I have always wanted to be Sephardic after the first meal I ate in Aliza Cohen’s kitchen in Long Island in the 1970s. Aliza’s daughter, my friend Limor, had brought me home, and from a culinary perspective, it was like landing on Mars. I had never seen so many salads on one table, the multitude of ways to prepare eggplant and the abundance of cookies and desserts.
The best taste was Aliza’s chocolate babka, which I assumed was from Iraq (Aliza’s background), Morocco (Aliza’s husband’s background) or Israel. Years later, when I started writing cookbooks, I researched the origins of babka and was surprised to learn that it came from Poland!
Jews are the original fusion cooks. Over the millennia, every time Jews arrived at a new place, they embraced new spices, ingredients, recipes and cooking methods, adapting them to the kosher diet, and then schlepped them to the next place. Over our history, “Jewish food” became an eclectic combination of food from all of the locations we were kicked out of. Prior to the founding of the State of Israel, the lines were clearly drawn between Ashkenazic and Sephardic food. In Israel and now beyond, the lines have blurred.
Although I grew up in a strictly Ashkenazi-American environment of spaghetti and meatballs, chopped liver, tuna casserole and matzah ball soup, in my own home I have brought many Sephardic food traditions to my holiday tables. On Jewish holidays, it is especially important to me to include my own family’s traditional Jewish dishes so that my children and guests become familiar with and appreciate the food of our ancestors. If we always serve the new and trendy, we miss an opportunity to create lifelong associations between what we eat and our rich Jewish history.
Baklava is one of those desserts that wandering Jews collected and came to revere. Baklava, a dessert of layered filo dough and nuts, originated in Turkey and was spread throughout the Middle East by the Ottoman Empire. Now you can find baklava on most Sephardic tables, and there are rows and rows of variations in the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
These Matzah Baklava Crisps are a way to marry the gooey nut and honey-lemon taste of traditional baklava with our iconic Passover food. Over several hours, the syrup softens the matzah and creates a highly addictive snack. While many Sephardic Jews eat kitniyot (legumes, seeds, certain grains) on Passover, these crisps showcase Sephardic flavors while remaining kitniyot-free for Ashkenazi Jews.
Indeed, one of the names of Passover is “Chag HaMatzot,” the holiday of matzah. This year, celebrate both the beginning and end of your meals with matzah.