The flavors of tradition

Pre-plan your Seder with this full course Pessah dinner.

Chicken soup  (photo credit: William Lingwood)
Chicken soup
(photo credit: William Lingwood)
Many people would agree with cookbook author Zell Schulman that Pessah is “the culinary pinnacle of the Jewish year.” In many homes the Seder dinner is also the most anticipated meal and on most tables traditional foods are on the menu. Even cooks who like to experiment have good reasons to serve time-honored dishes at the Seder. For many of us it’s a time to remember tastes and aromas of our childhood. For young family members Pessah is a good occasion to learn to prepare family heirloom recipes from relatives.
The holiday’s favorite fare varies among households.
For me it’s Ashkenazi specialties like matza kugels, as well as chicken soup with knaidlach (matza balls), which now appears on many Sephardi menus too. My husband fondly recalls the home-baked matza dipped in the spicy Yemenite soup that his aunts made from turkey to serve their big family. A treasured Pessah food to many Sephardim is mina, a savory layered matza dish, often flavored with spinach and cheese, that some call matza lasagna.
New dishes sometimes become part of the family’s Pessah repertoire. My sister-in-law Hedva Cohen prepares a dish that combines two Ashkenazi classics – matza balls stuffed with chopped liver, a creation of chef Israel Aharoni. This might seem unusual in a Yemenite-Moroccan household but it is characteristic of what is happening in Israel today, where some traditional foods turn up in new guises.
Controversy can arise around certain Pessah dishes.
My Polish-born mother was astonished when my Indian sister-in-law served rice at the Seder. Yet rice appears on the Pessah table in Persian, Iraqi and other Jewish communities. In Pitigliani, Italy, wrote Edda Servi Machlin, author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, “our classic Seder soup was a chicken soup with rice.”
The soup had chicken breast meatballs and immature eggs. After Machlin sampled matza ball soup in the US, a new tradition evolved in her home. She made a soup with chicken matza balls, “a cross between Italian Passover soup and the traditional Ashkenazic matzo balls. As often happens, the hybrid offspring is better than either parent,” she wrote.
When it comes to Pessah desserts, people differ in their preferences. Mitchell Davis, author of The Mensch Chef, defended old-fashioned Pessah sponge cake.
“If you think that Passover sponge cake should be renamed... Saw Dust Cake, then you haven’t tried my sister’s... our Seder celebrates the miracle of Carrie’s moist and flavorful sponge cake.” He notes that the more you make these kinds of cakes, the better you’ll get. Of course, it also helps that his sister often fills her sponge cake with lemon curd and tops it with chocolate ganache, or with whipped cream and strawberries.
Chocolate desserts are not part of classic Ashkenazi or Sephardi Pessah cuisine but have become a must at many Israeli and American-Jewish Seders. A “new” Pessah tradition is the flourless chocolate cake, a buttery French cake popularized by chefs and adopted by home cooks, who noticed that it’s perfect for Pessah.
Chocolate caramel matza crunch, made from matzot baked with buttery caramel and topped with chocolate, has become an American favorite. For an extra Seder sweet that’s easy to prepare and always welcome, I like to bake American-style Pessah brownies.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
This date-nut haroset with apples and wine can be rolled in little balls like chocolate truffles or served in a bowl. They are delicious not only at the Seder but as a natural sweet with a rich, slightly spicy flavor. If you substitute date paste for the pitted dates, you may need more wine.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
225 gr. pitted dates 1⁄2 cup pecans 1⁄2 cup almonds about 3 Tbsp. sweet red wine 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger 1 sweet apple such as Golden Delicious or Gala, peeled
Halve dates and remove any pits or pit fragments. Finely chop pecans and almonds in food processor and remove.
Add dates, 3 tablespoons wine and spices to processor and grind until fairly smooth. Mix with almonds. Grate apple on large holes of grater. Stir into date mixture. If mixture is dry, add more wine by teaspoons.
Roll haroset between your palms into small balls of about 2 to 2.5-cm. diameter. Serve in candy papers.
