The cold has come to Madrid. Late autumn, or more precisely, winter has settled in here in La Ciudad Real. And I have to be honest, I’m not loving it (warm weather is much more my shtick). At the same time, being from the Northeast of the United States, where there are always four full seasons, I feel very deeply connected to the changing of the seasons and the different celebrations, phases of life, and –of course!– foods that those transitions bring. With that in mind, I have a post for you all today about Sukkot, one of the holidays in the Jewish calendar that marks the end of a season and the transition into another. Particularly, I want to tell you about a food that represents the multiple meanings of this holiday: biscochikos.
Biscochikos are small, twisted cookie rings. Much like Italian biscotti, they are often twice-baked, resulting in a crumbly, pleasantly crunchy cookie. The history of this cookie goes back to medieval Iberia, their country of origin and where they first were incorporated into the Sephardic culinary repertoire. In medieval Andalusia, the Sephardim combined the Islamic zeal and preparation techniques for desserts, or repostería, as is said in Spanish, with their own unique tastes and religious observances to create the biscochiko. Gil Marks explains in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, that “early Sephardim rarely baked with butter” as it was a food associated with the Christian Spanish community “and cookies instead contained oil” combined with other pareve (kosher) ingredients such as flour, sugar, and eggs, “creating a dough that’s easy to shape and a tender cookie.” The use of oil in the cookie dough is a distinctly Sephardic element of the dessert, as it resulted in a cookie that could be eaten with any meal, milk or meat, without transgressing on the laws of kashrut. Most Sephardic desserts, even to this day, are characterized by the use of oil in place of butter as the recipe’s main fat. After the expulsion in 1492, the Sephardim took their biscochikos with them to their various new homes, where they began to add new ingredients native to those adopted communities to flavor and decorate the otherwise pretty plain ring cookies. For instance, Sephardic communities in Greece perfume their biscochikos with cinnamon and coat them in sesame seeds while Turkish Sephardic communities add walnuts and orange blossom water. Depending on where you are in the world, these cookies can be called biscochikos de huevo or guevo, biscotios, vizcochikos, roskitas, or kaak. In that way, the physically represent the journey of Sephardic cooking and communities in diaspora.
Despite the multiple names for this same cookie, they are a staple in Sephardic diasporic communities for both festive and every day meals, as common on the Shabbat desayuno table as on Rosh Hashanah dessert plates. Sukkot, the Jewish holiday celebrating the final major autumn harvest and the 40-year passage of the Israelites through the desert, is no exception. As Gil Marks shows, they can even factor into the decoration of the traditional sukkah, as “on sukkot, some families hang biscochos from the branches of the sukkah.” Sukkot comes two weeks after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is celebrated for a week, in which Jews all over the world erect sukkot (tents) and live in them for the duration of the holiday. It’s a holiday celebrating bounty – corresponding with the year’s last burst of agricultural abundance – and the consolidation of Jewish identity – as the period of wandering in the desert is reenacted by the dwelling in the sukkah.
Interestingly, food is central to the “proper” celebration of Sukkot. Even in the building of the sukkah, rabbinic commentators argued in the Mishnah about the proper size of a sukkah, finally settling on a structure that “measure[s] at least 7 x 7 handbreadths to contain the head, major part of the body, and the table of the occupant: 6 x 6 handbreadths for himself, and 1 x 1 for the table.” Pretty notable that the main structure that symbolizes the holiday is required to make room for a table on which the sukkah’s occupants can eat. This is because, as the rabbis continue to explain, to fulfill the requirement to dwell in the sukkah, its occupant must eat at least two meals a day. In the logic of the rabbis, it’s not considered really dwelling in the sukkah unless you’re eating in it. Living and eating are considered so intimately linked in Jewish tradition that the proper celebration of a holiday depends on it. Cool, right?
