Felice Pesach!

I couldn't wait. I started without you. Sorry.

I couldn't wait. I started without you. Sorry.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I define holidays by the anticipated food, not unlike the way a teenager weighs where to spend Saturday night based on which friends they expect to see at which party. (“Omigod, Heather will TOTALLY be there!”)

The difference is that I divide holiday food into two categories. Category One: holiday food that I love. Category Two: holiday food that I tolerate due to nostalgia. At no time are these two categories more distinct than during Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jews’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Here’s the deal: Passover food is a challenge game. Make anything you want, just make sure there’s nothing leavened. If you’re really strict (and I’m not), anything that is allowed to bake too long and puff up too much – even if it does not contain yeast, baking powder, or baking soda – will leave you out of compliance with the rules. The Rabbis who supervise the official baking of Passover matzo will force the bakers to discard a batch if it stays in the oven too long.

Flour? Sorry, no. The various Passover flours are versions of ground matzo. Some smell like wet paper when used in a recipe, also a challenge.

Some folks may find this sacrilege, but to me matzo is like Christmas. It should only happen once a year. I love them both, but any more than an annual visit and you wouldn’t appreciate them. The novelty is in the nostalgia value. I was probably 10 years old the last time I ate my Grandmother’s Passover Potato Kugel, and I can still taste its greasy, salty, goodness. But I’m a realist: I know that if I ate her Potato Kugel now, the word “agita” would get a sweaty workout. (My Nana was many things, but good cook was not one of them. I don’t remember her ever baking anything, but she did open a mean box of cookies.) (Sorry Nana.)

You get the point. Speaking solely for me, the main appeal of Passover food is its once-a-year novelty. The frustration is that those of us who enjoy baking and cooking and are spoiled by the fresh simplicity of the great stuff we make all through the year have a tough time eating macaroons from can. Or worse.

I think the answer can be found in a sort of a recipe for Passover recipes. The ingredients are big flavors, lots of texture, minimize the ground matzo, and find stuff that you would gladly eat and serve to anyone at any time of the year.

A while ago I remember seeing a cake baked on TV that was rustic and what I imagined to be typical of what you’d find if you’d been invited to dinner at a farm in cooler Northern Italy. It was a hazelnut cake that contained mostly ground nuts, sugar, and egg whites. That seemed like a good place to start. (I think with food it is always hard to goof if you start with Italian.)

I googled “Piedmont Nut Cake” and found “Torta di Nocciola,” which is indeed a traditional cake from that alpine region. A little tinkering would be needed to suit my needs. Well, one big tinker: I needed to find an elegant way to include a generous dose of chocolate with the cake. My sister-in-law is hosting our family Seder this year. If I arrive without chocolate in hand I will be turned away at the door. Naturally I am happy to comply with this requirement.

The basic recipe isn’t that far from Angel Food Cake. Whipped egg whites supply the loft; the only fat is whatever is in the ground nuts. Usually when you want to add chocolate to Angel Food cake you fold in ground chocolate as cocoa powder requires a lot of mixing which could deflate the egg whites. Why not apply the same principal to my Piedmontese Passover cake?

One stumble on the way to the altar: I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere. Channeling my inner Alice Waters, I grabbed what was fresh and available: whole raw almonds. (Use nuts with the brown skin still on. They’ll dot the cake with their earthy flecks.)

The resulting cake has a large-crumbed dampness that is usually missing in Passover cake. The egg whites reveal themselves in the cake’s snappy crust. The cake feels light, but beware its deceptive richness. The chocolate and the almonds skip hand in hand; a well-known match made in heaven. The almonds were actually a better choice in this version of the cake. The gods of baking were obviously smiling on me when they forced me to substitute almonds for hazelnuts.

All that was left was to test the cake on some unsuspecting victims to prove that it could be more than just a Passover dessert.

A tiny group of us met for dinner a few nights ago. I arrived, Piedmontese cake in hand, with visions of the old “We’ve replaced their gourmet brewed coffee with Folgers’s Instant Coffee” TV commercial dancing in my head. Fortunately our host was making pasta. As dessert rolled around I tried to act casual but failed. Yes, they loved the cake, but there was no equivalent of the “This is instant coffee? Really??” moment from the old commercial. I kept saying, “It’s a Passover cake!” They kept eating. Couldn’t have cared less.

Oh well, you take success where you can get it.

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Click here for my recipe for Torta di Mandorla per La Pasqua (Passover Almond Tort)

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2 Responses to “Felice Pesach!”

  • M.M.:

    Having had the pleasure of this dessert,after a delicious pasta meal recently,I would suggest all interested in a flavorful, wonderfully textured taste treat sensation get the required ingredients and start baking!

  • admin:

    Michael replied:

    You are too kind. I’m glad you enjoyed the cake!

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