Stel­la’s Sephardic Table: Jew­ish Fam­i­ly Recipes From the Mediter­ranean Island of Rhodes

Stel­la Cohen; Marc Hober­man, photographer
  • Review
By – January 2, 2013

Stel­la Cohen is an heir of the unique Jew­ish cul­ture and cui­sine that thrived on the island of Rhodes from the 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, until the 1940s, when the com­mu­ni­ty was wiped out by the Ger­mans. Cohen’s fam­i­ly was one of the few who escaped, set­tling in south­ern Africa, where she was born, and in mem­o­ry of the com­mu­ni­ty Cohen, a food writer and artist, has col­lect­ed its recipes in this high­ly per­son­al book. Cohen laces the his­to­ry and tra­di­tions of the Rhodes com­mu­ni­ty and her family’s his­to­ry with the Rhodesli recipes and cus­toms that were passed down oral­ly through gen­er­a­tions. Illus­trat­ed with stun­ning pho­tographs, includ­ing many from Cohen’s fam­i­ly, as well as Cohen’s paint­ings, the book is both a trib­ute and a rich col­lec­tion of recipes.

As with many Jew­ish cuisines, Rhodes Jew­ish cook­ing was influ­enced by the places where the com­mu­ni­ty had lived —Spain, Turkey, Greece — and region­al ingre­di­ents. Fried Mar­i­nat­ed Fish are cooked on Fri­day and served for Shab­bat lunch; veal appears in many dish­es — Leeks and Can­nelli­ni Beans Braised with Veal; Veal, Egg, and Herb-filled Pota­to Cro­quettes — and the bak­ing sec­tion reflects its Mediter­ranean ori­gins with its var­ied use of almonds and marzi­pan, hon­ey, oranges, and apri­cots. Savory pas­tries — notably minia­ture Meat and Rice-filled Pies, topped with sesame seeds — will tempt bak­ers look­ing for fresh fla­vor com­bi­na­tions and chal­lenges. Step-by-step pho­to­graph­ic instruc­tions will help with unfa­mil­iar tech­niques.

Despite its appeal­ing col­lec­tion of recipes, Stella’s Sephardic Table can­not be tru­ly clas­si­fied as a cook­book. Its 1012 size and its glo­ri­ous illus­tra­tions rule out heavy kitchen use; its kitchen tips, Ladi­no say­ings accom­pa­ny­ing each recipe, and infor­ma­tive back and front mat­ter make it a book for read­ing and learn­ing about Rhodes as much as a cook­book. For any­one inter­est­ed in pre­serv­ing and pre­sent­ing the van­ish­ing tra­di­tions of the once vibrant Jew­ish Rhodes cul­ture and cui­sine, this book is a trea­sure house. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, gen­er­al and recipe index­es, glos­sary, illus­tra­tions, photographs. 

Recipe: Almond Semoli­na Cake Soaked in a Hon­ey-Cit­rus Syrup


For the syrup:

1 cup cast­er (superfine) sug­ar
1 cup clear hon­ey
1¼ cups water
1 small cin­na­mon stick
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
a 2.5cm (1in) strip of lemon zest

For the cake:

4 eggs, sep­a­rat­ed
¾ cup cast­er sug­ar
½ cup veg­etable oil, plus extra for brush­ing
¾ cup plain (all-pur­pose) flour
½ cup fine semoli­na
2 heaped tsp bak­ing pow­der
170g (6oz) unblanched almonds, fine­ly ground
1 piece of mas­tic ground with 1 tsp sug­ar
½ tsp ground cinnamon

For the topping:

30 whole blanched almonds, toasted

You will need:

a rec­tan­gu­lar or oval 3022cm (129in) oven­proof dish that is at least 6.5cml, (2½in) deep

Pre­pare the syrup: Com­bine the sug­ar, hon­ey and water in a small heavy-based pan. Bring to a boil, stir­ring con­stant­ly, until the sug­ar has dis­solved. Add the cin­na­mon stick, lemon juice and zest. Boil for 5 min­utes with­out stir­ring. Let cool and dis­card the cin­na­mon stick and lemon zest.

PRE­HEAT the oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Light­ly oil the dish and dust with 1 tbsp flour. Place in the fridge.

Make the cake: In the bowl of an elec­tric mix­er beat togeth­er the egg yolks and sug­ar on high speed, until pale and thick. Beat in the oil.

IN a medi­um-sized bowl com­bine the flour, semoli­na, bak­ing pow­der, almonds, mas­tic and cinnamon.

WHISK the egg whites in a clean bowl until soft peaks form. In two batch­es, gen­tly fold into the egg and sug­ar mix­ture. Then fold in the dry ingre­di­ents, scrap­ing down the sides of the bowl, until well incorporated.

POUR the bat­ter into the pre­pared dish, smooth­ing it out even­ly. Bake in the cen­tre of the oven for 35 min­utes or until gold­en brown and a skew­er insert­ed in the cake comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven.

REDUCE the oven tem­per­a­ture to 150ºC (300ºF). While the cake is still in the dish, cut deeply into approx­i­mate­ly 4cm (1½in) dia­mond shapes with a sharp knife. Gen­tly spoon the cooled syrup even­ly over the entire hot cake. Press a halved toast­ed almond onto the cen­tre of each dia­mond shape. Return to the oven for 5 min­utes for the syrup to soak in. Serve at room tem­per­a­ture either from the dish or arrange the cut pieces on a cake platter.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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