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Israeli Desserts Take Inspiration From All Over

Maisie Wilhelm

It’s hard to define what, if anything, makes a dessert “Israeli.” The variety of sweets you find in Israel mirrors the country’s diversity, which in turn stems from its immigrant population.

Common in Israel today are sweet yeast cakes brought from Eastern European Jews; baklava and knafeh—ultra-sweet Turkish and Middle-Eastern confections made with phyllo or kataifi and ground nuts; and Middle Eastern desserts like basboussa, a semolina cake in syrup, or malabi, a simple milk pudding. But as with falafel, the question of provenance is highly contested. Can something really be called Israeli cuisine?

“Baklava and knafeh are not Israeli,” says Israeli-born Assaf Tamir, who runs Brooklyn’s The Lighthouse with his sister, Naama. “They are Arab, or Middle Eastern. The yeast desserts—rugelach, poppy seed cake—are Eastern European. The Israel of today combines all these things. Rugelach, which we know as having chocolate, is now made with dates or figs and nuts: the ingredients that are more available in this area. This is what Israeli cuisine is. The tradition of how to make something remains the same, but the ingredients morph based on what’s available. The outcome is really incredible.”

“Every dessert comes from somewhere else,” agrees Yael Vardi, the Israeli pastry chef at London’s The Palomar, which serves the food of modern Jerusalem, cleverly encompassing Jewish and Middle Eastern cuisines along with the hodgepodge of cultural influences from other immigrant cultures flowing to Israel.

Jewish dietary laws further complicate matters. Genevieve Gergis, pastry chef/co-owner of Bestia and a forthcoming Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles, illuminates this frustration: “Ninety percent of dinners contain meat, so the desserts eaten right after dinner cannot contain dairy. And butter and cream are what make dessert really good.” Desserts have historically been dairy-free, or else sweet things containing dairy were consumed well before dinnertime.

Afternoon Delight

Babka is one example of an afternoon dessert—this sweet yeast cake loaded with fillings and twisted to create delectable layers was brought to the region from Eastern Europe. It’s traditionally made with poppy seed or chocolate; Uri Scheft’s version from his Breads Bakery locations in New York City and Israel includes chocolate with hazelnut spread ($12.95, see recipe) or raisins and nuts.

“If you go to old-fashioned Jewish pastry shops in Israel, you see Eastern European-style cakes,” he notes. “People there eat babka not as dessert, but as cake with coffee or tea, and on the weekends.”

Scheft’s chocolate babka, he said, is different from typical babka you find in New York. “Ours is more airy, lighter in the dough,” he says, having enriched his recipe with chocolate.

Scheft sees a lot of modern chefs playing with fillings. “An old bakery/café in Israel will give you a choice with coffee— poppy seed, raisin-cinnamon or chocolate babka. It’s a little bit more old times,” he says. “Today, the variety is huge. We even do savory babka.”

Soft Sells

Then there are desserts common throughout the Middle East, like malabi— a simple milk pudding traditionally flavored with rosewater.

At their Lighthouse restaurant in Brooklyn, siblings Naama and Assaf Tamir continue to define what makes their young country’s cuisine Israeli with their version of malabi, made using traditional techniques and modern flavors.

“Malabi after a day of surfing at the beach was a ritual,” Assaf Tamir says of his childhood south of Tel Aviv. “A man named ‘Elijah the Turkish’ used to sell malabi flavored with rosewater,” he says. “We originally put malabi with traditional flavors on the menu but we decided to play. We’ve done malabi with coffee ($11, see recipe), with vanilla bourbon and with dulce de leche.”

So what makes malabi Israeli?

“Israelis took over this regional dish and decided to make it their own by adding their little twist,” Tamir says. “Israelis are from Europe, North Africa, Iraq, Iran—all corners of the world—and bring their personal flavors to the mix to change and vary things. So that’s what makes it Israeli: the background of any Israeli, wherever he is from, makes it his own style.”

Israelis are from Europe, North Africa, Iraq, Iran—all corners of the world—and bring their personal flavors to the mix to change and vary things. So that’s what makes it Israeli: the background of any Israeli, wherever he is from, makes it his own style.Assaf Tamir, The Lighthouse

Tahini Twist

At The Palomar, Vardi applies that philosophy to desserts like her brownie halva (see recipe), which plays with traditional sesame.

“Halva is basically sesame with sugar or honey,” she says. “I make it into a [non-traditional] mousse by using date syrup in place of sugar or honey.” Vardi tops a brownie with the mousse, adding meringue and pears in syrup. “You can make halva from tahini—cold-pressed sesame—but for better quality, grind the sesame yourself,” she advises. “It’s not a traditional dish you would find in Israel, but it’s a very traditional flavor.”

That kind of creativity with tahini exemplifies new Israeli cuisine, according to Scheft. “You see halva now as a rugelach filling, and definitely in the yeasted cakes. Almost every bakery will have sufganiyot”— doughnuts filled with jelly—“with halva now, and you see a lot of halva ice cream in the last 10 to 15 years. Israelis took it one step ahead,” he says. “Israeli cuisine is developing all the time.”

Maisie Wilhelm loves anything with za’atar— whether it’s sprinkled on pita with labneh, or tossed in Israeli salad.

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