Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls

A Tribute to a Beautiful Mother

She leaves an incredible legacy of delicious food, tradition and Jewish ethics

Last week, we lost Rachel’s beautiful mother, our original Moroccan Spice inspiration. She was gentle and kind, serene and regal. She leaves an incredible legacy of delicious food, tradition and Jewish ethics.

—Sharon

My mother Rica Bensabat was born in Larache, a  port city in Morocco in 1936. Her father Moshe Bensabat, was the Rabbi of the community and the mohel who performed all the circumcisions in Larache, including that of his future son-in-law, my father.

My mother was lucky to have a very happy childhood, surrounded by her siblings, brothers Yosef and Salomon and sisters Messody, Clara, and Sara. She was an excellent student, skipping a few grades of school, and every week she would win the Bon Point contest, with the very exciting prize of free movie tickets!

After high school, she learned to sew and that became her hobby for many years. She would tailor the most exquisite dresses and coats (and knit sweaters) for my cousins and I, not knowing that one day this talent would help support her family.

In the 1950’s, her parents, along with many, many Moroccans, decided to emigrate to Israel. At the time, she was dating her brother’s best friend, Messod. My grandparents presented him with an ultimatum — put a ring on her finger or she comes to Israel with us! (They presented the same scenario to her sister Clara’s suitor, Menasse.)

On February 18, 1956 my beautiful mother Rica married my dashing father Messod. (Followed by the wedding of Clara and Menasse in March.)

Both couples moved to the “big city,” Casablanca. The two sisters were inseparable. Maman taught Tita Clara how to cook. They had their babies at the same time and they raised my cousins, my siblings and I all together. After school, they would feed us freshly baked breads and cookies. We spent our weekends playing together while our fathers were busy with their card games, spent glorious summer days at the beach together and we all vacationed in Spain together.

After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, my parents, like many other Jews living in Arab countries, were afraid of antisemitism. So we left our home and the comforts of Casablanca and moved to Los Angeles. Our lives completely changed. My mother went to work as a seamstress in a men’s shop at Broadway Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. She would take the bus to and from work, then come home and cook us dinner every night. On Friday mornings, she would wake up at 4 o’clock to prepare Shabbat dinner and then leave for work at her usual time.

Although she never had a job before, she had the most incredible work ethic.

Eventually she found a job in Beverly Hills, at an alterations shop called La Petite Maison. Several years later, the French owner decided she wanted to retire, so my parents bought the business. Thus began Maman’s amazing career as the proprietress of an atelier, creating dresses, repairing suits and altering designer clothes. She worked very hard, earning the adoration of all her clients. She never had to use a calculator or a cash register, making all the calculations in her head. She remembered every phone number as if by magic.

She received referrals from all the fancy hotels and high-end stores. Maman was our ATM and La Petite Maison helped put us all through college.

On July 4th 1991, a few months before my wedding, my mother suffered a very serious and complicated brain aneurism. The doctors told us she would not survive. These top neurologists had no idea who they were dealing with. After the surgery, my mother surprised them all when she woke up and spoke in three languages.

It was such a blessing to have her and my father walk me down the aisle. She loved my husband Neil and for fun, she would always challenge him on rules of Jewish Law. He would check with the Rabbi, who would tell him, “She’s right. That’s how it’s done in Morocco!”

Every July 4th, we celebrated this miraculous second chance at life with a birthday cake.

My mother had such a strong will to live because she loved her husband, her children and grandchildren so much. They were her entire world. She helped my brothers and I raise our children with an abundance of love. No one could possibly imagine one little lady could give such large amounts of love

When the grandchildren grew older, it didn’t matter what was going on in their busy lives, they would never miss Shabbat dinner at Maman and Papi’s. When she no longer had strength, I would host Shabbat dinners at my home. But it was not the same unless Maman and Papi were there. The grandchildren adored them both and always showered kisses on Maman.

My mother loved to tell us a Spanish phrase “da y no mires a quien.” Give and don’t look to who, just give.

One day in Casablanca, a poor man came to my mother’s door asking for towels. He told her they had been robbed and his wife and children needed towels. She went to the linen cupboard and brought back all the towels she could find.

That evening, my father came home with his arms full of the towels a customer had given as a gift.

This is a story I heard throughout the years and every time I heard it, it filled me with faith in HaShem. My mother was extremely spiritual and believed that G-d rewards good deeds.

My mother gave and gave to all of us. Her time, her amazing food, her encouragement, her uplifting words, her love.

She gave and gave to all of us. Her time, her amazing food, her encouragement, her uplifting words, her love.

Recently when I translated a text from Spanish to English on Google, it literally translated Rica into Rich Lady.

She was the richest woman I have every known. Rich with love, kindness, generosity, talent, optimism (and cash!)

—Rachel

In Morocco, we ate pastelitos every Shabbat, but in the United States, my working mother prepared them only as a treat for the holidays and birthday celebrations.  

Recently all the grandchildren were reminiscing about the delicious pastelitos Maman used to make when they were little. Whenever I have made them for holiday meals, they are immediately devoured. 

This is one of those special Maman recipes that will always bring our family together and will bring us joy when we remember our amazing Maman.

Pastelitos de Patata (Photo by Alexandra Gomperts)

Pastelitos de Patata

Potato shell:
6 large russet potatoes
1 egg
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Juice of 1 lemon
All-purpose flour or gluten-free flour
or matzo meal, for rolling patties
4 eggs, beaten
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying

Meat filling:
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste

Potato mixture:

  • Boil potatoes in their skins until easily pierced with fork. Mash them while they’re hot.
  • Add egg and turmeric and mix well. Then add pepper, salt, baking soda and lemon juice and mix well.
  • Let mixture cool, then form balls slightly smaller than a tennis ball.
  • Place in refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Meat mixture (“la miga,” Spanish for “crumbs”):

  • Sauté finely chopped onion in oil for 5 minutes, then add ground meat. Using wooden spatula, break meat into small pieces and sauté for 5 more minutes.
  • Add bay leaves, garlic, nutmeg and water, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
  • Uncover and cook until water has evaporated. Continue to break meat into small pieces. Then let cool.

Forming pastelitos:

  • Moisten hands with water. Flatten potato ball in palm of hand, forming crater.
  • Add tablespoon of meat filling in crater.
  • Keeping hands moist, fold potato mixture over meat and seal.
  • Form ball and flatten into patty.
  • Roll patty in flour to coat thoroughly.
  • Refrigerate until ready to fry.

Frying pastelitos:

  • In medium bowl, beat eggs and add pinch of salt.
  • Heat frying pan with neutral frying oil, about 1 inch deep.
  • Dip flour-coated pastelito into bowl with beaten eggs.
  • Place in hot oil and fry until both sides are golden brown.
  • Place on rack or paper towel to drain.
  • Best served same day, or reheated in 350° F oven.
  • Can be frozen, either raw or fried.
  • Makes 24 medium or 30 small patties.

Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff have been friends since high school. The Sephardic Spice Girls project has grown from their collaboration on events for the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food

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