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I have friends who complain incessantly about Pessah because they don't like being restricted to matza for a whole week. While it is true that plain matza by itself is not that enticing, matza could be considered a culinary chameleon. It can simulate noodles, graham crackers and even pastry. This property makes matza useful for making tasty desserts. Even the whiners will find many of them tempting.
Dip matza in wine or juice and layer it with chocolate mousse as my sister-in-law Nirit does, and see who can resist. An innovative chef found a way to make matza imitate puff pastry. He spread toasted matzot with dark chocolate and layered them with white chocolate cream, macadamia nuts and coconut to make a matza napoleon.
These new creations are fun but Pessah is about tradition, and there are plenty of old-fashioned tricks to turn matza into treats. A family favorite of mine is sweet matza kugel. It's hard to think of a more homey dessert, but it's part of the culinary heritage of many Ashkenazim like me, and I look forward to enjoying it at least once during Pessah.
In kugels, matza stands in for noodles. But matza kugel is faster and easier to make than noodle kugel, as there is no need to cook pasta in a pot of boiling water. Just soften the matza with wine, fruit juice or water and mix it with the remaining ingredients.
Kugels may be the most foolproof of Pessah sweets. Some hesitate to bake Pessah cakes, for fear that the delicate batter may not rise, but matza kugels always work.
Use any kind of matza - plain, egg, whole wheat or any flavor you like. Easiest of all is farfel. Years ago, when I moved to Israel, farfel was the Pessah food I missed.
True, you could crumble matza to make it, but that was more trouble. I was glad when Israeli matza companies started to produce farfel so kugel-making became simpler.
Cooks have developed several formulas for sweet matza kugel. In the basic one, you soften matza either by soaking it in plain water, or by dousing it with boiling water, then draining it. Next you add eggs, a little salt and sugar, although honey or jam might be substituted.
Most of us have sampled mediocre kugels. But there's really no secret to making kugel delicious. Simply be generous with the tasty elements fruit and nuts. You don't want a bite of your kugel to be a mouthful of mainly matza. Sliced or grated apples are the usual enhancement, often combined with walnuts, raisins or both.
In fact, you can use just about any fruit for your kugel - fresh, poached or dried, and any kind of nuts. Then enliven the kugel with sweet flavorings - grated lemon or orange peel and juice, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices.
A book I've enjoyed for many years is From Manna to Mousse by the Sisterhood of Congregation Beth El of New London, Connecticut (published in 1969). There are plenty of fruity matza kugels. One features farfel, bananas and walnuts. Another is made with crushed pineapple mixed with plenty of applesauce. There's even an apple matza kugel with nuts, sugar, cinnamon and sauteed onion and grivenes (chicken skin fried in chicken fat).
To give kugels a more delicate texture, some cooks whip the egg whites separately and fold them into the mixture. This type of kugel is often called a matza charlotte, although it's completely different from the classic charlottes I enjoyed in Paris. Such a kugel might be served with a fruit sauce. With a name like charlotte, it had better be elegant!
Another variation on the matza charlotte theme calls for topping the kugel with a cloud of sweet meringue. You make the kugel mixture with moistened matza, sugar and nuts using egg yolks only, then top the mixture with sliced fruit apples, pears or bananas, and bake it until set. Then you beat the egg whites with a little sugar, spread the meringue over the top and bake it until light brown, like a kugel form of lemon meringue pie.
Dried fruit gives a kugel a special richness. The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook suggests embellishing the kugel mixture with chopped dried apples, raisins and dried pears and flavoring it with melted butter, orange juice and ginger. Another features not only apples, dried cherries and pistachios, but carrots as well - and why not? After all, we all love carrot cakes.
For dairy meals, you can make your fruit kugels creamy by adding sour cream, cottage cheese or cream cheese. Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin, authors of The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook, make a lavish milchig matza and fruit kugel. For extra richness, they saute sliced apples in butter, then add sauteed sliced almonds and raisins. After combining the fruit with a matza-egg-sugar-cinnamon mixture, they enhance it with plenty of sour cream and cream cheese.
Nira Rousso, author of Kasher L'Pessah (in Hebrew), makes a similar dried fruit and wine matza kugel. She pours sweet wine over crumbled matzot, then mixes in eggs, white cheese, cinnamon, walnuts and plenty of fruit dried apricots, dates and raisins. The accompaniment to this luscious sweet? Vanilla whipped cream.
MATZA KUGEL WITH APPLES, ALMONDS AND DATES
You can make this kugel with either sweet or tart apples, or substitute ripe but fairly firm pears. Instead of dates, you can add any of the extra dried fruit you bought to make haroset. As a finishing touch, cinnamon and sugar bake to a light glaze on top. For a dairy version, use butter instead of margarine and stir 1â„2 to one cup sour cream or cottage cheese into the matza mixture.
5 plain, whole-wheat or egg matzot
4 Tbsp. melted margarine or vegetable oil
pinch of salt
6 Tbsp. sugar
3â„4 tsp. ground cinnamon
4 medium apples
1 tsp. grated lemon or orange rind (optional)
1â„3 cup chopped pitted dates
3 Tbsp. chopped almonds
Lightly grease a shallow, square, two-liter baking dish. Break matzot into quarters and put in a large bowl. Pour boiling water over them to cover. Turn matzot over with tongs to be sure all are lightly moistened. Drain in a colander, tossing a few times so water drains quickly. Cut matzot in strips about two cm. wide. Put in another large bowl.
In a medium bowl beat eggs. Add to matzot and mix well. Add three tablespoons melted margarine, salt and four tablespoons sugar and mix well.
Preheat oven to 175 . Mix one tablespoon sugar with 1â„2 teaspoon cinnamon. Peel, halve and core apples and slice them very thin. Mix apples with cinnamon mixture. Add apple mixture to matza mixture and mix well. Mix in grated lemon rind, dates and almonds.
Spoon matza mixture into baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining tablespoon of melted margarine. Mix remaining one tablespoon sugar with remaining 1â„4 teaspoon cinnamon. Sprinkle over kugel.
Bake uncovered for 30 minutes. Cover and bake for 15 more minutes or until kugel is firm and apples are tender.
While kugel is still hot, carefully run a small sharp knife around edges. Serve hot or warm. Cut carefully into portions, using a small sharp knife and an up-and-down motion.
Makes 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes. Her next book is Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.