the year Columbus set sail for the Americas and Fernando and Isabel finally expelled the Jews from Spain. Santángel is the man in the centre of it all and you will have to read the book to find out precisely why, but this morning, I came across the Santángel name again, this time in testimony to the Inquisitors made by the family maid and two of the Santángel’s own children, their daughters, Alba and Brianda.

By and large, Spanish Jews ate what everyone else, Christian or Muslim, ate, with obvious exceptions of course. However, as we know, it wasn’t just what you ate, but when you ate it, or when you didn’t eat it that also mattered. People who ate meat during Lent were under suspicion. If your fire was not lit on a cold Saturday morning, you were also under suspicion. And if you fasted while everyone else gorged, or vice versa, that was also something of an eyebrow raiser.

History records that Brianda de Santángel, who married Juan Garces de Marcilla, a man destined to carry out the Inquisition’s sentences in Teruel, was so virulent in her condemnation of her parents’ secret Judaizing that the Holy Office absolved her and her sister of all guilt and they were reconciled with the Catholic Church without penalty.

History also records that a converso maid of the Aragonese family, told the Inquisitors that on Passover, the Santángels received gifts of matzah and turrón. I do not know what happened to Rita and Jaime de Santángel but while some experts claim the first Spanish recipe for the nougatine delicacy appeared in a cookbook in the 16th century, the de Santángels were busy eating the stuff one hundred years previously.

Turrón de Alicante is the most famous and probably the original recipe, as it contained honey, nuts and sugar.

Here is the recipe for today’s Turrón Alicantino which uses egg whites. It might be sinful to eat so much sweetness, but you won’t be tortured over it.

1 small metal loaf pan, 7x3x2 inches
2 eggs whites, beaten stiff
3/4 cup honey
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup chopped toasted almonds
1 tblsp cinnamon

Line the loaf pan with baking paper and dust with flour. Prepare a piece of baking paper to cover the top.

Beat the egg whites stiff and combine them with the honey and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil…then stir constantly for about 10 minutes. The syrup is ready when a drop of mixture dropped into cold water forms a ball. Remove syrup from heat. Let it cool to lukewarm. Stir in the nuts and cinnamon. Spread the turrón into the loaf pan and when it has nearly hardened dust with flour and cover with the paper. Let it cool until it is completely hard.

Add a comment July 29, 2010
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Sweets From A Bitter Past

In Claudia Roden’s inspiring historical and culinary work of genius, The Book of Jewish Food, she describes a visit to El Molino, Spain’s gastronomic research centre in Granada, where she asked what the influences on Spanish cooking were and was told ‘Arab and Jewish’. When she inquired what the Jewish heritage was, the answer was: “The Marranos had a special way of doing suckling pig and a few pork dishes.”

Marrano means pork. In Spain in 1391, thousands of Jews were tortured and burned at the stake or forced into exile, thousands more converted to Christianity under duress and in fear. In a world where you could be tried and executed by the Inquisition simply for what you ate – or didn’t eat; in a world where your neighbour, your maid or even your own children would spy on you, appearances were everything.

In the end though, it all counted for nothing. New Christians, or conversos, as they were known as, were never fully removed from the all invasive evil eye of the Inquisitors and soon all Conversos were accused of practising Judaism in secret. People went to the stake for continuing to cook a favourite shabbat dish, adafina, on a Friday.

Maria Gonzalez was burned at the stake in September 1513 in Toledo for snacking on sweetened white beans on Shabbat. Ines de Merida was led around the streets of Toledo on a donkey with a noose around her neck and given 100 lashes, not for refusing to renounce Judaism, but for speaking ill of the Inquisition. Margarita de Rivera’s testimony to the grand Inquisitors included details of making honeyed puff fritters known as bimuelos for Hanukkah which were deep fried in olive oil, this method of cooking being an anathema to the Spanish.

Curiously, today the Mediterranean diet is hailed as the perfect one, most notably because of the copious use of olive oil. In 15th century Spain, ironically, the burning stake awaited if you cooked with olive oil, as the Jews did, and not with pork fat, like the Spaniards.

Today these fritters, known as buñuelos, are hugely popular in Spain and can probably be traced back 800 years before Margarita’s version landed her in hot water to the Moorish desire for fried sweet things.

