Traditions were kept alive through foods.
Released from the cage called COVID-19, we’re traveling more than ever, and my new favorite tour company is Road Scholar, the nonprofit educational travel organization for seniors. (There has to be some benefit to getting older!)
My destination was Sante Fe, New Mexico, where my friends Anna and Felix Livits of Fullerton and I recently enjoyed a learning adventure about New Mexico’s Converso and Crypto-Jews, who were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. (Conversos were forced to convert to Christianity; Crypto-Jews have kept their Judaism a secret for centuries.)
One of our fascinating lecturers was Isabelle Medina Sandoval, Ed.D., author of “Guardians of Hidden Treasures,” a historical novel about generations of Crypto-Jews–beginning in Spain in the late 1300s and ending in New Mexico–who hid from the Inquisition, seeking freedom in the New World.
“Jews were considered ‘unclean’ by Christian standards and were given three months to leave,” she told us. Her own converted Catholic family, whose ancestors originated from Toledo, Spain, came to New Mexico in 1598, through Mexico.
To root out heretics, the courts of the Inquisition published lists of suspected Jewish practices to encourage others to report them, including the 1514 Inquisition Edict of Grace/Faith which Dr. Sandoval quotes in “Guardians of Hidden Treasures”: “Observing Sabbath, wearing clean clothes on Friday, eating kosher food, fasting on Jewish holidays, burning hair/nail clippings, washing hands before prayer, celebrating Passover, celebrating…Hanukkah, drinking kosher wine, circumcising children, washing of baptismal oil of newborns, having guardian angels…of newborns, burning a piece of masa, washing corpse with warm water, placing virgin soil on corpse, throwing out water in home of deceased, saying the Law is as good as the Law of Jesus Christ.”
One of the ways Jewish traditions were kept alive through the centuries was in the women’s cooking and baking. Many of the dishes prominent in New Mexico’s cuisines are strikingly similar to Jewish dishes passed down through the centuries. Case in point: biscochitos, New Mexico’s state cookie. “My Catholic family used to make them for Christmas,” Dr. Sandoval said. “My mother used butter, not lard. I use Crisco.”
Dr. Sandoval brought us these round- and diamond-shaped cookies to sample. My friend Anna, who emigrated to the U.S. with her family from Belarus in 1989, remarked, “My mom used to make a similar cookie called korzhiki. Felix said that they look like his mother’s korzhiki too. I Googled it in Russian and found a similar recipe. When I was a little girl, my mother would roll the dough and put holes in it with a fork. She’d add the sugar and cut out diamond shapes or rounds with a glass. The little pieces left over she gave to us, and we made our own shapes.
“My father used to say that our family came from Spain, then went to Austria and then to Belarus after the Inquisition.” Anna recalled that another of our lecturers, cultural anthropologist Ron Duncan Hart, noted that some Jews fleeing the Inquisition fled to the Netherlands, Balkans, North Africa and Belarus. “I started thinking maybe my father was right.”
Many recipes of the Crypto-Jews, Dr. Sandoval revealed, are preserved in a fascinating cookbook, “Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews” by Dr. David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, who use actual trial testimonies of the Inquisition, including recipes, to reveal how Crypto-Jews retained their Jewish practices in the home while seemingly leading a Christian life on the outside.
“Many of the recipes reported to the Inquisition tribunals were for Sabbath meals,” the pair write. “The ingredients did not necessarily evoke suspicion. Instead, it was the manner in which the meal was cooked. The defining element of the Sabbath meal is that it is prepared before sundown on Friday and then not touched again until time to be eaten on Saturday.” (For purposes of the cookbook, these updated recipes read as if served at the time of preparation, or refrigerated to be served cold or reheated later.)
The most incriminating dish revealing one’s Judaism was this universally prepared Sabbath stew, which Sephardics call hamin or adafina. (Ashkenazim call it cholent). Catalina Alfonso of La Mancha was accused of preparing it, write Gitlitz and Davidson. “Like her Jewish neighbors, Catalina koshered her meat by soaking and salting it; and like them she abstained from eating prohibited foods such as pork, rabbit, or scaleless fish. On Saturdays Catalina kept a hank of wool by her side so that if anyone came in, she could pretend to be working.”
Bunuelos, honeyed puffed fritters fried in olive oil, are served at Hanukkah today all over the Mediterranean. While Hanukkah was an “extremely minor holiday in late medieval Iberia,” say Gitlitz and Davidson, they found references to them for Passover and Yom Kippur. The pair offer two versions, one with flour and one with matzo meal for Passover.
“My Catholic sister remarked that there was a recipe for bunuelos our mother and aunt made for special occasions,” noted Dr. Sandoval. “Dr. Gitlitz linked this dish, also called bimuelos by Sephardic communities, to the Islamic cooking of Spanish Andalusia. We compared the cookbook recipe to our family recipe, and, indeed, the recipes were similar.”
These are best eaten fresh, but in a pinch or for a crowd, they can be made ahead and dipped into honey syrup just before serving. Sephardic cooks used olive oil for frying. We suggest 1 3/4 cups vegetable oil plus 1/4 cup olive.
Yield: 4 dozen
1 package dry yeast
1 1/3 cups warm water, divided
3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups honey plus 1/4 cup water
Olive oil (enough to cover deep pan to depth of 1 inch)
Topping: Cinnamon and powdered sugar
1. Dough: Dissolve yeast in 1/3 cup warm water. Let sit 10 minutes.
2. Place flour in medium bowl. Stir yeasted water, beaten eggs, salt, and olive oil into flour all at once. Gradually add remaining 1 cup water to make a slightly tacky dough. Cover and let rise in warm place 1 hour until doubled in bulk.
3. Syrup: Mix honey and water in medium saucepan; bring to a hard boil. Reduce heat to low. Simmer 5 minutes; reduce heat to minimum setting so syrup remains hot but does not boil again.
4. Fritters: In large, deep skillet or saucepan, heat oil to approximately 375°F or hot enough for drop of water to sputter. Dip a tablespoon into oil to coat. Dip out scant teaspoons of dough and drop into boiling oil. Do not crowd pan. Turn several times until puffed up and golden, about 8 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon; drain on paper towels.
5. To serve: Place fritters on plate. Drizzle with hot honey syrup, and sprinkle with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
Catalina Alfonso’s Sabbath Stew, Toledo Style
This dish can be simmered in the oven at the lowest setting overnight, or placed in the refrigerator and reheated the next day.
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup dry white beans
1/2 cup dry chickpeas
2 medium onions, 1 quartered, 1 sliced
1 1/2 pounds meat (beef or lamb), cut into one–inch cubes
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2-1 cup water
Spice mixture combined:
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cinnamon (optional)
- Cover beans and chickpeas with cold water; soak 4 hours. Drain.
- Place meat, garlic, quartered onion, and just enough water to cover in medium to large stew pot. Simmer, covered, 1 hour.
- Add beans, chickpeas, saffron, and water (enough to reach top of mixture). Simmer, covered, 3 hours more.
- Heat oil in medium fry pan over medium heat. Lightly fry spice mixture 2 minutes. Add sliced onion; fry until translucent, about 4 minutes more. Add fried spices and onion to pot; stir to combine. Simmer gently 1 1/2 to 8 hours more, stirring occasionally to ensure stew does not stick to bottom of pan. Meat will shred apart. If desired, sprinkle with cinnamon when serving.
Jlife Food Editor JUDY BART KANCIGOR is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.