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Shared by Stella Hanan Cohen

These Medieval Spanish Recipes Live on in Zimbabwe

Shared by Stella Hanan Cohen

Stella's father Sam ( far right) and friends on a boat from Rhodes to Rhodesia, 1936.
Stella's father Sam (far right) and friends on a boat from Rhodes to Rhodesia, 1936.

These Medieval Spanish Recipes Live on in Zimbabwe

Family Journey

SpainRhodes, GreeceMarmarise, Turkey
Élisabethville, Belgian Congo (present-day Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the CongoSalisbury, Rhodesia (present-day Harare, Zimbabwe)
6 recipes
Pan d’Espanya (Orange Sponge Cake)

Pan d’Espanya (Orange Sponge Cake)

1 10 inch cake1 h and 30 min

Ingredients

  • 2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
  • ⅛  teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 large eggs
  • 1 cup superfine sugar (sometime's called baker's sugar)
  • ½ cup vegetable or sunflower oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest  
  • ¾ cup fresh orange juice (from about 3 oranges)
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
  •  ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
  • Confectioners' sugar for dusting (optional)

Special Equipment

  • A 10-inch 2-piece tube or angel food cake pan
Menenas (Shortbread Filled With Dates and Walnuts)

Menenas (Shortbread Filled With Dates and Walnuts)

20 cookies2 h

Ingredients

For the filling:

  • ½ cup walnuts 
  • ¾ cup lightly packed finely chopped pitted dates
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • ½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the dough:

  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • ½ cup fine semolina flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For decorating:

  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Special Equipment:

  • An oval cookie mold, about 2½ by 1¼ inches
Masapan (Marzipan)

Masapan (Marzipan)

50 pieces1 h

Ingredients

  • 1 pound blanched whole almonds
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For shaping:

  • 1 cup water 
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water 

For decorating:

Boulukunio (Almond and Sesame Brittle)

Boulukunio (Almond and Sesame Brittle)

15 servings1 hour

Ingredients

For the candy:

  • 2 cups hulled sesame seeds
  • About 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
  • ½  cup blanched slivered almonds, lightly toasted
  • Vegetable oil for greasing the baking sheet

For the syrup:

  • ½ cup honey 
  • ½ cup water
  • 1½ cups sugar

Special equipment:

  • Candy thermometer 
Yaprakes De Oja De Parra Kon Avas (Stuffed Grape Leaves Stewed With White Beans)

Yaprakes De Oja De Parra Kon Avas (Stuffed Grape Leaves Stewed With White Beans)

6 servingsOvernight soaking + 4 h

Ingredients

For the beans

  • 2 cups dried cannellini or navy beans, soaked overnight in 4 cups of cold water and drained
  • 1 small yellow onion, peeled
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 3 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

For the broth

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound bone-in veal ossobuco cut into chunks or lamb chops
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled
  • 2-3 cups chicken stock

For the grape leaves

  • 1 pound fresh, young, tender grape leaves or brine-preserved leaves

For the filling

  • 1 pound ground beef or lamb
  • ⅔ cup medium-grain rice, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, rinsed and drained
  • ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup canned chopped tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper 

For cooking

  • 2 ripe tomatoes, cut into ½ inch slices crosswise 
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

For serving

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 lemons, cut in wedges
Albondigas Di Karne Kon Tomato (Meatballs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

Albondigas Di Karne Kon Tomato (Meatballs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

6 servings1 H 30 min

Ingredients

For the meatballs

  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 3 slices white bread, crusts removed, dampened in ½ cup water, squeezed and drained and torn into small pieces
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 ripe tomato, halved and coarsely grated 
  • ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce

  • 2 cups peeled, seeded and roughly chopped ripe fresh or canned tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 tender celery stalks with leaves, cut in chunks or 4 fresh whole sage leaves
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup beef broth (or hot water)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For dredging

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour

For serving

  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, use leaves and tender stems
Recipes
1
Pan d’Espanya (Orange Sponge Cake)

Pan d’Espanya (Orange Sponge Cake)

1 10 inch cake1 h and 30 min

Ingredients

  • 2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
  • ⅛  teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 large eggs
  • 1 cup superfine sugar (sometime's called baker's sugar)
  • ½ cup vegetable or sunflower oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest  
  • ¾ cup fresh orange juice (from about 3 oranges)
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
  •  ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
  • Confectioners' sugar for dusting (optional)

Special Equipment

  • A 10-inch 2-piece tube or angel food cake pan
2
Menenas (Shortbread Filled With Dates and Walnuts)

Menenas (Shortbread Filled With Dates and Walnuts)

20 cookies2 h

Ingredients

For the filling:

  • ½ cup walnuts 
  • ¾ cup lightly packed finely chopped pitted dates
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • ½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the dough:

  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • ½ cup fine semolina flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For decorating:

  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Special Equipment:

  • An oval cookie mold, about 2½ by 1¼ inches
3
Masapan (Marzipan)

Masapan (Marzipan)

50 pieces1 h

Ingredients

  • 1 pound blanched whole almonds
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For shaping:

  • 1 cup water 
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water 

For decorating:

4
Boulukunio (Almond and Sesame Brittle)

Boulukunio (Almond and Sesame Brittle)

15 servings1 hour

Ingredients

For the candy:

  • 2 cups hulled sesame seeds
  • About 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
  • ½  cup blanched slivered almonds, lightly toasted
  • Vegetable oil for greasing the baking sheet

For the syrup:

  • ½ cup honey 
  • ½ cup water
  • 1½ cups sugar

Special equipment:

