The best advice that I ever received for Passover cooking was just to always cook the same stuff. There’s enough to do without getting involved in elaborate menu planning. Plus, part of the pleasure of this holiday is to see and experience and taste the same things, year after year after year. There is a very comfortable feeling, the illusion that all is right with the world, to see the familiar Passover dishes brought up from the basement, to see the same faces, albeit a year older, around the seder table, to eat gefilte fish and matzoh brei. Although certainly, every year is is good to invite a few new people to the seder, or to introduce a new recipe to the line-up. Still, the key concept is tradition, both the several thousand years of Jewish tradition, and one’s own family traditions.
Thus my seder menu has not changed significantly in the last ten years. The desserts, specifically, are always the same, and are each, I believe, the best possible versions. Since we have a strictly dairy kitchen, our seders are vegetarian (with fish), and so we get to eat dairy desserts! Here, then, are my Passover desserts. We begin with meringues, one of the few truly parve yet truly good desserts, go on to brownies and bicotti type cookies, both of which could be parve with (shudder) margarine, but which I make with butter, and end with a chocolate torte (which just maybe could be margarinized) and end with cheesecake. As a postscript, I’ll add my haroset recipe, which is nice and sticky and good enough to be a dessert. The haroset is, of course, totally parve, bringing us back to where we started.
I have already discussed meringues in this blog, but since meringues are the quintessential Pesach dessert, I do not mind repeating myself. Meringues are one of the few desserts that are naturally chametz free, and even parve, without the need of any noxious butter substitutions. I see meringues at grocery stores, sold in circular plastic containers, but the hordes of consumers who think that these meringues are what meringues should be are woefully wrong. The main problem is the texture. The shell should be delicately crisp, the insides fluffy but not chewy. The taste should be an uncompromising stingy sugar taste; my personal preference is for no other flavor except a touch of vanilla, although I will acknowledge the legitimacy of other opinions here. I offered a meringue recipe many posts ago, but now offer a revised version, scaled to however many egg whites you have on hand, and with the lower oven temperature that I have come to prefer. [Go to the recipe.]
Brownies are next on the dessert lineup. My recipe is from Ruth W z”l, who attributed the recipe to her father, a baker. These brownies are very cakey, more like a chocolate cake than the fudgy brownies I usually prefer, but during Pesach my food preferences are turned upside down, and these are the brownies on which I cannot resist nibbling whenever I wander into the kitchen. I believe that Ruth made them with margarine, but I use butter; if you need parve, go back to margarine. The recipe is scaled for a 12 ounce bag of chocolate chips, a size that is no longer available, having been down sized to 10 or even 9 ounces. My innovation on this recipe is to use two bags of chocolate chips, measuring out the 12 ounces to melt with the butter, then just dumping the remainder of the second bag of chips into the batter, and so studding the brownies with chocolate chips. [Go to the recipe.]
For my biscotti-mandelbrodt I must credit Susie Fishbein and her Kosher by Design: Picture Perfect Food for the Holidays & Every Day, one of a cookbook series with which I have certain issues. Susie uses margarine, and, in case margarine is not bad enough, in a footnote suggests a margarine substitute (!): frozen cottonseed oil. This woman is determined to kill her readers, not the best marketing plan. With butter, though, these cookies are very good. I also depart from Susie’s recipe by using ground almonds instead of potato starch (a substitution born of necessity when I realized that I had no potato starch in my cabinet this year) and by adding a shot of vanilla. Despite using the name “biscotti”, Susie does not cook her cookies twice, although I do. [Go to the recipe.]
The next two desserts are from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s masterpiece, The Cake Bible, although over the years a few modifications have infiltrated my versions. Rose’s “Chocolate Oblivion Torte” is simply a pound of chocolate, a half pound of butter, and six eggs. We were all blown away the first time this dessert, made by Alan, appeared on our seder table (remember: we get dairy desserts!). Nevertheless, I though that I could improve it, so when Pesach was over, I got out some better quality chocolate, good vanilla and a little rum, and a powerful mixer (instead of the wimpy Pesach mixer I use), and tried to make a better version. But strangely, the Pesach version, with the not so great Pesach chocolate, the underwhipped eggs, and no other flavors except perhaps the underwhelming Pesach vanilla, had been so much better. So now I do not even attempt this recipe during the rest of the year. Just in case the cake is not rich enough, I like it topped with whipped cream. [Go to the recipe.]
I have tried lots of cheesecake varieties, but the family favorite, the one that everyone requests when I ask what kind of cheesecake to make, is plain cheesecake; the cheesecake that has evolved from Rose’s Cake Bible recipe. This cheesecake has no crust, appropriate for the season, and has only the simplest flavors: a little bit of lemon juice and some vanilla. I use less sour cream that Rose, mainly because I just like to open a container and dump it in instead of measuring ingredients, and less lemon juice, because again, I prefer not to measure, and I also prefer a more subtle lemon accent in the cake itself. Where I like my lemon is in a lemon curd topping, which admittedly turns plain cheesecake into lemon cheesecake, but it’s my kitchen, I can cook what I want to. [Go to the recipe.]
