The Passover baking dilemma

Potato starch or matza meal?

Walnut512 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On my first attempt at Passover baking as a young bride, I had to choose between different formulas for combining the basic Passover “flours” – potato starch, matza meal and the finer matza cake meal. In my mother’s copy of The Settlement Cookbook, there was one Passover cake made with potato starch and a few made with matza cake meal.
I recently asked several experts what flours they prefer for Passover baking.
Some use only potato starch, due to their family’s Passover custom of avoiding gebrochts (matza or matza meal moistened with liquid), as the mixture could possibly leaven.
Victoria Dwek, author (with Leah Schapira) of Passover Made Easy, wrote to me that on Passover she uses only matza meal from shmura matzot, whose ingredients have been especially supervised to ensure they did not come into contact with liquid. Shmura matza meal works fine in savory dishes but she finds that it tastes awful in desserts. For cakes she therefore uses potato starch, which holds the dessert together, and adds ground nuts, which provide flavor.
Levana Kirschenbaum, author of The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen, also uses only potato starch. She says she bakes cakes that don’t need much flour, like a chocolate-beet-coconut cake, flavored with cocoa and grated coconut and moistened with mashed canned beets.
Many bakers prefer a combination of matza meal and potato starch. Susie Fishbein, author of the Kosher by Design cookbook series, wrote to me that she feels that potato starch used alone makes cakes too gummy and matza meal on its own makes them taste a little stale and dry.
Pastry chef Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, mixes matza meal and potato starch for her cakes. In her email she told me that “starch contributes tenderness and a bit of bulk” and that matza meal provides bulk and body – but not the same body as flour, which gives cakes real structure due to its gluten. She finds that you need the bulk of matza meal to replace flour and the potato starch to help give cakes smoothness.
Paula Shoyer, author of The Kosher Baker, gave me the formula she likes for cakes: 1 cup flour equals 3/4 cup potato starch plus 1/4 cup matza cake meal.
“Potato starch alone often does not sufficiently bind the ingredients together. If used alone, matza cake meal makes a dessert too dry and pasty-tasting,” she writes. When she wants a gluten-free substitute for matza cake meal, she uses a new product, gluten-free cake meal, which has tapioca starch, egg and other ingredients.
TO PREVENT dry cakes, Chef Henry L. Piotrowski Jr. of Cuisine Innovations, a company that produces kosher foods, recommends brushing cooled cakes with a simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water. Hava Nathan, author of The Passover Cook Book (in Hebrew, Sefer Habishul L’hag Hapessah), uses a cognac-flavored syrup to moisten her chocolate chiffon cake and frosts the cake with sweetened whipped cream flavored with cocoa and instant coffee.
For my cakes, I generally add some fat to the batter – whether it’s butter, margarine, neutral oil, nut oil or mild olive oil – as it helps to make cakes moist. I prefer Passover cakes with bold flavors, such as sweet spices, coffee, wine or citrus zest and juice.
Most often I choose recipes that call for a fairly low proportion of Passover “flours.” Usually these cakes have plenty of chocolate, nuts or both, like the chocolate and walnut cake in the recipe below. Chocolate and nuts contribute to Passover cakes in three ways: they provide good flavor; they enrich cakes and prevent dryness; and they give cakes body and thus make it possible to use little or no potato starch or matza meal.
Still, for layer cakes, rolled cakes and other desserts, a good basic Passover sponge cake is useful. If, for example, you’d like to make a strawberry shortcake to celebrate Hag Ha’aviv, the Holiday of Spring, as Passover is often called, a light, delicate cake is just what you want.
“Passover is just not Passover without at least one sponge cake,” writes Goldman.
