Archive for the ‘Jewish Holidays’ Category

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The Afikomen

The Afikomen

Passover tends to be a little humorless, as it centers mostly on stories of living in bondage to despotic Egyptian pharaohs. So here are a couple of humorous Passover Seder anecdotes—one from showbiz, and one from my life. This is my version of a sort-of Readers Digest-style “Life in these United States’ Seders” column.

First story: My Aunt Sarah was an ardent fan of the sixties television serial “Peyton Place.” One year a very important episode happened to be scheduled to air during our Passover Seder. Yes, indeed, the Seder ground to a screeching halt (seemingly between the third and fourth questions) as Aunt Sarah got caught up on Allison Mackenzie’s latest assignation. I can still remember her staring hypnotically at the TV and then crowing afterward, “Yes, it’s only a half an hour, but they put a lot into that half hour!”

Why is this night different from other nights? Tonight I had to watch “Peyton Place” on their TV.

Second story: The late composer Jule Styne is a legend in musical theater, having written the score to scores of shows including “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl”. One year he decided to throw a fancy, catered Passover Seder to which he invited, among others, the equally legendary star Ethel Merman.

(Backstory: I’ll just say it. Merman had a reputation as a tough old broad. She’d been born in Queens as Ethel Zimmerman and hated that people thought she was Jewish when she was actually of German descent.)

When Styne invited her to the seder she asked, “Will there be anything I can eat?” Styne assured her she would not go hungry. Styne greeted Ethel at the seder, and escorted her to a place of honor at the table, where she immediately reached into her handbag, pulled out a ham sandwich, and plopped it on the plate in front of her.

Indignant, Styne grabbed the sandwich, threw it on the floor, and scolded Merman by saying, “Ethel! You’re insulting the waiters!”

He then promptly turned his back on her and convulsed in laughter.

Why is this night different from other nights? On this night we don’t take (bleep) from show folk.

Ahhh, Passover humor. I could go on and on, but you’re dying to know about the chocolate and nuts in the picture above, so without further ado I’ll tell you all about it.

That’s chocolate-covered Matzo in the picture above. Chocolate-covered Matzo is sometimes called “Afikomen” in tribute to the tradition of hiding a bit of matzo for dessert, then having the kids play “Find the Afikomen”. Whoever found the Afikomen could then eat it for dessert. Yup. That was prize. Whee. I figure dropping a bit of chocolate on top gives the kids a little more incentive. The adults too.

Okay stop rolling your eyes, I know you’ve seen chocolate-covered Matzo before. Why is this different? It’s what I put on top.

Here’s where things get a little tricky. Those are Spanish-style Caramelized Almonds on top. They have a mild sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the chocolate. The tricky part is that they are made with confectioner’s sugar. Confectioner’s sugar contains corn starch which makes it strictly NOT kosher for Passover. If you are strictly kosher the work around is to pulverize granulated sugar in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add in a bit of Passover potato starch to emulate the corn starch’s powdery qualities. Or if you’re as strict as I am you just use confectioner’s sugar, and just say, “Yeah, what ever.” (After I pass into the next world I’ll drop you a note telling you how hot it is where I am…) (Unless you’re there, then I can tell you in person.)

Unlike the normal sugary coating you’d expect, these have a more frosted quality, slightly less sweet, and can be adjusted with some nice additions that will bring some complexity to this confection, which, when all is said and done, can be a bit plain.

My first addition was a bit of cinnamon. I have a friend who often adds cinnamon to his chocolate frosting. Just ask the Mexicans: it’s a great combination.

My second addition is a little bit of salt. Yes, I know that salted chocolate is quickly becoming like this year’s blackened redfish (ubiquitous), but there’s something about the salt with the nuts, chocolate, and the starch of the matzo that just works.

By the way, eagle-eyed folks will notice that I used whole wheat matzo and dark chocolate, but egg matzo and milk chocolate would make a pretty terrific combo too.


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Noodle Kugel

“Her Mother’s” kugel

Irene was a woman of few vices. Unfortunately they were also her main skills.

She puffed unfiltered “Herbert Tareyton” cigarettes like an ocean liner smokestack. She played high stakes canasta, a game that kept her both hot footing it from country club to country club, and—she claimed—paid for her yearly cruise to the Bahamas on the “Oceanic”, where—she claimed—she made enough at Bingo to “…buy a few odds and ends.” (That was code for jewelry.)

Irene was many things to many people, but one thing to five gentlemen in particular—a wife. (Serially, not concurrently.)

I was too young to remember more than the last unfortunate gentleman, but rumor had it that husband number one had been a major player in the Mayer Lansky organization. In legal terms, he “pre-deceased” her. Somewhere along the line—and again I am vague on particulars—one of them performed the proverbial “going-out-for-a-pack-of-cigarettes-and-never-coming-back” exit trick. Five husbands? One can only admire her persistence.

She wafted through our lives like a smoky, Jean Natè-scented, strawberry-blonde powder puff of tobacco smoke. My Mother had “inherited” her from my Grandmother with whom Irene had been best buds in high school, a math equation that I could never quite reconcile in my head.

