When Gil Hovav’s colorful relatives weren’t bickering, or playing tricks on each other, they were showering each other with love. And sometimes that called for extreme measures, like when Uncle Ami, an IDF officer, made a little detour in a Piper airplane, close enough to the ground to throw sweets to his sister on a kibbutz—candies from heaven—to keep her from feeling sad.
Gil Hovav is a journalist, author, food expert and television personality in Israel. He is making his American debut with “Candies from Heaven,” recently translated from Hebrew into English (Toad Publishing, copyright 2018, ISBN 978-965-572-343-4).
“Candies from Heaven” is a funny, warm series of vignettes that open a curtain on Hovav’s early years and life in 20th-century Israel, particularly Sephardic culture and food. Each memory circles back to a particular dish that had a central role in his childhood; some are simple comfort foods and others are more complex specialties. Hovav uses humor as a welcome spice in his recipes. To make pickled cucumbers, Hovav writes that you must use “only lean and hard cucumbers, like Yemenites.” Or use only “brown and ugly” lentils to make Mejadara, a rice and lentil dish.
The most entertaining stories are about how his parents recruit the children as allies to keep secrets from the other parent. This could work to the children’s advantage. When Hovav’s mother comes home in a panic one day, she asks Gil and his brother to run and get her red lipstick to cover a scratch on the car, the result of her less than expert driving skills. She pays them to cover the scratch each day until their father takes a business trip. Meanwhile, Gil’s father, Moshe, enlists the boys to fulfill his agenda: He pays them not to reveal that he knows about the scratch.
Hovav has an illustrious ancestor. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is considered the father of Modern Hebrew, was his great-grandfather. Hovav throws in a few anecdotes about Ben-Yehuda that he heard as child, some more troubling than amusing. Hovav’s maternal aunt Dolla, already in her 80s, relates a story to him about the ire of “horrible rabbis” when she chose to marry a non-Jew:
“…Ben-Yehuda’s daughter is marrying a German Christian?! Whoever heard of such a thing! All of those rabbis drank my father’s blood. But do you know how my eminent father responded? He looked at them and at their frock coats and said: ‘l prefer a Hebrew-speaking German in the Land of Israel to a Yiddish-speaking Jew in Brooklyn!’”
Hovav’s parents were also well known in Israel as they were both radio journalists. But the star of Gil’s show is Mooma, his maternal grandmother. She cajoles and comforts him, and most importantly cooks for him, the family and friends.
In a rather unglamorous start to his cooking career, Hovav is home from school with the flu on the day when Mooma makes bourekas for her Saturday night company, “the ancient gang of Ladino speakers—we called them the Sephardic Underground.” Mooma tells Gil’s mother, “…if this little flea wanders into my kitchen, I’ll strangle him with my own hands.”
He does wander into the kitchen when Mooma gets a surprise visitor. “I snuck into the kitchen, flattened the dough with the rolling pin, cut out circles, found the three types of fillings in various hiding places, prepared crescent-shaped bourekas and then popped them into the oven. In my imagination, I saw myself being accepted into the Sephardi Underground as the house chef, carried on waves of admiration…”
But the reality was vastly different. Mooma was horrified. “When she prepared bourekas, all of them came out exactly alike: closed, golden and puffed. But mine—some were burnt, some remained as pale as Ashkenazi yeshiva bochurs, and all of them, without exception, had opened. That’s the worst thing that can happen to bourekas.”
An outbreak of Gil’s tears stopped Mooma’s ranting. Instead, she switched gears into comfort mode. “Look at the bourekas. Look. They’re smiling! They’re happy that a prince like you made them today instead of me.”
As a cookbook, the recipes are a rewarding introduction to Sephardic food, although I found that some require ingredients that are not widely available. Mooma’s stew calls for preserved lemon, which I couldn’t find, so I used fresh instead. Still delicious. Butterfly soup is a tomato rice concoction in which the rice, when properly cooked, takes on a butterfly shape. I didn’t get butterflies, but nonetheless, I had the best tomato rice soup I ever tasted. Hovav calls his Aunt Levana’s carrot salad “rough, wild and generously seasoned.” When I prepared this dish, I thought the sweetness of the carrots restrained the seasoning, resulting in a very harmonious blend.
