A couple of Sundays ago, my family and I were blessed to celebrate the centennial birthday of my mother-in-law, Becky. Of course, turning 100 deserves a huge celebration. But over the last six months, she has slowed down. Neil was a bit worried that it might be too much, but our children, Max, Rebekah, Sam and his wife Estrella insisted that we must have a party.
Neil’s maternal grandfather, Nissim Pascal Elie was from a Bulgarian family and had studied agriculture in Palestine before emigrating to America. His grandmother, Victoria Benatar came to Seattle from the Sephardic community of Rhodes, a picturesque island on the Aegean Sea. They met and married in Seattle in 1920. Becky, their only child, was born four years later in San Francisco.
They raised Becky in the close-knit Rhodesli community of Los Angeles.
Becky met and married Neil’s father Sam Sheff in 1959. Sam built a beautiful home in the Brentwood Hills. Miraculously the family survived the notorious Bel-Air fire of 1961. However, tragedy struck in 1962, when Sam suffered a heart attack. Becky was left a young widow with eight-month-old baby Neil. In order to support herself and her young son, Becky returned to her old job with the Army Corps of Engineers in the Los Angeles Federal Building.
Neil’s grandmother Victoria was an expert baker, making the exquisite flaky pastries of the Sephardic dezayuno (Shabbat breakfast). But Becky worked such long hours, she never had the time to learn these old Sephardic recipes. It was only when she retired that she made up for lost time. Becky mastered the art of making boyos, burekas, biscochos and roskas with great flair.
Over the years, Becky taught me how to make these pastries and I was determined that I would serve them all at her 100th birthday. I really wanted it to be special, so I started preparing this brunch way ahead of time. The Sunday before, Neil and I spent the afternoon baking a huge quantity of boyos. Boyos are made from a yeast dough that is thinly rolled out and filled with a mixture of spinach, feta and Parmesan cheese, then coiled into a snail shape and baked. We froze them right away. A few days later, after work, I sat in my kitchen and baked about 200 cheese burekas from the traditional crumbly pastry dough (not the much easier packaged puff pastry that most people associate with burekas). The following day, I made biscochos, the subtly sweet, cinnamon dusted, twisted “bangle” cookies so beloved by Rhodeslis.
The night before the party, I made a spinach cuajado and a tomato cuajado. A cuajado (pronounced qua’shado) is sort of a creamy, veggie-filled crustless quiche.
Becky always loved the tomato one and would make it for us on special occasions. I had tried the recipe once before and it was a big fail. But I had to make it for her.
I consulted a few Rhodesli recipe books. Then I reached out to our dear friend and adopted auntie, SEC board member Sarita Fields and she kindly sent me her recipe. Of course, I was rushing and almost ruined the dish. Instead of straining the tomatoes, I threw all of them into the pot. When I realized my mistake, I decided to simmer them for an hour. The sauce became concentrated, with an intense color and incredible flavor. It turned out to be a magical accident.
Our daughter Rebekah, Becky’s namesake, made her delicious banana pudding. She also ordered the most beautiful, extra special birthday cake, decorated with flowers and an old black and white photo of Becky.
Sadly, at Becky’s age, many of her dearest friends have passed away, so the party was intimate. Family and a few friends who have known her for many years. The guest list included Esther and Clement Cohen, dear friends who have worked with us on many Sephardic Educational Center events and film festivals. A few years ago, I was amazed to discover that when Becky was a young girl, she used to baby sit Clement. Another couple were Ron and Sharon Hasson and it turns out that Becky was the flower girl at the wedding of Ron’s parents!
Becky has always been young at heart, with a quick mind and a great sense of fun. She loved to travel, to dance and to enjoy life. She was still driving in her early 90’s. When my kids were younger, she loved taking them out and spending time with them. When my boys were teens she used to arm wrestle with them and she would always win.
Once Becky was in her 80’s, she started telling my kids, “Come give me a kiss! You don’t know how much longer I’ve got.” Being a superstitious Moroccan, I would always yell back: “You’re going to make it to 120! We’re going to have a big 100th for you!”
Neil always tells me that G-d has blessed his mom with a long, healthy life because she always took such amazing care of her mother and father.
Sunday dawned a bright sunny day and everyone enjoyed the sparkling sunshine in our backyard. The buffet was sumptuous and the tables were bedecked in floral linens and fresh, pretty pink flowers.
We hadn’t seen her smile or heard her sing in a very long time, so it filled our hearts to see her enjoying her party.
Becky knew it was her day. She looked glamorous in a crème cashmere sweater with a matching throw on her knees to keep her warm. Her hair and nails were done and her makeup was impeccable. She looked beautiful and she was so happy. We hadn’t seen her smile or heard her sing in a very long time, so it filled our hearts to see her enjoying her party.
It was very sentimental for me to see my wishes for Becky come true!
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
5 medium tomatoes, diced
3 14oz cans diced tomatoes, strained
1 tsp sugar
9 large eggs
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
4 thick slices of challah (cut into bite size pieces)
1 8oz container feta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup grated Romano cheese (optional)
I cup chopped Italian parsley
I egg, whisked for egg wash
Preheat oven to 425°F.
In a saucepan, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the fresh tomatoes and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.
Add the canned tomatoes and sugar and simmer for another 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the challah, Parmesan, Romano and Feta cheeses, tomatoes and parsley.
Gently combine all the ingredients.
Grease an ovenproof dish with remaining olive oil and heat the dish in the oven for 10 minutes. Pour the egg and tomato mixture into the warm dish.
Spread the egg wash on top of the mixture.
Place cuajado on the middle rack of the oven. Bake 30-40 minutes, until cuajado is golden brown on top and firm in the center.
Becky’s trick of warming dish in the oven guarantees a crunchy crust.
Cuajado leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week.
Reheat cuajado in oven warmed 350°F. Freezes well in a well-sealed container.
Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.