Bagels and lox, cheese blintzes, sweet noodle kugel, honey cake.
Such are the rewards promised to most of us to break our Yom Kippur fast. Sure, it’s a special time to gather with family and friends, but after something like 25 hours of fasting, it’s quick hugs hello and then a beeline to tables overflowing with those traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes.
But walk into one of many varied traditional Sephardic break-fasts, and you will be greeted not just with different foods, but also often a different pacing to the break-fast gathering. I remember my father’s description of that first taste offered everyone gathered in Turkish Jewish homes, a tradition he encountered growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. People sat together and were offered a spoonful of sweet preserves, often made from quince, accompanied by a small glass of water. Usually this break-fast combination was served on a tavla, a special round tray with matching small glasses and spoons.
Other Sephardim from Turkey and Greece would greet guests with pepitada, also called subiya, a milky drink made from seeds from Persian, cantaloupe or honeydew melons. The seeds are dried, toasted, cracked open and roughly ground before being tied up in double cheesecloth. The cheesecloth is submerged in cold water for 24 hours, with the liquid squeezed from the seeds in the cloth occasionally. The resulting cloudy white “milk” is sweetened with sugar and a drop or two of rose water before being served chilled to hungry, thirsty guests.
Some Sephardim break the fast with a small dairy snack or sweets like a piece of cake with dried fruits and nuts. Sometimes it’s a piece of sweet bread or cake dipped in honey or sugar upon returning home from synagogue. With today’s melding of different Jewish traditions, families are just as likely to dip challah, a bread that was not part of Sephardic cuisines until the 20th century.
Once the fast is broken, many Sephardim forgo dairy meals for meat, fish or fowl cooked into comforting soups, stews or tagines and accompanied by a variety of salads, simple cooked vegetables and rice dishes. Chicken soup of many different varieties–including avgolemono, the egg-lemon soup thickened with rice that is popular in Greek cuisine—is often part of the meal. “Cigars” of flaky fingers of dough encasing ground meat or savory spinach and cheese as well as small pies of meat or cheese (if it is a dairy meal) also fill break-fast tables and satisfy empty stomachs.
Whatever savory foods are served, there is one ingredient that plays a most important role in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic break-fasts and throughout the High Holidays, and that is honey. Nothing is more symbolic of the sweetness of life and wishes for a sweet new year.
Humans have been harvesting honey since…well, pretty much since we started walking upright. Stone Age rock paintings found in Spain depict people climbing up long ladders to gather honey from wild bees’ nests on rock faces or in very large trees. Earliest Roman cookbooks include honey as an ingredient, and there are several Biblical references.
Honey is an important ingredient in Sephardic cuisines, used in savory dishes as well as desserts. For Turkish Jews, apples and honey move beyond dipping raw slices dipped in honey to candying apple slices in honey with cinnamon, cloves and a touch of lemon.
When it comes to desserts, the idea of the tavla de dulces (tray of sweets) moved from Spain with the Jews across old world and new. For Yom Kippur break-fast treats, favorites include the multi-layered baklava, nut-filled rolls made with a shredded pastry called kadayif and variations of a honey nut cake called tishpishti, tupishti or tubishtiel. What all of these dulces have in common is being finished with a soaking of sweet syrup that is a mixture of honey and sugar with a bit of lemon juice for some balance.
The perfect finish to a break-fast meal with family and friends is good conversation, a piece of tishpishti and a cup of mint tea or strong Turkish coffee.