Purim in Gibraltar

Fond memories and secrets from a great-grandmother’s cookbook.

PORTUGUESE ECLAIRS photographed in Porto on a recent Jewish culinary heritage tour. (photo credit: AYA MASSIAS)
PORTUGUESE ECLAIRS photographed in Porto on a recent Jewish culinary heritage tour.
(photo credit: AYA MASSIAS)
Growing up in Gibraltar in the late ’60s meant living in an almost island society, due a closed frontier with Spain because of its dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco.
The only way to reach Gibraltar was by plane from London or from Tangier, or by ferry from Tangier.
The Rock’s Jewish community numbered some 250 families. Most descended from those who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition, wandering from Spain to Morocco and Italy, and some even to Amsterdam, until in 1704 the British and Dutch finally conquered Gibraltar, and Jewish families started arriving. I am the eighth generation of one of those families.
Purim was always my favorite holiday. It was so exciting to wake up in the morning go to synagogue – Sha’ar Hashamayim, the oldest “esnoga” still in use on the Iberian Peninsula and the first to open its doors after the Inquisition – to hear Megilat Esther.
And then the culinary indulgence would begin. Running up and down in the main street of Gibraltar, you would see all the housemaids of the Jewish families dressed up in silky black dresses with starched white cotton aprons carrying silver trays stacked with the most amazing cakes and pies you can imagine. These were the mishloah manot sent from family to family.
After hearing the megila in the morning, the children were given tin boxes to collect tzedaka and go visiting from house to house. I remember that a lot of money was collected for the Jews who were forced to leave Morocco in those days. Everywhere we would go, there would be an enormous buffet of food and alcohol, and we were allowed to drink and smoke.
At the end of the day we all went back to our homes for the festive Purim meal, and then at night the boys and girls of the Hebrew school would stage a grand discotheque with mixed dancing – not at all like it is these days, when boys and girls in the community are barely allowed to mix socially.
My favorite among all the sweets and cakes were the amazing quesinhos and escudilinha made according to recipes passed down by the original Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who, after the Expulsion, brought the secret of these delicacies with them to far-off lands where the Sephardim settled.
It is my pleasure to share these recipes from the handwritten recipe book left to us by Siminha Balensi Benady, my great-grandmother, who was an expert at baking pastries. It was passed down in the family through many generations. Make them for Purim, and you will thank me for a real treat.
A more modern recipe, inspired by our recent visit to Portugal (with 50 American Jews, all of whom had some past connection to the Iberian Peninsula), is the one for eclairs, which will also be part of our Purim feast this year.
For the filling (egg-yolk custard):
■ 1 cup sugar
■ 12 egg yolks
For the almond dough:
■ ¾ kg. sugar
■ 1 kg. well-ground almonds
To make syrup, put the sugar into a small pot and add water until the sugar is just covered.
Bring to boil and watch the sugar disappear. After 20 minutes it will become syrupy. Test with a spoon. When the syrup sticks to the spoon the syrup is ready.
Filling: Make a syrup with the sugar. Once the syrup sticks to the spoon, remove from flame and let cool. Once cool, add the egg yolks and return to the heat. Mix rapidly with a wooden spoon, stirring until the egg mixture turns solid. Allow to cool.
Dough: Make a syrup with the sugar. Once the syrup sticks to the spoon, remove from flame, add the almonds and mix until it forms a dough. Allow to cool. Once the dough has cooled, form little balls (the size of a golf ball). Use your finger to make an indentation in each ball. Fill the space with the egg-yolk custard. Close the hole by pinching the almond dough, and place the quesinhos on a tray.
Before serving, sprinkle with icing sugar and a little cinnamon, using a small sieve.
■ 1 cup sugar
■ 12 egg yolks
■ 24 whole roasted almonds
Make a syrup with the sugar.
Grate almonds, add them to the syrup and mix well. When the mix is cool, add the egg yolks and bring back to the flame. Stir mixture slowly. Once it becomes creamy, remove from the fire and fill small glasses or small crystal containers.
Refrigerate immediately and chill for at least 8 hours in the fridge.
Once ready to serve, decorate with wild berries and chocolate raisins (optional). Finish off by sprinkling with cinnamon.
■ 1 cup water
■ 1 cup milk 50 gr. butter
■ 300 gr. flour
■ 4 eggs
■ 1 tsp. sugar
■ 1 tsp. salt
In a medium-size saucepan place water, milk, butter, sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Add flour and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon over a low flame until the dough becomes hard and separates from the sides of the saucepan. Then add in the eggs one by one, stirring until they are absorbed by the dough.
Set the oven on a medium heat (approx 180°).
Prepare an oven tray and put all the dough into a pastry bag. Squeeze out finger-length pieces of dough about 3 cm. wide onto the tray. Bake for 12 minutes. Let the little puffed up biscuits cool and then they are ready to stuff.
Filling (chocolate mousse):
■ 125 gr. dark chocolate
■ 125 gr. butter
■ 3 eggs
■ 3 Tbsp. sugar
Melt the chocolate and butter in a bain marie.
Then separate the eggs, whip the egg whites with the sugar and when stiff fold in the yolks.
Mix the chocolate and butter until creamy and add to the meringue. Blend both together very gently, preferably by hand.
Leave the mousse to cool in the fridge for 3 hours until it hardens. Then put the mousse in a pastry bag and squeeze into the puffed finger- sized dough pieces. Place eclairs in the fridge.
Before serving, cover the eclairs with icing sugar, sliced baked almonds and cinnamon. You can also cover them with melted chocolate.
TIP: Bain marie Put a pot of water on a high flame. When it starts to boil, place a smaller pot on top with the chocolate and butter so that the heat of the boiling water below gently melts the chocolate and butter.