Algerian ‘Petits Pains’ for Before and After the Fast

October 2, 2019

I first learned about the sweet little breads of Yom Kippur from “Sephardic Holiday Cooking” by Gilda Angel. This book puts each food in its cultural context and explains why it’s eaten, how it’s made, when it’s eaten and where it originated.

On Yom Kippur, the fast will allow us to focus us on our actions and prayers and a special, wholesome, holiday meal is in order before the fast. Some Ashkenazim don’t eat bitter foods like vinegar during the holiday. Some don’t eat certain nuts because the letters that spell nuts in Hebrew bear a suggestion of sin. It’s a Sephardic custom to eat foods that aren’t too salty or spicy, because that can make for a thirsty and unpleasant fast.

In the spirit of seeking something that offers something for everyone, try these little Algerian sweet rolls. You can form each roll in the shape of each of diner’s initial. Eat one before the fast and one to break the fast.

May the breads you eat before your fast power your prayers. May your holiday be a sweet one, starting with your own sweet little initial. May you be sealed in the Book of Life, and our prayers answered with goodness and sweetness. On the most personal and prayerful day of the year, at the end of that long, long fast, know that your personalized treat awaits you.

Petits Pains
4 1/2 cups bread flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon of rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 cup rinsed currants or seedless raisins (optional)*
1/2 cup coarsely chopped almonds (optional)
1 large egg
2 to 4 tablespoons canola oil (see below)
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
Cooking spray
Egg wash (1 egg yolk mixed with 2  teaspoons water)
Sugar or turbinado sugar as garnish (optional)

Mix all dry ingredients. Crack egg into a liquid measuring cup and beat. Carefully add just enough canola oil to egg to equal 1/2 cup. Add warm water to total 2 cups of liquid ingredients. Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients and mix until well combined to form a rough dough.

Knead the dough until smooth and silky, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time if the dough becomes sticky. Knead 15-20 minutes by hand, 8-10 minutes in a large mixer, or 60 seconds in a 14-cup food processor.

Spray a large mixing bowl with cooking spray. Place the dough into the prepared bowl, turning once to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk, 1 hour or so.

Punch down the risen dough gently, kneading slightly to remove all air bubbles. Divide dough into 24 pieces.

Roll each piece of dough into a little “snake.” Cut the “snake” in lengths of dough and press them together to form the shape of the initials.

Spray a large cookie sheet with cooking spray. Place the letters on the cookie sheet, spacing them about an inch apart. Spray the letters lightly with cooking spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Allow letters to rise for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Uncover the letters. Lightly paint each letter with egg wash and sprinkle generously with sugar or turbinado sugar.  Place cookie sheet in the center of the preheated oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 24 Algerian sweet rolls.

*Although initially inspired by “Sephardic Holiday Cooking,” this recipe has been changed significantly from the original: 

I use my challah recipe: I use less oil and one fewer egg.

I don’t typically use the optional currants or almonds because they make forming the dough letters a little tricky.

I add a sprinkle of sugar on top of each letter. As the sugar melts, it forms a crunchy glaze.

Traditional recipes are treasures, but they also need to be flexible. Over the years, even the most traditional recipes have been adapted to taste. Feel free to substitute optional ingredients, e.g., use dried cherries instead of currants, or pine nuts instead of almonds. Be creative.

Debby Segura lives in Los Angeles. She designs dinnerware and textiles, and teaches cooking classes.

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