Hovav’s recipes are kosher although he is secular. In an email interview, he wrote that he frequently works with kosher chefs and lectures to kosher audiences. He was recently the featured speaker at The Jewish Food Media Conference in Brooklyn, held in conjunction with Kosherfest, an industry trade show. “My best advice to kosher cooks is not to fake,” he wrote. “Thirty years of work as a restaurant critic taught me that kosher food can be delicious, but a margarine pecan pie is a very sad affair. Stick to what is authentic.” Discussing his relationship with kosher audiences, he wrote “While not always on the same page when it comes to practicing religion, we are brothers and sisters and it is always fun to meet and share experiences and ideas.”
Hovav explained to me that although not observant, the family had a strong Jewish identity. Throughout the book, Mooma refers to “Seignor del Mundo,” which is a Ladino expression for God. Hovav wrote in his email that Mooma “always promised me that Seignor del Mundo was a close friend of the family and that he thought highly of me.” And Jewish holidays figured prominently in the calendar of their lives. He wrote, “While we did drive and did not go to shul, there was still something different about Shabbat, something magical in the air that I really miss. The same goes for other holidays: On Yom Kippur, for instance, my Mom did fast but she could have her cup of coffee ‘because I have a special arrangement with God.’”
In that spirit, relax with the adventures of Mooma, the Horavs and all their relatives and make some Yemenite food for dinner. And thank Seignor Del Mundo that there is more that unites Jews than divides us.
Mooma never shared this recipe with me, just as she never divulged the other secrets of the Sephardi Underground. Aunt Levan gave me the recipe presented below and it’s the closest in taste to the wonders that Mooma baked.
- 4 cups flour
- 1 ¾ sticks (14 tablespoons margarine)
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 cup yogurt
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 large eggplants
- 8 oz crumbled feta cheese
- 1 egg
- salt and pepper
- beaten egg yolk whisked with
- 2 tbsp water
- sesame seeds
- Prepare the dough a day earlier: Place all the ingredients in a food processor and mix to a uniform dough. Roll into a big ball, place on a flat dish, cover with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
- The next day, remove from the refrigerator and let the dough reach room temperature (otherwise, it will be impossible to roll).
- Meanwhile, roast the eggplants on the stove or in an oven until their peel blackens. Peel and crush with a fork (woe be to anyone who crushes in a food processor!) together with the cheese. Beat the egg and add it to the filling, together with salt and pepper. Mix.
- Divide the dough into three balls. Roll each ball into a thin sheet, and use a glass to cut circles in the dough. Collect what remains of the dough, roll it again and cut additional circles. Repeat until all the dough is used.
- Take a circle of dough and place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center. Dip a finger in a cup of water and wet the edges of the circle. Fold into the shape of a crescent and pinch to close well. Place on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Do the same for the rest of the circles. (One baking pan will not be enough.)
- Brush the bourekas with egg wash and sprinkle a bit of sesame. Bake at 350 degrees for about half an hour, until the bourekas are golden.
Chorva (Butterfly Soup)
Chorva is a general name for soup—ciorbă in Romanian, shurba in Arabic and so on. In our home, it was the name of a sweet-and-sour tomato soup, enriched with rice. The rice plays a twofold role: It adds substance to the soup and also releases starch, thus thickening the soup. It’s important to use only long-grained rice, whose granules open into the shape of butterflies if cooked properly.
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 finely diced onions
- 2 pounds very ripe tomatoes (or one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 10 cups water
- 1 peeled carrot, coarsely shredded
- 1/3 cup long-grain white rice
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- Fresh lemon juice and sugar for seasoning
- Heat the oil in a pot and sauté the onions.
- If using fresh tomatoes, cut in half and shred on a coarse grater (and throw away the peel). Add the shredded tomatoes (or crushed tomatoes) to the pot. Add the tomato paste, salt, pepper and water. Mix and bring to a boil.
- Add the rice, carrots and parsley to the pot and stir. Lower the heat and cook covered, only until the grains of rice open to the shape of butterflies.
- Remove from the heat and taste. Season with lemon juice or a little sugar, according to the sourness of the tomatoes.
- Note: It’s important not to put more than 1/3 cup of rice into the pot. At first, it seems like just a little, but the rice later expands and if you put too much, you’ll end up with porridge.
By Bracha Schwartz