We just got back from our bi-weekly Shopping Trip to Trader Joe’s. We have a very specific route through the store and after filling our cart and checking out, our next stop is almost always Sahadi’s, a specialty Middle Eastern food shop, where we fill our cart with aromatic roasted nuts, savory pastries, and breads. Once through the door, you are transported into a different world, and we savor the experience of being there, as much as the delicacies we enjoy eating at home until our next shopping trip.
This week Marc was looking for a particular item that he had read about in a New York Times article —Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas. He found them after some searching and we added one package to our order.
When we were finally home and unpacked, it was time for lunch and we both looked forward to tasting our newest acquisition.
The packaging was quite deceiving, and we both thought we were in possession of some kind of pita like savory/sweet bread that would go well with the cream of mushroom soup sitting in front of us. “Oh!” I said, surprised as I opened the individually wrapped tortas. “They are hard, not soft and there is sugar on top”. Then I took a bite.
That one bite took me back ... way back to my grandmother’s kitchen. My Baba Fruman, as we called her, had a white apron on and I was about 4 years old. There were well used and well oiled cookie sheets everywhere. On the flowered table in front of us she was very skillfully rolling out a very stretchy dough. Once it was evenly rolled, she took a feather pastry brush (I hate to think what kind of feathers or how I even remember this detail, but it is as clear as day in my memory), and carefully oiled the surface of the dough. Then she took the bowl of white granulated sugar, and with a few practiced motions, spread an even layer of sugar crystals over the glistening surface.
It took only a few more seconds for her to cut three or four lines in both directions with a sharp knife across the oiled and sugared surface. Together we carefully transferred the delicate squares to the cookie sheets. If they had lost their shape in the transfer, it was easy to pull at one corner or another to pull them back into a square shape. The dough was completely malleable at this stage, but that would change soon enough!
The oven was by now at the perfect temperature, and each of the many cookie sheets made their way in, each one covered with glistening flat squares. They were removed 10 minutes later, transformed into the best cookies I had eaten then or since. She called them kichel. They had puffed up and the corners were all wonky. Some bubbled up, and there were a few where the sugar had caramelized slightly. Those were the best, and I tried to save those all for myself. They were crispy and sweet. Sooooo delicious!
I couldn't tell you exactly how many times we made them together, but they were a staple at Baba’s house and we lived across the street until I was six, so I had my share of kichel until then. After we moved to Winnipeg, Baba regularly sent us care packages with kichel and all of the other amazing sweets she made at that table on those same cookie sheets.
When my Baba passed away, I was already living in Israel, and I remember writing to family members to ask for the recipe. I realize now that it must have really been important to me because I still have the hand written instructions. But I have to admit that I was never able to do it justice, even though I tried it a few times with limited success. They never tasted like the batches we made together. So you can understand my delight after that first bite of Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas.
These Spanish tortas are not exactly like my Baba’s kichel. They have an added ingredient — aniseed — which is wonderful, and they are round and not square. But the taste of that first bite, was as nostalgic as it was sweet. I plan on giving the recipe another try, and, if all else fails, I know where I can get my fix.
It is so comforting to travel back to a wonderful memory, brought on by such a delicious sensory experience. I think I will make a cup of hot tea right now, eat a whole torta and remember how much fun it was to bake with my Baba, and what a wonderful impression it made on me when I was such a little girl. She was not a particularly warm or happy person. I am sure she had her reasons. But in the kitchen she was generous. And I am happy I had the opportunity to know her in that way.