As far as I remember, walking down the swarming main street “Calle Real” of the Spanish city La Linea de la Concepcion in the Strait of Gibraltar, allowed me to see those fried half-moon shape doughnuts soaked in honey through the bakeries store windows.
One mouthful and the vanilla confectioner’s custard overran your mind and carried you away. “Japonesas” is the name of this typical fried sweet pastry that can be eaten throughout the year in La Linea. But when you cross the border of the city and enter Gibraltar, you see that “japonesas” are one sample of the sweet pastries prepared. The Jews of the Rock have been selling them since the beginning of the 20th century, and perhaps before.
Testifying to the cultural mix in Gibraltar, “japonesas” are the witnesses of past trade routes that came to the Strait from Asia, India, North Africa, Italy, and Spain. It is the product of a living multiculturalism. Even if the etymology of “japonesas” is still a mystery, it is obvious that “japonesas” are a mix of Andalusian cuisine (dishes prepared under al-Andalus by Jews and Muslims over the 13th century) and an added European twist with the introduction of custard. Culinary preparations of milk and eggs thickened by heat have been part of Ancient Roman cuisine since the first century, thanks to Apicius. However, the first confectioner’s custard only seems to date back to the 17th century.
The Jews of the Rock, whose presence is documented from the 14th century, are a symbol of diversity, and a key component of modern Gibraltarian identity. Whether they come from Spain, Portugal, or Morocco, they remain a marker of the cultural ethnic mix in the Rock.
Many of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 passed through Gibraltar on their path towards North Africa. The culinary evolution between the 14th and the 18th century results in the arrival of a Christian cuisine bearing “European” flavors. This may explain the presence of the filling custard.
Now an emblem of Jewish pastry in Gibraltar, “japonesas,” are eaten for Hanukkah as they are fried in oil, they stand as a delicious testament to the durability of Jewish traditions.
Recipe for Japonesas
Yield: for 12 japonesas
Time: 40 minutes + rise 2h
Ingredients for dough:
1 ¼ fl.oz neutral oil
¾ cup of milk
2 ½ cups of flour
A knob of fresh yeast
1/3 cup of confectioner sugar
½ yolk egg
2 tsps of vanilla
1 tsp salt
2 cups of honey
Ingredients for the confectioner’s custard / vanilla pudding:
7 tsps of cornstarch (Maizena)
4 tbsps of sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup + 2 tbsps of milk
1 oz melted butter
2 tsps of vanilla
For the confectioner’s custard:
- Mix together the Maizena, the sugar, the salt and 1 tablespoon of milk. Pour the yolks with the rest of the milk and mix the two preparations.
- Put it in a pan and heat slowly, and continue to stir until it becomes creamy.
- Set aside and add the butter and the vanilla. Mix
- Pour the custard in a small pan and cover with plastic wrap. Let it cool for 1 hour.
For the dough:
- Heat the butter and the milk in the microwave for 20 seconds until dissolved.
- Add the fresh yeast.
- Mix and add the sugar and the flour.
- In the food processor put the eggs, the yolk, the vanilla, and the salt. Mix and add the first preparation.
- Blend until consistent. Cover and let it rise in a warm place for 1 hour, 30 minutes. If the dough is for the next day, cover the dough overnight to cool it.
- Dust the table with flour and roll the dough out to a 2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds about 5 inches diameter. Moisten lightly the contour of half of the dough.
- Put 1 tablespoon of custard in the middle and close the half part of the circle over the other one.
- Flatten the edges.
- Put the japonesas in a floured sheet of cooking paper, then put it all in a pastry board. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.
- Heat neutral oil in a heavy saucepan to 375°F.
- In another saucepan, mildly heat the honey
- Drop the japonesas into the oil and cook for 3 minutes on each side.
- Drain on paper towels and drop the japonesas into the honey for 2 minutes.
- Put them on a pastry board. Let it cool before eating.