A new cookbook for Italian Jewish cuisine – The Forward
To some, orecchiette is just a form of pasta. For Benedetta Jasmine Guetta, it’s exasperating.
“The orecchiette story literally infuriates me,” she said of the pasta whose name translates to “little ears.”
The Italians tell him that the shape of the pasta comes from the region of Puglia, unaware that it comes from the Jews who settled there from the south of France.
“They’re called little ears for a reason,” she said. “For what feast do we eat the ears of the wicked? Purim!”
Guetta, 33, is a woman on a mission. After co-founding Labnathe only kosher Jewish food blog in Italian in 2009, and teaching Jewish cooking classes in Italy, she realized how few Italians knew how much Jews had influenced their beloved cuisine.
To help them learn, she has written two cookbooks in Italian. Her latest cookbook, and the first in English, is “Cooking alla Giudia: A Celebration of Jewish Cuisine from Italy(Craft books).
In addition to well-known Judeo-Roman dishes like fried artichokes, the book offers recipes for lesser-known dishes like prosciutto made with dried goose rather than pork; a Passover dessert in the form of a snake, depicting how Moses’ staff turned into a snake to intimidate Pharaoh, and a kosher spaghetti carbonara, replacing pork with zucchini, beef jerky, or turkey bacon in the classic dish.
There are also plenty of Passover dishes, with quite a few Passover desserts including Honey Matzo Fritters (see recipe below), Chocolate Mousse Cake, and Flourless Chocolate Cake.
The recipes tell stories of Jewish wandering. One of her favorite recipes, she said, is a Passover almond cake that arrived in the Tuscan port city of Livorno from Portugal, then went to Libya, then returned when the Jews fled.
“It gives you an idea of how Jews and Jewish food travel to different places across generations,” she said.
While Roman Jewish recipes have been well documented in both Italian and English, Guetta said many lesser-known Italian Jewish recipes are at risk of being lost. The grandmothers who cook them live in the smaller regions and their handwritten recipes often include instructions such as “knead until you’re done”.
“I wanted to preserve this wealth of small community recipes that were unwritten and on the verge of extinction,” she said.
Guetta grew up in Milan. While most Italian Jews say they are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, tracing their roots to historic Israel at the time of the Roman conquest, Guetta is one of the exceptions: his father is from Libya.
“We observed the holidays,” she said. “We didn’t eat anything but kosher, or meat and milk together, but we didn’t keep separate dishes. Most Italian Jews are rather secular.
One of the reasons for Italian ignorance of Jewish food, she said, is that most Italians don’t know any Jews, or if they do, they don’t know they’re Jewish, did she say.
“I often get ‘Really?’ like I was an alien creature or an alien,” she said. Thanks to his blog, Italians now approach him with all their Jewish questions.
“It’s not like I’m a big guru for being Jewish, but, oddly enough, I found myself representing Jews unwittingly,” she said.
There are a few of her own family’s recipes in the book, such as one of her favorites, a tuna pie, but most of the time she features other people’s recipes.
“I wanted to give the flavor of what you might be eating right now in an Italian Jewish home,” she said.
Guetta now lives in Los Angeles, where she moved to be with her Israeli-American partner. She runs Cafe Lovia small cafe in Santa Monica specializing in challah sandwiches, his favorite bread.
Guetta points out that the Jewish influence on Italian cuisine doesn’t stop at orecchiette. In fact, many well-known Italian dishes were influenced in one way or another by Jews.
“In the 19th century, Italians thought eggplant could be poisonous,” she said. “The Jews of Spain had learned to cook with their Arab neighbors.”
The influence worked both ways, she said. Different popes proposed obscure prohibitions to make life more difficult for Jews. A pope decreed that Jews could only eat small fish like sardines and anchovies, which led to the invention of the famous sweet and sour. sardines with saor.
“The Jews then offered delicious dishes that are now considered specialties,” Guetta said. “It drives me crazy that nobody knows these stories.”
Honey matzo bread fritters
One of the best culinary inventions of the women of the Roman ghetto is the pizzarelle, small sweet matzo fritters soaked in honey. These treats can be found in bakeries all year round. I know it can be hard to believe anyone would want to eat matzo when it’s not Passover, but try pizzarelle and you’ll instantly be converted into a matzo lover.
Yields 30 donuts
6 sheets of matzo
3 large eggs (150g)
6 tablespoons (75g) sugar
2⁄3 cup (100 g) raisins, soaked in hot water until puffed and drained
½ cup (50g) pine nuts
1 tablespoon grated orange or lemon zest
Up to 3 tablespoons matzo flour
Sunflower or peanut oil for frying
1⁄3 cup (100g) honey (see note)
Break the matzo sheets in half, place them in a bowl filled with water and weigh them down with a plate to keep them submerged. Soak for 2 hours, then drain the matzo and squeeze them to remove all the water.
Transfer the matzo to a large bowl and mash with a potato masher to make a thick, somewhat chunky batter or batter. Stir in eggs, sugar, raisins, pine nuts and orange or lemon zest. Stir in some or all of the matzo flour: you’re looking for a thick batter that will hold its shape when spooned into the hot oil for frying. It shouldn’t look too wet and runny.
Pour 1½ to 2 inches (4 to 5 cm) of oil into a large saucepan and heat over medium heat until a frying thermometer reads 350°F (180°C). You can test the oil by dropping a small piece of food in it, like a slice of apple: if it sizzles well but doesn’t bubble too hard, the oil is ready. (An apple is said to help minimize the smell of frying oil, so I usually go for this, but any morsel of food will do.)
Working in batches to avoid crowding, using two spoons, drop small mounds of the matzo mixture into the hot oil and fry the donuts for 5 minutes, or until golden brown, turning once to ensure even cooking. Drain the cooked donuts on paper towels for a few minutes, then transfer to a plate and drizzle with honey before serving.
The pizzarelles should be eaten as soon as they are ready: they are delicious right out of the pan, but they get soggy quickly.
If the honey is very thick, heat it in a small saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to liquefy it before pouring it over the pizzarelle.
For a chocolate pizzarelle, omit the matzo flour and add 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder. Keep in mind, however, that while cocoa pizzarelle is delicious, the color isn’t appealing.
_Excerpt from Cooking alla Giudia by Benedetta Jasmine Guetta (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2022._