- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

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“Why is this night different from all other nights?” is a famous line in the Haggada, the Passover Seder prayer book. The rabbinical response is that the Seder commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

What’s unique about Passover is the food, and as a cook, I teach my students how to prepare Passover menus that are different from those of the rest of the year.

Keeping Passover might seem daunting to someone who did not grow up in an observant home. Yet the regulations are not difficult to follow. There are two kinds of Passover foods: ingredients for the eight days of the holiday, and special preparations for the Seder dinner during the first and second nights.

The basic guideline of what to eat or not eat during the holiday derives from a simple principle spelled out in the Torah: No leavening can be eaten. The Torah prohibits eating leavened bread during the holiday, to recall the flatbread the Hebrews ate during their flight from Egypt. The Hebrew word for leavening is “hametz,” and the term has been extended to all food that is not kosher for Passover.

The Bible referred to unleavened bread as “bread of affliction” and recounted how, in their haste to flee for their lives from Egypt, the Israelites had the misfortune of not having time to let their dough rise.

I don’t know how many people in mortal danger would be concerned about what kind of bread they eat, but the story beautifully illustrates that yeast-risen bread, which was discovered in ancient Egypt, was very important at that time. Apparently people considered it a great improvement over their previous flatbreads, which probably resembled Indian chapatis or a yeast-free version of Armenian lavash.

From the “no leavening” rule, rabbis derived the prohibition against eating flour and other grains.

Their rationale is that these ingredients can naturally leaven, like batter that turns into sourdough by capturing natural yeast from the air. Matzo itself does not leaven because it doesn’t have time to rise. There are strict rules about baking it — from the time the dough is mixed until the matzo is baked, no more than 18 minutes can elapse. (Eighteen, by the way, is the symbolic Jewish number for life.) Strictly observant Jews also avoid grain-derived foods such as corn oil and corn syrup.

Although packaged matzo looks like a piece of cardboard, matzo pieces can be substituted for noodles to make tasty casseroles and for bread cubes to make stuffings; it may also be moistened, spread with filling, rolled up and fried like egg rolls. In fact, matzo is made into a variety of other foods.

Matzo farfel is little squares of matzo. It’s basically a convenience food resembling crumbled matzo, but its color is lighter and its flavor is more delicate, perhaps because of briefer baking.

As a child, I ate farfel squares with milk and bananas for breakfast, as there were no Passover breakfast cereals. I still like farfel that way during the holiday.

When matzo is ground into matzo meal or the finer cake meal, it becomes a substitute for flour.

Another popular Passover flour substitute is potato starch, a flour made from potatoes. Like wheat flour, these ingredients absorb liquids and can be used in pancakes, cakes and cookies.

Unlike wheat flour, they do not contain gluten, and, thus, are not suitable for most pastries and work best in light cakes like sponge cakes, which contain a small proportion of flour.

Despite these restrictions, Jewish cooks have developed an incredible variety of Passover desserts through the ages, including cakes, cookies, brownies and pies. They don’t taste exactly like those made during most of the year, but that is part of the reason they are appreciated.

As an extra precaution to avoid any leavened foods, Orthodox Jews, especially Ashkenazi Jews whose families originated in eastern or central Europe, do not eat legumes.

Thus, they refrain from using foods containing soy, such as soybean oil or tofu. Kosher-for-Passover chocolate does not contain soy-based lecithin, a common ingredient in chocolate.

You might wonder why such foods as milk, cottage cheese and wine also have Passover certification. They have an extra degree of rabbinical supervision but in the kitchen are no different from their usual versions.

Most of the Passover products at the market are substitutes for flour and other grains. The cake mixes, breakfast cereals and pancake mixes, for example, are made from matzo meal and potato starch.

More and more new Passover products are coming out all the time, mimicking foods like cinnamon rolls, couscous, blintzes and even pizza.

I do like the new flavors of matzo, especially whole wheat, spelt, rye and grape matzo, but otherwise I opt for a fairly basic Passover pantry — matzo, farfel, matzo meal, cake meal and potato starch — as I like to make and savor old-fashioned Passover specialties.

