Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls

From Vienna, With Love: A Hazelnut and Chocolate Cake Too Good To Passover

Whenever I’m invited for a meal and I ask the hostess what she’d like me to bring, the answer is usually “Chocolate Torte, please!”

Sharon as the flower girl

Being the flower girl at the wedding of my mother’s younger sister Rebecca to Anthony was probably the most exciting night of my five-year-old life. I wore a long white dress with a fuchsia velvet sash, white mesh gloves and pink rosebuds in my hair.

While my family were immigrants from Baghdad via Israel, my new uncle Anthony came from what seemed to me a very Australian family. His maternal great grandmother Julie Gran, descended from Sephardic Jews who emigrated to Australia in 1883, and was the epitome of refinement. Her daughter Judy, Anthony’s mother, had sparkling brown eyes, a wonderful smile and a lovely manner about her. She married Dennis Clifford, an Ashkenazi Jew from London. He emigrated to Sydney after the Second World War and went into the schmatta business. He was larger than life. A very, very successful manufacturer of ladies dresses, he amassed the world’s largest collection of Royal Doulton, fine china plates and vases that were hand painted by artisans all over England.

My grandparents would invite the Clifford family for Friday night dinners and Jewish holidays. My grandfather would make the kiddush over the wine in his deep voice, we’d say the blessing over the challah and then my grandmother would serve her incredible feasts. Her menus would include dishes like potato kubbah, okra stew with semolina kubbah, platters of roasted saffron and turmeric chicken, tomato-infused rice studded with almonds, sultanas and caramelized onions, and lots of different salads.

After dinner, Anthony’s younger brother Roger would bring out his acoustic guitar and the whole mishpacha (family) would sing for hours. Several years after Anthony and Rebecca married, Roger married Susie.

Recently, Susie wrote to me: “Your grandmother Nana Aziza reminds me so much of my grandmother Omama Irma. They were both natural cooks and always happiest when they were feeding family and guests. I doubt they ever looked at recipe books — it was all in their magic hands.

Your grandmother’s table was always laden with irresistible Middle Eastern delights. It was always exciting to be invited to your grandparents home because the atmosphere was incredible and the food was amazing!”

Susie’s Family

Susie’s Omama Irma was born in Skycov, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1908. After her marriage to Layosh (Ludwig) Wohlstein, they moved to Vienna, the flourishing center of Jewish life and culture. They lived there happily until the German Anschluss and rising tide of Nazi antisemitism forced them to flee. Miraculously, Irma, Layosh, their two daughters Trudy and Lilli, her brother and his family were able to secure passage on a boat from Genoa to Sydney, Australia.

As refugees on the first ship allowed to dock in Sydney, their landing was featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, the venerated broadsheet newspaper. Before the war broke out, Irma and Layosh capitalized on their own good fortune and sponsored family members and many friends for immigration to Australia.

AN INTUITIVE COOK AND BAKER, IRMA LOVED TO FEED FAMILY AND FRIENDS. USING RECIPES SHE’D LEARNED IN SKYCOV AND VIENNA,, SHE QUICKLY GAINED A REPUTATION FOR HER WONDERFUL FOOD AND DELICIOUS CAKES AND DESSERTS.

An intuitive cook and baker, Irma loved to feed family and friends. Using recipes she’d learned in Skycov and Vienna, she quickly gained a reputation for her wonderful food and delicious cakes and desserts.

On those wonderful Friday nights at my grandparents home, Susie would bring Omama Irma’s delicious Chocolate and Hazelnut Cake to be served alongside my aunt Rebecca’s incredible pavlova (recipe is on our website SephardicSpiceGirls.com).

I have been making a flourless chocolate torte for a very long time. Whenever I’m invited for a meal and I ask the hostess what she’d like me to bring, the answer is usually “Chocolate Torte, please!”

Rachel says she still has the piece of paper with the recipe I wrote out for her over ten years ago. It’s still her go-to dessert. A sure crowd pleaser. But to accommodate the health needs of her parents, she has modified my recipe by using only the semisweet chocolate chips and omitting all the sugar. She says that the results are just as moist and delicious.

It’s a really good cake, but Omama Irma’s decadently rich dessert has been seared in my memory for years. So I reached out to Susie and she generously shared the amazing recipe. (I tweaked it a tiny bit.) We’re not sure if it’s the crushed hazelnuts, the coffee or the chocolate ganache that make it better than anything you’ve ever tasted. But it’s that good!

Pesach or not, this recipe is not to be passed over.

Chocolate and Hazelnut Cake

7 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar, divided in half
1 3/4 cups ground hazelnuts
8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
1 cup water
2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
1/2 cup avocado or safflower oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Chocolate Glaze
4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon oil
1/4 cup water

Garnish
1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts
Fresh berries, washed and dried

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the base and sides of a 10 inch springform cake pan with parchment paper.
  • In a clean, dry bowl, use an electric mixer to whisk the egg whites until fluffy. Gradually add 1/2 cup of sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
  • In a medium saucepan, combine the ground hazelnuts, 1/2 cup sugar, chocolate, water and coffee granules. Cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.
  • Remove from heat and add the oil, stirring well.
  • Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly. Add the egg yolks, vanilla and salt, beating well to combine.
  • Gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture.
  • Pour batter into the prepared tin and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from oven, undo the latch on the cake tin and allow cake to cool completely.
  • To make the glaze, place the chocolate, sugar, oil and water in a small saucepan and warm over low heat, stirring occasionally until it is a smooth and shiny glaze.
  • Place the cake on a serving plate and spread the chocolate glaze over the top, allowing it to drip down the sides of the cake.
  • Scatter hazelnuts around the edge of the cake and garnish with fresh berries.

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. Upcoming events include a Sharsheret Passover Cooking Webinar. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC 

2 thoughts on “From Vienna, With Love: A Hazelnut and Chocolate Cake Too Good To Passover”

  1. sUSAN Slesinger

    This sounds wpnderful but I would love to have Rachel’s slightly healthier variation too. On a totally different note I am searching for a recipe for a Passover hazelnut sponge type cake. My Mother used to make it every year but i cannot find a or the recipe and she has severe dementia. If anyone knows of one I would be thrilled.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.