Researching the Yom Kippur culinary traditions of many Jewish communities, I realized that all Jewish grandmothers, not only mine, agree that the best way to break the fast is by drinking something sweet with a light, sweet pastry next to it. After all, every Jewish mother wants to make sure her family’s blood sugar level is back to normal after 25 hours of fasting.
It can be sweet tea and torte at a Polish grandma’s; homemade almond drink and baba b’tamar, date filled cookies, at an Iraqi home; enough marzipan and candied fruit to cover an entire table at a Moroccan home, or dense fruit and nut pastries called bollo on Tunisian, Algerian and Italian tables. Some Sephardi communities serve a sweet drink made of melon seeds. Persian Jews prefer a sweet and sour apple beverage to break the fast.
It’s interesting to see how not only all grandmothers think alike, but how some of these pastries traveled far while adopting local flavors but still preserving their main purpose of breaking the Yom Kippur fast.
Bollo, a Sephardi pastry that’s baked like a small bread and then sliced into thin cookies, is common under the same name in North Africa and Italy. While the Italian and Algerian versions use yeast in the dough, the Tunisian version usually replaces yeast with baking powder. But all use fennel seeds and lemon or orange zest to spice up the cookies.
Sponge cake, popular in Jewish communities for being parve, is found on break-the-fast tables in Ashkenazi, Sephardi (where it is called pan d’Espanya), Moroccan (under the name pallebe) and Italian homes (bocca di dama). Although it is not certain how these pastries have traveled from one place to another, I think the fact that they were served after the fast around the world suggest they indeed traveled with Jewish immigrants.
Tunisian bollo cookies
The combination of nuts and dried fruit I used here is one of my favorites: roasted hazelnut and candied orange peel. Any other combination would work well, such as the classic almonds and raisins. In any case, make sure you use the fennel seeds, as they give the bollo its characteristic flavor.
Candied orange peel is available at most Middle Eastern markets.
Yields about 30 cookies.
2 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup corn or canola oil
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (or vanilla)
1 cup roasted hazelnuts (or almonds)
3/4 cup chopped candied orange peel (or raisins, sour cherries, or any dried fruit)
1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds
Zest of 1 orange
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 2 loaf pans with oil.
2. Mix flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.
3. Put eggs, oil, sugar, orange juice and almond extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a flat beater, and mix just to incorporate. Add flour mixture and mix briefly until smooth.
4. Remove bowl from mixer, and using a spatula, mix in hazelnuts, candied orange peel, fennel seeds and orange zest.
5. Transfer batter to loaf pans and brush with oil. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until nicely brown on top. Cool on a cooling rack.
6. Slice into cookies when loafs are completely cold. Keep in a sealed container up to a week.