There is something satisfying and delightful about turnovers. My favorite has to be calzones (half-moon pastries resembling folded pizzas). They take me to my Italian-American roots with every bite, every time (finding a kosher calzone on my first trip to Israel made my day). Although among Italy’s Jews they have historically been eclipsed as a Purim holiday treat by puff-pastry turnovers called buricche, I would argue calzones offer much to the Purim party.
Purim commemorates how Queen Esther foiled Persian minister Haman’s plot to kill Persia’s Jews around the fourth century BCE. Esther hid her Jewish identity (which eventually helped turn the tables on Haman) and kept kosher in the palace by eating vegetarian. That’s why meals for Purim tend to be vegetarian and feature foods with hidden fillings to represent the story’s mysteries and surprises. Prized among such foods are pastries, such as the beloved hamantashen, as well as savory and sweet turnovers in forms of triangles or half-moons—shapes representing the villain’s hat or pockets.
Calzones check the box on the shape and the filling, and also intersect nicely with the Purim tradition of giving gifts of food. Have you ever had someone make calzones for you? They are an amazing gift. If you don’t want to show up with hot batch of them, they can be given cold or frozen to reheat later. Calzones are especially welcome for those avoiding the sweets that dominate the holiday, and their comforting, rustic charm is ideal for people needing a lift in their day.
Furthermore, calzones have a good turnover pedigree. Along with empanadas and similar hand pies, they were probably inspired by the ancient Middle Eastern turnover commonly known as sambusak. These pastries, traditionally made with meat enclosed in bread dough and deep fried, have been enjoyed by Sephardic Jews for centuries. That turnover concept eventually made its way to the Mediterranean. An early Italian adaptation was believed to be a deep-fried yeast dough filled with sausage that Italians in Naples dubbed calzone (“pants leg”). Over time, filling options abounded and the preferred cooking method became baking.
Other than calzones that observe kosher rules, there doesn’t seem to be any single Jewish-style calzone. But we can certainly make one that colorfully and deliciously pays tribute to the experiences and contributions of Italy’s Jews—who lived relatively peacefully in Sicily alone for more than 1,400 years. To do that, I chose two special fillings.
The first was sometimes called the Jewish fruit, or as one Italian writer said, “the vile food of the Jews.” That would be the eggplant. It was possibly introduced in southern Italy by Jewish exiles or merchants or by Arab conquerors. But one thing’s for sure: Italians at first shunned the shiny purple fruit, but Jewish cooks embraced it, making it a prominent part of Sicilian Jewish cookery.
The second ingredient comes into play after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. As Spain gained control of southern Italy, Jews from Spain as well as Sicily moved farther north into Italy. These migrating groups brought along eggplant recipes and most likely “new world” foods—produce from the Spanish colonies that Sephardic Jews would have encountered in the Iberian Peninsula. One of these foods? Peppers.
Of course, eggplant and peppers eventually went on to become beloved in Italian cuisine. That legacy is why I consider them an ideal combination for a calzone honoring Jewish-Italian life. Furthermore, they deliver big flavor, especially when roasted before being enclosed with three cheeses in the tender, olive oil-scented dough.
For a holiday celebrating surprise and survival, this turnover’s hidden flavors take us to a storied past of Jewish ingenuity and perseverance—and of cultural and culinary gifts that have lived on.