Kosher-for-Passover noodles are a fairly new product and taste fine, but I always loved such dishes as my mother’s matzo kugels, both the savory ones with sauteed onions and mushrooms and the sweet ones with apples and cinnamon.

It’s fun to enjoy these once-a-year specialties, and it’s not just because I like their taste.

Preparing these Passover dishes evokes fond memories of my past celebrations of the holiday with the people I love.

Like Thanksgiving, Passover is the time when families make an extra-special effort to be together at the table. For us, matzo, whether it is spread with haroset or dipped in chocolate, is not only a reminder of our ancestors’ bread of affliction but also the basis of tasty treats.

Sephardi haroset

The customary Ashkenazi haroset recipe is a mixture of apples, walnuts and wine.

Sephardi (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) Jews favor dates and other dried fruits, which give the haroset a rich texture and intense fruit taste and may be combined with a small amount of fresh apple, as in this version. Sugar is not needed because the dates, apple and wine contribute enough sweetness.

Serve haroset as a spread with matzo.

8 ounces pitted dates

½ cup almonds

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 sweet apple such as Golden Delicious or Gala, peeled

2 to 4 tablespoons sweet red wine

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)

Halve dates and remove any pits or pit fragments.

Chop them coarsely. Finely chop almonds and add to dates. Add cinnamon.

Grate apple on large holes of grater. Stir into date mixture. Add enough wine to make a thick spread. Spoon into a serving bowl. If desired, garnish with toasted pine nuts.

Makes about 8 servings.

Springtime chicken soup with asparagus and whole wheat matzo balls

You can serve the soup with the vegetables as a light first course and save the chicken for salads, or, for a heartier main-course soup, cut the chicken in strips and add them to the soup.

1½ pounds skinless chicken breast pieces, with bones

1½ pounds skinless chicken thigh or drumstick pieces

1 large onion, whole or sliced

1 bay leaf

3 tablespoons chopped parsley, stems reserved for soup

4 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried

About 2 quarts water

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut in 2-inch lengths (total 3/4 pound)

1 pound medium-width asparagus, peeled, cut in 1½-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Whole wheat matzo balls (recipe follows)

Thoroughly trim any fat from chicken. Put chicken breast and thigh pieces in a large saucepan. Add onion, bay leaf, parsley stems and thyme sprigs (but not dried thyme) and cover ingredients generously with water. Bring to a boil. Skim excess foam from surface. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour.

Add the carrots and dried thyme to soup, cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes.

Discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Skim fat completely from soup. (This is easier to do when soup is cold.) Remove chicken meat from bones; reserve for other meals or cut in strips and return to soup.

Separately heat the matzo balls. Reheat soup, add asparagus and cook over medium-low heat for 7 minutes or until just tender. Add parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve 2 matzo balls in each bowl. Makes 4 or 5 servings.

WHOLE-WHEAT MATZO BALLS

Carrot and parsley give these matzo balls a lively springtime look. I first made them when I was experimenting with whole-wheat matzo recipes for my new book, “Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home,” and was pleased to discover that healthy whole-wheat matzo adds more flavor than white-flour matzo.

To make them I combine soaked whole-wheat matzo with plain matzo meal. If you wish to use whole wheat exclusively, you may find whole-wheat matzo meal in some markets, or make your own by processing whole-wheat matzos in a food processor until ground nearly to a powder.

1 whole-wheat matzo

2 large eggs

1/4 cup matzo meal, more if needed

1/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch of pepper

½ cup finely grated carrot (optional)

1 tablespoon minced parsley (optional)

1 to 2 tablespoons chicken broth or water

About 2 quarts salted water (for simmering)

Break matzo in a few pieces into a bowl. Cover with water and soak until soft.

Drain well and squeeze dry. In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs. Add soaked matzo, matzo meal, salt and pepper, and stir with a fork until smooth.

Stir in carrot and parsley. Stir in chicken broth, adding enough so mixture is just firm enough to hold together in rough-shaped balls. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to make matzo balls easier to shape.

Bring salted water to a bare simmer. With wet hands, take about 2 teaspoons of matzo ball mixture and roll it into a ball between your palms.

