Recently Rachel and I were invited to be on the podcast Kitchen Radio with Regine and Nathalie Basha, a talented aunt and niece duo. They are researching Middle Eastern and Mediterranean kitchens, so we had a fascinating conversation about family histories and culinary traditions.
I told them the story of asking my then future husband Alan if he thought I was more Israeli (place of birth), Australian (childhood home) or American (last years of high school and college). His answer: “Honey, you’re Iraqi! Everything you do is Iraqi.”
Rachel told the story of when her children were little and how they never dunked cookies in milk but loved to dip biscochos in hot mint or chamomile tea. It became part of their bedtime ritual. And now as adults, whenever they come home, they still insist on dunking biscochos in tea.
Afterwards we went to the kitchen and in the best Middle Eastern tradition, we put on our aprons, rolled up our sleeves and began to cook and bake together. First, we made my grandmother’s recipe for kubbah bamia, a classic Iraqi stew made with okra, butternut squash, tomatoes and dumplings made from semolina and stuffed with ground beef. And then we baked biscochos.
This traditional cookie dates all the way back to medieval Spain, with each Sephardic community having their own twist on the recipe.
Biscochos (pronounced biz-ko-chos) are a lightly sweet, slightly flaky, crispy cookie. This traditional cookie dates all the way back to medieval Spain, with each Sephardic community having their own twist on the recipe.
My husband Neil grew up on biscochos. When we first got married and then when our children were little, my mother-in-law Becky would stock our freezer with huge amounts of these delicious ring shape cookies. She would make some with generous sprinklings of sesame seeds for Neil and some with cinnamon and sugar for the kids.
Since Becky only began to bake after her mother passed away, she was always searching for the perfect biscocho recipe. She loved to use Kaye Israel’s recipe (online and on Facebook as Bendichos Manos), as well as that of her good friend Cathy Halfon. When she stopped baking, I made sure to record her recipe because they are a family favorite. I always have a huge jar filled with these beauties on my kitchen counter.
As I was preparing the ingredients for our baking session with Regine and Nathalie, I decided to check Stella Cohen’s recipe. I noticed that the Rhodesli author of the award-winning cookbook “Stella’s Sephardic Table” uses cake flour in her biscochos. I reached out to her and asked her why. She replied “That’s just the way my mother always made them!”
Who am I to question the queen of Sephardi baking? I stopped at the market and bought cake flour.
My mother in law would roll the dough into thin strips, then join the ends into bracelet size rings. Then she would take a knife and score the outside edges of the cookies. In Stella’s online photos, I saw that her biscochos are twisted into a pretty rope design. When I asked her if that is a traditional shape, she confirmed that her family have always made the cookies that way. So I decided I would give that a try as well.
Every year to break the fast of Yom Kippur, my mother would make a traditional Spanish Moroccan drink called ponche de huevo. She would whip egg yolks and sugar until they were a deliciously creamy pale yellow, while I would brew the coffee.
Every year to break the fast of Yom Kippur, my mother would make a traditional Spanish Moroccan drink called ponche de huevo. She would whip egg yolks and sugar until they were a deliciously creamy pale yellow, while I would brew the coffee. As my father and brothers would walk through the door, she would pour them a cup of coffee and spoon a generous dollop of whipped egg on top.
This year to break the fast, I’ll be serving ponche de huevo in her memory. There’ll be homemade sponge cake, flaky croissants and sweet danish, classic bagels and lox. There’ll be a spinach and feta cuajado (like a frittata) and my kids all-time favorite macaroni and cheese with fresh sage and a crispy panko topping.
And of course, biscochos to dunk in tea and coffee.
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
6-7 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup fine sugar
2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- In a stand mixer, combine all the ingredients until the dough comes together and forms a ball.
- Place dough on the counter and gently knead for about a minute, until dough is smooth and comes together.
- Roll all the dough into walnut-sized balls.
- Roll into a thin strand, then double the strand and twist into a rope.
- Close into a ring, then dip into cinnamon sugar.
- Place cookies on parchment lined baking sheets and bake for about 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.
- Remove cookies from the oven and allow to cool.
- Lower oven temperature to 200°F.
- Biscochar (crisp) the cookies by placing bracelets on a baking sheet and leave in the oven for one hour.
- Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool.
- Store in an airtight container.
Ponche De Huevo
3 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar
- Separate the yolks into a small bowl
- Add sugar and beat briskly with a whisk or electric mixer until the sugar dissolved and is a light pale yellow color
- Dollop a generous spoonful into your favorite coffee.
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