Israelis get their just desserts
By David E. Kaplan
Anguishing over the news on TV from Afghanistan to Covid, this writer needed a trip to the kitchen on a quest for a sweet diversion. It inspired this article.
It is a universally acknowledged truth that however full after the main course there is always room for a dessert. Of course, the more prudent might dispute this and feel the need to either eat less or dispense with one course altogether.
Admittedly these are tough choices!
Will one skip the hors d’oeuvre or soup to make room for a dessert?
Interestingly, the ‘last course’ or what should be cuisine’s curtain call, its place in history was little more of an ‘afterthought’.
Ask Le French – the folk who first transformed sweets into an elaborate post-meal extravaganza and remain today’s undisputed world title holders of cuisine. The word “dessert” is derived from the French infinitive desservir, meaning “to clear away” as from a table.
Puddings from the Past
In Israel, desserts or “sweets” as some refer to it, have come a long way since Hannah Barnett-Trager, an English visitor to Palestine in the 19th century observed how families in Jerusalem would bring their pre-baked traditional cakes to a large communal oven usually not far from a synagogue. “Each family sends cakes in its own tins to be baked in it. Generally, about half a dozen tins are carried by each boy. Nothing I have seen before can be compared with the many kinds of delicious cakes and “stuffed monkeys” (English Jewish almond pastries) that are seen here. My mouth waters even when I think of the delicious strudels filled with sesames and plenty of raisins!”
In writing her ‘Pioneers in Palestine’ – a memoir covering the foundation of the city of Petah Tikva, and other aspects of the period including a description of young women campaigning in 1886 for the right to vote, Barnett-Trager had plenty of opportunity to ‘tuck in’ and get a real ‘taste’ of the Palestinian palette.
Following independence in 1948, the situation in the new State of Israel was tough. In just three and a half years, the Jewish population had doubled, and Israel’s first government was compelled to introduce rationing. During this period known as the Tzena (Hebrew for austerity), Israelis – still without personal ovens, and compounded by the scarcity of ingredients – would exercise ingenuity in creating desserts. They would concoct sweets like aknacknick (salami) of cocoa, crushed vanilla wafers, wine, and nuts rolled together, refrigerated, and then cut into slices.
Another culinary trick was to substitute peanuts for the costlier walnuts and almonds in their tortes (multi-layered cakes), with powdered eggs replacing fresh eggs in delicacies like cream puffs.
Since those austere days, desserts have emerged as an Israeli meal’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ – works of culinary art where pastry or dessert chefs are free to run wild and express themselves with an abundance of creativity tantalising the eye as much as satiating the tongue.
A Load of Waffle
When I emigrated to Israel well over three decades ago, one of the desserts I missed most was the – the waffle. Totally at variance with its other meaning of – “to talk or write a lot without saying anything important or interesting”, the waffle, on the contrary, for ‘sweet-toothers’ like myself, is most “important” and much more than simply “interesting”, so I welcomed with most Israelis its Aliyah (Hebrew: immigration to Israel) and its increased popularity. One food critic described this trend as such:
“It is a lesser known fact but the Belgian waffle has become a classic comfort food in Israel.”
In Jerusalem alone there are several eateries that specialize in waffles, such as the Waffle Bar, Barbette and Waffle Factory.
Today, the toppings for waffles in Israel are vast and various. For me the waffle at ‘Shenkin Bar’ in Ra’anana is sheer magic. It is large – a very good start; it has an abundance of delicious soft serve and cream – totally on the right track; and topped with Israel’s best yummy fruit!
While Israelis enjoy most the traditional overseas desserts like waffles and another favorite import like Crème brûlée, the prevailing palette has evolved with variations reflecting the local culture.
Bite into Baklava
There is a strong tradition of home baking in Israel arising from the years when there were very few bakeries to meet demand. Many professional bakers came to Israel from Central Europe and founded local pastry shops and bakeries, often called konditoria, thus shaping local tastes and preferences. There is now a local style with a wide selection of cakes and pastries that includes influences from other cuisines and combines traditional European ingredients with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients, such as halva, phyllo pastry, dates, and rose water.
Most popular is Baklava, a nut-filled phyllo pastry sweetened with syrup and served in Jewish communities who originated in the Middle East. It is often served in restaurants as dessert along with small cups of Turkish coffee.
