Sephardic Chejados: Candied Coconut Tarts

Last month, we explored the earliest English-language Jewish cookbook, The Jewish Manual, or Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery with a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette. The book’s author, Lady Judith Montefiore, was Ashkenazic but married into a Sephardic family. As a result, The Jewish Manual contains the earliest Sephardic recipes published in English, likely recipes collected from Montefiore’s in-laws, and perhaps prepared in her kitchen to please them.

Sephardic” comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad, and refers to Jews who settled in Spain around 1,700 years ago. The Sephardim were generally happy and prosperous in Spain and held positions in government – until the 1490s and the Spanish inquisition. In 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain demanded that anyone who wasn't a Catholic had to convert or leave – or else they would be put to death. Some Sephardic Jews, like the Montefiores, fled to London, while others escaped to the Americas, establishing themselves in Brazil and eventually in New Amsterdam, founding the oldest congregation in what would become New York City. Many more fled to Turkey and North Africa and made their homes in the Ottoman Empire, including the regions that are today Italy and Greece. 

Montefiore’s book contains both sweet and savory recipes associated with Sephardic cooking. Escobeche is a dish of fried fish and onions, covered in vinegar, ginger, allspice, cayenne, bay leaves and lemon left to “stand twenty-four hours before serving.” Impanada, another fish dish, layers halibut with slices of potatoes and dumplings, seasoned with pickles, and baked. And descaides is chicken livers stewed with onions in a savory gravy and served on toast.

But it’s the sweet recipes in Montefiore’s book that really shine: several types of bolascakes flavored with marzipan and candied citrus peel, dyed with saffron or decorated with gold leaf; sopa d’oro, a “gold” sweet soup colored with cooked eggs yolks and flavored with orange flower water and almonds; macrotes, deep fried slices of French bread sprinkled with sugar; and prenesas, a rich doughnut sprinkled with lemon-flavored sugar. 

I had hoped to be able to use some of the more modern Sephardic cookbooks in the AJHS collection to help me interpret Montefiore’s text. The AJHS has some of my favorite Sephardic cookbooks, including Cooking the Sephardic Way, a community cookbook published in 1971. An invaluable resource, it collected recipes from the wave of Sephardic Immigrants that left the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s. But I soon realized that the recipes in Cooking the Sephardic Way were influenced by hundreds of years of settlement in Turkey and Greece, and then decades in America. The recipes in Montefiore’s book lacked Ottoman influence and were a completely different school of Sephardic cookery. 

Take for example, the recipe I decided to recreate: chejados. These are a version of queijadas, a Portuguese sweet tart with an egg-thickened filling. When made with milk, they’re often referred to as “Portuguese Milk Tarts,” and versions of this dessert can be found wherever the Portuguese colonized. In Macau, China, they’re known as dan tat, and can also be found in Chinese bakeries in America, flavored with almond, ube or matcha. 

 

Montefiore’s chejados have a candied-coconut filling. First, shredded coconut is flavored with rosewater and cooked in a sugar syrup until “perfectly soft.” The result she calls “cocoa nut duce,” a sweet that could be served in small glasses or baked until crispy. Duces, or dulcesare an important part of Sephardic hospitality. When guests come to visit, a la tavla de dulce, or the sweet tray, is brought out, often sweets like rose jelly or soft marzipan that are eaten with silver spoons.

In this recipe, cooked coconut is then mixed with egg yolks. Montefiore suggests making a tart crust out of “nouilles pastry,” which is an egg noodle she also suggests adding to soups. Alternately, she instructs “a rich puff paste may be substituted.”

I baked my coconut filling in a puff paste, and I was extremely pleased with the results. Making the duce filled my apartment with a wonderful, toasted coconut smell. Not overly sweet, the tarts were a pleasure of buttery layers of puff paste combined with the slightly crystallized coconut candy texture of the filling. They are a great treat to have with a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon tea. 

 

Chejados

You can make your own puff paste for this recipe, but you will have equal success (and less of a headache) with store bought puff paste. I feel like many cooks that are unfamiliar with rosewater are also intimidated by it. Make certain to buy an “all-natural” rose water that only lists “distilled rose water” as the ingredient. Cheaper versions are too potent, and lack the subtle, almost unidentifiable flavor a real rosewater adds to a dessert. 

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

2 cups unsweetened, shredded coconut

1 ½ teaspoons rosewater

3 egg yolks, beaten

Puff Pastry

Makes about 20 tarts

 

  1. Add sugar and water to a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat over high heat without stirring until sugar has dissolved.

  1. Add coconut to sugar syrup. Turn heat to low, add rosewater, and stir. Simmer for one hour, stirring every five minutes, until the coconut is soft. The mixture will look toasted brown.  

  1. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Mix with egg yolks. The coconut may be fairly hard after it cools; just break it up with a fork while you mix in the egg. This mixture will keep in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. 

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out puff paste and use a 3 ¼-inch circular biscuit or cookie cutter to cut out rounds from the dough. Pinch the sides to form a cup: either two pinches to create a “boat” shape, or four to make a “hamantaschen” shape. Fill the cups with coconut duce.

  1. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the top of the puff paste is golden, and some of the coconut is deep brown. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

 

 

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