Happy almost-Passover! Today I am eyeing my tiny living room (soon to be dining room), counting the chairs and wineglasses, wondering who I can call to borrow another folding table and hoping there’ll be enough cloth napkins and bowls to go around, since, after all, the eggs in salt water must be followed immediately by the matzoh ball soup.
This is the pre-Seder countdown familiar to anyone cobbling together an urban Passover dinner. Just as at Thanksgiving, a successful Seder menu must teeter along the line between Grandma’s Traditions and The Way We Eat Now.
For example, what would happen if I went all Manhattan-chic and served tiny, peel-your-own speckled quail eggs with smoked paprika and sea salt for dipping instead of those typically rubbery hard-boiled eggs in salt water? Can the roast chicken be rubbed with Moroccan chermoula paste, made with cilantro, cumin, garlic, and my own preserved Meyer lemons? Do I want to risk all the magenta splatters (and dyed fingers) that come along with the now-traditional pomegranate beet salad with blood oranges and olive oil? Will my garden plot give up enough karpas (spring greens) for everyone?
Should this be the year I finally get around to making my own gefilte fish like my mother and grandmother did, or would the frozen Ungar’s logs from Mollie Stone’s be just as good? Will my grandmother’s savory matzoh kugel, really an onion-celery-mushroom stuffing at heart, made with sheets of matzoh instead of bread, be out of place among these spiced and oiled updates? And the final question: flourless chocolate or Passover angel-food cake? Jelly rings or Barton’s almond kisses? Can I hold fast to my loathing of coconut, or must there be macaroons?
As you can tell, I look forward every year to Passover, the eight-day celebration of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, and the accompanying dinner ritual known as the Seder, which begins the holiday this Monday at sundown. Like the crew that started the now-traditional Obama Seder, I see no reason to let a lack of chairs or matching wineglasses deter me from welcoming all who are hungry to come and eat. 13 people in a studio apartment? Bring up your piano bench and that extra card table, and we’re in business! I’ve gone to Marxist Seders, lesbian-feminist Seders, a grandly traditional one overlooking Central Park West and one in Berkeley where the kugel, brisket and charoseth were all whipped up by the Swedish au pair. (I did, however, decline an invitation to a nude Seder one year. Seders can be many things, but naked is not one of them, at least for me.)
Sometimes the Seders were vegetarian, with a golden dill-and-garlic broth bathing the matzoh balls and a “paschal yam” (instead of lamb) on the Seder plate. I tried making sponge cake one year; as it cooled upside down to keep it light, chunks of cake started breaking loose and hitting the counter in clods. My old friend Jen called to tell me she was having doubts about her kugel; I told her I was sitting shiva (the traditional Jewish rite of mourning) for my spongecake.
Much of the food comes with built-in nostalgia, since many dishes are eaten at this time of year and no other. The sinus-clearing blast of horseradish, in particular, is hard-wired to Passover in my brain, no matter how many hip chefs add it to their braised-beef jus or mashed potatoes. Charoseth, a finely chopped mix of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and sweet kosher wine (and it must be made with that nasty Concord-grape Manischevitz, or it doesn’t taste right, right meaning like my grandmother’s) is delicious and could be made at any time, but still remains confined to the Seder, where it symbolizes the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves as they built the pyramids, brick by brick.
Every year, I can look around the table and see friends who have been coming for years. The apartments change, the hair may get a little grayer, but each spring, we come back together to celebrate the achievement of freedom, to toast both its fragility and its tenacity, to learn once again that with it comes both responsibility and joy.
And breakfast. In newspapers and magazines, most Passover recipe features tend to focus almost exclusively on the Big Event, forgetting that there are eight days of breakfasts and lunches to get through after the soup and brisket. Since grains, flours, and leavening are the big no-no’s during the holiday, baking Jews like myself must get creative once the charm of matzoh wears off around day three.
Now, a large and lucky group of you love Passover for the matzoh brei alone. However, the allure of a frittata fried up with crumbled bits of matzoh remains a mystery to me, hence my reliance on matzoh rolls and matzoh pancakes for my morning-starch needs. Now, there’s no denying that everything baked during Passover ends up tasting like eggs and matzoh meal, and these rolls are no exception, but served hot and well-slathered with jam or apple butter, they do the trick.
Being very dependent on my morning toast-and-coffee routine, I had to find something else worth getting up for during these eight bread-free days. These take about as much effort as whipping up a batch of muffins, and they’re quite tasty. The technique is similar to making the dough for cream puffs.
1 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/3 cups matzoh meal
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line with baking parchment.
2. Bring water, oil, salt and sugar to a boil in a medium-sized pot. Add matzoh meal and stir over medium heat until dough forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pot. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
3. Beat eggs into matzoh mixture one at a time, making sure each one is well-absorbed before adding the next.
4. Drop by egg-sized lumps onto prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn down heat to 350F and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until well-puffed and browned. Serve warm with butter and jam.