Semitas in California (and Other Semita Matters)

I’ve been pursuing the semita trail for the last several years and a very interesting trail it is too. Breads called semita or cemita pop up all over Latin America and, I think, can be traced back to the Mediterranean, probably North Africa. Originally they were the humblest of breads, breads made from the lowest and brownest grade of flour (at least in the hierarchy of the time).The other day I ran across a semita I had missed, probably because, being call acemita, it didn’t run across it when I searched under cemita or semita.

Source

It’s in Dan Strehl’s lovely translation of Encarnación Pinedo’s El Cocinero Español which was originally published in California in 1898, a celebration of the upper class Mexican kitchen of California. It’s now in the superb University of California Press Series on Food and Culture, Encarnación’s Kitchen: Mexican Recipes from Nineteenth-century California (University of California Press, 2003). As an aside, Dan Strehl, who worked for years for the Los Angeles Public Library has been a real mover and shaker, serving for seven years as Director of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market and, with Charles Perry, founding the Culinary Historians of Southern California.

But back to pan de acemite or acemitas. Strehl translates this as semolina bread which is how acemite is usually translated in modern dictionaries. Just look at this recipe though.

Recipe

“Add a good piece of raw lard, a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of soda dissolved in a little milk to a quart of flour sifted with two teaspoons of cream of tartar.

Then roll out the dough on the table with a rolling pin. Cut the rolls with a mold or knife as big as you need. When rolling the dough, make it a quarter inch thick.”

From Semita to Biscuit

Now what is that? No mention of semolina or of whole wheat flour. We have to assume that flour in California at this date meant fine white flour. Soda, cream or tartar. Modern raising agents. Lard to make the dough softer and flakier. Rolled out and cut into pieces.

No doubt, this is a good old American biscuit. For non-US readers, an American biscuit is a small bread raised with soda or other chemical leavener.

Commentary

Well, if ever there were a cautionary tale about assuming that recipes with the same name produce the same dishes, this is it. Semitas morph from the bread of the poor, to breads raised with all kinds of unusual sources of yeast, to breads flavored with raw sugar and pecans, to white rolls stuffed with meats in Puebla, to breads claimed to be Jewish on the Mexico/US border, and now to good old American biscuits.

Aside: Capirotada and Semita

 

And on the side. Here’s a discussion of possible links between capirotada, the Mexican Lenten bread-based dessert, and semitas by Bob Mrotek. I’ll need to think about this one. In any case, his recipe for capirotada is lovely.

 

So if there’s anyone out there with other kinds of semitas, I’d just love to know.

 

 

 

 

 

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19 thoughts on “Semitas in California (and Other Semita Matters)

  1. Odilia

    My Grandmother’s recipe included white and whole flours, lard, sugar, cinammon, dry yeast and warm water.
    Thid was rolled out into ovals and sprinkled with Pillonchillo (brown sugar), raisins and chopped pecans, then topped with another rolled, oval layer of dough and sealed around the edges. The tops were then pierced with a fork and sprinkled with more brown sugar and decorated with three pecan halves. My Grandmother came to Texas during the Mexican Revolution and this is the only Semita she knew.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan

      Odilia, Wonderful to have an actual eye witness to what counted as a semita in Texas in, say, the 1920s and 1930s. And it sounds quite delicious. And a long way from a roll full of bran.

      What part of Mexico did your grandmother come from?

      Reply
  2. marta

    odilia, i have been searching for years for a semita recipe and have yet to find one. your’s sounds exactly like the one my family had on sunday afternoons with mexican hot chocolate. would you be willing to share the recipe? i live up in the pacific northwest and don’t get to ever taste it.

    Reply
  3. Julio Icelo

    Julio says:
    I am from Puebla,Puebla,Mexico.I sure miss there semitas(torta style with carne de milanesa or queso.)I would like to know if anyones knows of a place in L.A California

    Reply
  4. rosa

    My Uncle owned a bakery in South Texas. His semita was an oval shaped bread flavored with anise, raisins and pecans on top. I’ve been looking for a recipe with no luck. Most recipes look either like a bun or pan dulce. A recipe from bread for day of the dead is almost but not quite like it. If any South Texans have a recipe, I’d love to have it. Thank you!

