Eid al-Fitr – 2023

Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is the Muslim holiday that signifies the conclusion of month-long Ramadan; in 2023, it begins on the evening of April 20, but the date can vary a bit as it is subject to the sighting of the moon. It is known as “Sweet Eid” in contrast to Eid al-Adha, the “Salty Eid”, coming in June.

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Ma’amoul are shortbread cookies filled with a paste made from dried fruit, often dates but sometimes figs, or nuts, such as walnuts or pistachios; they’re frequently associated with Ramadan but fortunately are available year round. Paradise Sweets, the Middle Eastern bakery at 6739 5th Ave, was offering three kinds the day I stopped by: clockwise from left, pistachio, walnut and date.


Can a cookie actually melt in your mouth? These were wonderfully fragile, disintegrating into a crumbly powder like a Mexican polvoron: you’ll start with a bite, but you’ll want to finish with a spoon. For those who don’t care for uber-sugary cookies, the good news is that this version is not especially sweet; I discovered that the flavor seems to blossom in the company of a hot beverage – tea or Arabic coffee would be perfect.


Some of the smaller markets along the way were offering prepackaged ma’amoul like this one from Pâtisserie Safa, a Montreal based company. Its structural integrity was sturdier than the freshly baked specimens and the cookie was surprisingly tasty.


Both the dough and the filling were significantly sweeter than the locally crafted examples and I detected a welcome note of orange blossom water that enhanced its flavor profile.


Another survivor of the pandemic is the stalwart bakery Nablus Sweets at 6812 5th Ave. These are Qatayef (aka Atayef), made only during Ramadan and especially for Eid al-Fitr; they’re often sold by street vendors in the Middle East. They start out with a batter akin to that of pancakes but they’re griddled on only one side, then they’re filled with white cheese or nuts, folded into a crescent, fried or baked, and soaked in sweet rose water syrup. This pair enclosed a syrupy chopped nut filling.


They’re thicker and chewier than I anticipated – I was expecting a straight ahead, lighter pancake texture based on what I saw as they were being prepared:


Fresh off the griddle. Some folks buy them just like this, ready to be brought home to be filled with the family recipe (of course) of creamy cheese or walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.
 
 
And there are still some openings on my Flavors of Little Levant and Little Yemen ethnojunket on April 30; sign up to join in the fun!
 
 

Sellou

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Since food tour season is in full flower and there are some new businesses in the neighborhood, I decided to revamp my Middle Eastern Bay Ridge ethnojunket. Did you know that Bay Ridge and Beirut are cognates? Just kidding.

One of the treats along the route is sellou (سلّو, aka sfouf or zmita), a unique unbaked Moroccan sweet made from toasted flour and ground almonds, sesame seeds, sugar or honey, cinnamon, and anise; as you’d expect, recipes vary from family to family. At Nablus Sweets, 6812 5th Ave, Brooklyn, I spotted a huge brown mountain of it and purchased a small knoll, broken here into two little hillocks. It’s soft in texture, somewhere along the cookie<–>brownie continuum but drier, crumbly but crunchy from nuts – just break off a chunk and enjoy, perhaps with a cup of tea. If your knowledge of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean sweets is informed primarily by honey drenched baklava and knafeh, give this one a try (available particularly around Ramadan); I highly recommend it.

There are still some openings on my Flavors of Little Levant and Little Yemen ethnojunket on April 30; sign up to join in the fun!
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich (2023)

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Most holidays come equipped with delectable, traditional foods and Orthodox Easter is no exception; it occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears on or after the spring equinox – April 16, in 2023. As an Equal Opportunity Celebrant, I make it a practice to sample as many of these treats as possible around such festive occasions, not because of any personal porcine tendencies of course, but in order to altruistically share information with anyone who might be unfamiliar with these delicacies. 😉

According to Wikipedia, the Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church with approximately 220 million baptized members. The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live mainly in Southeast and Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Georgia and other communities in the Caucasus region, and in Siberia reaching the Russian Far East.