You have to admire people like Irene. She lived and breathed the philosophy that when you wake up Tuesday morning, Monday never happened. Don’t look back. I seem to remember her saying that, punctuating the declaration with a single, staccato, phlegmy cough.

If your memories of your life are like disjointed scraps pasted into a book, then here’s another one: one day after school I was sitting in the den watching “The Three Stooges” and furtively eating a piece of chocolate rugalach I had swiped from the “girls” dessert tray. The “girls”? My Mother was hosting a friendly, informal card game in the living room. Over the cackling I heard Irene’s voice yell, “Always play the ace, Lois!” From the girlish joy in her voice it may as well have been a gospel hymn, and this bit of advice has stuck with me all these years. I had no idea what it meant, or how to apply it, but I was positive that someday, somewhere, it would come in handy. “Always play the ace, Lois!”

Don’t look back…unless it’s cards.

Irene had no children of her own, so she doted on my Mother who served as Irene’s de facto “borrowed” daughter. However, I’m not positive she ever learned my name because I was always “Kiddo” as in “Kiddo, hand Auntie Irene her purse.” The latter was a task I didn’t particularly mind because I had an almost perverse fascination with its contents. Yet the purse itself seemed intent on keeping Irene’s secrets, as access was controlled by a substantial brass clasp that required more strength to open than my little hands could manage. I’d hand her the purse, she would withdraw whatever tobacco, lipstick, or tissue-related item was needed, and close it with a snap that sounded like the door locks on her Coupe de Ville. For all I knew, the purse could actually have been her Coupe de Ville, magically transformed into a purse when she came inside the house. I never thought to check the street outside to see if the two things co-existed. (You can tell that my other television vice at the time was “Dark Shadows.”)

On select Friday nights Irene would show up for dinner, Dorothy Muriel’s corn muffins, and a box of warm, salted cashews in hand. She would sit and eat our roasted chicken and suck the bones like she was willing them to melt. My Mother informed me that this was because Irene had grown up poor. On the rare occasions I’d been to her high-rise 60’s brocade boudoir there was no evidence that anything in the kitchen had actually been touched, save for a whistling tea kettle and a half empty jar of instant Maxwell House. Clearly her favorite spot for dinner was “out.”

Irene would inevitably tag along with us to temple on the Jewish High Holidays—a yearly ritual also known in our reform temple as Jewish Fashion Festival. On these occasions Irene would forgo the corn muffins and cashews in favor of what she referred to as “her Mother’s” Lokshen Kugel, the noodle pudding that launched a million Jewish Pyrex baking dishes.

The trick to serving Irene’s kugel was to not serve it at all. It was inedible. As implausible as it sounds, her kugel managed to be too wet yet somehow too dry, too bland, yet somehow cloyingly sweet. The only evidence of any custard was a stray curd of cottage cheese here or there. The crunchy noodle topping that many prize was a minefield of potential dental damage. My Mother served it the first year or two, then in subsequent years left it in the oven and as we finished the big holiday meal would “find” the forgotten kugel and exclaim, “Irene! We forgot your kugel! Should we serve it now? Is everyone still hungry? No? I know! We’ll wrap it and have it tomorrow—Irene, make sure I give you some to take home.”

She should have been on the stage, my Mother. But somewhere, deep down, I don’t think Irene was buying the act. I doubt she took it as a “ding” against her cooking skills, for she never claimed to have any. (Yes the other, more tragic, thought was that the kugel was exactly how her Mother had made it.) But it was Irene’s next step that, from my adult perspective, helped all questions about Irene jell into an answer.

The next year she showed up again with “her Mother’s” kugel. I found out while conducting my inspection of the kitchen (a/k/a stealing food before dinner). I saw my Mother stacking what looked like little muffins on a platter. My hungry glance asked and my Mother answered, “Irene brought little kugels.” Then, sotto voce, “I tried one. They’re good!”

Indeed they were. Irene insisted nothing had changed, that it was still “her Mother’s” kugel, just that she’d made little ones in a muffin tin “…and it made all the difference in the world.” But an outside hand had obviously been at play…she was palming cards from a deck hidden up one of the sleeves of her nubby silk suit.

For one thing, each little kugel was just the right mix of silky custard and noodle. There was just the slightest hint of sweetness. In addition to the crunchy noodles on top, there was what looked like a streusel topping, except made from broken matzo—again, just a hint of sweetness, and a toasty crunch that was no threat to your teeth. Clearly Irene was the turnaround queen, for “her Mother’s” kugel became the hotly anticipated side dish for several High Holiday seasons.

After Irene joined the great Canasta game in the sky, my Mother went to work cleaning out the brocade boudoir. Going through Irene’s desk in search of other paperwork she came across her appointment book and found an entry for early September that said simply, “Order kugel.” Hmmm.

The mystery seemed to have run to ground until the final days of cleaning out the boudoir when “Glady”, Irene’s cleaning woman, came in to do one final vacuum of the brocade. She and my Mother started reminiscing about Irene, when my Mother noted the lovely array of jewelry “Glady” wore.

“Glady” explained, “They’re all from Mrs. Irene. Every time I make the kugel she give me jewelry!”

“Always play the ace, Lois!”


Here’s the recipe for “Her Mother’s” kugel


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