And even cooler, these cookies also appear in a seemingly opposite, non-Jewish celebration here in Spain: Las Fiestas de San Isidro, or the Festival of San Isidore. Las Fiestas de San Isidro take place here in Madrid every May and are perhaps the most specifically madrileño of all holidays in the city. It’s a week of festivities that celebrates the Madrilenian Saint Isidro who lived in the tenth century and had to flee the city during the Almohad rule of the city – around the same time that biscochikos came into existence. Plus, one of the most important celebratory foods of this holiday is the rosquilla, a ring-shaped, oil-and-egg-based cookie that comes with a variety of toppings: tontas (nothing but an egg wash that are widely acknowledged to come from the Middle Ages), listas (with a coating of sugar), de Santa Clara o francesas (topped with a type of merengue), or the popular de Tía Javiera o de Fuenlabrada (that come in twists). Sounds familiar, no? Even the definition in the Diccionario de la Real Academía Española seems like a version of a quick recipe for a biscochiko: “a dessert in the form of a small ring, made of a dough of flour with eggs, sugar, and another ingredient [dulce en forma de rosca pequeña, hecho de masa de harina con huevos, azúcar y algún otro ingrediente] (my translation).”
And if you’re still not convinced, check out this recipe from Directo al Paladar, or this one from Dulces Frivolidades. The recipe for rosquillas tontas and biscochikos are pretty darn similar. Coincidence? I like to think not. But whatever way you make them, and by whatever name you call them, they’re exactly the treat to celebrate life’s bounty, whether for Sukkot or San Isidro’s Feast. I hope you enjoy them!
Biscochikos de huevo with plum-pear compote
To evoke the agricultural bounty of Sukkot, when it is customary to eat dishes that center on vegetables and fruits, I decided to pair these biscochikos with a fruit compote of plums and pears accentuated with a bit of orange zest and juice. The slightly acidic compote makes a great accompaniment for the subtlety sweet cookies. What’s more, both recipes make an abundance of sweet treats, which makes them ideal to serve to guests in a sukkah. Feel free to customize both the biscochikos and compote to your tastes – whether that’s more or less orange zest, the addition of spices like clove or anise, or a pre-oven sprinkling of almonds or any other nut or seed… And if you want a little bit of everything, this recipe makes enough to customize each cookie as you see fit!
Biscochikos (makes about 48 cookie rings):
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 egg beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon of water
½ cup white sesame seeds
½ finely chopped walnuts
Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C. Position a rack in the idle of the oven. Lightly grease a 9” x 13” baking sheet or cover it with a sheet of aluminum foil.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. In another lightly beat the eggs, then add the sugar, oil, cinnamon, and/or any other flavoring you’d like to add (anise, orange zest, and vanilla are all great options). Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and mix until a soft dough forms (once all the flour is mixed in, you’re there).
Lightly dust your work surface with flour. Dump dough out onto the counter. Divide it into 4 equal pieces. Take one of the four pieces and divide it in half. Take that eighth of the dough and divide it into 3 even balls of dough.
To form basic cookie rings, take one of those 3 dough balls and roll it into a log approximately 10 to 12 inches in length, depending on how thin you want the rings to be. Cut the log in half on a diagonal. Take one of the rolled halves and bring the ends together. Squeeze them to form a closed ring. Place on the prepared baking sheet.
To form twists, follow the same technique as with the basic ring, except before bringing the ends of the log together, roll out one the halves into a log approximately twice the length of the log for a regular ring. Take one end of the dough and bring it next to the other. Pick up the folded end of the dough and begin gently winding the halves around each other (my advice: do this slowly and coat the log in a little extra flour because the dough is very fragile). Once the twist is made, bring the ends together as you would for a normal ring and squeeze them to close the twisted ring. Place on the baking sheet.
Once you have your completed rings on the baking sheet (I was able to fit 16 on mine, which meant 3 separate rounds of baking, but of course you can do multiple pans at a time), brush the rings with the egg and water mixture. From here, let your imagination go wild: leave them as is, top with walnuts or sesame seeds, or dust them with raw sugar. Bake the rings for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave on a rack to cool completely.
If you like your cookies crispier, turn off the oven and place all the baked cookies in it until it cools completely. This will act almost as a second baking, which will leave the cookies with a texture closer to a biscotti and much browner appearance.
Compote (makes about 4 cups of compote):
4 medium pears, preferably Bartlett or a more tart variety
juice of an orange
zest of half an orange
1/8 to a ¼ cup of sugar, depending on taste
1/3 cup water
pinch of salt
Cut the plums into 8 slices and chunk the pears in ½-inch pieces. Place cut fruit in a medium saucepan with the orange juice, zest, sugar, water, and salt. Mix to combine. Bring mixture to a boil then turn it down to a simmer. Let the mixture cook, covered, for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fruit begins to break down and the cooking liquid reduces and thickens. Don’t overcook the mixture: the fruit should still hold its shape. Serve with biscochikos and enjoy!