So now, 600 years after Margarita, when you are making these delicious, melt-in-the-mouth Hanukkah treats, hot and sweet and light as a feather, remember they come to you at a price – and what price a Jewish life?

Use one package of defrosted frozen or fresh made puff pastry. We can buy it chilled here in Spain.

For the syrup: 3 cups honey, one quarter cup of water. Mix the honey and water in a saucepan and bring to a fast boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for five minutes. Keep the syrup on the lowest heat possible to keep it hot but not so much that it starts to boil again.

To cook the bimuelos, take a small portion of dough, roll it into a ball and drop into a large skillet (I use a wok) of boiling oil. Fry several at a time as long as you don’t overcrowd the pan. As they fry, turn them over until they puff up and become golden, which takes about 5-8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Put them on a plate, drizzle the hot honey syrup over them and sprinkle with cinnamon dusted powdered or icing sugar.

Eat immediately.

Add a comment October 19, 2009

Spicy chickpeas – for Netta

The humble chick pea was once a staple of the diet of the Jews of Andalucia. They appeared sweetened, spiced, in stews and with poultry and beef dishes. Nowadays in Spain, it’s a rarity to see chickpeas in a Spanish restaurant, for that you have to go to the Moroccan places, but this is a quick, easy dish that can be spiced in a variety of ways.

One of my favourite ways to make this more of a main dish rather than a snack you can wolf down, is to add three ingredients that weren’t available in 12th century Spain – tomatoes, chillies and potatoes – but given that when these things did arrive in Spain with the conquistadors, it was the Jews who marked them around Europe. So feel free to add them. This recipe is just for the spiced chick peas, eat them hot, eat them cold, add a dollop of yoghurt and some pitta bread and be happy.

Drain a can or jar of chick peas well and rinse with some hot water. Leave in a colander to drain for as long as possible so that they aren’t wet when you put them in the hot pan. They can shoot you in the eye of you’re not careful!

Choose your spices: cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, chilli, powdered ginger, cardamom, all work very well. If you are going to use chilli, add a fresh one, finely chopped, if you like the heat. Add your spices, small amounts of each one, to the hot oil and shake the pan so that they disperse through the oil. When the aroma fills the kitchen, add two finely chopped cloves of garlic, half an onion and a good pinch of sea salt. Cook the garlic and onions until soft.

Add your chickpeas and stir until they are all well coated with the spices and onions. Squeeze half a lemon over them and continue to stir. All you are doing is heating the chickpeas through and making sure they are well spiced. It only takes a few minutes.

Pile onto a serving dish or a bowl and sprinkle with chopped parsley or coriander leaves, whichever you prefer. Serve with yoghurt and pitta.

Add a comment July 30, 2009

Sephardi Chicken

This recipe may have a proper name, but in our family it has always been known as Sephardi Chicken and has traditionally been served up at Pesach, even though it contains rice – which is ok if you are Sephardi. It has been a few years now since we had Sephardi Chicken at Pesach, but thinking about it now, I am going to put it on the menu next year.

Chick peas were brought to Spain by the Moors and if one looks at Jewish recipes from the 11th century, the chick pea was a popular ingredient to use. It is a rarity now these days to find chick peas in a Spanish restaurant, but the shops are full of them.

The dish is baked in the oven, so depending on how many you are making it for, you will need a susbtantial sized casserole dish. This recipe is for four people and the cup sizes used are American. You will need chicken breasts on the bone, one red pepper (quartered), one yellow pepper (quartered), half a lemon, an onion (finely chopped), 3-4 cloves of garlic (chopped), 1 quarter cup of white wine, 1 hot red chile pepper, one tin of chickpeas, one sachet of saffron threads or good quality saffron powder, 1 cup rice (basmati), enough chicken stock and large bunch of finely chopped cilantro.

Fry the chicken breasts quickly in olive oil, you just want to brown them up a little, add several grinds of pepper. Transfer to a plate. Now fry up your onion, garlic and chile pepper until the onion has softened. Add the quarters of red and yellow peppers and the chick peas and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Throw in the wine and stir once or twice.

