Archive for the ‘Passover’ 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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Chocolate Mousse

Another chocolate miracle…

Back at the dawn of the internet age—let’s say 1999—the electronic chain letter was born. My sincerest gratitude to William Beldru, widely considered the creator of the modern, electronic chain letter. Mr. Beldru, a native of West New York, New Jersey (a city that never made sense to me) accidently set off the first chain letter by writing a short email to the youngest of his six siblings as a convenient way of arranging a family gathering.

The momentous words of that first chain email are engraved above the portal to the International Internet Museum in Washington, D.C. (a city that never made sense to a lot of people): “Friday Night: Chicken or Fish?”

It wasn’t long before internet-enabled Americans were all racking their brains for lists of twenty friends who would not be enraged by the claim that breaking the chain or deleting the email would bring them bad luck. So we endured charming, folksy tales of teachers who never let us down but who had hit hard times, and prayers for angels hovering over us but just out of reach until enough of us had forwarded “…the attached prayer (scroll all the way down)”.

The biggest whopper of them all is the apocryphal story (still darting around the AOL-sphere) about the famous department store that supposedly charged a customer in its restaurant $250 for a Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. I know for a fact that this is untrue as I was able to buy the recipe for a mere $5 initial investment in a Nigerian savings account.

My weariness at this electronic detritus will perhaps explain why a lot gets by me. Except for the naughty bits, I am guilty of ignoring my junk mail box. That’s why I tend to depend on (what I call) authoritative voices to draw a virtual yellow highlight through the life-changing stuff I need to see. Your questions are A.) What are authoritative voices? and B.) How can I sign up to be one? The answers are, A.) The New York Times internet edition, and “Your Daily Horoscope on Twitter” and, B.) Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

But it was Melissa Clark, the excellent food writer for the Times who brought something to light that I think will (honestly) change my life. Supposedly there has been a recipe going around the internet for Chocolate Mousse that has two ingredients: chocolate and water.

Sure enough: there’s Ms. Clark starring in a video on the Times’ site making it happen. Thank goodness this was not one of those tricks where they say, “Don’t try this at home” because that’s what I set out to do.

It took me a couple of viewings of the video to see what was going on, but it was one of those “slap on the head-wish I’d thought of that” moments. The best part: I think I have improved on Ms. I’m-A-Fancy-Writer-For-The-New-York-Times Clark’s technique, and now, for a minimal investment, this secret can be yours. Oh. Sorry, I still have junk email on my mind.

Here’s the story. Ganache is a basic chocolate sauce which, depending on the temperature, can be used to make truffles, or whipped and used as cake frosting. You pour warm cream over chopped chocolate, allow the chocolate to melt, whisk together and then proceed using varying techniques. The fat in the chocolate and the fat in the cream are compatible: really all chocolate is a ground powder suspended in fat. The common assumption that oil and water don’t mix is borne out if you melt chocolate then accidently get a few drops of water in it: It clumps.

But a chemist would look at your seized melted chocolate and tell you to add a lot more water or a lot more chocolate or a lot more fat. Am I a chemist? No. Am I a chocoholic? Yes. But if you’re a chemist you understand that this recipe provides enough water to properly suspend the fats and solids in the chocolate.

This recipe makes a ganache with water instead of cream. (That’s the “Reader’s Digest” version of the story.)

Ms. Clark insists that once you have melted the chocolate and water together, you must set the mixture in its bowl over an ice bath and whisk until the mixture cools enough to whip into a creamy mousse-like consistency. That could take quite a while.

I am far too lazy for that. I planned ahead and used my Kitchen-Aid mixer. As directed, I melted ten ounces of bittersweet chocolate in a saucepan with one cup of water. This happened very fast. I whisked it all together briefly, just to make sure the mixture was uniform. But instead of using an ice bath, I poured the mixture into a glass bowl, and stashed it tightly wrapped in my refrigerator and let it sit overnight.

The next day the mixture had set into what I would call a soft solid. That’s where the Kitchen Aid took over. I whisked the soft solid in the Kitchen Aid for about a minute and as you can see from the photo above, ended up with a very nice mousse. What it lacks in complexity and mouth feel it makes up for in fun.

You may feel the need to doctor the recipe a bit—I added a hefty spoonful of Medaglia d’Oro instant espresso powder as it whipped in the mixer, and Melissa Clark sprinkled hers with a touch of Fleur de sel—but this stuff will definitely come in handy.

