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Yid.Dish: Sugar & Spice & All Things Nice, or Jemma

Ashkenazim might associate Pesach with brisket, kneidlach, or matzah brei. Thanks to the Ashkenazi side of my family (my father’s parents and my paternal grandfather) we did grow up eating matzah balls of two sorts: kneidlach, and matzah kleis made with chopped parsley. But by far the most special thing about Passover for me has always been a Sephardic family recipe we’ve inherited from our grandmother, Tess Blackburn, who was born in Lisbon.

Jemma (pronounced ‘yemma’) is a thick, bright yellow, non-dairy custard flavoured with vanilla that we’ve always eaten on buttered matzah on Pesach or as a cake filling. It needs only a few ingredients, takes little time to make, and (at least in my family) disappears surprisingly quickly once served. Before giving you the recipe below, I thought I’d write a short digression exploring its possible culinary history.

The word “yema” in Spanish means “yolk” (from the Latin gemma “bud, gem, jewel” which still survives more clearly in the Portuguese word for yolk, “gema”) and as you will see below, the main ingredient in our family recipe is egg yolks, which make up the thick custard. We always thought that this was a recipe unique to our family and few others. But a few years ago, on a visit to Spain, my uncle discovered that one can still buy confections called “yemas”. They use almost the same ingredients as in our recipe for jemma, but they make them into small petits-fours, rather than the spreadable custard that we call by the same name (although, as you’ll see below, our basic jemma recipe can be used as a filling for more solid petits-fours as well, which we then call “queijinhos”, or a more solid dessert that we call “scudalini”).

Travellers to Spain down to the present day can still visit several convents where the nuns run a patisserie business on the side, making sweets they sell to visitors. In 2006, a journalist from the Seattle Times visited just such a convent in Seville: you can see the small sweets laid out in the picture at the top right of that article, and in the second link you can see the nuns sitting making yemas that they’ve placed on the table between them. At one such covent, the nuns belong to a silent order, so they hand over the sweets in exchange for the money through a revolving turntable that allows the customer to point at what they’d like and then conduct the transaction without speaking.

Two convents that still make these confections call them (after the associated saints of the particular locations) Yemas de San Leandro or Yemas de Santa Teresa. A recipe for the former is here in the original Spanish and here translated badly by Google (which translates “yema” as “bud” rather than “yolk”, for those who don’t read Spanish). You can see that the ingredients match our family recipe below: the nuns just cook it longer to make it more solid (in some cases cooking the yolks with sugar first and then dipping them into caramel or rolling balls of the mixture in sugar) to make little petits-fours, rather than using it as a spread/custard like we do now. Here you can see a recipe for the Yemas de Santa Teresa, which adds lemon juice or vinegar that we don’t use, and here is another which flavours the basic mixture with lemon zest and cinnamon, rather than vanilla. And here on Flickr I’ve found a picture (or two) of a box of these Yemas de Avila.

Perhaps due to the spread of Spanish colonialism, the recipe for yemas seems to have made it even further afield, to the Philippines, where it has been modified to include condensed milk. And my mother-in-law Paulayne Epstein told me, after a trip to Recife in Brazil (a Dutch outpost, captured by the Portuguese who imported the inquisition, from which the first Jews to come to the United States escape), how she discovered that nuns there also make yemas from egg yolks and sugar, to use up the large amount of sugar from the sugar-cane plantations.

I’ve read online (here), for example, where an American importer of these sweets discusses the history of Yemas de Santa Teresa) that a convenient partnership between local vintners, perhaps monks, and nuns meant that after the egg whites had been used for clarifying wine, the left-over egg yolks could be made into sweets.

But, while a good practical explanation for the recipe, I wonder whether this explanation fails to account for the Jewish preservation of this dish as well? My hunch is that the use of eggs in the recipe is particularly appropriate for Passover, when we mainly eat jemma. Perhaps it’s just because I want to believe that our family recipe originated with my ancestors in Spain and Portugal and was preserved by Iberian Christians after the Jews were expelled in 1492 and 1496: other Jewish dishes still survive in post-expulsion Spain and Portugal even if, as in the case of Spanish bean stews containing pig products as opposed to Jewish recipes for adafina, they have been modified to include non-kosher ingredients. It may even just be possible that a Jewish woman, forcibly converted to Catholicism, brought a traditional family recipe to one of the convents and preserved a culinary memory of her ancestral traditions even if she was unable to maintain Jewish practices.

