The Sweet Story of Israeli Desserts

Desserts are part of the ever-developing Israeli cuisine, and like everything else in Israel, desserts too have their story.

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Today, although almost a vanished species in Israel, wunderpots are occa­sionally used in rural villages elsewhere.

Learning the Art of Cake Baking

Some immigrants did not know the art of cake baking until they came to Israel. I remember one Yemenite cook who told me that before she arrived in the late 1940s on Operation Magic Carpet, she never had tasted a cake in her life. As part of her assimilation process, she was taught by British-born women the bene­fits of using cheese and eggs in cooking, and in cooking classes for new immi­grants she learned to bake cheesecakes and apple tortes. Now, she told me with surprise, nutrition experts tell her that these treats are detrimental to her diet, and they ask her instead for the "healthy" fruit desserts that she used to eat in Yemen!

To others, like many North African immigrants, cake baking is a holy act. "For these women, who raised their children through times of famine (World War II and the 1948 War of Independence), having enough food to eat is indeed a sign of divine favor," wrote Professor Susan Starr Sered in "Food and Holiness: Cooking as a Sacred Act Among Middle-Eastern Jewish Women" (Anthropological Quar­terly, July 1988). "It is significant that the women use food to thank God for granting a petition. For example, they distribute cookies or cakes to all of the pilgrims at holy tombs when a prayer has been answered as a result of pilgrimage to that tomb. In providing food for others, the women are, in a way, imitating God."

For them, as well as for women of the local Arab communities, a dessert like a plain cookie, which does not require any skill to make, is not a dessert worthy of guests. So we have the unusual ka'ak b'adjwah, a Syrian circular butter cookie filled with dates; galettes sucrees, a Moroccan biscotti-like cookie with dried apri­cots and nuts; and other Middle Eastern cookies in many incarnations, beauti­fully executed with great dexterity and pride.

Reminders of Diaspora Life

Many traditional desserts, which are reminders of life in the Diaspora, are also seasonal celebrations of the natural cycle of the Jewish year. Czech apple cake, served at Rosh Hashanah, is symbolic of the new fruit of the fall harvest; a Polish cheesecake made at Shavuot, the "dairy" holiday, is prepared during the season of the most abundant milk and cheese production in the land of Israel; the Gali­cianer chocolate torte for Passover celebrates the barley harvest and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt; and the fruit-filled hamantaschen and other pastries use up the flour at Purim before Passover. For many families who hail from Europe, these desserts, now prepared in Israel, are also reminders of the lives left behind because of the Holocaust.

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Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan is the author of several cookbooks, contributes articles on international ethnic food and special holiday features to The New York Times, Food Arts, Gourmet, and the B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly. Visit her website here.