The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Brazil

In honor of Shavuot, chef Dennis Wasko serves up a sweet dairy treat popular among Jews who hail from this tropical climate.

Condensed milk flan311 (photo credit: Wiki Commons)
Condensed milk flan311
(photo credit: Wiki Commons)
Jewish settlement in Brazil began when the Inquisition took hold in Portugal in the year 1497. The first documented Jewish arrival can be traced back to the year 1500 when Gaspar de Gama, a Crypto-Jew, accompanied the Portuguese admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral when he landed on the shores of what is now known as Brazil. Like Gaspar de Gama, most Jews who arrived at that time were known as New Christians or Conversos. These were Jews who were forced by the Inquisition to convert to Catholicism or be murdered in cold blood. In order to save their lives, many Jews converted formally, but continued to practice Judaism secretly.     The Conversos, eager to escape as far as possible from the reach of the Brazilian (Portuguese) Inquisition were responsible for penetrating deep into the Brazilian interior and settling the land. Despite continued persecution, they were able to successfully establish sugar plantations and mills, and by 1624 Jews made up a significant percentage of Brazil’s 50,000 European settlers.  Besides growing sugar cane, Jews were businessmen, importers, exporters, teachers, writers, and poets. 
The year 1624 also saw the arrival of Dutch forces in Brazil. The religiously tolerant Dutch successfully conquered portions of northeastern Brazil. Jews migrated to the tolerant Dutch areas and freely practiced their religion. In 1636, the Jews built the Kahal Zur synagogue in Recife, the Dutch capital.
By 1645, the Jewish population in Dutch controlled Brazil was 1,500, approximately half of the entire European population. Detailed synagogue records show that a well-organized Jewish community thrived there. 
The Portuguese successfully drove the Dutch out of Brazil in 1654. Once the Portuguese were again in control, the Anti-Jewish persecutions began.  As a result, there were mass Jewish migrations to places like New York and Curacao, where they laid the foundations for new Jewish Communities. 
Jews slowly began to filter back into Brazil after 1773 when a Portuguese royal decree abolished discrimination against Jews.  In 1822, Brazil gained independence from Portugal and a steady stream of Moroccan Jews began to arrive. 
Towards the end of the 19th century, European Jews began discussing the idea of leaving Europe due to rising Anti-Semitism, and establishing agricultural settlements in Brazil. Several attempts were made to establish settlements, but due to poor results and political strife in Brazil, the plans were abandoned.  Another attempt was made in 1935 due to deteriorating conditions in Germany, but as part of a strict immigration policy against Jews, the Brazilian government refused to issue the settlers entry visas. 
In 1947, Brazil voted in favor for the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. Brazil actually played a vital role in the adoption of the resolution. Brazil formally recognized the State of Israel in February 1949. 
There were many waves of Jewish immigration to Brazil throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.  By 1969, approximately 140,000 Jews lived in Brazil.  Today, the Jewish population numbers approximately 150,000.
Brazilian Jewish Cuisine is multifaceted. There are influences from all around the world due to the multiple origins of Brazil’s Jewish population. One thing is certain though, the food has become purely Brazilian. Local ingredients and flavors have been mingled with generations of traditional Jewish family cooking. 
Like most Jews, the Brazilians usually prepare pareve desserts because their meals predominantly contain meat. Shavuot, however, is a time when Brazilian families bring out their finest dairy desserts. Dairy usually comes in the forms of condensed milk and evaporated milk in the tropical climate, and one of the greatest things to do with condensed milk is to make Pudim de Leite Condensado, Brazilian-style condensed milk flan. The sweet, silky texture makes it a great dessert to celebrate a sweet holiday.
Pudim de Leite Condensado (Condensed milk flan)Serves 8
1 cup granulated sugar¼ cup water1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk1 12-ounce can evaporated milk6 large eggs1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)Boiling water
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the water and then the sugar in a small pan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and continue cooking until the sugar caramelizes and turns a rich brown color. Be careful not to scorch the sugar. As soon as it is at the desired color, carefully pour the caramel into an 8 inch ring mold or bundt pan. Place ring mold into a larger baking pan with high sides and allow to cool to room temperature.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the condensed milk, evaporated milk, eggs, and vanilla. Pour this mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the prepared pan.
3. Place on oven rack and pour enough boiling water into the larger pan to come half-way up the side of the ring mold. Carefully slide oven rack into oven, close door and bake for 45 minutes. Flan should be set, but still jiggly in the middle. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
4. Cover cooled pan with plastic wrap refrigerate for at least 4 hours. 
5. To unmold the flan, run a thin knife carefully around the edge of the flan to loosen it from the pan. Place a serving plate on top of the pan, and with one, smooth motion, invert the flan onto the plate. Shake the plate and pan up and down a few times until you hear the flan release and feel it hit the plate. This may take a couple of tries.
6. Gently remove the pan and allow the liquid caramel to run down over the flan. At this point the flan may be served, or loosely wrapped with plastic and returned to the refrigerator until ready to serve.
7. Serve with fresh whipped cream and fresh berries if desired.
Shavuot is fast approaching, and as well as spending time with family and eating cheesecake, the festival is traditionally associated with the mitzva of “bikkurim” – to represent the time when farmers brought the first fruits to the Temple.

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