In any case, here is the recipe. It’s really important to use a fresh vanilla pod or bean rather than vanilla essence: natural vanilla contains a much larger array of chemical components and even the small trace compounds add to the complexity of the flavour in a way that vanilla essence, which merely provides the main flavour component vanillin, or even extract of natural vanilla cannot replicate.

Don’t fret about whether it’s healthy to eat so many egg yolks: we only make this once a year, and the pleasure it provides, in my opinion, far outweighs any adverse effects. If you’re worried about it, go for a run. And if you’re still worried, you could travel to Spain and hike to one of the convents I mentioned, to work off all those egg yolks and sugar. Don’t forget to bring me back some yemas (but not at Pesach, since I doubt the nuns make them under the strictest rabbinical supervision!).

For a small jar of jemma:

Granny Tess’s quantities, in British measurements:

8 oz sugar

12 egg yolks

1/4 pt water

1 vanilla pod

These quantities are my brother Daniel’s, adapted to American standard measurements:

1 cup sugar

12 egg yolks

1/2 cup water

1 vanilla pod

You’ll need:

a large glass bowl to make the jemma in

a pan to make the syrup in

a balloon whisk

Slice the vanilla pod in half lengthwise, and carefully scoop out the mush inside and put it in the glass bowl.

Put the vanilla pod casing, the sugar and the water in a pan and heat until boiling.

While the syrup is cooking, you can separate the eggs. Whisk the yolks well in the large glass bowl with the vanilla mush.

Cook the syrup until threading point. To test, drip the syrup from a metal spoon; as a globule falls, it should leave a fine thread behind it. Granny recommended checking that it’s threading by taking a small spoonful of syrup and forming a thread between thumb and forefinger; if you do this, wet your fingers with cold water first so you don’t burn them. The syrup must be threading for the jemma to thicken properly, but it must not turn to caramel; it should still be a pale yellow, and not brown. On a fairly high heat, it will take 10-15 minutes to reach threading.

Pour the syrup in a very gentle stream into the yolks; if you do this too fast, you might curdle them.

Heat the mixture in the microwave at a low setting, taking it out frequently to whisk it a bit with the balloon whisk. It will thicken very suddenly; you want to stop cooking at the point at which it has just thickened to the point of a thick, but still pourable, custard. It will thicken more as it cools.

Assuming you’ve overcooked it, which I always seem to do, you can whisk it thoroughly to remove lumps, and add small amounts of cold water to thin it out.

Cool the bowl by placing it in a basin of cold water. When it’s cool, transfer it to a jar and refrigerate. Jemma doesn’t develop its flavour until it’s cold a few hours later, and it seems to taste better a day or so later. It lasts at least a week (if you can wait that long).

Granny Tess’s recipe differed from this modern version in a few respects. She stirred the yolks and never whisked; this made a heavier jemma. Instead of cooking in the microwave, she used a double boiler. She put the whole vanilla pod in the syrup to cook. We find that scraping out the inside makes a more intense vanilla flavour. It might give it a better flavour to cook the mush in the syrup too, but then you lose a lot of it on the sides of the pan. You can wash the vanilla pod after you’ve cooked the syrup and stick it in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar.

My brother makes a batch of 3 or 4 dozen egg yolks at a time. The whole thing is actually quite easy, and takes less than half an hour.

What to do with jemma: My family likes to eat it on buttered matzah, slightly salted, often for breakfast during Pesach. You can also spread it as a layer inside a Passover nut or sponge cake, which provides a moist contrast to what might be otherwise rather dry cake.

Granny used to make some petits-fours called “queijinhos” (little cheeses) that were made from almonds and jemma. She also mixed jemma with ground almonds, stuffed fresh dates with the mixture, and then caramelized them.

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