This was the first year that only one type of haroset appeared on our table; in the past I have felt obligated to make the standard walnut-raisin-apple-cinnamon-Manischewitz wine concoction, which is really rather terrible. A few people will take some for the sake of tradition, but no one in our house will touch the stuff after the seders. The haroset that I like is based on a hamantaschen filling from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America. It’s prune based, it’s healthy, and it’s good enough to eat any time. Plus, it’s quite mortar-like. [Go to the recipe.]
Meringues for Passover
Multiply by the number of egg whites you are using:
1 egg white
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla
White or cider vinegar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 225°-250°. Line a baking sheet (or baking sheets; 3 or 4 egg whites make meringues to fit on one baking sheet) with parchment paper.
Beat the egg whites until foamy; continue beating as you gradually add the sugar. You may add a drop or two of vinegar; this supposedly works to stabilize the egg whites. When the egg whites and sugar are beaten to the stage of stiff peaks, beat in the vanilla. Spoon or scoop the meringues onto the baking sheets. Bake for about one hour. The meringues are done when they can be peeled off the parchment paper easily.
2 10-ounce bags of chocolate chips
½ pound butter (or, if you must, margarine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2½ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups matzoh cake meal
Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 9-inch by 13-inch pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper.
Melt 12 ounces of the chocolate and the butter together over boiling water or directly over very low heat. It is fine to guesstimate the amount of chocolate. Cool slightly. Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt together. Add the cooled butter and chocolate mixture. Stir in the cake meal and the rest of the chocolate chips.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until done (a knife inserted slightly off center should emerge batter-free, with only some melted chocolate chip on it), about 30 to 40 minutes. I have found it to be a little tricky to get the baking time right on these, as the window of time during which they are just right is small. It helps to use a metal, not a glass, pan. Cool in the pan, then cut into squares.
½ pound butter (or margarine, if you must), softened.
2 cups sugar
2¾ cup matzoh cake meal
¾ cup ground almonds
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 10-ounce bag chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Beat together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth and fluffy. Mix in the cake meal, ground almonds, and salt. The mix in the walnuts and chocolate chips.
Form two logs on the baking sheet. The dough will be rather soft. I dump globs of dough on the baking sheet in two lines, then, with wet hands, mold into logs. Bake until the logs are firm to the touch, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and slice with a sharp knife, Separate the cookies, and lower the oven temperature to 300º, and stick back in the oven for another 10 minutes or so.
1 pound semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
½ pound butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 425°. Butter a 7-inch diameter springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper. Wrap the outside of the pan with aluminum foil. Have some boiling water ready, as well as a larger pan into which the springform pan can fit.
Over hot, not boiling water, melt the chocolate and butter together. You can also try to do this over very low heat. While the chocolate is melting, beat the eggs together. The thicker the eggs end up, the better, but my Passover mixer is not very powerful, so my eggs are never very thick. Add the vanilla to the eggs.
Mix the chocolate and butter into the eggs. Do this in stages, first adding a little of the chocolate butter mixture, thoroughly incorporating, then some more, then all of it.
Pour the batter into the springform pan, place the springform pan in the larger pan, and pour one inch of the boiling water into the larger pan. Bake for 5 minutes, cover with buttered foil, and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes. The torte will be soft but not liquid in the center when done. Cool on a rack, then refrigerate.
3 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
Juice from ½ lemon
1½ teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound sour cream
4 egg yolks
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons butter, softened
Pinch of salt
Zest of 2 lemons, grated
Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter a 9-inch diameter springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper. Wrap the outside of the pan with aluminum foil. Have some boiling water ready, as well as a larger pan into which the springform pan can fit.
Beat the cream cheese and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. Finally, add the sour cream.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Place the pan in the larger pan, and add one inch of boiling water to the larger pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Turn off the oven, and leave the cheesecake in the oven for one more hour. Remove to a rack and cool in the pan.
While the cheesecake is cooking, make the lemon curd. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar, and lemon juice. Put in a small heavy pan and add the butter and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring almost constantly. Once the mixture thickens, but before it boils, strain into a bowl, and add the lemon zest. (If you are not sure when to remove from heat, you can just wait until the very first bubbles appear, then remove from heat and strain.) Refrigerate.
Once the cake and curd have cooled, spread the curd over the top of the cake. Refrigerate overnight.
1½ cups pitted prunes
¾ cup raisins
½ cup water
½ cup walnuts
1 apple, with peel and without core
Juice and zest from 1 lemon
Combine the prunes, raisins, and water in a small pan, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, until the fruits have softened and the water is almost all gone. Process the fruit with the rest of the ingredients until you have the desired texture.