Posts Tagged ‘Passover’

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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Aluminum. Mine.

Passsover Honey Cake Slices

Passover Honey Cake

Growing up in a Jewish home I was always made acutely aware of how important good food was—is—at any occasion. Even the post-funeral gatherings we call “sitting shiva” are excuses to pull out the good napkins. That’s why I am always mystified by my people’s willingness to put up with bad food on Passover. The excuse is always that you cannot cook with “chametz”, the umbrella word describing ingredients that are not allowed on Passover. This usually refers to anything bread or flour related, and any kind of leavening, but the actual rule bans things made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt. The only wheat product allowed is matzo and what I lovingly refer to as its derivatives: matzo that has been ground, crumbled, or otherwise processed so that it can be used in other recipes.

There is such a thing as Passover Baking Soda, which confuses me because I thought the purpose of the Passover holiday was to commemorate bread not being allowed to rise. Passover Baking Soda’s loophole? No cornstarch.

From a baker’s point of view it’s kind of like being told that you must substitute breadcrumbs for flour.

Generations of commercial kosher bakers have been putting their kids through Harvard and Yale just by selling Passover desserts to even the most unobservant Jews (hello) who have always been willing to pay for Passover-compliant cakes and cookies. Here’s the problem: a lot of it just isn’t very good, especially the supermarket brands. A lot of it is also…shall we say, “premium-priced.”

Apologies to the folks who produce the supermarket Passover stuff (and to their well-educated progeny), but a cake that has been sitting in a box for an unknown amount of time has a few strikes against it.

Is it heresy for me to complain? All I want is a good piece of cake, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I’m handy in the kitchen and have figured out a few tricks that result in desserts that aren’t just good for Passover, they’re good anytime of the year. Last year I made a Northern Italian-style Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua, a chocolate, almond, egg white torte. I actually served it before Passover to a group of non-Jewish friends who loved it, and remains one of my favorite recipes. (It is very light so perfect for summer.)

This year I decided to re-visit the Grandmother of all Jewish Holiday desserts: Honey Cake. When I was a kid with (I’m guessing) a much less discerning palate, my presence at any event could be secured with the promise of honey cake. The typical honey cake comes in a loaf, usually encased in (don’t get me started) a disposable aluminum pan. To my adult palette though, honey cake always tastes a bit syrupy, and manages to be both too dry and too sodden. Not sure how that’s possible.

Blame science. In baking, the type of flour, its grind, the kind of wheat used, and how the milled flour has been treated are some of the things that rule how a cake gelatinizes (mixes with liquid then bakes into a solid). Passover Cake meal is basically powdered Matzo and has its own rule book, but it is easy to predict that this ingredient will lend density to a cake. The usual trick has always been to lighten the cake meal in a way that imitates traditional cake flour. This is usually accomplished by adding potato starch. The results vary according to the other ingredients in the cake. In the case of honey you end up with a wet, damp cake because honey is hygroscopic: it actually pulls moisture in even when baked.

Okay, I promise: no more science. But the takeaway here is: use too much honey and you’ll have a damp, heavy cake. Too little, your cake is dry. Just the right amount and you’ll have a cake that works at staying fresh. The question is: what can you add that will give the cake a true “crumb”, texture that makes a cake feel like a cake when you take a bite?

For the answer you can thank the current popularity of macarons, the colorful French-style almond macaroons. I have been trying to learn to make them (they’re tricky) and have a bag of almond flour sitting in my refrigerator. Almond flour is just the man for the job: it will mix well with the Passover Cake Meal to make a nice crumb and is Passover-friendly on its own.

Using almond flour in cake is certainly nothing new. Europeans have been baking with it for generations. So taking a cue from a French Galette, the simple round torte, I called my Springform pan into service.

The beauty of my concept was that with the honey and almond flour I already had two very flavorful ingredients. A couple of more layers of flavor would be ideal, so I used a delicate sprinkle of orange zest, and a not so delicate dash of frozen concentrated orange juice whose character would slightly overlap the honey while adding a sunny note of its own. A little cocoa powder and vanilla extract would bring some perfumed but earthy notes to the cake.

The result has the slight chewy crumb of a galette and a delicate honeyed sweetness that some may find reminiscent of the desserts the Spanish Sephardic Jews favor.

No disposable aluminum loaf pans required…or allowed.


