It's not easy during Passover, the holiday during which the Jewish baker must give up wheat flour (as well as spelt, barley, oats, and rye) and still strive to produce desserts worthy of commemorating the Exodus. No wonder so many people decline the challenge, choosing instead to serve boxes of marshmallow twists and jelly rings at the end of the ritual feast.
Until I went to cooking school, my Passover food memories were dominated by my mother's superb chopped liver and my great grandmother's legendary gefilte fish. The dry spongecakes and sticky-sweet almond meringues that came after the meal were instantly forgettable, even if they cost my grandparents an arm and a leg at the Upper East Side kosher bakery where they stopped on their way to our seder at my Aunt Phyllis' and Uncle Morrie's house in Great Neck.
As an aspiring pastry chef in the 1990s, I volunteered to relieve my grandparents of their obligation and prepare the Passover dessert myself.
The first year, I kept it simple. Using unsweetened coconut from the natural foods store, egg whites, sugar and a pinch of salt, I baked light, fresh-tasting coconut macaroons that opened my eyes to Passover's last-course possibilities.
The next year, my rich chocolate mousse cake was almost too good for Passover. It had the effect of transporting my family to a Parisian bistro, obliterating all thoughts of the deprivations our forebears suffered during their flight from Egypt. Like the coconut macaroons, this was a flourless dessert I'd gladly serve year-round.
A few requests for "real" cake prompted me to buy my first box of matzo cake meal to use in place of flour. I didn't love the distinctive flavor that this product lent to baked goods when used in large quantities. So I stuck with sponge cake recipes because, compared to other types of cake recipes, they employed the smallest amount of the stuff. I realized that a sponge cake could be delicious if flavored with citrus zest, cocoa, espresso powder or spices. To combat dryness, I always made sure to serve it with a complementary fruit salad or sorbet.
New this year is a Passover fruit crisp. After disappointment with a tasteless topping made of crushed matzo, brown sugar, nuts and margarine, I had success with coconut and macadamia nut macaroon crumbs, which remained wonderfully flavorful and chewy while browning beautifully on top of a dish of sour cherries. I can't wait to find out what everyone (we are an opinionated bunch) thinks.
I am hardly an expert on the more arcane rules of kosher baking (it's best to consult your rabbi, rather than your Newsday food columnist, with questions about the kosher-for-Passover status of questionable ingredients such as corn syrup and peanuts), but here are a few guidelines I follow to make desserts that are both good to eat and approved for Passover consumption:
1. UNDERSTAND PASSOVER LEAVENERS
The prohibition on leavened baked goods can be confusing, but the bottom line is that baked goods raised via fermentation (i.e. yeasted baked goods) are the ones that aren't allowed during the holiday. Baked goods leavened with whipped eggs and/or egg whites or with chemical leaveners such as baking soda and kosher-for-passover baking powder (which, unlike regular baking powder, contains no cornstarch) are perfectly acceptable.
2. STOCK UP ON EGGS
During the rest of the year, gluten-rich flour gives most baked goods their structure. Since flour can't be used during Passover, abundant eggs often provide the protein necessary to give holiday cakes and cookies some shape.
3. CHOOSE THE RIGHT FAT
Butter can be used in Passover desserts as part of a dairy meal. For a meat meal, use kosher-for-Passover margarine, since almost all other margarine contains soy, which is one of the foods generally avoided. Many oils are permissible for Passover, including safflower, walnut, vegetable and olive oils. Canola and corn oils are generally not.
4. RELY ON CHOCOLATE
Chocolate is the Passover baker's best friend. Unsweetened and semisweet kosher chocolate (which don't contain dairy solids, a necessity unless you are serving a meatless meal) can be used to make flourless chocolate cakes, brownies and chocolate icings and frostings. Unsweetened cocoa powder can be used to make chocolate-meringue cookies and macaroons.
5. INDULGE IN NUTS AND COCONUT
Traditionally, bakers rely on nuts and coconut during Passover to lend richness and flavor to desserts.
6. ADD NATURAL FLAVORS
Vanilla and other flavor extracts (which are made with non-kosher-for-Passover alcohol) are forbidden during Passover. Although kosher-for-Passover vanilla extract is becoming more widely available, it isn't easy to find. But you can always use the seeds from a real vanilla bean to flavor Passover desserts. Citrus zest is another natural way to add flavor to Passover desserts.
7. DON'T FORGET FRUIT AND FRUIT SAUCES:
To combat the potential dryness of a sponge cake or balance the over-the-top richness of a nut torte or flourless chocolate cake, serve a fruit salad, compote or sauce as an accompaniment.
CITRUS SPONGECAKE WITH TROPICAL FRUIT
If you can't find matzo cake meal (sometimes my supermarket doesn't carry it), you can finely grind 1/3 cup of regular matzo meal in a food processor. An ungreased angel food cake pan is essential for a high rise. As the cake bakes, the batter will grip the sides of the pan and rise high (the cake will have much more trouble rising in a greased pan). By cooling the cake upside down, you use gravity to prevent it from collapsing.
1/3 cup matzo cake meal
1/2 cup potato starch
9 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
For fruit salad
3 cups diced golden pineapple
2 kiwis, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1. Make cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together matzo cake meal and potato starch in a medium bowl.
2. Combine yolks and 3/4 cup sugar in a large mixing bowl and use an electric mixer to beat on high until pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in orange zest, lemon zest, lime zest and orange juice.
3. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer until foamy. With mixer on high, add remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a slow, steady stream and continue to beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.
