Passover is just days away and, as is the case every year, my phone is ringing with people asking for “new” recipes. I decided to do some research, this year. Why do we always eat the same things? Why are the “laws” so different for Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews? Do we really want “new” recipes or is there comfort in the familiar? When I was growing up, we only served Manischewitz Concord Grape wine and the kids drank it too. As a matter of fact, we looked forward to Passover and the opportunity to get a little drunk on sweet wine and say the word  “ass” over and over again. It seemed to be a right of passage. Of course we ate the same menu every year. Now kids get grape juice and modern hagadot use different language. The answer to the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews Passover diet is easy yet complicated. To oversimplify it greatly, it’s all about stubbornness.

Originally, the prohibition against leavened food only applied to “the five species of grain”. This includes wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. Since other grains don’t rise (rice, millet, beans and lentils) no matter what or how it is kneaded and manipulated, they were allowed.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and the subject came up again in the Mishneh and Talmud. Somehow, the Mishnah in the 3rd century says its okay and the Talmud of the 5th century says no dice. Later law codes of the Ashkenazim hold a “stringent” line and don’t eat from any species of grain and the Sephardim who usually follow Maimonides only abstain from the original five species of grain. I was raised Ashkenazi but find the Sephardic way, much easier to follow.

As for the menu, as I read through website after website looking at menus, it seemed most followed the same pattern. You must have matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket, some sort of vegetable dish, some sort of potato dish and dessert. Jews have a long history as nomads. Consider the term “wandering Jew”. As a result, “our” food history is one of adaptation. Each time the Jews had to move to stay alive, they would take the recipes and traditions they had and convert them to work with the local food availability and the new culture they were in. Because they were forced to move around, and often didn’t have a lot of money to start with, they looked for inexpensive foods items and preparations that would stretch the uses and make less palatable ingredients, taste better. Brisket started out as an inexpensive cut of meat. We got a hold of it and now it is a cultural icon. Nobody would accuse chicken livers of being designer, but we took it and made chopped liver another iconic preparation. I would like to propose that this year when you are thinking about being enslaved and then being freed; think about your menus, your recipes and your traditions. Free yourself. Take the menus and recipes that have been handed down to you and make them your own. Judy Zeidler published The Gourmet Jewish Cookbook in 1999. While there are a lot of “gourmet” Jewish cookbooks and even some specific for Passover, this is still my favorite. Judy gives you several Passover menus and recipes from all over the world. Before I give you a few recipes to try, I’d like to offer up one more tradition on the newer side. Place an orange on your Seder plate to represent Women and in recognition of the LGBT community, widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and anybody that may have felt marginalized by the Jewish community. Susan Heschel started this tradition in the late 1980’s. At an early point in the Seder she would ask each participant to take a segment of the orange, say the blessing over fruit and then eat the segment. If you come across a seed, spit it out as if to cast out any discrimination. The orange is there to remind us that we are all part of a whole and that each segment sticks together. I will post pictures to my instagram, Facebook and twitter pages.  Chag Sameach!

Whitefish Quenelles

  • 6 cups store bought fish or veggie stock
  • 1 bottle dry, white wine
  • 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/4 lbs. pike fillets, skinned, cut into medium pieces
  • 1 1/4 lbs. whitefish fillets, skinned, cut into medium pieces
  • 1 1/4 lbs. carp fillets, skinned, cut into medium pieces
  • 2 eggs, plus 2 additional whites
  • 3 Tablespoons matzo meal
  •  1 1/2 Tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons super fine sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • a couple of passes of fresh nutmeg on the grater
  • 1/2 cup ice water

For the Quenelles: Pulse the onion in a food processor until finely chopped. Add half of all the fish and process until smooth. Scrape down sides as needed. Transfer to a large bowl and puree the other half of the fish. Then return the first portion and pulse to incorporate all flavors together. With the food processor running, add eggs and egg whites; process until just combined. Pour this mixture into a large bowl and stir in matzo meal, salt, sugar, lemon juice, pepper and nutmeg. Add the ice water, slowly, stirring until all in. Press through a large, fine-mesh strainer and refrigerate, 30 minutes. (you can do up to here a day in advance of next step) Bring stock and wine to a gentle boil, in large stockpot. You can add additional herbs for flavoring if you’d like. Try dill or parsley. Using two, wet, tablespoons, shape the quenelles. Use one spoon to get a mound of the fish batter and holding the spoons opposite each other, use the other to shape it. Spoon back & forth a few times to get a smooth surface (they make oval shape ice cream scoops too). Drop each quenelle into stock after forming. Cook until the float. You want to work in small batches at a time. I usually do 8 – 10 at one time. As they float to the surface use a slotted spoon to transfer them to large shallow dish. I like a lasagna glass dish. Strain some stock over quenelles, to keep them moist. Cool, then cover and refrigerate over night. The day you are serving take the quenelles out and let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Serve as you would gefilte fish, with horseradish. I like a little drizzle of the stock over the fish. Figure 2-3, per person.

Almond Cake with Mixed Frosted Berries

  • 2 ¼ cups almond flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • pinch kosher salt
  • 1 pound mixed berries
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 cup fine granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon rosewater (optional)

In a medium bowl, whisk almond flour, baking powder and salt. Using a hand mixer, in a large bowl beat the eggs, sugar and rosewater, at high speed until thick and very glossy. Fold in the flour mixture and about 2/3 of the berries, (The rest will be garnish). You will want to work in alternating batches, usually three. Pour the batter into a greased 9-inch spring-form pan, bottomed lined with parchment paper. Bake at 325, until toothpick comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Let cook for 10 minutes, unmold and cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar For garnish berries: Whisk together 1/3 cup egg whites with 1/8 of a teaspoon fresh lemon juice, until frothy. Toss, gently, the berries in the egg whites and then strain the egg whites off and lay the berries on paper towels to absorb excess egg whites. Do not let them dry. Working quickly but in batches, toss the berries lightly in 2 cups of superfine sugar. Shake off excess and mound in center of cake. Serve immediately.

Passover Chocolate Caramel Torte

  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup Mrs. Richardson’s caramel sauce

Place 1 cup of chocolate chips and butter in a glass or ceramic bowl. Heat in microwave 30 minutes at a time until butter is melted and chips are all but melted. Stir to completely melt the chips. Stir in salt, espresso and vanilla. With a handled mixer, beat n eggs, one at a time, until just smooth. Add the cocoa powder until just combined. Pour batter into a greased tart pan with removable bottom. I line my pan bottom with parchment paper. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes Cool in pan for 5 minutes then lift out onto serving plate and cool completely. For the next step, heat the cream in a saucepan until it is just simmering. Meanwhile put the other cup of chocolate chips in a heat proof bowl. When cream is simmering, pour it over the chocolate and let it sit for 3-5 minutes. Stir until smooth and thoroughly melted. Pour chocolate sauce over the cake and allow to set. Warm the caramel slightly, in microwave. Spoon the caramel over the top of the ganache. Some of the ganache may melt into the caramel, that’s fine. Serve at room temperature.