By Caroline Levine
Jewish cooking in my family has always been an act of revival and reconnection.
My family, though very dedicated to Judaism, has very few Jewish recipes that have been preserved throughout the generations. Growing up, I felt disconnected from Jewish culture. I hadn’t heard of many Jewish dishes, and I certainly didn’t know how to make them. I knew that about a quarter of my Jewish roots were Sephardic and the rest Ashkenazi — and that’s about all I knew. I didn’t know how to celebrate the festive Jewish holidays and, ultimately, I just didn’t celebrate them.
But everything changed when I discovered the Sephardic Spice Girls.
Sharon and Rachel, aka the Sephardic Spice Girls (@sephardicspicegirls), are a cooking duo who run an Instagram account by the same name. They post their families’ recipes from Morocco, Iraq and Rhodes, sharing traditional Sephardic dishes as well as their own takes on non-Jewish dishes such as strawberry shortcake, curry and so on.
For me, the true highlight of their page are the traditional Sephardic recipes.
I discovered their account after following numerous accounts on Jewish culture and history in an attempt to learn more about my mysterious Sephardic heritage. Instagram then featured their account on my recommended feed, predicting that I would have an interest in learning about Sephardic culture through cooking.
Instagram was right. Considering my love of cooking and my desire to respectfully reconnect to my distant Sephardic roots, I gladly picked a recipe from the Sephardic Spice Girls and took a leap.
What resulted was the best cake I have ever eaten. I made their Abe Abraham’s apple cake, and it was fantastic. Though not strictly a traditional Sephardic dish, it introduced me to their world. I promptly made it a second time.
I have since looked for any opportunity to make one of their recipes. For Rosh Hashanah 2020, I made their Seville orange chicken and suddenly, I had a newfound passion: Jewish cooking.
Over the next year, I tried countless dishes from their blog. Though every dish I have made with their recipes has been amazing, here are my favorites:
These are the ultimate tea cookies, often made with the flavors of cinnamon, orange juice and anise extract. They are sweet, but not too sweet, and for those not raised with Sephardic culture, they are the perfect segue into experiencing Sephardic joy.
Biscochos date back to Spain, pre-Inquisition, and are thus shared by every Sephardic community. Today, they are mainly served during Jewish holidays or celebrations, and they offer a rich opportunity to subtly connect with — or even educate others on — Sephardic traditions.
To me, biscochos have served a very important purpose in reconnecting to my Sephardic heritage because they are a universal Sephardic dessert. It can be difficult to connect when you do not confidently know where your family called home before arriving in the United States. Though I have a rather good idea, I will never know what countries they truly identified with or if they identified with none of them. The universality of biscochos helps me to feel connected to my ancestors respectfully, without making any false assumptions.
For those unfamiliar with boyos, they are thinly rolled dough with cheese and spinach inside that originated in the former Ottoman Empire. The Sephardic Spice Girls recipe for boyos is wonderful: Though fairly simple in concept, they are very flavorful and a fantastic comfort food (especially if you go heavy on the feta like I do!).
To me, the significance of making boyos extends past the flavor, however. In addition to the delicious taste, I find them empowering to cook. With each fold of the dough, I am connecting to my Jewish ancestors — knowing that I may never know the names of many of them, I find comfort in partaking in traditions they too may have done. In a sense, it is my way of telling them that they will never be fully forgotten.
Abe Abraham’s Apple Cake
Seriously, this cake is amazing. You can pair it with an autumn-inspired frosting if you like, but the cake is so delicious that it is not necessary. Even though the ingredient list is fairly simple, the recipe is an all-time favorite of mine. And interestingly enough, I am not usually a huge fan of the apple and cinnamon combination. This cake, however, has converted me. The autumn feeling that comes from the apples and cinnamon is so comforting and delicious that I intend to make it again for Thanksgiving.
Thanks to Sharon and Rachel’s expansive collection of recipes, I have discovered a way to respectfully connect to my Sephardic heritage — which I have struggled with doing properly, considering how it is not something I was raised with. Cooking, however, has not only inspired me to learn more about and connect with Sephardic culture, but it has taught me to connect with Jewish holidays as well. Whenever a new Jewish holiday rolls around, I now know exactly how to celebrate: by opening up Instagram and trying a new recipe by Sharon and Rachel. More than ever before, I have felt Jewish. And I have the Sephardic Spice Girls to thank.
Caroline Levine is a junior at the University of Florida and a 2021-2022 Alma College Writing Fellow. This originally appeared in Alma.