A date with a Purim destiny and the rolled sweetness of Fijuelas

“Sharon! Your grandma’s cookies!! was our friend Ruth’s enthusiastic direct message when she saw our Instagram post about the upcoming Sephardic Spice Girls Iraqi Masterclass.

In those few words, she telegraphed so much. You see, my grandmother Nana Aziza made the most incomparable and deliciously flavorful ba’ba tamar. Ba’ba tamar are the best treat you’ve probably ever had – a thin, round, four-inch cookie made with crisp, unsweetened batter and a chewy date filling. About 30 years ago, Ruth and her husband Todd were introduced to the fan club of my grandmother’s delicious pastries.

In our family, my grandmother’s ba’ba tamar were highly prized (and jealously guarded). On cooking days, she started early. She made the yeast rise and mixed it with the flour, oil and water. She kneaded the dough until it had a wonderfully soft and stretchy texture. She covered him with a piece of muslin and left him to rest, like a precious baby. She would sweeten the pitted date paste with a little oil and in her own non-traditional version of the recipe, she would add crushed walnuts.

Watching his oiled hands work the dough and the dates was like watching a magician at work.

Watching his oiled hands work the dough and the dates was like watching a magician at work. Roll the dough into balls. Roll the date mixture into balls. Squeeze the dates in the middle of the dough and make it disappear. Take the wooden rolling pin and flatten the dough into a perfectly round cookie with no date filling poking through the thin cookie crust. Twist the end of the rolling pin and make four indentations in the center. Brush with egg yolk and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.

Then the cookies would be lined up on baking sheets and placed in a hot oven. The cookies had to be looked at with a hawk’s eye – too little time in the oven would result in a pale, mushy cookie, too long and they would have the texture of a hard brick.

My grandmother would wrap the cookies in brown paper bags to give to her children and grandchildren. The rest would be stored in a large airtight container to serve to guests with a cup of his cardamom-flavored mint tea.

Every year before Purim, there is a community bakery in Kahal Joseph, with grandmothers teaching their children and grandchildren how to make traditional Iraqi pastries – cheese sambusak (pockets of dough stuffed with feta cheese), malfouf ( filo pastry puff cigars filled with crushed nuts), crispy almond macaroons and, of course, ba’ba tamar.

This year, Rachel and I were determined to do a baking class for Purim to empower women (and ourselves) to make these seemingly complicated recipes. Two weeks ago we had a Sephardic Spice Girls Master Bake at Kahal Joseph. Yvette Dabby, the president of Kahal Joseph, her sister Rosie Nissan, Orly Kattan and other volunteers made a massive amount of dough, date filling and cheese filling to make baking easier.

Yvette, who left Iraq in 1971 with her husband Joe and a degree in architecture, said that in Baghdad all the women come together to cook for Purim. They would arrange the treats on silver trays and give them as Mishloach Manot.

The evening was a huge success with over sixty women (and a few intrepid gentlemen) happily learning how to make ba’ba tamar and cheese sambusak.

Rachel and I saved a dozen ba’ba tamar for Ruth. -Sharon

Date filling
2 cups pitted dates
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons of water
1/4 cup crushed walnuts

In a skillet over very low heat, combine the dates and olive oil. Stir for 5 minutes until the date mixture is soft. Add water and nuts and stir until it becomes a smooth paste.

Let cool.

Garnish
3 eggs
1 tablespoon of honey
1 tablespoon of water
1/2 cup sesame seeds

In a small bowl, beat together the eggs, honey and water. Put aside.

  • Dough recipe
    2 sachets of active dry yeast
    1 tablespoon of sugar
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    2 cups warm water, divided
    7 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
    1 cup avocado or vegetable oil
    1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
  • In a small bowl, add the lukewarm water to the yeast, sugar and salt. Cover and let rise 10 to 15 minutes.
  • In a stand mixer, add the flour, oil, water, fennel seeds and yeast mixture and mix until a dough forms.
  • Remove dough from mixer bowl and knead dough by hand until smooth and elastic.
  • Place the dough in an oiled bowl, then rub some oil on top of the dough. Cover with a tea towel, keep warm for 1 hour.
  • Remove the dough and knead for 2 minutes. Return to bowl and let sit for 25 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • Divide the dough into four pieces. Grease hands with oil, pinch dough into golf ball sized balls and roll until smooth. Place the balls of dough on a greased baking sheet.
  • Place a ball of dough in the palm of your hand, make a deep cut in the dough and place half a tablespoon of date filling into the hole.
  • Pinch the dough closed, dip the ball in the egg mixture, then roll it in the sesame seeds.
  • With a small rolling pin, roll the ball out flat until it is about 4 inches in diameter. With the tip of the rolling pin, make a few indentations in the center of the cookie. Place the cookies on a baking sheet. Repeat until all the batter and date filling are used.
  • Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden and crispy.