If you’ve never made matza ball soup or would like to improve yours, follow these explicit directions from my friend Marlena Spieler’s cookbook, The Jewish Heritage Cookbook. Unlike the knaidlach I grew up with, Spieler’s matza balls are flecked with parsley and flavored with garlic and onion. Her soup is seasoned with fresh dill, a pinch of turmeric and a little garlic at the last moment for extra punch. A parsnip contributes a pleasing sweetness to the soup. Parsnips are sometimes available at the supermarket; you can substitute a parsley root or simply omit it.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 to 1.5 kg. chicken, cut into portions 2 to 3 onions 3 to 4 liters water 3 to 5 carrots, thickly sliced 3 to 5 celery sticks, thickly sliced 1 small parsnip, cut in half 2 to 3 Tbsp. roughly chopped fresh parsley 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill 1 to 2 pinches ground turmeric 2 chicken stock cubes 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (optional) salt and ground black pepper
For the knaidlach:
175 gr. medium matza meal 2 eggs, lightly beaten 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil or rendered chicken fat 1 garlic clove, finely chopped (optional) 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish 1⁄2 onion, finely grated 1 to 2 pinches of chicken stock powder (optional) about 6 Tbsp. water salt and ground black pepper
Put the chicken pieces in a very large pan. Keeping them whole, cut a large cross in the stem end of each onion and add to the pan with the water, carrots, celery, parsnip, parsley, half the fresh dill, the turmeric and salt and pepper.
Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then immediately lower the heat to a simmer. Skim and discard the scum that surfaces to the top. (Scum will continue to form but it is only the first scum that rises that will detract from the clarity and flavor of the soup.) Add the crumbled stock cubes and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. When the soup is flavorful, skim off the fat.
Alternatively, chill the soup and remove the layer of solid fat that forms.
To make the knaidlach, in a large bowl combine the matza meal with eggs, oil, chopped garlic, parsley, onion, salt and pepper. Add only a little chicken stock powder as it is salty.
Add the water and mix together until the mixture is of the consistency of a thick, soft paste.
Cover the batter and chill for 30 minutes, during which time the mixture will become firm.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and have a bowl of water next to the stove.
Dip two tablespoons into the water, then take a spoonful of the matza batter.
With wet hands, roll it into a ball, then slip it into the boiling water and reduce the heat so that the water simmers.
Continue with the remaining batter, working relatively quickly, then cover the pan and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove the knaidlach from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate for about 20 minutes to firm up.
To serve, reheat the soup, adding the remaining dill and the garlic, if using. Put two to three knaidlach in each bowl, pour over the hot soup and garnish.
For easy serving at the Seder, roast the chicken in pieces and bake the stuffing separately as a casserole.
The savory spinach and matza stuffing has a flavor similar to that of Sephardi spinach mina. Cover the casserole when you are reheating the stuffing before serving it.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1.8 to 2 kg. chicken pieces 4 to 5 Tbsp. olive oil (optional) 4 tsp. ground cumin (optional) 1 tsp. ground turmeric salt and pepper to taste 4 matzot, crumbled 1 cup hot chicken stock 2 medium onions, finely chopped 3 large garlic cloves, minced 1.4 kg. fresh spinach, stems removed, or 600 gr.packaged spinach leaves, rinsed very well freshly grated nutmeg to taste 3 large eggs
Put chicken on a plate and rub lightly with olive oil. Combine cumin, turmeric, 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper and 1⁄4 teaspoon salt in small bowl and rub evenly all over chicken. You can season chicken up to 2 hours ahead and keep, covered, in refrigerator.
Meanwhile, prepare stuffing mixture: Put crumbled matza in a bowl and pour chicken soup over it. Mix well. Let stand about 15 minutes. Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet and add onions, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until softened. Add garlic and cook for 1⁄2 minute.
Cook spinach uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat for 3 minutes or until tender. Rinse with cold water, drain and squeeze by handfuls until dry. Chop with a knife or in food processor.
Add onions and spinach to matza mixture and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add eggs and mix well. Grease an 8-cup casserole. Spoon stuffing into it. Spoon remaining oil on top.
