The Bread of the Seven Heavens
El Pan de los Siete Cielos
This dish is one of my favorites, as it combines three of the foods I love: bread, cheese and pomegranate. Maybe this is the reason why it opens my cookbook Sephardi (pp. 10-11).
On Thursday May, 21, 2020, for “The Great Big Jewish Food Fest,” I did a cooking demonstration called “Shavuot in the Sephardic Kitchen: Bread of the Seven Heavens.” I shared my own twist on Sephardic Shavuot bread with herbs and cheese. I also explored the Jewish symbolism imbued in the shape and flavors of the bread and their connection to the upcoming holiday.
As a Broome and Allen fellow, this session was presented by Jason Guberman of the American Sephardi Federation.
Link to the video: https://fb.watch/dXO6Z4YICx/
Time: 1 hour
For the dough:
– 1 ⅓ cup (200 g) flour
– 1 ⅓ cup (200 g) semolina
– 1 ½ tsp salt
– 1 tbsp fresh yeast
– 1 cup (200ml) lukewarm water
For the stuffing:
– 1 ⅓ cup (200 g) cheese (like feta)
– ¼ cup (60 g) olive oil
– ½ tsp salt
– 1 clove of garlic
– 5 leaves mint
– 1 strand thyme
– pomegranate (optional)
– honey (optional)
There is no medieval written source for this dish. This is not surprising, since there is no book that refers specifically and openly to Jewish culinary practices, due to fears of religious persecution. The dish originated in the Iberian Peninsula, and was later eaten in Salonika when the Jews migrated there after their official expulsion from Spain in 1492. It is traditionally prepared for Shavuot, also known as the “Feast of Weeks,” or “Pentecost,” a Jewish holiday marking the beginning of the wheat harvest and commemorating the sacred giving of the Torah to Moses and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. There is a relation between bread and Heaven in the Torah: in Exodus (16, 4) God says to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky.”
Even in the detailed Inquisition records of Spain, I did not find any information related to foods for Shavuot specifically. However, one interesting finding dates back to a trial in 1484 in the north of the country: it mentions that conversos were keeping a fifty-day feast which they called “the giving of the Law.” In another trial record from 1501, there is reference to a converso who was denounced for spending “all night, until the morning, cooking” to celebrate Pascua del Espíritu Santo (Shavuot or Pentecost). For Christians, this holiday is celebrated seven weeks after Easter. For Jews, Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Another relevant mention of Jewish recalcitrance appears in a trial from seventeenth century Mexico, a Spanish colonial territory, where conversos were denounced for celebrating this holiday forty days after Passover.
The significance of this bread’s seven rings is interesting: some sources indicate it refers to the seven stages of holiness through which the soul passes when the body dies. But it could also symbolize the traditional seven-weeks waiting period after Passover, when Jews await the celebration of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Or maybe the rings represent the seven days during Passover when eating leavened bread is forbidden. The bread’s shape likely represents Mount Sinai.
Even if there is no official historical source for this dish, I decided to recreate it and use cheese to stuff the bread, as cheese and other dairy products are traditionally consumed for Shavuot.
To make the filling, lightly crush the cheese in a bowl using a fork. Add the olive oil, crushed mint and garlic, thyme and salt. Leave the mixture in the fridge while you start on the dough.
Now start on the dough: dissolve the yeast in 3 generous tablespoons of lukewarm water. In a bowl, mix the flour, the semolina and the salt. Pour in the water and yeast. Knead for 10 to 15 minutes and cover with a towel. Let the dough rise for an hour.
Roll out the dough with a rolling pin until you have 1 hand wide and 5 hands long.
Distribute the filling along to the long edge, and roll up the dough.
Stretch the roll into a cylinder 2 cm in diameter (1 inch).
Now, grease your hands with olive oil and arrange the dough into a tall spiral, to create Mount Sinai.
Brush the bread with olive oil and sprinkle it with thyme and mint.
Line a roasting pan with baking paper, and leave the bread to rise for about 30 minutes.
Bake in a 375°F (190°C) oven for 30 minutes.