When Paulette Nehama came to the United States from Greece as a new bride in 1958, she brought just a few treasured possessions. Today, she still remembers losing one of them — her mother’s recipe for biscottakia me amygdala, or biscotti with almonds. “I was so heartbroken that I cried and cried,” she says. “Losing the recipe felt like I had lost my mother.”
Nehama quickly wrote to her mother in Greece, imploring her to send the recipe. It came on the very thin airmail paper used in those days. Now a Bethesda resident for 55 years, Nehama still has that letter preserved in a clear protective sleeve. Food stains, rips and yellowed tape are visible evidence of its use. Written in Greek, of course, her mother’s recipe used glasses, coffee cups and handfuls as measurements. Nehama worked out more-standard measurements and still makes the twice-baked cookie.
Her childhood home in Greece always had some ready to serve with strong coffee or tea to anyone who stopped by for a visit, which meant lot of extra biscottakia, also called paximadakia, had to be made for such Jewish holidays as Rosh Hashanah. The holiday, marking the Jewish New Year, begins on Sunday at sunset.
Born Paulette Mourtzoukos in Volos in 1933, she and her family descended from Romaniote Jews, some of the first Jewish residents on the European continent, with evidence of their existence dating to the 2nd century B.C. Although they had their own customs, foods, religious traditions and language (Judeo-Greek), the Romaniote were largely absorbed by the Sephardim, Spanish Jews expelled from Iberia beginning with the Inquisition in 1492. More than 100,000 Sephardim settled in the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece for nearly 400 years.
She has very fond memories of Volos, a beautiful port city that sits midway between Athens and Salonika/Thessaloniki. Before World War II, about 2,000 Jews lived comfortably there. At Rosh Hashanah, neighbors gave each other baskets of pomegranates from their yards with wishes for “chronia polla, kai kali chronia,” or “many years and good years.” The first taste at the start of the holiday — and to break the fast for Yom Kippur 10 days later — was of honey sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, symbolic of wishes for a sweet year of abundance.
Her family always had baklava, honey-soaked layers of phyllo and nuts, or kadaifi, or often both, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Her favorite, “because it’s crunchier,” kadaifi wraps the distinctive shredded phyllo dough around the chopped nut filling and is soaked in sweet syrup while still hot from the oven.
Apple preserves called mylo tou koutaliou were another traditional Rosh Hashanah dish in Nehama’s childhood home. The name means “apple spoon sweets” because they were traditionally served on individual spoons with a glass of water to welcome guests. The preserves were made from seasonal fruits — apples in the fall, grapefruit or orange peel in the winter, strawberries or very small tomatoes in the summer.
When Nehama was 7, the Nazis took over Volos, replacing less-restrictive wartime Italian rule. Her family fled to Athens, where they hid in several places for many months. After the war, when she went back to school, she attended an American high school outside Athens. She went on to receive a degree in social work in 1956.
The next year, Nehama met her future husband, Isaac, at the wedding of his brother, Sam, in Athens. Isaac had fought as a partisan during the war, and Sam was the only other survivor of the family, the rest having perished at Auschwitz. Isaac had left Greece in 1948 to study in the United States and was already a U.S. citizen. After marrying in 1958 and settling initially in Indiana, the couple had three daughters — Sarah, Maya and Nicole — and five grandchildren. Isaac died in 2014.
Although her mother was an excellent cook, “I had no interest in going into the kitchen and learning from her,” Nehama says. “Even when I was engaged, my mother used to say, ‘What are you going to cook for your husband?’ But I said that everyone in the U.S. opens a can to make dinner.”
She says she is surprised that Isaac didn’t divorce her after the first year because “everything tasted awful.” The turning point came when he gave her two bound volumes of Gourmet magazine. “One time I made coq au vin and, by mistake, it turned out perfect,” she remembers. “Isaac praised me saying how good it is, tender and so on. That boosted up my morale. So from that time on, I started cooking and decided I liked to do it.”
Nehama started asking for more recipes from her mother and sister, who remained in Greece, and she carefully followed their detailed instructions. She also started reading cookbooks and became comfortable hosting big parties at home. “I would roll and stuff grape leaves for 30 or 40 people and make spanakopita [spinach pie], tiropita [cheese pie], fassolya [green beans], Greek soups and lentils for a crowd.” She even taught Greek cooking at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, a class called “From Athens with Love.”
She cherishes one cookbook in particular, “Jewish Holidays and Traditions,” produced in 1993 by the women of the small Jewish community in Volos. The book features residents’ recipes and recipes from people, like Nehama, who live around the world but have roots in that centuries-old community.
Still passionate about cooking, Nehama passed her Greek recipes on to her daughters, who now make the dishes. Every year at Rosh Hashanah, she buys a pomegranate for each daughter, as well as one for herself and in memory of Isaac. Like the baskets of pomegranates shared by neighbors so many years ago in Volos, it’s an expression of love and of hope for prosperity. And this year, as always, she will welcome the New Year with the taste of honey and a lifetime of sweet memories.
Barocas is a writer, caterer, teacher and filmmaker in Washington.
Makes 36 to 44 pieces
These twice-baked Greek cookies are so much like Italian biscotti that the Greeks also call them biscottakia.
To heighten the orange flavor, Bethesda resident Paulette Nehama replaces the cognac used in her mother’s original recipe with fresh orange juice or Grand Marnier.
MAKE AHEAD: Store the cooled biscotti in an airtight container for up to several days. If they soften, reheat on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until crisped.
Adapted by Susan Barocas, from Nehama.
5 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ cup fresh orange juice or orange liqueur
2½ cups flour
Finely grated zest of a small orange, about 1 tablespoon, or more to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups skin-on, whole raw almonds (may substitute 2 cups walnut halves; see NOTE)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking oil spray to lightly grease bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish.
Combine the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl; use a handheld mixer on low speed, then increase to medium, beating so the mixture is well blended and a little foamy.
In a small bowl, whisk the baking powder into the orange juice or liqueur, stirring so there are no lumps. Pour that mixture into the beaten eggs and sugar; beat on medium speed just until incorporated. With the mixer running, add the flour one-quarter cup at a time, blending it thoroughly before the next addition and stopping to scrape down the bowl, as needed.
Once the dough is smooth, use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir in the zest and vanilla extract, then stir in the nuts a few at a time, making sure that they become evenly distributed. Spread the dough evenly in the baking dish, redistributing the nuts as needed (you want them in each piece).
Bake (middle rack) for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly colored and soft to the touch, but springy in the center; a tester inserted into the center should come out clean. Transfer the baking dish to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes before running a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake.
Invert the soft-baked biscotti slab onto the wire rack; let cool completely.
Reheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Invert the biscotti slab onto a cutting board (so the original top side is facing up). Use a very sharp knife to cut strips from a short side, about ¼ inch thick. Cut each strip in half, so you have a total of 36 to 44 pieces. The almonds or walnuts should show nicely. Lay the biscotti pieces on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake (middle rack) for 12 minutes until they begin to color, then turn them over and bake for an additional 5 to 8 minutes, until both sides are browned.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, at which point they should be crisp.
NOTE: If you use walnuts, mix them with 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon.
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