A great cookbook does not just give the reader narrow-focus, step-by-step instructions for how to prepare a food. A great cookbook expands its focus to show what that food means in a whole meal and then expands into a wide-angle view of what that meal means to the people who served and ate the meal.
By the time it is done, a great cookbook portrays an entire culture arranged around each illuminated dish.
In The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, Edda Servi Machlin sets each recipe into her loving portrait of her native society, the venerable and now vanished Jewish community of Pitigliano in Tuscany. As she recounts her idyllic youth, the tight-knit Jewish community appreciated its ancient customs, slightly different from the customs of other Jews. Christians and Jews lived side-by-side as friends, appreciative spectators at one another’s celebrations.
That all changed in 1938, when the author was in her mid-teens. Under the fascist leader Benito Mussolini, Italy passed antisemitic laws and most of her neighbors went along with the new order. “All who had remained good friends up to that moment began to avoid us as if we were suddenly infected with a repulsive disease,” she writes.
During the war years, Edda Servi survived with three siblings among the anti-fascist partisans. Her parents and youngest brother somehow survived in an Italian concentration camp. The Jewish community of Pitigliano, after thriving for at least 600 years, never recovered. It continued to exist only in Servi’s memory and in the memories of other survivors.
When she moved to the United States in 1958, Servi found the Italian food here disappointing, never nearly as good as her mother’s cooking. She married Eugene Machlin in 1960; guests at their table appreciated her cooking and asked for recipes. She collected these recipes, and reconstructed the Jewish community of her youth in her first book, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews: Traditional Recipes and Menus and a Memoire of a Vanished Way of Life.
Edda Servi Machlin died in 2019 at age 93.
Matzah Baking in Pitigliano
The town of Pitigliano sits on the side of a hill. Deep under the town, literally hewn into the volcanic bedrock, a winding stone staircase leads down to the communal kosher bakery. Previous generations had constructed a primitive oven and ancient baking equipment in that underground chamber, illuminated by a window cut into the side of the hill.
A few weeks before Passover, teams of residents cleaned the chamber and prepared it for use. Then, taking turns, one family after another carefully carried the ingredients down to the chamber, where they baked their matzah and other kosher-for-Passover baked goods, and brought the finished products back up to the surface.
Around the world, most Jewish communities insist on simple-looking matzah, roughly round handmade matzah or square machine-made matzah, produced hastily without any decoration. The Jews of Pitigliano made their matzah hastily, too, but in a distinctive and beautiful lacey pattern.
Why was the bakery so far underground? Servi Machlin had long believed that refugees from the Spanish Inquisition wanted to keep their Jewish rituals as secret as possible and so located the special Passover bakery as far as possible from prying eyes. In later research, she did not find evidence for this explanation (although perhaps the bakery-builders did not want to leave any evidence), and Servi Machlin thought that the bakery might predate the Inquisition.
Story of the King’s Cake
Servi Machlin provides a romantic explanation for how she obtained this recipe and why she calls it Torta del Re, meaning King’s Cake.
Many years ago, an Italian senator hired a young woman to tutor his child. The senator’s own wife was bedridden. Servi Machlin dryly reports that the young woman “was also apparently consoling the senator.”
After some time, the tutor “found herself pregnant.” She “jumped from the window of her third-floor apartment, but she didn’t die, which, of course, had been her intention. While the tutor was recovering from a few broken bones, the senator’s wife died and the senator married my great-aunt, thus saving her honor.”
The great-aunt maintained that she had learned this recipe from the senator’s chef, who, in turn, had learned it from his friend, the chef of the king. Servi Machlin serves Torte del Re at important dinners and at Passover. She concludes this tale with the observation that “whether the story is true or not, this cake is ‘fit for a king.’”
This romantic tale leaves out the information that non-Jewish Italians serve a fancy cake of one form or another at the feast of the Three Kings — and call that cake Tort del Re.
TORTA DEL RE, KING’S CAKE
2 tbsp. sweet butter (or parve margarine)
2 tbsp. matzah meal (for Passover) or breadcrumbs (for the rest of the year)
5 eggs, separated
1 small pinch of salt
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups ground blanched almonds (10 ounces) Servi Machlin calls for the almonds to be “chopped very fine.”
1 tsp. vanilla extract (needs Passover approval)
1 tsp. almond extract (needs Passover approval)
Grated rind of one lemon
Sliced or slivered almonds, toasted
Confectioner’s sugar (needs Passover approval)
To toast the almonds, spread them evenly on a baking sheet and broil them for four or five minutes, shaking them a couple of times. Take care not to let them burn.
Grease a 10-inch spring form pan and sprinkle with matzah meal.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Beat the egg whites with salt until they become stiff and dry.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks until they become foamy. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until they turn lemon yellow.
Gradually add the grated almonds, the two extracts and the lemon rind. You should have a very hard paste. Mix a third of the beaten egg whites in with the mixture to make it softer. Delicately fold the rest of the egg whites in and pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.
Put the cake pan onto the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour without opening the oven door.
Then leave the oven door open for 10 to 15 minutes; then remove the cake from the oven and turn it upside down onto a cooling rack. When it is thoroughly cool, place the cake on a serving dish. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and toasted or sliced almonds.