Sweets From A Bitter Past

October 19, 2009 basiale

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.

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