Put the chicken breasts in your casserole dish and pour over the onion/red pepper/chick pea mixture and spread it about. Mix the chicken stock with the saffron and stir well. Add the uncooked rice, and pour the stock over the contents of the casserole. Slice the lemon and tuck the slices into the casserole contents. Make sure the rice is evenly distributed.

Cook in a fairly hot oven for about 20 minutes, checking if more stock is needed. Take out after 20 minutes and with a large slotted spoon, stir the rice to make sure it’s not sticking. Return to the oven with or without more liquid and cook until chicken is done, around 35-45 minutes depending on the size of the chicken.

When you serve make sure each person gets a slice of red and yellow pepper. Dust the plates with the chopped cilantro and enjoy.

1 comment July 17, 2009

Spanish tortilla – Jewish style

There is nothing really Jewish about this version of this classic Spanish dish, probably the greatest Iberian contribution to world cuisine, except that this is how I make it. It is not too far removed from the original so I don’t think too many Spaniards would turn their nose up at it…but I don’t slice the potatoes, I cut them into chunks (this makes the texture more interesting) and I shove it under a hot grill at the end, frittata-style.

This version is the most typical, plain, delicious and addictive. Made with eggs, potatoes, onion and garlic, once you’ve made it, you will not want to add any embellishments, although you do find versions with spinach or mushrooms – but the potato tortilla is the last word in tasty bites. Traditionally served in a slice as a tapa, my recipe will feed four relatively greedy people.

To do this correctly you MUST be prepared to use inordinate amounts of good olive oil. Tablespoons are useless. You must bathe the pan in olive oil because you are going to cut up your potatoes into fairly small chunks, not so small they are diced, and fry them in it. Depending on the size of the potatoes, use two very large or about five smallish.

The pan itself must not be too shallow or too big and of course, non stick. When the oil is hot, add about 20 grinds of fresh black pepper and add the cubed potatoes. While the potatoes are frying, chop up an onion and two or three large cloves of garlic. Spanish onions of course are deliciously sweet and I have used red onion before, which imparts a softer and more caramelised flavour.

Cook the potatoes until they start to brown slightly and lose their firmness. You want to add the onions and garlic just as the potatoes turn from hard to soft otherwise the onions will be overcooked and/or the potatoes undercooked. Adding the onions serves to speed up the softening of the potatoes in the pan and there is always an extra sizzle when you add them.

Use one egg person and if you’re not bothered about counting cholesterol, add one for the pan. Otherwise add a splash of milk or water to the beaten egg mix.

When the potato and onions are nicely softened, pour the egg mixture over them, tilt the pan and swirl the mixture so that it covers the whole pan. Let it cook for a minute and then run a spatula around the edges, tilting the pan if necessary.

At this stage, turn the grill on to its highest setting. Turn the heat down under your tortilla if necessary and keep tilting the pan to make sure the egg mixture is even. When the tortilla looks to be set underneath (use the spatula to lift it at one side), slide the pan under the grill until the top is firmed and golden brown.

Take your beautiful golden tortilla out from under the grill and allow it to sit and cool for about 5 minutes in the pan, then lift it out into a wooden chopping board and allow to sit for a few minutes more. Tortilla is best served at room temperature, although it is also delicious straight from the fridge and splashed with some salt for breakfast.

1 comment June 27, 2009

Spinach, feta, raisin & pine nut pie

Spare a thought for poor old Boabdil, the last Muslim king of Granada, who on being forced to leave the treasured Alhambra Palace by Queen Isabel la Catolica in 1492, turned to look one last time at his glorious citadel high in the Sierra Nevada. And he wept.

History records that at the now aptly named Suspiro del Moro pass (the Moor’s Sigh), he was rounded upon by his mother who whipped him with her words: “Now you weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man.”

Perhaps a little pie filled with delicious raisin-sweetened spinach and cheese would have soothed Boabdil’s soul. Just about everywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean, and beyond, boasts a flaky pastry pie. Spanakopita, boreka, empanada, sambusak, samosa, boyos – they are all a variation on the same theme. I read recently that sambusak, so beloved in the Middle East, is actually Persian (the -ak at the end of the word indicates this) and as the Persian Empire stretched to India in its heyday, I am wondering who gave what to whom in the first place. I think it’s possible the Jews brought back the little stuffed pies from their Babylonian exile, but it is historical fact that they did take the idea to the Ottoman Empire, when they too fled Spain at the hands of the bloodthirsty Isabel.  