  • Candy thermometer 
5
Yaprakes De Oja De Parra Kon Avas (Stuffed Grape Leaves Stewed With White Beans)

Yaprakes De Oja De Parra Kon Avas (Stuffed Grape Leaves Stewed With White Beans)

6 servingsOvernight soaking + 4 h

Ingredients

For the beans

  • 2 cups dried cannellini or navy beans, soaked overnight in 4 cups of cold water and drained
  • 1 small yellow onion, peeled
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 3 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

For the broth

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound bone-in veal ossobuco cut into chunks or lamb chops
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled
  • 2-3 cups chicken stock

For the grape leaves

  • 1 pound fresh, young, tender grape leaves or brine-preserved leaves

For the filling

  • 1 pound ground beef or lamb
  • ⅔ cup medium-grain rice, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, rinsed and drained
  • ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup canned chopped tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper 

For cooking

  • 2 ripe tomatoes, cut into ½ inch slices crosswise 
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

For serving

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 lemons, cut in wedges
6
Albondigas Di Karne Kon Tomato (Meatballs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

Albondigas Di Karne Kon Tomato (Meatballs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

6 servings1 H 30 min

Ingredients

For the meatballs

  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 3 slices white bread, crusts removed, dampened in ½ cup water, squeezed and drained and torn into small pieces
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 ripe tomato, halved and coarsely grated 
  • ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce

  • 2 cups peeled, seeded and roughly chopped ripe fresh or canned tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 tender celery stalks with leaves, cut in chunks or 4 fresh whole sage leaves
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup beef broth (or hot water)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For dredging

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour

For serving

  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, use leaves and tender stems
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, use leaves and tender stems

Read more about Stella Hanan Cohen in “For His Bar Mitzvah, a Grandson Is Learning His Ancestors’ Recipes From Spain and Beyond” and try his recipes for stuffed grape leaves stewed with white beans and meatballs poached in tomato sauce.

Leading up to celebrations, the kitchens of Stella Hanan Cohen’s childhood community in Rhodesia were filled with “a cacophony of Spanish, and Turkish, and Greek,” says Stella. Romantic ballads called romansos were sung in Ladino, and women spoke longingly of their childhoods on the Greek island of Rhodes, where their community lived for over 400 years following the Inquisition. 

Together, the women worked in assembly lines to create elaborate sweets like marzipan, almond and sesame brittle, orange sponge cake, and shortbread cookies filled with dates and walnuts. Each baker had her own specialty, never sharing her culinary secret with the other women. “My late sister and I would giggle,” says Stella, the author of “Stella's Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes.” “They would never hand over their recipe... they would mix everything in with their backs towards everyone so they wouldn’t see their secret extra bit of mastic or how many drops of orange blossom water.”

Still, the day spent together in the kitchen before weddings and holidays like Purim “was like a holy communion,” she says. “That sort of magical atmosphere just seems to have evaporated. It was just laden with a spirituality and a closeness.” Together, the women would create elaborate, sweets-laden tables called “mesas d’alegria” or tables of happiness, a tradition in their community that stretches back to a time in Spain before the Inquisition. 

Stella, her family, and community are known as Rhodeslis. Driven out of Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during the Inquisition, many Jews found a home in the Ottoman Empire. “The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the time said to King Ferdinand, ‘Your loss is our gain,’ and invited all Jews to come and settle in the Ottoman lands,” Stella recounts. “My ancestors specifically chose Rhodes island.” 

They built a Jewish community on the island, preserving traditions and recipes from Spain, while also welcoming certain Ottoman influences — empanadas from Spain were influenced by bourekas from the Ottomans and stuffed grape leaves, popular in Greece and other parts of the Eastern Meditteranean, became part of the community’s culinary repertoire. 

The Jewish community as it existed in Rhodes for centuries, largely ended with Stella’s parents’ generation. Her father was born in Rhodes and her mother grew up just across the water in Marmaris, Turkey, where her family moved from Rhodes. Both of Stella’s parents found their way to Africa early in their lives in the 1930s — her mother’s family escaped rising nationalism after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, while her father came on his own for economic opportunity. Just when Stella’s father had saved enough money to bring his siblings to Rhodesia, he learned that “Germans had invaded Rhodes island and they were taken to Auschwitz,” Stella says. His family, like many of the Jews on the island, perished in the Holocast. 

By the end of the war, many of the remaining members of the community of Rhodes lived in Africa. Here, like their foreparents did in Rhodes, they rebuilt their close knit community. “Whenever there was a wedding or some big occasion, when I was a little kid… almost the whole community was invited to the event,” Stella recalls. 

Among the traditions that came to Rhodesia was the sweets tables for special celebrations — and behind them, was always a gaggle of women who spent the day baking together. As a child, Stella remembers her grandmother’s generation and then her mother’s carefully preparing the desserts.

“I remember... watching them like alchemists in the kitchen,” she says. “I’ve never seen this replicated in the modern world — or since they’ve disappeared.”

As an adult, Stella has dedicated much of her time to preserving and perpetuating the traditions and recipes of her community, helping carry them forward for future generations. “I feel that every mouthful you take has a piece of history and we wouldn’t have the history without the food,” says Stella. “It’s...my quest that it’s not forgotten.”

Photo by Armando Rafael and Food and Prop Styling by Mariana Velasquez
Photographer: Armando Rafael. Food and Prop Stylist: Mariana Velasquez.
Stella’s mother Marie and father Sam’s wedding in Elisabethville the Belgian Congo in 1947.
Stella’s mother Marie and father Sam’s wedding in Elisabethville the Belgian Congo in 1947.