According to ethnojunkie, each region has its own distinctive, specialty baked goods that are prepared in celebration of the holiday. Many are sweet breads called pascha (or some variant), from Greek/Latin meaning Easter, and ultimately from Aramaic/Hebrew meaning Passover. Let’s check out two of them.


If you go out in search of pascha, you’ll discover vastly divergent varieties depending upon the heritage of the bakery you land on. Polish versions I’ve sampled are puffy, yeasty, a little sweet and are designed to be pulled apart and shared at the table. Some other Eastern European and Russian styles are more like a cheese-filled bread, with veins of sweet, white dairy goodness running throughout. This photo was taken surreptitiously in a Russian market. Shhh!


Shown here is Romanian pască. This particular example comes from Nita’s European Bakery at 4010 Greenpoint Ave, Sunnyside, Queens. It is unique (at least in my experience) and undeniably stellar. This dense delight, about nine inches in diameter, is actually a two-layered affair, with a rich topping/filling that is virtually a raisin-studded, hyper-creamy manifestation of cheesecake that sits atop a sweet cake-like bread; the religious theme is easily recognizable.


Here’s a view that reveals the layers. If you like sweet desserts, you’ll love this.


On my recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Eastern European shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a Slavic Orthodox Easter bread. Look closely behind the eggs in the first photo and you’ll see an array of them. (Look even more closely behind the kulichi and the sign for яйца and you’ll see packages of the Italian Christmas treat, panettone. Pretty much every market was offering them as well. In terms of taste, they’re pretty close although panettone is a little richer, however I have yet to determine why both are sold in this neighborhood during Orthodox Easter. But I digress.)

Not as sweet as pascha, the cylindrical kulich is often baked at home in a coffee can to achieve the characteristic shape; this diminutive example stands only about five inches high. The Ukrainian legend reads куліч (cake) пасхальний (paschal) and around the beltline з великоднем (Happy Easter) христос воскрес (Christ is risen).


It’s somewhere along the bread <-> coffeecake continuum, laden with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

And at Orthodox Easter this year especially, as the deplorable, inhumane Russian invasion of Ukraine still rages, our thoughts and hearts are with the heroic, resilient, brave, beautiful people of Ukraine. We are all Ukrainians now.

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава! 💙💛
 
 

Om Ali

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This is Om Ali (you might see umm ali), أم على. The phrase translates as “Ali’s mother” and of course, fables abound as to its name. Essentially Egypt’s answer to bread pudding (only better if you ask me), it’s made with phyllo dough, milk (and occasionally, richer dairy considerations) and sugar, sometimes elevated with raisins, nuts, and cinnamon. There are legions of recipes for this traditional Ramadan treat; the day I tried it in a restaurant that has since closed, my delightful version came with sour cream and ground nuts on the side for garnish, ad libitum.

I understand that a rendition is available in Astoria’s Little Egypt but I haven’t been back there for a while; report TK.

Ramadan Mubarak!
 
 

Italian Grain Pie

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If you follow me, you know that I’m a sucker for international holiday foods, sweet treats in particular. And since I live from holiday to holiday (hey, whatever works, right?), I always look forward to Easter for traditional Neapolitan Grain Pie.

For starters, don’t be deterred by its name in English; I suspect “Pastiera Napoletana” has a more agreeable ring to it. The aforementioned grains are wheat berries, and their presence is no more unusual than grains of rice in rice pudding. They’re embedded in a sweet ricotta/custard cream infused with orange blossom water and augmented by bits of candied orange peel and citron along with a touch of cinnamon; the heady aroma of orange and lemon is key to its success. The rich filling is swaddled in a delicate, crumbly shortcrust shell.

This example came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn; I’ve written about them here, here, and here – they’re that good.

Per favore, if you have a solid Italian bakery nearby or even a bit of a walk away (think of the calories you’ll burn!), head out there and try this delicacy for yourself while the season is still upon us. Grazie!

 
 

La Colomba di Pasqua

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Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are concurrent this year. It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for Easter (pasqua) and the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) are closely related, although culinarily the holidays couldn’t be more disparate. During this time of year, Jewish families are expunging their homes of even the most minuscule crumb of anything leavened, and Italians are baking Easter breads like they’re going out of style.