Photo by Alexandra Gomperts

Lately, I’ve been longing for fijuelas, the delicate, crispy fried treat my mother used to make every Purim. My mother made the light batter and stood in front of the stove, quickly frying batch after batch of perfectly even strips of batter into rolled fijuelas. Then she would dip them in a syrup of sugar and honey flavored with lemon. Although they go by many different names – fijuelas, fazuelas, hojuelos – they are an iconic pastry common to the cuisines of Sephardic Jews from Spain to North Africa, Italy to Argentina.

Hélène Jawhara Piner, author of “Sefardi: Cooking the History,” writes that these Sephardic treats are a recipe that dates back to the late Middle Ages in Spain. They are first mentioned in a famous story, “La Lozano Andaluza”. In the 16th century, Andalusian author Francisco Delicado wrote about a Jewish woman fleeing the Inquisition. Having found refuge in Rome, she tells another woman that when she lived in Andalusia, she made hojuelas.

This specialist in food and medieval history says that “their characteristic shape is unmistakably reminiscent of the Megillah of Esther”. She adds that Christians in Spain still eat this dessert for a special holiday called Semana Santa, a holiday that always falls a few days after Purim.

I will always remember my mother’s kitchen in Morocco, with all the surfaces covered in thin strips of batter ready to fry for the fijuelas. Traditionally, the dough was rolled out flat with a rolling pin and cut into long ribbons. But then the pasta machine came to Casablanca. My mother attached hers to the edge of the table, she passed the dough with one hand, I operated the crank and she grabbed the thin strips of dough at the other end.

I will always remember the great Seudahs of Purim from my childhood in Casablanca.

I will always remember the great Seudahs of Purim from my childhood in Casablanca. The meal always included letrea, homemade egg noodles flavored with saffron. Dessert was many moroccan biscuits and best of all freshly fried fijuelas.

When I started making my own fijuelas, I was very surprised that twisting the dough to get the rolled shape wasn’t as easy as my mom made it out to be. But the more I practiced, the easier it was and in the end my fijuelas were quite nice.

I shared them with my family, bringing a huge smile to all their faces.

I wish you a happy Purim with an upside down world.

2 extra-large organic eggs
(crack the eggs and keep the biggest one
half to measure oil and water)
2 shells of olive oil
1 eggshell water
1 eggshell orange blossom water (or plain
the water)
Juice of a lemon
A big pinch of kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
400 g all-purpose flour (about 3 cups)

Almibar (Syrup)
2 cups of sugar
1 cup of water
I lemon, cut into wedges
8 tablespoons of honey
Zest of a lemon

  • In a small bowl, put the yeast and the sugar, then add the lukewarm water, cover with a cloth and let rise for 5 minutes.
  • In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture and knead vigorously until smooth. The dough should be very sticky.
  • Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for two hours, until it doubles or triples in size.
  • In a large saucepan, heat 1 to 2 inches of oil until hot. Add the carrots to absorb the burnt black crumbs and keep the oil clear.
  • Fill a small bowl with water and set it aside. Line up the three prepared bowls: one with dough, one with water, and a third with sugar.
  • Prepare a cookie sheet with paper towels or a brown paper bag to soak up the oil.
  • Dip hands in water, then pull out a golf ball-sized piece of dough.
  • Using your fingers, make a hole in the dough and stretch it into a ring.
  • Immerse it in oil. Repeat with the rest of the dough. Be careful not to clutter the dish.
    Fry until golden brown, turning several times to make sure both sides are cooked through.
  • Remove from the oil using two forks and place on the platter
  • Once the oil is absorbed, roll them in the sugar mixture before they cool.
  • Best when eaten right away.

Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project was born out of their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Upcoming events include Chef Shimi Aaron’s interview at the WIZO Purim luncheon and a Sharsheret Passover cooking webinar. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food. Website sefardicspicegirls.com/full-recipes

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