Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
Although no one has lived at 97 Orchard Street since 1935, if you knock on the door of the rear first-floor apartment, a resident in a long, black wig, dressed in the latest 1916 fashions, will answer the door.
No, this isn’t a ghost story. That’s because twice a week, the person behind the door is me. When I’m not blogging for Etsy, I work as an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a historic structure that offers a peek into the life of new immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s an important neighborhood when you consider 25% of Americans have an ancestor that lived here at one time or another. Freed from velvet ropes and display cases, a visitor can instead participate in a “living history” program — such as meeting one of the building’s 1916 residents, a 14-year-old Sephardic Jewish immigrant, Victoria Confino.
I got my start as a historian in “living” history, an immersive style of teaching not only for the audience, but also for its practitioners. As a “first-person interpreter,” you attempt to learn every nuance of life in a different era; I challenge myself to be able to describe the sounds, smells, and flavors of another era — like 1916 — as well as I can explain any experience today. Which is why my heart skipped a beat when I came across an odd-looking pan on Etsy, designed for cooking a dish I had never experienced first-hand: bimuelos.
You’ve probably seen this pan before, but you may not know it by the same name. It’s often called an egg pan, an escargot pan, or a poffertjes pan — the same basic shape creating a dozen different iconic foods for different ethnicities. I know it for making bimuelos, a type of fried dough made by Sephardic Jews, who were exiled during the Spanish Inquisition. Sephardic Jews ended up around the Mediterranean and eventually in the New World — some of you might be familiar with bunuelos, the South American version of the same fried-dough dish.
Bimuelos were a special treat, reserved for big breakfasts and holiday celebrations, and the recipes vary by region. A yeast-risen, fried dough was drizzled with honey or cinnamon for Hanukkah celebrations; for the last course of the Passover Seder, bimuelos were made with crumbled matza, a crisp, flat bread, that could be soaked in a lemon sugar syrup and sprinkled with nuts. Being able to create light, fluffy bimuelos was the sign of an accomplished cook and never went without praise.
A handful of Synagogue cookbooks written in the middle of the 20th century give us the best look into the recipes that were carried from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean to the crowded streets of the Lower East Side. It’s from one of these lovingly compiled books, Cooking the Sephardic Way, that I found my recipe for bimuelos, brought to this country by Betty Albalam of Kastoria, Greece — the hometown of Victoria Confino, the real life immigrant my historic portrayal is based upon.
For Victoria, the tiny tenement apartment she shared with nine other family members would have been wildly different from her three-story house in beautiful, mountainous Kastoria. By portraying her and giving visitors the chance to “meet” her, we forge emotional links to the people of the past and their very human lives. I am one of seven women who weekly dons Victoria’s costume. We recently threw a party in anticipation of Passover and had a potluck of pesach-friendly foods. I cooked up bimuelos, frying them fresh in my special pan before soaking them in syrup, and we each had our first taste of one of the Sephardim’s favorite treats. Plucking them burning hot from the plate, we juggled them between our fingers before popping the soft, eggy doughnuts into our mouths. We smiled, knowing that in this moment of consumption, we’ve brought ourselves just a little closer to understanding the life of a young immigrant girl on the Lower East Side.
Pesach Bimuelos (Fried Dough for Passover)
Adapted from Cooking the Sephardic Way, published by Temple Tifereth Israel, 1971.
1 cup finely crumbled matzos or matzo farfel
Vegetable oil for frying (Mazola is preferable, or, if using a bimuelo pan, olive oil)
Roasted, salted nuts for sprinkling (almonds, pistachios, or walnuts)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Cook sugar and water at a low simmer for ten minutes. Add lemon juice and cook 1 minute longer. Let cool before dipping bimuelos.
Wet matzo or farfel until just moist; drain by squeezing excess water with your hands. Add eggs and mix. Drop batter by the tablespoonful into a bimuelo pan with a drop of oil heated in each well, a small electric fryer (heated to 360-375 degrees), or a stovetop pot or pan filled with three inches of oil. Fry until golden brown, flipping once. Lift from oil with a perforated spoon and lay on a platter covered in paper towels to drain. After a minute, dip into prepared syrup for 5-10 seconds, remove and sprinkle with chopped nuts. Serve hot.