This recipe comes from Sara Gardner, a culinary historian and food blogger in Somerville, MA. An alumna of Tufts University, in 2016, Sara was awarded a Fulbright research grant to study the culinary heritage and cultural identity of Sephardic Jews in medieval Spain, though her research spans the diaspora too. Sara has also authored a book on the Sephardic tradition of holding a Seder on Rosh Hashanah. Titled, The Rosh Hashanah Seder Cookbook: Stories and Recipes from the Reform Jewish Community of Madrid, it is available for purchase on Amazon here. Her recipe and thoughts follow:
In the Sephardic tradition, it is typical to eat certain symbolic ingredients for Rosh Hashanah that symbolize good wishes for the new year. This tradition goes back to the early medieval period of rabbinic scholarship, but took on its fullest expression in the Sephardic diaspora and generated a version of a seder for Rosh Hashanah, like those performed on Passover or Tu B'Shvat. These symbolic seder foods include: squash, apples, dates, honey, beets, leeks, beans (especially black-eyed peas), pomegranate, and – perhaps the most literal of symbols – a fish head (for the head of the year).
Before each element of the Rosh Hashanah seder plate is eaten, a blessing, called a Yehi Ratson, is recited to invite each food's specific blessings upon everyone present for the New Year. In all, about seven Yehi Ratsons are said, one for each of the traditional Rosh Hashanah foods (the number varies according to family and the symbolic foods they choose to include in their seder). Many times, these blessings are a play on the ancient Aramaic words for these foods. For example, related to the recipe for Arnadí de Calabaza shared below, the Aramaic word for squash, which roughly transliterates to "karaa", meaning "to rip apart" resembles the Hebrew word of "kara", meaning "to be read or announced." According to this tradition, in eating squash and reciting its Yehi Ratson, we entreat G-d to rip up our bad judgment and read our good judgment as a part of the process of being written in the Book of Life.
That being said, beyond this dish's special significance in relation to the Rosh Hashanah seder tradition, I believe that the Arnadí de Calabaza also offers an interesting example of the ways Sephardic Jewish dishes ended up having a completely other religious connotation in the transition from the medieval to the early modern period in Spain. Actually, this dish is considered a traditional Easter cake in Spain, specifically in the Xátiva (also known as Játiva), a town in the region of Valencia. In its medieval heyday, Xátiva was a majority Muslim town; however, already home to a sizeable Jewish community, at the time of Xátiva's conquest by the Christian king Jaime I in 1244, there were about 200 Jews in the town, second only in number to the Jewish community of Valencia. Under Jaime I, the Jewish communities of the region of Valencia were granted extensive privileges that initiated a sort of "golden age" of Jewish existence there. Now, you may ask: what does all of this history have to do with this Rosh Hashanah dish?
Well, the arnadí de calabaza is an excellent example of the origins and ultimate trajectory shared by many medieval Spanish Jewish recipes that wound up in the Christian culinary repertoire after expulsion. The dish's name "arnadí" most likely comes from an Arabic word, "garnadí," referring to the geographic origins of this dish in Muslim Granada. As the Jewish community of Xátiva, and the region of Valencia as a whole, welcomed an influx of Jews fleeing a series of pogroms that swept the south of Spain during the early 13th century, most likely this recipe arrived to Xátiva with them. The use of ground almonds was characteristic in particular of medieval Spanish Jewish cooking, which places this recipe even more concretely in the Jewish culinary repertoire. Rather than a Rosh Hashanah dish, though, this pudding cake was most likely a Passover dish, owing to the lack of leavening agents.
So how did this dessert become an Easter cake? Often, Spanish Jewish dishes found their way into the Spanish Christian culinary repertoire through the mixing bowls of converted Sephardim, who continued to cook the recipes traditional to their families. Most likely, a group of Sephardic judeoconversos who traditionally made this dish for Passover simply added it to their array of Easter delicacies to hide their Judaism, while still secretly enacting their Jewish identity through beloved dishes like this one.
Regardless of the religious labels used to define this dessert, it’s a wonderful, unexpected addition to your Rosh Hashanah table. Whether prepared because of its secret Jewish history or used to invoke positive blessings for the new year, may this arnadí help ensure that this coming year is a sweet one. L'shana tova u'metuka and anyada buena, dulse, i alegre!
Arnadí de Calabaza
This recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain (Penguin Books, 2012). I've kept the measurements in grams, because it yields a much more precise recipe. Feel free to increase or decrease the amount of sugar - instead of being just a dessert, this recipe can make a very nice, subtlety sweet side-dish that pairs nicely with savory dishes like brisket. Claudia Roden also adds that if you want a firmer arnadí, you can substitute some of the squash for sweet potato. And my last suggestion: make sure you cook all of the liquid out of the squash! It can be deceptive, but it releases a lot more moisture than you expect. And if it's not exactly a pyramid, don't worry, it'll still be delicious. Serves 8 - 10.
750 grams butternut squash, cleaned of seeds, peeled, and cut into 2" cubes (you can also substitute up to 250 g of cubed sweet potato, or boniato, a starchier type of sweet potato found in Spain or use pumpkin in place of squash) 250 mL water 250 grams of sugar (adjust to taste; if you want a more savory soufflé, add 150 grams, if you want it more sweet, add 300 grams) 125 grams ground almonds 2 large eggs, lightly beaten grated zest of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon 75 grams whole blanched almonds 2-3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting
Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C.
In a wide saucepan, put the water and the squash chunks, and cook them over a low heat, tightly covered, until theu are steamed through and soft, about 15 - 20 minutes. If the water evaporates too quickly, add a little more and lower the heat. Once soft, drain the squash and mash the flesh with a potato masher. Return the mashed squash to the heat and continue to cook, uncovered and stirring, over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the sugar. The squash will release a great deal of liquid when you add the sugar. Continue to to cook the sugar-squash mixture until nearly all the moisture has evaporated, stirring frequently to make sure that the purée doesn't burn. This can take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes (it took me about 30!).
Remove the pan from the heat and add the ground almonds, eggs, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Mix very well to incorporate the ingredients.
Scrape the squash and almond mixture into a round shallow baking dish (a clay cazuela is traditional) and shape it into a pyramid. Push the blanched almonds halfway into the mixture on their pointed ends, to form lines down the sides of the pyramid. Dust the pyramid with the 2-3 tablespoons of confectioner's sugar.
Bake the pyramid for 50 minutes, or until firm to the touch (it can take up to an hour or so, as it did for me). Let it cool, dust with more confectioner's sugar if you'd like, and serve it at room temperature with your Rosh Hashanah meal. Enjoy!