Click here for the recipe for Passover Honey Cake.

Click here for the recipe for Torta di Mandorla per la Pasqua.


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Nothing Up My Sleeve (Oops! Wrong sleeve…)

Coconut Macaroons

The can is purely ceremonial...

I’m beginning to feel self conscious: I’ve been boiling so much sugar lately that I’m afraid my neighbors must be thinking I’ve started a rum factory in my kitchen. The true explanation is quite innocent: I just happen to be baking things that require boiled sugar as part of their magic.

Let me tell you a little story. (Have a seat.) Many years ago I worked with a talented sleight-of-hand artist. While that sounds like the opening salvo of a very old-fashioned dirty joke, it is the truth. Sleight-of-hand artists differ from regular magicians in that everything they do is designed to be witnessed from very close range. While you watch an illusionist pull a rabbit out of a hat, part of your mind is usually doing the work to reverse engineer how the illusionist may have made this happen. At the very least you  know there’s bound to be something special about that hat—some way of hiding the rabbit.

With a sleight-of-hand artist all you see is a few coins, and a couple of pairs of hands, one pair of which likely belongs to you. My usual startled reaction to my co-worker’s tricks (and I use that word with a great deal of guilt) was, “How did you do that?” The answer was always, “It’s magic.” I could never figure out a better explanation.

I get the same zing when I boil sugar to 238 degrees: It never fails to amaze me that a saucepan of clear, dangerously hot, boiling syrup can magically transform into so many different things. Magic.

Sugar boiled to 238 degrees is commonly referred to as being at “soft ball stage.” It is called that because if you put a drop or two of the sugar syrup into a glass of cold water it should form a soft or malleable ball shape. This is cooking chemistry at its simplest. Boil the sugar to a hotter temperature and you get “hard ball stage.” You guessed it: a few drops in a glass of cold water would be hard to the touch.

If you’ve ever had Salt Water Taffy then you’ve had something that didn’t stray that far from soft ball stage sugar syrup. They cool the hot syrup on a marble slab, add a few drops of flavoring and coloring, then stretch and pull the mixture (usually by machine) until enough air has been incorporated that it has the soft milky quality that has pulled us in from the Boardwalk for so many years.

Remember the Scooter Pies I made a few weeks ago? The marshmallow I made to fill them is simply soft ball syrup whipped into gelatin. The frozen soufflé I made for Valentine’s Day had an Italian Meringue base made with egg whites and the very same soft ball syrup. The silky but rich buttercream on your cousin Debbie’s wedding cake likely started life boiling in a sauce pan (cousin Debbie may have her own dark secrets.)

Naturally if I didn’t have a Kitchen Aid-type stand mixer these things would not be in my repertoire. So it is only natural that I should find myself in front of the bubbling sauce pan again, this time so that I can resolve some unfinished business from last year.

A year ago in preparation for Passover, I decided to make Coconut Macaroons. I have an aversion to the kind they sell in the little cans. When I eat those I taste nothing but sugar and the can. I used a recipe I found that employed a generous dollop of coconut milk, a couple of egg whites, and some confectioner’s sugar. On paper it all sounded delicious. On the cookie sheet it was a loose, runny mess. I kept adding things to firm up the mixture: more confectioner’s sugar, a bit of Passover potato starch, even a touch of almond flour. Nevertheless the liquid from the cookies ran, dripped and burned onto the bottom of the oven. Have I ever told you about my fool-proof trick for ridding your kitchen of smoke? That’s because I don’t have one.

I tried that recipe a couple of times. While the resulting macaroons tasted okay they were also a bit greasy from the coconut milk. They were moist, but had no texture because the coconut was so wet it never got a chance to toast while the cookies baked. They were also far too rich for Passover dessert.

Back to the drawing board. This year it occurred to me to follow the k.i.s.s. rule: keep it simple, stupid (the latter referring to yours truly.) One package of sweetened coconut. One small batch of Italian meringue. Done. The result is a cross between a classical French Coconut Meringue (the crunchy kind) and the inside of a Mounds bar. The bonus is that they are relatively very light (as light as anything with coconut can be), and they are painless to make in quantity (you can easily double my recipe.)

Yes, by all means feel free to dip these in chocolate.

If you miss the can, you can supply your own as I did in the picture above.

It is part of the ceremony, right?


Click here for the recipe for Coconut Macaroons.


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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.


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


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