Preheat oven to 200º. Put chicken in a roasting pan.
Bake uncovered 20 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 175º. Turn chicken pieces over; cover with foil if they are deep brown.
Put casserole of spinach stuffing in oven. Bake both chicken and stuffing for 30 to 40 minutes or until chicken is tender and stuffing is set. Chicken leg pieces should be tender when pierced in thickest part with a thin, sharp knife and juices that run out of meat where it was pricked should be clear, not pink; breast pieces should be tender when pierced in thickest part with knife. Serve hot.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
This dessert, with a meringue pie shell and lemon custard filling, is from Zell Schulman’s book, Let My People Eat! In her home it has become a popular party dessert throughout the year. If you use the heavy cream and butter instead of the parve whipped topping and margarine, this pie becomes dairy.
Pie Shell 4 large egg whites 1 tsp. white vinegar 1 tsp. vanilla extract or inside scraped from 1 vanilla bean 11⁄4 cups sugar
Filling 11⁄2 cups sugar 1⁄3 cup potato starch 1⁄8 tsp. salt 2 cups water 6 egg yolks, slightly beaten Grated zest of 1 lemon 1⁄2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 3 Tbsp. margarine or butter
Topping 1⁄4 cup shredded coconut or 1⁄4 cup blanched slivered almonds 1 cup parve whipped topping, or 1 cup heavy cream, whipped
Making the Pie Shell Preheat the oven to 95º. With margarine or butter, grease a deep 25-cm. glass pie plate well or the meringue crust will stick to the pie plate.
With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites at medium- high speed until they are frothy. Add the vinegar and vanilla. Turn the mixer speed to high. When the egg whites begin to hold soft peaks, start adding the sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Continue until all the sugar has been added and the egg whites are stiff and glossy but not too dry.
Spread the meringue in the well-greased pie plate, building up the sides and leaving the center flattened to hold the filling. Bake for 1 hour. Turn off the heat and allow the pie shell to remain in the oven for 1 hour with the door slightly ajar.
Remove the pie shell from the oven and let it cool completely. The center of the meringue crust may rise a little during baking and can be crushed to hold the filling after it has cooled. The crust can be prepared earlier in the day. Do not place in the refrigerator.
Making the Filling In a large nonreactive saucepan, combine the sugar, potato starch and salt. Gradually stir in the water. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the egg yolks, lemon zest and lemon juice together. Slowly stir this mixture into the saucepan.
Over medium heat, using a wire whisk, cook the filling, stirring continuously, just until the mixture begins to thicken and become bubbly. Remove from the heat and stir in the margarine or butter. Allow the filling to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the topping. Preheat oven to 200º. Spread the coconut or almonds on a cookie sheet. Bake 5 to 8 minutes until coconut turns light brown. Be sure to watch it carefully, as it browns quickly.
Fill the meringue shell. Place a layer of plastic wrap directly on top of the filling so it doesn’t form a crust.
When ready to serve, top with parve whipped topping or whipped cream and garnish with toasted coconut or toasted almonds.
Children love these sweet brownies, which do not contain nuts. If you’d like to make them to adult taste, reduce the amount of sugar to 11⁄2 to 13⁄4 cups and add 1⁄2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans and 1 to 2 teaspoons grated orange zest. For serving after meatless meals, I make the brownies with butter or a mixture of butter and oil.
Makes 20 to 24 brownies.
225 gr. margarine, butter, or half butter and half vegetable oil 2 cups sugar 4 large eggs 1 cup unsweetened cocoa, preferably Dutch process 2⁄3 cup matza cake meal
Preheat oven to 175º. Grease a square 23-cm. cake pan. Soften margarine or butter. In mixer beat margarine with sugar and eggs until very light and fluffy. Add cocoa and cake meal. Beat slowly to combine, then beat at higher speed until mixture is fluffy.
Spoon batter into pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the color has changed evenly on top and a cake tester or toothpick inserted 5 cm. from center comes out dry. Do not overbake. Cool in pan on a rack. Cover when completely cool. Serve at room temperature.