    Reply
  5. rosa-maria

    My abuelita made a pastry called Cemita – she used to have me make it all the time – but it is very different from anything else I have seen called cemita or semita. It was rolled out, cut into diamond shapes and crumbly. She was from Jalisco and we lived in northern california.
    I had her recipe on a notecard and this is what I could read from it:
    http://oosphere.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/abuelitas-cemita/
    She makes reference to 4 kinds of flour, not sure what kinds she is speaking of except the rice flour which I remember, any insight would be great!

    Reply
  6. Pat Merk

    I lived in San Antonio for 30 years and enjoyed a cookie or “bread” sold at Mi Tierra Restaurant and bakery that they call Semita de Nucz. It is flat, deep brown in color and includes pecans and raisins. It is a family recipe that they won’t give out so I am trying also to identify a similar recipe. I don’t believe they use anis or it is such a small amount that I can’t tell and I do not like licorise. Thanks for the info and I will continue looking also.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Pat, I don’t have a specific recipe though lots of people have asked for one from the Texas/Mexico border. Please let me know if you find one and I will look also. I believe the color comes from piloncillo or brown sugar if that helps.

      Reply
  7. Naomi Duguid

    rambling through your site and just stumbled on your semita explorations. Is the word at all related to “Simit”? That’s the Turkish word for a kind of snack bread, made in rings, often sold on the street, like a large bagel (but not boiled) and often white wiht sesame seeds on it.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I’ve wondered that myself and don’t have a good answer. I need to seek out someone with both linguistic and culinary history skills to shed light.

      Reply
  8. Gale Brown

    Hi from Texas. Growing up in San Antonio, I was exposed to many different Panes and other panaderia items. I’ ve been searching for different recipes and found Barry Popik’s web site. Here is part of what he said about Semitas/Cemitas:

    “The root of the word cemita is said to come from “semite,” referring to the Lebanese immigrants to Mexico who introduced the particular style of roll that goes into the sandwich.” I don’t know if this is true but thought I’d put
    it out there to see what others find.

    Reply
  9. Gale Brown

    After reading more of Barry’s web site (please see my previous post) I wanted to add this and a link. The recipe for South Texas semitas is there and if you are an experienced cook, it’s possible you can figure it out:

    “The special Texas pan de semita of the border has special ingredients : only vegetable oil, flour, raisins, nuts, and water. The raisins, pecans, and vegetable oil were identified, according to Dr. Santos, as selected ingredients of secret Jews of New Spain. You take two cups of flour, a cup or less of water, a handful olive oil and mix with a half cup to two thirds cup each of raisins and pecans. Then you knead and bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned and easty to chew. This pan de semita is only found in the Texas/Mexico border area and in Texas. Pastry bakers from Mexico claim this type of pan de semita is unknown in central Mexico. Other pan de semitas are found in Guadalahara made from wheat (Semita de trigo) in which milk is substituted for the water. In Texas and also in Guadalahara, one also finds Semita de aniz (anis). However, semita de trigo and semita de aniz never include raisins and pecans, and to use pork lard is forbidden. Only olive oil or butter can be used to make semitic bread.

    Posted by Barry Popik” Check out the entire article @ http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/semita_cemita/

    Reply
  10. Gloria

    Came across an interesting article about semitas or Semitic bread. It is actually of Jewish origin. A ship load of Jewish people were take to Mexico to settle some colonies in the 1600s and introduced semitas and capirotada to this part of the world. Real semitas are made with olive oil or butter but never with lard. The following recipe was taken from the following very interesting article:

    http://www.cryptojews.com/TexasMexicanSecret.html

    Take two cups of flour, a cup or less of water, a handful of olive oil and mix with a half cup to two thirds cup each of raisins and pecans. Then you knead and bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned and easy to chew.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hello, Gloria. This is really ironic because it was exactly that article that made me write about semitas. If you search my web site under semitas, you will find blog posts and articles where I explain at length why semitas are not of Jewish origin. Take a look!

      Reply
  11. albertmarsh

    I’ve been searching for semita bread. I was raised in Rio Grande City on the Texas-Mexico border and my family goes way back. We used to have semita bread for merienda in the mid-afternoon. The flavor still haunts me. It was mildly sweet with a wonderful anis flavor. It was delicious with butter spread generously on it. From my search, it seems to be limited to that border area, allthough mention is made of a cemita bread, of Semetic origin, but there were no Jews that I knew of in the region. I’m pretty sure this has no relation to the border semita.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      It sounds quite wonderful. And my point is that semita or cemita is not specifically Jewish. Thank you for your wonderful story.

      Reply

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