The mixture will be soft; if it is too soft to handle, stir in more matzo meal by spoonfuls until you can shape it. Gently drop matzo ball into simmering water.

Continue making balls, wetting hands before shaping each one. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Cover and keep them warm until ready to serve.

When serving, remove them with a slotted spoon, add them to soup bowls and ladle hot soup over them.

Makes 18 to 20 small matzo balls, about 4 or 5 servings

Farfel kugel with leeks, mushrooms and carrots

Bake this kugel as a casserole as in the recipe below, or inside one large or two small chickens as a stuffing. It makes a good accompaniment for baked fish, roast chicken or brisket. If you don’t have farfel, use 5 cups of matzo broken in small, bite-size pieces.

1 large or 2 medium leeks, white and light green parts

1½ cups hot chicken or vegetable broth

5 cups matzo farfel

4 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

8 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon paprika, plus a pinch for sprinkling

2 large carrots, coarsely grated

Pinch of hot paprika or cayenne pepper

2 large eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Split leeks twice lengthwise and dip them repeatedly in a large bowl of water to rinse. Cut leeks in thin slices.Pour broth over farfel in a large bowl. Let stand to soften while sauteing leeks.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add leeks, salt and pepper, and saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until tender.

Remove from skillet. Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet, heat briefly, then add mushrooms, salt, pepper and paprika. Saute over medium heat for 3 minutes or until tender. Remove from heat and stir in carrots. Add vegetable mixture to bowl of farfel and let cool. Add hot paprika. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in eggs.

Lightly oil a 2-quart casserole. Spoon stuffing into casserole. Sprinkle with remaining oil, then with a pinch of paprika. Bake for 45 minutes or until firm. Serve hot or warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Passover chocolate almond cake with chocolate truffle frosting

Like many Passover cakes, this one is made with potato starch instead of flour. To make it suitable for serving at a kosher meal that includes meat or chicken, I prepare it without dairy products.

For meatless dinners, I prepare the cake with butter rather than margarine, and with cream or milk rather than almond milk. The cake is luscious enough to be served on its own, but for extra richness add the chocolate truffle frosting.

1 cup blanched almonds, whole or slivered

½ cup sugar

5 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted margarine or butter, cut in pieces

2 tablespoons water

4 large eggs, separated, room temperature

2 tablespoons potato starch

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE FROSTING AND GARNISH (OPTIONAL):

1/3 cup almond milk

4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/4 cup unsalted margarine or butter

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped toasted pistachios or 8 to 10 toasted blanched almonds

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch by 2½-inch springform pan, line its base with parchment paper or foil and grease paper or foil.

Grind almonds with 2 tablespoons sugar in a food processor until as fine as possible. Transfer to a bowl.

Combine chocolate, margarine and water in a large bowl set above hot water over low heat. Stir until smooth. Remove from pan of water and cool slightly.

Whisk egg yolks to blend. Gradually add yolks to chocolate mixture, whisking vigorously. Stir in 1/4 cup sugar, followed by almonds and potato starch. Mix well.

Whip egg whites in a large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Whip at high speed until whites are stiff and shiny but not dry. Gently fold whites into chocolate mixture in 3 batches, folding just until blended.

Transfer batter to pan and spread evenly. Bake about 1 hour or until a cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

Cool in pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife or metal spatula carefully around cake. Turn cake onto rack, gently release spring, and remove sides and base of pan. Carefully remove paper and cool cake completely. Invert cake onto another rack, then onto a platter so that smoothest side of the cake faces up.

To make frosting, bring almond milk to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and immediately add chopped chocolate. Stir quickly with a whisk until mixture is smooth; set it above a pan of hot water if chocolate doesn’t melt completely. Let cool but do not let it harden. Beat mixture in a mixer at high speed for about 3 minutes or until its color lightens.

Cream margarine in a large bowl until very soft and smooth. Gradually beat in chocolate mixture until frosting is smooth.Spread frosting on sides and top of cake and smooth with a long metal spatula. If desired, swirl frosting on top. Garnish center with pistachios or edge with almonds. Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.

Faye Levy’s latest book, just published by Morrow, is “Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.”


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