I can’t believe that it’s already Rosh Hashanah again. As much as I love and look forward to this time of year – the crisping of the air, the gathering of family and friends, the fresh starts of the school year and the Jewish calendar – it always catches me by surprise. This past month, however, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the things I want to change in the next year, and one of them is to start anticipating things more. And that includes this blog! In that spirit, I’m posting this recipe with a bit ahead of time, hopefully far enough ahead that some of you may want to add it to your Rosh Hashanah menu.
This dish comes from Claudia Roden’s fabulous book The Food of Spain. In the dish’s description, she explains that “this is an Easter pudding from the Costa del Azahar (‘the orange blossom coast), made with a large type of sweet orange-fleshed pumpkin.” The word for that pumpkin is the same word in Spanish for squash, "calabaza", whose slightly-modified sister, "calabasa" is the word for squash in Ladino, the language of the Sephardim.
My Jewish food instincts started tingling when I read this. Not only because the dish itself is an Easter dish, which, as you may all recall, is usually around the same time as Passover, but also because upon a closer reading of the recipe, it doesn’t contain leavening agents of any type – the usual indication that it’s a Jewish dish in origin. You see, as often happened with medieval Sephardic Jewish food, the dishes that were characteristic among Spanish Jews for Passover often transitioned to being Easter dishes when the people who prepared them converted to Christianity. And as Passover and Easter fall startingly close on the calendar each year, it is very likely that medieval Spanish Christians adapted a taste for the dishes – particularly the sweets, which also occurred with other holidays, such as Christmas - their Jewish neighbors were making for Passover.
This dish also originates from a region of Spain – the Orange Blossom Coast and Valencia – that was well-known for it’s large Muslim and Jewish population, both of whom have left considerable footprints on modern Valencian food (paella, anyone?).
While it may seem strange that I’ve selected a Passover dish to share for the Jewish New Year, there’s actually a great deal that links this particular dish to the Rosh Hashanah season, beyond its medieval Spanish legacy. In the Sephardic tradition, Rosh Hashanah has a seder of symbolic foods, just like Passover.
The foods included on the Rosh Hashanah seder plate, however, are completely different (though some may be familiar in common Rosh Hashanah observance – apples, for instance). These symbolic foods include: squash, apples, dates, leeks, beans (especially black-eyed peas), pomegranate, and – perhaps the most literal of symbols – a fish head (for the head of the year, get it?). These various ingredients symbolize all the usual Rosh Hashanah wishes: abundance, fertility, and sweetness for the New Year. In the Sephardic tradition, before each element of the Rosh Hashanah seder plate is eaten, a blessing, called a Yehi Ratson, is recited to invite blessing upon everyone for the New Year. In all, seven Yehi Ratsones are said, one for each of the Rosh Hashanah foods.
Since one of the special symbolic ingredients is squash, and in the Northeastern United States beautiful butternut squashes are now arriving, I thought I’d make this dish as a bridge between my family’s New Year traditions and my love of Spanish Jewish history. (If you’re still looking for main dish ideas, see last year’s recipe for Honey-Orange-Ginger chicken, my family’s yearly standby). I'm looking forward to celebrating 5778 with these beloved traditions, both the long-established and the newly-discovered. So, there you have it, arnadí de calabaza: a seasonal, historic, and sweet addition to your Rosh Hashanah table.
And with this post, I also wish all the best in this New Year to all of you, my dear readers. May you and your loved ones be blessed with a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year - shana tova umetukah! And as we say in Ladino, anyada buena, dulse i alegre!
Arnadí de Calabaza
This recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain. I've kept the measurements in grams, because it yields a much more precise recipe. Feel free to increase or decrease the amount of sugar - instead of being just a dessert, this recipe can make a very nice, subtlety sweet side-dish that pairs nicely with savory dishes like brisket. Claudia Roden also adds that if you want a firmer arnadí, you can substitute some of the squash for sweet potato. And my last suggestion: make sure you cook all of the liquid out of the squash! It can be deceptive, but it releases a lot more moisture than you expect. And if it's not exactly a pyramid, don't worry, it'll still be delicious. Serves 8 - 10.
750 grams butternut squash, cleaned of seeds, peeled, and cut into 2" cubes (you can also substitute up to 250 g of cubed sweet potato, or boniato, a starchier type of sweet potato found in Spain or use pumpkin in place of squash)
250 mL water
250 grams of sugar (adjust to taste; if you want a more savory soufflé, add 150 grams, if you want it more sweet, add 300 grams)
125 grams ground almonds
2 large eggs, lightly beatn
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
75 grams whole blanched almonds
2-3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting
Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C.
In a wide saucepan, put the water and the squash chunks, and cook them over a low heat, tightly covered, until theu are steamed through and soft, about 15 - 20 minutes. If the water evaporates too quickly, add a little more and lower the heat. Once soft, drain the squash and mash the flesh with a potato masher. Return the mashed squash to the heat and continue to cook, uncovered and stirring, over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the sugar. The squash will release a great deal of liquid when you add the sugar. Continue to to cook the sugar-squash mixture until nearly all the moisture has evaporated, stirring frequently to make sure that the purée doesn't burn. This can take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes (it took me about 30!).
Remove the pan from the heat and add the ground almonds, eggs, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Mix very well to incorporate the ingredients.
Scrape the squash and almond mixture into a round shallow baking dish (a clay cazuela is traditional) and shape it into a pyramid. Push the blanched almonds halfway into the mixture on their pointed ends, to form lines down the sides of the pyramid. Dust the pyramid with the 2-3 tablespoons of confectioner's sugar.
Bake the pyramid for 50 minutes, or until firm to the touch (it can take up to an hour or so, as it did for me). Let it cool, dust with more confectioner's sugar if you'd like, and serve it at room temperature with your Rosh Hashanah meal. Enjoy!