Jewish connection with prickly cheese and matza
During our school years, during breaks between classes, a cheese toast was almost an obligatory snack. We would run fast to the school canteen and yell out our orders, double kaşar cheese for me, and for most others, a sure winner with the molten cheese oozing from margarine-drenched slices of toast bread. Those were the years back in the early 1970s when margarine was very much in, mostly used instead of butter, but on the bright side, our cheese was still artisanal, not processed industrial cheese. Needless to say, the grilled cheese toast was a delight, all savory goodness to fill our hungry bellies. But there was one week every year when I tried to hide my joy from a classmate Medi, who would be at the brink of tears while munching a matza. She was the ultimate grilled cheese toast fan, never skipping a single break without one. When it was the time of Pesah, she would be in deep agony, being obliged to pass over her favorite taste. Empathizing vaguely, I would try not to eat mine in front of her. I even once asked to taste the matza and pretended that I liked it.
My first awareness of Passover or Pesah was this grilled cheese incident. I had numerous other Jewish friends, but no one really kept kosher or followed religious observances to my knowledge, or maybe they cheated their families when in school and fed their matza to birds. Who would know? We were teenagers, rebellious, revolutionary and fast forward, dedicated to changing the world; after all, we were children of the age of Aquarius! We felt free to do whatever we wanted. Even if from religious families, no Muslim friend ever fasted during Ramadan. I never did myself. So, in that context, my friend munching matza was a bit extraordinary. Keeping up with the dietary obligations of religion was something old style, at least for me.
I don’t really recall if I really liked matza, but I remember there was a certain appeal to it. Maybe it was its almost raw taste, not masked by any other flavor; a pure taste of unleavened dough, just flour and water. Over the years, I developed a fondness for British water biscuits to be topped with sharp British cheeses like aged cheddar, Stilton, or just with good Roquefort. My first taste of matza always reminds me of those water biscuits. But of course, my friend Medi would surely prefer our toast bread version; she scuffed her “hamursuz” saying that it resembled cardboard. “Hamursuz” is the keyword here. Pesah was called as “Hamursuz Bayramı” back then. “Bayram” is the word for any holiday or festival, either with a religious context, or a national celebration. The word “hamursuz” literally means “without dough,” referring to the obligatory unleavened bread of Pesah. As known, there have to be three uncracked whole pieces of matza on the Pesah Seder table, and it goes into various dishes during the Passover period. For me, now it is an item to be stocked when Pesah comes as a taste I look for in my cheese and wine nights. Needless to say, it goes perfect with a good kaşar cheese, a truly artisanal aged one, difficult to find nowadays.
Kaşar cheese must be the second most popular cheese in Turkey, along with brined “beyaz peynir,” which translates as “white cheese,” sort of Feta cheese. Interestingly, no one ever thinks that kaşar has a Jewish connection. It seems that the cheese was brought over by Jews from Spain, who referred to it as “kaşer,” the Ladino for kosher. It is almost identical in taste to Queso Manchego, the famed local cheese of the La Mancha region in Spain. The Sephardic connection is obvious, as most Sephardic Jews, who came from La Mancha, settled in Thrace, and many of them established dairy farms and became cheese producers. Sheep’s milk, as in Manchego, is the traditional choice of milk in kaşar cheese. Actually, in old times, the cheese was pronounced and spelled as “kaşer” in Turkish, the exact equivalent of the Ladino term. Kaşar cheese is almost like the backbone of Sephardic Jewish cooking in Turkey, by far the most preferred cheese of the community, and especially preferably from the Thrace region. When aged, it has a true bite, almost prickly on the tongue. In Kırklareli province in Thrace, such aged kaşar cheese is called “biberli,” which means with pepper, though there is not even a pinch of pepper in it. The term refers to the sensation it creates on the tongue; tingly, almost stinging, and perfect with the blandness of Pesah matza Jewish taste connection typical in Turkey.
Recipe of the week: Nostalgic of those grilled cheese toasts of our teenage years, Boyikos de Kaşer, cheese-laden biscuits with their intense cheese flavor are to die for! Easy and tasty, these Sephardic biscuits are ideal for any teatime, or even better for happy hour. But beware, they disappear quickly. You may need to make a few batches, especially if you are catering to a crowd. Mix in a bowl 1 glass of grated aged kaşar cheese, ¼ glass water and ¾ glass sunflower oil, with a pinch of cayenne pepper and salt, and add enough flour to make a soft dough to the consistency of an earlobe, as grandmas say. I guess about 8 heaped tablespoons will be just right as too much flour will toughen the dough. Roll the dough on a floured board to about 1 cm thickness and then cut out rounds with a cookie cutter or a small glass. Place biscuits on a baking tray lined with baking paper, brush them with egg yolk, and sprinkle grated kaşar generously, about 4-5 tablespoons. You can use a good Manchego cheese if you cannot get kaşar cheese.
Bake for about 175C in preheated oven for about 20-25 min. Quite addictive!