I was lucky enough to travel to Israel a few months ago. Let me tell you, there’s a reason why they call it ‘The Land of Milk & Honey.’ Israelis love their sweets! Corner bakeries featured dozens of types of cookies mounded as high as pyramids. Market stalls selling nothing but sugary candies in bulk shone like beacons at night, with their neon-colored sweets visible for miles.
Despite all of these delights, my favorite sweets were the chocolate rugellach at Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Baked by the sheet with over 200 petite rugellach lined up in neat rows, these treats are best hot, straight from the oven. Growing up in a Jewish household, I’ve had a lot of rugellach in my life, yet I can’t say that I’ve ever eaten one still warm from the oven. Oh my god, what a life changer! These two-bite doughy chocolatey nibbles were like tasting heaven and thankfully I had my friend Derek on hand to stop me from eating a dozen in as many seconds and making myself ill. If you find yourself in Jerusalem, do yourself a favor and pick up a few of these chocolate rugellach. If they’ve cooled off, it’s well worth waiting a few minutes for a fresh sheet of these pastries to come out of the oven.
Here’s a map to help you find the best rugelach in the world (though your nose should be a pretty good guide once you’re within a mile).
Another sweet specialty unique to Jerusalem is mutabak. Before my trip to Israel I had done my usual research into restaurants and food attractions to check out during my travels. Thanks to fellow food bloggers like David Lebowitz and The Kitchn, I discovered a special gem in this ancient city. Tucked away, hidden behind one of a million juice stands, among the labyrinthine market streets of the old city of Jerusalem is Zalatimo’s.
This specialty pastry shop is located on no maps and the written directions I had were as confusing to me as reading ancient Aramaic. It took an hour of winding through the stone streets until I got into the Arab Quarter and close enough to my destination so that every shop owner knew the place by name. Several minutes later I finally came upon the fabled Zalatimo’s, but alas, the shop was already closed for the day!
Having surpassed the first hurdle of finding the place, I was not to be deterred. The following day, with just a few hours remaining in Jerusalem, I snaked back through the old city market and arrived at Zalatimo’s to find the doors open and the master in.
Zalatimo’s is a sparse, cave-like room. Despite the heat of the sun outside, the air is chilly as you step inside. There is no sign over the door and no menu. He really doesn’t need a menu either, since they only serve one thing: mutabak. A rarely-found and old family recipe, mutabak is a pastry, where they roll out the dough until it is paper-thin and you can actually see through it to the marble pattern of the table underneath. A sprinkling of cheese curds from sheep’s milk in the center and it’s gently folded into a square. Then it’s into the oven for what seemed like ages (but maybe that was the anticipation after so much searching for this holy grail of holy land sweets), though was probably closer to 10 minutes. While waiting, my friend and I were offered coffee and someone ran next door to get a couple of cups of freshly-made Turkish joe. When I said before that he only serves one thing, I meant it. They don’t even make coffee there!
Once it’s done baking, it gets some clarified butter brushed on top, followed by a dusting of powdered sugar. Crispy on the outside and warm, buttery, and creamy on the inside made this an irresistible treat. As I peered inside the pastry, to take a closer look, I couldn’t find the cheese filling. This was no magic trick; the oven was in sight the entire time. Instead, the heat of the oven melted the cheese and it absorbed into the pastry dough, amazing! Apparently he also makes a version with nuts instead of cheese as the filling, but I guess I’ll have to save something for next time.
If you’re going to be in Israel and are at all intrigued by Zalatimo’s mutabak, here’s a map to help you find it. I don’t have a street address for you, but everyone on that street knows it. Once you get close, just keep asking about Zalatimo’s and you’ll get pointed in the right direction.
If you’re still reading and still curious about mutabak, check out this 2-minute BBC clip with Zalatimo himself.