Eid al-Fitr (2022)

Eid al-Fitr or Eid ul-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is the Muslim holiday that signifies the conclusion of month-long Ramadan; in 2022, it begins on the evening of May 1 and ends on the evening of May 2. (Photos in this post were taken last year.)

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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 in Brooklyn, 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.
 
 
My Flavors of Brooklyn’s Little Levant ethnojunket will be resuming soon with some new and delicious post-COVID changes. Stay tuned!
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich (2022)

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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 24, in 2022. 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 – look for the awning that reads Cofetaria Nita. 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 a 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 Ukranian 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, our thoughts and hearts are with the heroic, resilient, brave, beautiful people of Ukraine. We are all Ukrainians now.

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава! 💙💛
 
 

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 thisclose to being 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?
 
 

A Ukrainian Ice Cream Novelty

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I can read enough Russian to know when I’m seeing Ukrainian (both are written using the Cyrillic alphabet) – like the label on this package.

The brand is Ласунка (Lasunka) a leading producer of ice cream in Ukraine; it means delicacy or, loosely translated, sweet tooth; пирожено-морожено means cake-ice cream; грушове indicates pear (pictured on the label – look closely); and з карамельннм соусом translates as “with caramel sauce.” (Дякую, Гуглити.)


What appears to be a brown cardboard cup is actually a soft edible bowl (the “cake”) cradling three cute soft ice cream florets. The ice crystals are the byproduct of storage, not the product of creativity, but they were so pretty, I couldn’t resist taking a photo before dispatching them.


And you’ve probably already surmised that I came across this treat while doing prep for my Little Odessa ethnojunket.

You can sign up and taste one for yourself! Please visit the Ethnojunkets page to learn more about my neighborhood food tours and join in the fun!

Hope to see you soon!

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! 💙💛

 
 

Ramadan 2022 – 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 Saturday, April 2. 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 that 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 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, 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.
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

(Originally published on Holi in 2019.)

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant strikes again, eating my way through Holi today, the Hindu festival of spring and colors celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (you can read about my addiction to them here); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which is drizzled into hot oil in coil shapes. The resulting deep fried confections look like pretzels; they’re crispy when they come out of the oil, then they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.


This is gujiya (you might see gujia), a classic Holi sweet, half-moon shaped and similar to a deep-fried samosa. Crunchy outside and soft within, it’s filled with sweetened khoa (milk solids), ground nuts, grated coconut, whole fruits and nuts (raisins and cashews in this one), cumin seeds, and a bit of suji (semolina) for texture.

These Holi day treats came from Maharaja Sweets, 73-10 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!
 
 

Purim 2022

The Jewish holiday Purim begins this year (it’s 5782 according to the Jewish calendar) on Wednesday evening, March 16, and ends on the following Thursday evening. Although the photos in this post were originally published a year ago, some things never change. Tradition!

The story of Purim memorializes the time in ancient Jewish history when Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus of Persia, had been plotting to exterminate all the Jews in the empire. His plan was thwarted by Mordecai and Queen Esther, his adopted daughter, and the deliverance is one of joyful celebration, steeped in traditional ceremonies and festivities. Among the many icons of the holiday, one of the most renowned is the hamantasch, literally “Haman’s pocket”.

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Hamantaschen are delicious triangular baked pastries conventionally filled with thick prune jam (lekvar) or ground poppy seeds (muhn), but these days creative cookery presents some serious competition. Happily, the always mind-blowing Breads Bakery with four locations in Manhattan, covers the entire spectrum. On this plate, there’s sweet poppy seed, halva, chocolate, and apple along with a pair of savory challengers, purple haze and pizza. The former, covered in sesame and nigella seeds, holds sauerkraut – a little sweetish and worth a bite even if you don’t care for sauerkraut. The latter is filled with a blend of tomato paste, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, basil, garlic, and olive oil and tastes exactly like what you’d expect with that set of ingredients; try warming this one up. Fusion food for sure. This year’s specialties are apple, apricot, poppy, chocolate, and pizza with walnut pesto.


Sometimes a change of focus helps to make a point – or six.