To have a basic yellow cake with good flavor and texture, her solution is to bake a cake that’s a cross between a sponge cake, a chiffon cake and a genoise. It gains moistness from melted margarine or oil and is flavored generously with vanilla sugar and with finely minced lemon or orange zest. (See recipe) ■
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
PASSOVER YELLOW CAKE In A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, this cake is called “I Can't Believe This Is a Passover Cake” Yellow Cake. “For people who loathe dry cakes and think Passover cakes are suspect at best,” writes author Marcy Goldman, “this is a must... It keeps well, and is a good foundation for fresh fruit, parve Passover mousse, or a chocolate ganache topping.” Unlike sponge cakes, it does not require separating the eggs.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
8 large eggs, warmed 1⁄3 cup matza cake meal 1⁄3 cup potato starch, not packed, plus extra for dusting 1 Tbsp. lemon juice 3 Tbsp. unsalted Passover margarine, melted, or kosher-for- Passover oil 3⁄4 cup granulated sugar 1 Tbsp. Passover vanilla sugar 1⁄2 tsp salt, divided 1 Tbsp. finely minced lemon zest or orange zest Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF).
Generously grease a 25-cm. (10-inch) springform pan or a 23- by 33-cm. (9- by 13-inch) rectangular pan. Dust it with potato starch and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Warm the eggs (still in their shells) by placing them in a bowl and covering them with very hot water for 1 to 2 minutes. (The water should be hot enough to warm them up but not so hot as to crack the eggs and cook them. Do not leave the eggs in the water longer than 1 or 2 minutes.) This is the most important step. Do not omit it. Heat a mixing bowl by filling it with very hot water and then dry completely.
Meanwhile, sift together the cake meal, potato starch and 1/4 tsp salt.
Combine the lemon juice and melted margarine or oil in a small bowl. Set these ingredients aside.
Break the warmed eggs into the bowl of an electric mixer along with granulated sugar, vanilla sugar, 1/4 tsp. salt and citrus zest. Using the whip attachment, beat on low speed very briefly just to combine ingredients. Then increase to high speed and beat for 12 minutes. The batter will be extremely voluminous.
Pour the batter into a very large mixing bowl. Stir in the potato starch/matza cake meal mixture, then gently fold this mixture into the egg batter, taking care not to deflate the mixture too much (some deflation is impossible to avoid). Gently drizzle and fold in the lemon juice and melted margarine or oil.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the cake is set in the center or until it seems just firm when lightly touched. Cool well before removing from the pan.
PASSOVER CHOCOLATE AND WALNUT CAKE You can keep this cake, wrapped, up to 2 days at room temperature or in the refrigerator. It is rich and flavorful enough that it needs no frosting but you can ice it with sweetened whipped cream if you like, and sprinkle the cream with grated semisweet chocolate.
Makes 8 servings
1 cup walnuts 1⁄2 cup sugar 140 gr. (5 ounces) semisweet chocolate, chopped 2 Tbsp. orange juice 110 gr. (4 ounces or 1⁄2 cup) unsalted butter or margarine, cut in 8 pieces, room temperature 4 large eggs, separated, room temperature 1 tsp. finely grated orange zest 2 Tbsp. potato starch Preheat oven to 160ºC (325ºF).
Lightly grease a 20- x 6.5-cm. (8- x 2 1⁄2-inch) springform pan with margarine.
Line pan’s base with parchment paper or foil and grease the liner.
Grind nuts with 2 Tbsp. sugar in a food processor until as fine as possible.
Transfer to a bowl.
Melt chocolate in orange juice in a large bowl set above hot water over low heat. Stir until smooth. Add butter and stir until blended in. Remove from pan of water.
Whisk egg yolks to blend. Gradually add yolks to chocolate mixture, whisking vigorously. Stir in 1/4 cup sugar, followed by orange zest, nuts and potato starch. Mix well.
Whip egg whites in a large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar and whip at high speed until whites are stiff and shiny but not dry. Gently fold whites into chocolate mixture in 3 batches.
Fold lightly but quickly, just until batter is blended.
Transfer batter to prepared 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 about 10 minutes. Run a thin-bladed flexible knife or metal spatula carefully around side of cake. Invert cake onto rack, gently release spring and remove side 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 cake faces up.
Serve it at room temperature.