In summer, the Sierras are a hazy blue. In Granada, even in the height of summer, the highest peaks are always snow covered and they form a barrier against any winds sweeping down from the high plains of central Spain. This is the perfect place to sit, on a hill that has a view sweeping down to the Mediterranean, with a glass of cold white wine and this delicious Sephardi pie.

In Spain, you can buy ready made, chilled but not frozen, pastry. It comes rolled in greaseproof paper, ready for use. The type of pastry used for this pie is not filo or flaky or puff, but something in between – short enough for a perfect crust yet light enough to be almost a puff pastry. Here it is called Hojaldre de Empanada and I don’t know enough about making pastry to be able to categorise it properly but the pie works with puff and filo just as well.

Soak the raisins for half an hour in hot water and toast a large handful of pine nuts. If you use frozen spinach, you must squeeze the life out of it or the excess water will ruin your pastry during cooking. Fresh baby spinach is perfect and is cheap in Spain and takes a few spoonfuls of water to sweat over a low heat. When cooked, I cut it up with scissors while it’s in the colander, let it cool and drain and then squeeze out the water. The recipe also has 1 boiled egg, finely chopped, and 1 beaten egg. In a large bowl, crumble up a fair sized lump of feta (all of this depends on how large your piece of pastry is obviously) with the spinach and the finely chopped boiled egg. A good lashing of freshly ground pepper also. Stir in the beaten egg, raisins and pine nuts and spread the mixture over one half of the pastry, so that when you fold it over, it’s a lovely envelope of yumminess. Crimp down the edges with a fork.

Put the envelope on a well greased tray or on silicone paper, glaze with a bit of milk and whack in a hot oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the pastry is golden.

Let the pie sit and cool for about 10 minutes before you cut it into slices. Serve with a salad and some zhug. This is also excellent cold for breakfast with more zhug and strong coffee.

 

Did you know….that while the Alhambra is one of the Moors’ greatest legacies in Spain, it was designed and built by a Jew?

2 comments June 14, 2009

The Perfumed Garden – the contribution of Spanish Jews to food & cooking

This little collection of thoughts, notes, histories and recipes was inspired by Madeleine Brener, who is not Spanish but who is Jewish. However, I am both, by way of other places, which is not uncommon in the Jewish world.

Before the Islamic invasion, there were Jews in Spain. But it was during the “Golden Years” of Al-Andalus that the Jews thrived. The Muslims brought with them, amongst other things, aubergines and chickpeas. The Jews took these new foods around Spain, where they became part of Spanish kitchens and there they still remain. If you’ve ever eaten a savoury dish with pine nuts and raisins, you’re eating Spanish-Jewish heritage. Jewish merchants delivered oriental spices to medieval markets via Kiev and when the conquistadors returned with foods from the New World like tomatoes and chile peppers, the Jews were the ones who took them to all corners of the Mediterranean and Europe.

Cumin, mace, cinnamon and honey were the favourite flavourings of Spanish Jews back in the days of Al-Andalus and throughout the terrible years of the Spanish Inquisition. Today, the flavours of oranges, lemons, almonds, pine nuts and raisins persist in Spanish cooking and are, in part, legacies of its Jewish past.

There are, of course, many books already on the subject of Jewish food and I make no claim to bettering them. Food historian and writer Claudia Roden is the last word on Jewish and Middle Eastern food, so if it is authenticity you seek rather than some girl’s delight in sharing Jewish-Spanish recipes with you, then please check out Ms Roden’s amazing and authoritative Book of Jewish Food.

I hope you enjoy what delights me – stories about food, recipes included, not just a list of ingredients and how-to-do. Don’t expect exact quantities because the eye is everything, though this comes with experience and learning is all part of the fun. Improvise. Make it better. Tell me about it.

Food is meant to be enjoyed and shared and my table in the Perfumed Garden of Andalucia awaits you.

1 comment June 13, 2009

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