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate.

The first photo shows a colomba in all its avian splendor. Frankly, I think it’s a leap of faith to discern a dove in there, but if you can detect one, you may have just performed your own miracle.


Hard pressed to see the dove? Fret not, for this photo has the cake turned upside down so the columbine form is somewhat more evident.


The third photo depicts a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

Just wondering: There’s no debate that American kids bite the ears off their chocolate Easter bunnies first. Do you suppose that Italian children start with the head, tail, or wings of the colomba?
 
 

White Rabbit Ice Cream

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My first taste of Chinese candy came about when I was a kid; it was so very long ago that I can’t even remember which Dynasty it was. The novel confection was White Rabbit, a chewy, creamy, milk-based taffy (although technically, it’s toffee because it contains dairy) and it’s a godsend to dentists world-wide.


Years later, when boba drinks were just becoming the rage in Chinatown and the line for the solitary Tiger Sugar in Flushing coiled around the block, an enterprising challenger, With Sugar and Tea (long gone but not forgotten), opened up nearby. The flavor of its signature drink boasted spot-on doppelganger rabbitude.


Three’s the charm, of course, and the ultimate rabbit out of a hat trick is this White Rabbit ice cream that I stumbled upon recently in SF Supermarket when I was prepping the 2023 version of my Elmhurst ethnojunket. It sports an ingenious lid that conceals a handy spoon and it definitely tastes like the real deal.


Which naturally raises the question (especially since this is the Year of the Rabbit) will we sample this delicacy on my Ethnic Eats in Elmhurst ethnojunket?

Only one way to find out. Check out my Ethnojunkets page and sign up to join in the fun!
 
 

Ramadan 2023 – Nishallo

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Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the holy month in which the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad; this year, Ramadan begins at sundown on Wednesday, March 22. During that period, about 1.6 billion Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk. The meal that marks the end of each day’s fast is called iftar and often commences with three sweet dates to help restore blood sugar levels, after which the menu will vary by country and regional specialties.

This is nishallo (aka nisholda), an exceedingly sweet dessert that’s native to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and prepared exclusively during Ramadan; it makes its appearance as part of iftar. Made primarily from sugar, whipped egg whites, and water, it’s a dead ringer for Marshmallow Fluff (as you’d expect from the ingredients) if perhaps a bit classier because of a touch of star anise and/or licorice root. I understand that for some natives of Uzbekistan, it rekindles heartwarming childhood memories, not unlike Fluff for some nostalgic Americans. It’s often used as a dip for warm flatbread and is particularly appropriate after 10 to 17 hours of abstention from eating because its high sugar content is said to jumpstart the metabolism.

I found it, along with other Ramadan specialties like halim or haleem (see yesterday’s post), at Tashkent Market, 713 Brighton Beach Ave in Brooklyn, one of the highlights on my Little Odessa ethnojunket. If you like the idea of tasting something new and delicious from another part of the world, please visit my Ethnojunkets page to learn more about my neighborhood food tours and join in the fun!

More about Ramadan foods during the month.

Ramadan Mubarak!
 
 

Sfingi for St. Joseph’s Day

It seems like every world cuisine has its own version of fried dough – Zeppole are Italy’s contender. You’ve probably seen them at street festivals or perhaps you were fortunate enough to have grown up watching your nonna make them as she confidentially disclosed her signature special ingredient, amore, which of course elevated hers above all others. They’re usually dusted with a sprinkle of powdered sugar but on occasion are dressed with a shot of pastry cream.

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These first cousins are sfingi (pronounced SFEEN-jee), Sicily’s answer to Neapolitan zeppole, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Sfingi are fried cream puffs filled with cannoli cream and can be found in Italian-American bakeries in celebration of Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, honoring the husband of the Virgin Mary. (BTW, I’ve seen recipes that call for baking them, but….No.) This pair, chocolate on the left, bursting with ricotta-based, cinnamon-inflected, sweet cannoli cream shot through with mini chocolate bits, came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn.

The inside scoop:

Crunchy crispitude.


Puffy and floofy.