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Sticking It Out

Making Jewish Italian sfratti ‘stick’ cookies an even sweeter symbol of resilience

Marcia Friedman
November 01, 2022
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author

What does Jewish resilience taste like? As someone who finds Jewish food’s rich symbolism and messaging inspiring and intriguing, I could answer that question with charoset, symbolizing the mortar Hebrew slaves used in Egypt from the Passover story, or hamantaschen, representing the pockets of the Purim story’s villain. But as a convert to Judaism exploring Jewish life through food, particularly Italian food given my Sicilian background, my first response would have to be sfratti, Jewish Italian honey-and-nut-filled cookies, symbols of eviction but also sweet return.

Sfratti come from the small Tuscan town of Pitigliano. In the mid-1500s, it attracted Jews fleeing papal restrictions in other parts of Italy. Jews thrived there, setting up a synagogue, kosher bakery, school, and mikvah. Perched on a hill and surrounded by rock walls, the town had cobbled streets and a golden landscape that recalled Jerusalem, which helped earn it the name La Piccola Gerusalemme, or Little Jerusalem.

Like Jewish experiences across history, fortunes swiftly changed when new, less-tolerant rulers—in this case the Medici family—took over in the early 1600s. They introduced the town’s Jews to the concept of sfratto, which means eviction, often enforced with sticks. Landlords used those slender weapons to knock on doors of delinquent residents and later Jews being forced by papal decree to move to ghettos. Lashings with those sticks apparently also could be in the repertoire. Despite this turn, Pitigliano’s Jews were so important to the town’s social and economic fabric that they faced fewer restrictions than their brethren in many other parts of Italy.

Jewish history features an admirable and valuable emphasis on telling stories and remembering their lessons. So you can bet this eviction wasn’t forgotten once new leadership released the Jews from the ghetto in 1799. Pastries named sfratti became that token of remembrance, not only by resembling sticks but also—I love this part—by including a unique ingredient for a sweet pastry: black pepper, perhaps representing the emotional hurt of eviction as well as the actual sting of the eviction weapon’s use. It’s all tempered by a generous amount of honey and nuts, and a little dose of humor.

Besides a reminder of unpleasant events from which the Jews eventually recovered, sfratti also symbolized the hope of warding off future bad events. The sweet became traditional for Rosh Hashanah, but the pastries’ wonderful flavor and evocative symbolism caught the attention of the Jews’ neighbors as well, who began making the cookies for weddings and Christmas. Sfratti became emblematic of Pitigliano, and now visitors can find them year-round, even though very few Jews remain in the town. Today sfratti join other examples of lasting Jewish contributions to Italian cuisine, such as deep-fried artichokes and the adoption of eggplant, fennel, tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkin.

That’s why I love these pastries so. But there is an even greater Jewish eviction story in the region that began more than a century earlier, and I could see a new sfratti recipe symbolizing that. Across the Mediterranean in 1492, Spain’s Alhambra Decree ordered all Jews to leave Spain, forcing those who wanted to stay to convert. A few years later, a similar expulsion occurred in Portugal, though the king there recognized Jewish contributions to the economy and performed a large number of forced conversions to try to keep Jews from leaving. However, New Christians, or conversos, especially those suspected of secretly maintaining Jewish practices (sometimes referred to derogatively as Marranos), faced hostility and suspicion and by the end of the 1500s, even most of them had left.

But they may have taken with them an inkling of something sweet: chocolate. Cocoa beans likely first came to Spain with Columbus, who around 1504 brought back mysterious beans the indigenous peoples prized as currency. The find remained somewhat of a puzzle until 1528, when Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés returned from the Americas with a recipe for a drink made with ground cocoa beans—which, once mixed with other New World specialties like vanilla and sugar, became a hit with the Spanish elite.

Sephardic Jews and conversos who settled in Central America and the Caribbean were able to learn more of the secrets of chocolate from local peoples, and they soon set up lucrative processing and trading of not only cocoa, but also vanilla and sugar. They maintained kinship and economic ties with the Sephardic community that now scattered around the globe, and they shipped those commodities to their Portuguese Jewish contacts who had resettled in port cities like Amsterdam; Bayonne, France; and Livorno, Italy.

By the 1700s, this trade fostered a leading Jewish expertise in chocolate-making in those areas, and the world of sweets would never be the same. Bayonne, which became an early chocolate center, now credits the Portuguese Jews who settled there with bringing chocolate to France. They were so successful in their chocolate-making (which at that time, largely meant forming a paste or powder for drinking or baking) that local chocolatiers successfully lobbied French authorities to ban Jews from the local chocolate trade until 1767. Evicted, again.

Another place where the use of chocolate took hold was Livorno, a vibrant Tuscan port city in Italy that attracted many Portuguese Jews as well as a number of Jews from nearby Pitigliano. Livorno’s community became particularly known for its chocolate cakes. Jewish bakers there and elsewhere across Europe, thanks to their access to and familiarity with chocolate as well as vanilla, were among the first to use those ingredients, deliciously, in baking and cooking. They helped pave a sweet path that many would soon happily follow.

For me, filling sfratti with chocolate beautifully envelops that larger Jewish eviction and survival story within these little pastry sticks. My new recipe begins with a mostly classic wine-moistened sfratti dough, delicate yet just sturdy enough to form short sticks. For the filling, I chose bittersweet chocolate for its rich flavor but also the sense of bitter sweetness that underlies sfratti’s story. Ground cayenne pepper honors the original cookie’s unique use of pepper and how the Spanish explorers first found the Aztecs preparing chocolate—in a drink spiked with dried and ground chiles. More important, the flavor adds a warmth and depth to the chocolate essence that I just love and makes these pastries unique and extraordinary.

Honey provides the glue that holds the filling together for rolling, plus it enriches the flavor even more. It also maintains the pastry’s connection to its original filling and its place as a Rosh Hashanah sweet, though the idea of remembering resilience and hoping to prevent bad events remains an evergreen one. Finally, the topping: A little flaky sea salt cuts the sweetness of the filling, and a dusting of cocoa powder offers color and another nod to those precious cocoa beans that started it all.

Jewish evictions aren’t ever something to celebrate. But the stories of how Jews regroup and recover from these trials and setbacks never cease to amaze me. And so much of Jewish food helps tell that story, often with a touch of humor. The traditional sfratti do that, and for me, this new version represents even more of the story of Jewish resilience and resourcefulness. It’s a sweetness that resonates with every bite.

The Recipe

Spicy Chocolate Sfratti

Spicy Chocolate Sfratti

Marcia Friedman is the author of Meatballs and Matzah Balls: Recipes and Reflections from a Jewish and Italian Life and The Essential Jewish Cookbook: 100 Easy Recipes for the Modern Jewish Kitchen.