The end of summer brings with it anticipation for the holidays, which, in turn, stirs up memories from childhood. Many are food memories, tied to the way we used to do things back then.
With time and geography filling a great divide, inevitably, there are things I do differently now—new traditions I look forward to even when I have adopted them by default. Such is the case with the traditional American Yom Kippur break-fast meal, specifically the bagel, cream cheese and lox.
I think in advance about the menu for the holidays. Some of the holiday foods I serve are perennial; they appear on the holiday table once a year. Beloved food traditions are comforting and anticipating them is sweet. Yet I do like to try recipes from other traditions.
I never know where or when inspiration will strike. In Barcelona this summer, where I stopped for several days on my journey home to my family in Israel, I decided to bake something Sephardic for this year’s fast approaching holidays.
I was hoping to observe Jewish bakers making traditional Sephardic Jewish bread during a tour actually called the “Traditional Sephardic Jewish Culinary and Bakery Tour” in the old Jewish Quarter in Barcelona. Instead, I came across non-Jewish bakeries showcasing pastries unlike what one is likely to encounter in the States. Many of them, as my American expat tour guide explained, were similar to the pastries that are traditionally baked by Jews who trace their roots to the Iberian Peninsula.
None of the breads I saw resembled the twisted or braided bread we refer to as challah. The pastry that came closest was the ubiquitous rosca, a turban or coil-shaped yeast pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar. While reminiscent of a round challah for Rosh Hashanah, its texture is more like that of a sweet yeast cake.
I did not find what I had hoped for, but I resolved to continue searching.
I continued my culinary investigations during the second leg of my trip in Israel. Staying few days with a dear old friend in Ramat Gan, I got better acquainted with the baking traditions of the Jews of North Africa. My friend gave me several cookbooks about North African cuisine. Perusing them, I became intrigued by boulou, a sweet and fragrant yeast bread that is typically eaten by Libyan and Tunisian Jews during the holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, especially to break the Yom Kippur fast.
My Yemenite family in Israel still first breaks the fast with ka’aka and a cup of hot coffee spiked with a ginger spice mix. Traditional in many Middle Eastern communities, the ka’aka is a faintly sweet, dry scone-like pastry, which is made from dough leavened with yeast or baking powder. While the coffee is essential for curing the unavoidable headache caused by low blood sugar, dehydration and caffeine withdrawal, the aromatic spices revive our senses and spirit. The combination is thoroughly satisfying.
Aromatic bread, leavened with yeast (Libya) or baking powder (Tunisia), boulou derives its name from the French boule, or ball, for its round shape. I am partial to the yeast version as its crumb reminds me of ka’aka. Studded with anise seeds—think licorice—orange peel and golden raisins, boulou combines the aromatic spices in the coffee and the ka’aka that long ago awoke my senses. Still, this year, after the stars appear and the shofar is blown, I will have a bagel. But only after I have my boulou. Either way, it’s going to be bread. Who said you cannot dance in two weddings?