If you are a vegan or about to celebrate Passover this opens up some possibilities. For Passover, I think I’ll make a Chocolate Tart with an almond-flour short crust. (The almond flour will add a bit of richness.) Maybe I’ll make a bit of whipped cream available for folks.

If you are a vegan you could potentially make really great truffles this way. Scoop the refrigerated mixture with a melon-baller and dredge in cocoa powder or crushed nuts. You can also pour the mix into tiny ramekins or espresso cups and make a very satisfying Pots de Crème enforcing a bit of portion control without advertising it too loudly.

By the way, if you’ve read this far, Angels are on their way and your beloved fifth-grade teacher has made a miraculous full recovery.


Click here for the recipe straight from the New York Times

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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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Downton Seder

Flourless Chocolate Napoleons

Flourless Chocolate Napoleons

It should come as no surprise that I am an unapologetic Downton Abbey addict. I was a huge soap opera addict too. If any of the words you’re about to read appear smudged it is because I am still teary-eyed over the loss of One Life to Live. The latter has only been gone since January 13, yet I continue to stare longingly at the list of scheduled recordings on my DVR praying for a miraculous return from the dead (hey, this is after all soap opera we’re discussing. Anything can happen…)

Downton Abbey was a wonderful diversion from my loss, although it was a bit like being given one of those tiny four-piece boxes of Godiva chocolates when you are used to having an enormous Hershey’s with Almonds: it’s delicious, but gone in a blink. Are you sneering derisively at my choice of programming? That, chum, was part of the fun of being a soap fan, so there. If you have any illusions about Downton Abbey, let me help you out: it is a SOAP OPERA. All caps. Period. That’s why you loved it and can’t wait for it to return.

Part of its distinction is the amazing attention to detail that goes into its production. Predictably, my eye is drawn toward the many dinner table and kitchen scenes—seemingly more than most shows. The kitchen and the cooks, Mrs. Patmore and young Daisy, figure prominently in every episode. The folks upstairs eat a lot, and they eat well.

I have always been fascinated by the women who ran the kitchens in those houses. They were from a class of society where they had to “go into service.” Mrs. Patmore is portrayed stereotypically as a bit of a drudge: short, stout, and frowsy. (In fact, Lesley Nichol, the actress who portrays Mrs. Patmore, recently joked in an interview that when she reported to friends that she’d been cast in a sort of upstairs / downstairs series she replied to the question “Which one are you?” with the answer, “What do you think?”)

Yet, think about the skill, judgment, and knowledge required to do the job. I’m not talking about long hours here; walk into any contemporary restaurant kitchen and you’ll see folks putting in some mighty long days. I’m talking about the juggling needed. The Mrs. Patmores of the world fed the folks upstairs and downstairs, and did so while keeping within the budget set by the folks upstairs. You can be sure that she planned every menu around what was available seasonally and had to be able to credibly prepare meals that more than pleased the master and his wife—even if the meal was hunted by the master on the estate (would you know what to do with mutton?)

You can also be sure that special occasions had to be met with a worldly, well-informed eye keeping up with what the more fashionable houses were serving; not just any cake would do for dessert. If Lord and Lady So-And-So served it you did too.

(Okay, yes, perhaps I get too involved with these stories. But good story-telling does that to me.)

So I was thinking it might be fun to bake something in tribute to Downton Abbey and Mrs. Patmore (geek!). I’ve also been on a jag about baking stuff that is Passover friendly and gluten-free. Hopefully there’ll be chocolate involved. (No calories or fat would be even better; alas I’m not a magician.)

Flourless Chocolate cake is certainly nothing new in either the gluten-free or Passover realms. It’s a good idea, but it’s been around the block enough times that it could already use a new outlook.

Surely a woman like Mrs. Patmore was no stranger to the roulade and the genoise. These are cakes that rely on air beaten into the eggs for their leavening rather than baking soda or baking powder and are more what we associate with European-style cakes or tortes than the big fluffy monsters (and I use that as a term of endearment) we bake.

Yes, there is usually flour involved, but eggs are sturdy little creations and if you ask them nicely and treat them with respect they’ll do triple duty for you by adding moisture, structure, and lift to cakes, giving flour the day off. Roulade is baked in a small sheet pan—a jelly roll pan—convenient because roulade is filled with jelly and rolled…usually.