Dozens of Israeli bakeries boast the best baklava, however Zalatimo’s Bakery in the Old City of Jerusalem, which opened in 1860 is believed to be the oldest operating baklava bakery in the world. According to freelance journalist Viva Sarah Press, it is hailed by everyone from the man-on-the-street to culinary cognoscenti as “the place to bite into a warm, hand-thrown wad of phyllo pastry soaked in sugar syrup.” The head baker, Abu Samir Zalatimo, relies on a secret family recipe to prepare the dish for which his place is famous, a deliciously sweet Palestinian phyllo pastry known as mutabak.
The Proof is in the Pudding
As with many Middle Eastern foods, Israelis have taken the dessert “muhalllabia” and made it their own, even changing the name to “malabi”. Probably hailing from Turkey, malabi is a milky pudding thickened with rice – or more commonly in Israel, cornstarch – flavoured with vanilla and rosewater and topped with sugary syrup – often containing more rosewater.
Most wedding receptions in Israel include Malibi amongst its desserts but it is also sold as a street food from stalls in disposable cups with thick sweet syrup and various crunchy toppings such as chopped pistachios or coconut.
Its popularity has resulted in supermarkets selling it in plastic packages and restaurants serving richer and more sophisticated versions using various toppings and garnishes such as berries and fruit.
Love or hate it, every Israeli is familiar with malabi.
For those in search of a unique dairy dessert, Halva parfait is an Israeli dessert of halva suspended in cream and egg yolk. So embedded today in the local cuisine culture, the recipe even appears on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. It is justifiably part of Israel’s global outreach.
The creation of Israeli chefs Tsachi and Linda Buchester, it has been widely copied both in Israel and abroad. It is like an ice scream, cold and creamy with a distinct flavour of sesame. If you enjoy halvah and tahini, you will enjoy this dessert. Even if you are not a halvah fan, you will more than likely delight in the cold creameries of this unusually-flavoured frozen confection. In the words of the Foreign Ministry:
“Just call it ‘Israeli Frozen Parfait’ and serve it with a few bright-colored berries and some whipped cream and it will be a big hit.”
How’s this for sweet soothing Israeli diplomacy?
Cream of the Crop
A popular dessert in Israel as an alternative to ice cream is Krembo.
The Krembo has gained a cultural standing and has been referenced in literature, film, and popular music as a quintessential Israeli snack food.
Back in November 2015, Israel took a sweet approach to International Relations when its officials handed out Krembo marshmallow treats to passengers on a Royal Jordanian Dubai flight that made an emergency landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Who knows, this might have sweetened the deal that was to follow – The Abraham Accords.
It has a biscuit base, marshmallow center and thin chocolate shell and comes in two flavours, each with its own wrapping: blue for vanilla-flavoured marshmallow and brown for mocha-flavoured marshmallow.
In Hebrew, the word krembo is a combination of krem (cream) and bo (in it). According to a study funded by Strauss, Israel’s leading krembo producer, 69% of Israelis prefer to eat krembos from the top down (starting with the cream), and only 10% start with the biscuit at the bottom; the rest had no preference. From whichever direction Israelis assault their krembos, the result is always the same – their hands reflexively reaching out for next one!
No meal is complete at any Arab restaurant in Israel without Knafeh made from mild white cheese topped with a crispy layer of shredded wheat, and covered with sugar syrup. Though knafeh is widely regarded as an Arab dish, it is today also part of Israel’s culinary DNA and a popular dessert at Jewish as much as Arab weddings. One of Israeli-songwriter Ehud Banai’s classic songs is called “Ha-knafeh metuka”, meaning “the knafeh is sweet.” The song waxes nostalgic about Jerusalem’s Old City, where you can easily stumble upon giant copper trays serving bright-orange knafeh, which is served warm with the cheese half-melted, accompanied by a tiny cup of strong Turkish coffee.
The Milky Way
There is not a child in Israel that is not familiar with the dairy pudding Milky. Produced by Strauss, Israel’s largest food and beverage company, Milky is claimed to be the most successful dairy product on the Israeli market since its debut in 1980 and is sold in small containers with chocolate pudding on the bottom and whipped cream on the top.
Its early TV commercials in the late 1980s, it featured a young kid, Bar Refaeli, who would emerge an international model, film star and more recently, host on The X Factor Israel. Both Bar and Milky made it to the top.
Love at first Bite
For Israeli culinary guide Judith S. Goldstein, “A great meal doesn’t feel complete without dessert.” Poetically, she elaborates:
“Skipping dessert after an amazing meal is like going on a perfect date and not getting a kiss at the end of the night to seal the deal.”
So, to our overseas visitors in a post Covid world, we have some “dates” lined up for you!
Israel is a passionate country and when it comes to desserts, resistance is futile!
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