Candies for 'Seudat Yitro'

For years I’ve been trying to recreate this special meal from memory.

 Pigeon-shaped candy (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN AND LIORA KUTNER)
Pigeon-shaped candy
One of the fondest memories from my childhood was celebrating Seudat Yitro, a festive meal we would hold on the Thursday before the portion of Yitro was read in the synagogue. This year, it occurred last week.
There are many beliefs about the origin of this custom. The most common one is that when young boys were studying Torah in kutab, the Tunisian version of heder, they would have learned enough by this time of year to read the Ten Commandments all by themselves, which appear in parashat Yitro.
My readers sent me a number of other explanations, such as that once a plague broke out in Tunis and many people died, mostly young boys. Apparently, the local rabbi decreed that if mothers prepared a soup with pigeons, the plague would end. Indeed, the plague tapered off right around parashat Yitro, and everyone prepared a meal of gratitude, at which they served stuffed pigeons.
Another explanation, which was forwarded to me by another reader, claims that Seudat Yitro is based on the verse in the weekly Torah portion that says that Aaron and all the elders of Israel held a festive meal with Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, before God.
Regardless of the custom’s true origin, this meal has always been very festive, with lots of singing. The meal would open with endless plates of sweets placed on top of a white tablecloth. There would be dried fruits, halva, nougat shaped like children and animals and lots of various kinds of cookies.
After a short break, we would continue with the second part of the meal, which included ful, potato, carrot, and meat quiches, stuffed pigeon and soup. Everything was served in small dishes, and the quiches and cookies were made in miniature sizes for the kids.
For years I’ve been trying to recreate this special meal from memory. I asked everyone I could think of who might remember what kind of candy was served and what shape the cookies had been.
I remember that the dolls were hollow and we would stick our fingers inside and then lick them like a lollipop. In my home, my uncle Yosef-Hai, had been in charge of the candy-making. Now that he’s dead, I haven’t found anyone else who can replicate these intricate delicacies.
So I began experimenting, trying to replicate the candies from my childhood. A few years ago I met a talented pastry chef named Ayelet Cohen, and together we were able to create wonderful nougat, but nothing that was hollow or clear like I remember from my early days.
Then, a few months ago, as I was browsing the Internet, I came across images of candies that looked extremely similar to those my dear uncle used to prepare. I immediately contacted the person whose image smiled at me from the screen in front of me. Her name is Liora Kutner. She is 42, married, with four children, and already a grandmother to one, and lives in Kfar Chabad.
Kutner studied interior design and graphics, and is also an illustrator and sculptor. She took an interest in sugar blowing, and decided to further her studies in France. Now, she runs her own studio called Sucariya, in which she offers sugar-blowing courses.
“Blowing and sculpting sugar is based on the balance between heating sugar just until it can be flexible enough to be sculpted, and then letting it cool down and harden,” says Kutner.
She had already heard of the special candies made for Seudat Yitro from previous students, and after a bit of urging agreed to help me recreate these wonderful creations from my childhood.
She uses two techniques. The first one uses old-fashioned metal trays, flat trays, or trays for making 3D candies. You grease the pans generously, and then fill them with the melted sugar, which can be colored any color that you choose. Wait a few seconds, and then pour off the sugar that is still liquefied. Whatever sugar remains on the tray hardens and takes on the shape of the pan.
The second technique is blowing sugar with a pump, and does not require any trays. This is similar to the Murano glassblowing method developed in Venice, with which you can create any shape your heart desires with a free hand. Nowadays, artists use silicone baking trays as candy molds, since the candy can be lifted off easily and there is no need for greasing.
Many chefs use isomalt in place of sugar, since it is not sensitive to humidity and is not sticky. It also remains completely transparent even when reaching a temperature of 170º, it’s pleasantly sweet and absorbs flavors easily.
To prepare the candy, cook the sugar in a pot with mineral water until it reaches 160º. When the sugar cools and is hard enough, it is placed under a heating lamp or put directly into a mold to be shaped.
Pulling the sugar lengthens the fibers in the sugar and makes it shiny, and blowing the sugar with a manual pump gives it a crystallized look.
1 kg. sugar
500 ml. mineral water
350 gr. glucose
5-6 drops tartaric acid (optional – can be purchased in specialty stores)
To be prepared ahead of time: Large bowl full of water, to stop cooking process Towel, strainer, clean wooden spoon (to be used for sugar only) Cup of filtered water + silicone brush.
Thermometer that goes up to 190° Silicone baking mat Powder food-coloring that is salt and crystal-free or gel food coloring with flavoring In a wide pot, add sugar, mineral water and glucose.
Heat over medium flame and stir constantly while the sugar melts. Slowly raise intensity of flame. If foam forms, remove it with a metal strainer.
When the sugar reaches a temperature of 120º, brush down any stray sugar crystals on the side of the pot using a brush that was first dipped in water. This is also the time to add any flavoring or food coloring. Stir in the color using a thermometer.
When the sugar reaches 160º, remove the pot from the flame and place on top of a bowl of cold water just until it stops bubbling. Remove any extra water on the side of the pot.
If you so desire, you can add 5-6 drops of tartaric acid at this point. Stir.
Now the sugar is ready to be poured into silicone or greased metal molds or to be blown.
Place a printed or drawn image of a pigeon underneath a Silpat baking mat (available at specialty stores). When the sugar begins to cool down and thicken, pour it over the picture on the mat so that it covers the shape of the pigeon.
After it hardens, you can gently pour sugar of a different color over parts of it.
Candy decorations: You can decorate the pigeons with little colorful candies and cutouts.
I wanted to preserve the tradition of using pigeons, so I cut out an edible sheet of sugar with the image of a pigeon on it. I then fastened this over the candy I’d made in the silicone tray. It’s important to press the image onto the candy while the sugar is still warm (but not boiling) and pliable.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
The candies can be stored in a sealed bag after they cool down.
If you’d like to heat just a small amount of sugar, you can heat it in a mug in the microwave using short pulses.
Store candies in an airy, dry place.
Spray them lightly with oil to keep them from sticking, wrap them in baking paper and store in sealed containers.