But I have other plans for it.

Rolling a roulade can be fussy. My roulade (chocolate by the way) is simply turned out of the pan and cut into shapes with a knife. You could also pull out your trusty biscuit cutter and make little individual layered tortes…drizzle a touch of lukewarm ganache on top.

I stuck with something I thought Mrs. Patmore would be proud of, Napoleons. I piped a bit of sweetened vanilla whipped cream between two layers of the roulade, and finished with fresh raspberries and dusted the whole affair with confectioner’s sugar.

Gluten- free Passover at Downton Abbey anyone?


Here’s the Flourless Chocolate Roulade recipe


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I really want world peace. And cookies.

Almond Macaroons

Gluten-free, Passover-friendly, sauce on the side...

People throughout the ages have commented on the apparent similarities between foods of many cultures. Take pasta as an example. The Japanese have soba noodles; Italians have spaghetti. Chinese throw wontons into broth; Jews throw Kreplach into broth—and with this last example you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

This year I am struck by the similarities between baking for folks on a gluten-free diet, and baking for folks observing Passover. Okay, calm down. Yes I know there is a glaring difference, but the higher-level view is remarkably similar.

Gluten-free folks avoid wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Passover folks avoid anything with leavening. But the similarity is that in order to bake something good for either group you must remove something (usually flour) and substitute it with something else. Believe it or not there are some substitutes that are perfect for both groups. No, what follows is not a recipe for gluten-free Matzos. I did see those in the market last year, so yes, they do exist. (Speaking for me and me alone, if I were gluten-free I’d just skip Matzo altogether.)

Many of the same problems overlap when you are baking for Passover or for Gluten-free diets. Flour can be a delicate item, and baking is (to be unglamorous for a moment) an exercise in chemistry. Upset the delicate balance and your end result will be (to use a highly scientific term) yucky.

If you’ve never baked for Passover before, allow me to introduce you to the traditional Passover substitute for flour: Passover Cake Meal. It is made by grinding matzo into a fine powder. Imagine grinding saltines (minus the salt) into a powder and using that to bake cookies. Imagine soaking a bowl of saltines in water. Mmmmmm. Smells good, eh? That’s what baking with matzo is all about.

Not that there hasn’t always been a certain “soul food” charm to the endeavor. I’m good for one plate of Matzo Brei (a/k/a, “Fried Matzo”—broken pieces of matzo scrambled with eggs) per year. It’s a treat and goes with the whole “fat and salt” aesthetic of soul food. More than one per year and I swear you are just looking for trouble.

Walk with me for a few minutes, would you? (it’s the middle of winter, we could use the air). Let’s walk down Madison…yeah, I know, I never get over to the East Side either. But there’s something over there I want you to see: les macarons. We won’t have to walk far because they are everywhere. You’ve seen them. You’ve likely even gotten a Groupon discount offer for them in your Inbox. They’re the beautiful, multi-colored, perfectly round macaroons that are usually filled with buttercream. They are to the 2010’s what Godiva chocolates were to the 1990’s. They’re also incredibly tricky to make at home. So I leave these to the pros. Trust me, I’ve tried.

But what I learned trying to bake macarons was that I can make a version that is less strict, and that is a happy treat for folks on gluten-free diets and folks celebrating Passover…and folks who fall into both categories.

It frustrates me that on paper they seem soooo easy. A few ground almonds, some sugar, a little egg white. But if the almonds aren’t ground just right, and the sugar isn’t mixed into the almonds just right, and the egg white doesn’t…well you get the picture. (Or shall I continue?)

But if your ultimate goal isn’t the perfection of les macarons, then you can combine the ingredients with abandon, add your own magic tricks, and end up with chewy, almond-scented macaroons that will make you skip the seder and head right for the dessert table.

I’ve taken some liberties here: well, a cheat actually. I’m using almond paste in addition to ground almonds. I’m also not expecting to end up with perfect disks, rather, I’m happy with toasty brown, irregularly-shaped cookies.

You can actually make these without the ground almonds, but using them adds a bit of structure to the batter that makes the job of dropping portions onto your cookie sheets less drippy and messy.

By the way there’s no dairy in these either, unless you include the egg whites. (I don’t.)

Amazing, eh? A “one-size-fits-all-except-those-who-are-allergic-to-nuts” cookie!


Here’s the Almond Macaroon recipe


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