4. Fold matzo cake meal mixture into yolk mixture, and then gently fold whites in, in three separate additions. Scrape into an ungreased 2-piece angel food cake pan.
5. Bake 15 minutes, turn heat down to 325, and continue to bake until center is springy, 35 to 45 minutes longer. Remove from oven. If pan has feet, invert onto a heatproof surface and allow it to cool completely. (If pan doesn't have feet, invert 4 drinking glasses on counter and rest inverted pan on top of glasses to allow air to circulate underneath cake while it cools.)
6. Make fruit salad: Combine pineapple, kiwi, ginger, lime juice and sugar in a medium bowl and let stand, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar.
7. To serve: Run paring knife around edges of cake. Run paring knife under cake. Slide it off removable bottom and onto serving platter. Slice and serve with fruit salad. Makes 8 servings.
SOUR CHERRY CRISP WITH COCONUT AND MACADAMIA NUT TOPPING
Crispy-chewy macaroons make a perfect topping for this simple crisp. A little bit of dry red Passover wine along with cherry juice gives the filling wonderful flavor. Alternatively, leave the wine out and use 1½ cups reserved cherry juice instead.
6 tablespoons sugar
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup coarsely chopped macadamia nuts
1/2 teaspoon kosher-for-Passover vanilla extract or seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean
2 (24-ounce) jars sour cherries, drained (about 4 cups), 1 cup juice reserved
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons potato starch
1/2 cup dry red kosher-for-Passover wine
1. Make topping: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine sugar, egg whites, coconut, nuts, vanilla or vanilla bean seeds and salt in a medium bowl. Spread mixture in an even 1/2-inch-thick layer on prepared baking sheet and bake until firm and light golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on baking sheet.
2. Make filling: Spread cherries in an even layer over bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish. Whisk together sugar and potato starch in a small saucepan. Whisk in reserved cherry juice and wine and bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Pour syrup over cherries.
3. Crumble coconut mixture over cherries. Bake until fruit is bubbling and topping is golden brown, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH RASPBERRY SAUCE
If you are looking for a Passover dessert that is simple to make, can be prepared up to a week in advance and delivers pure chocolate decadence, this recipe is for you. The raspberry sauce to accompany it, made with a bag of frozen raspberries, a bit of sugar and a spoonful of lemon juice, couldn't be easier. If you'd like, you could also add a dollop of whipped cream or nondairy whipped topping to each serving.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, plus more for greasing pan
1 pound bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
8 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon kosher-for-Passover vanilla extract (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (12-ounce) bag frozen raspberries, thawed
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1. Place a large roasting pan on middle rack of oven and pour in 1/2 inch of very hot tap water. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Grease bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan, line with parchment paper and grease parchment. Place pan on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and mold foil to sides, but not over top, of pan to prevent water from seeping in.
3. Put 1 inch of water in bottom of double boiler or large saucepan and bring to a bare simmer. Combine butter or margarine and chocolate in top of double boiler or in a stainless steel bowl big enough to rest on top of saucepan and place on top of simmering water. Heat, whisking occasionally, until completely melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Whisk eggs, vanilla (if using) and salt into chocolate mixture until well combined. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Carefully place pan into roasting pan of hot water and bake until set around the edges but still a little loose in center, 40 to 45 minutes. Carefully lift pan from water and let cool on a wire rack. Cover cake, still in pan, with plastic (make sure plastic wrap doesn't touch surface of cake) and refrigerate overnight or up to 1 week.
5. Make raspberry sauce: Combine raspberries, sugar and lemon juice in work bowl of food processor, and process until smooth. Press through a fine strainer and into a bowl. Discard seeds.
6. Run a sharp paring knife around edge of springform pan, remove pan sides, invert cake onto a sheet of wax paper, peel away parchment and reinvert onto serving platter. Slice and serve with raspberry sauce. Makes 8 servings.
FLOURLESS ALMOND TORTE WITH APRICOT COMPOTE
When making this dense and delicious torte, be careful not to overbeat the egg whites (they should just form very soft, not stiff, peaks) or the cake may sink in the center as it cools. A whole vanilla bean (half for the cake batter, half for the compote) adds wonderful flavor, but a little kosher-for-Passover vanilla extract (use 1/2 teaspoon in the cake and stir 1/2 teaspoon into the cooked apricots) can be substituted if you like. To decorate, sift some kosher-for-Passover confectioners' sugar (which contains potato starch rather than cornstarch) over the cake just before serving.
2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) blanched slivered almonds
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 vanilla bean
2 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups (about 40) dried apricots, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 vanilla bean
1. Make cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray and line bottom with parchment. Spray parchment with cooking spray.
2. Combine almonds and sugar in work bowl of food processor and process until finely ground.
3. Separate 4 of the eggs, placing yolks in a large mixing bowl and whites in another large mixing bowl. Add remaining 3 eggs, salt and seeds from vanilla bean half to bowl with yolks. Whisk until smooth. Stir in almond and sugar mixture until smooth.
4. Use an electric mixer to whip reserved whites until very floppy peaks just form. Gently fold into batter. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top with a spatula. Bake until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Check on cake after 35 minutes. If it is browning too quickly, loosely tent with foil for final 10 to 15 minutes. Run a paring knife around the edges of the cake, but cool it completely in pan on wire rack.
5. Make compote: Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and simmer until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in apricots, bay leaves and vanilla bean half and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat, scrape into a bowl, and let cool to room temperature. Remove and discard bay leaves and vanilla bean half.
6. To serve, release cake from sides of springform pan, slice and serve with compote on the side. Makes 8 servings.
CHOCOLATE-TOFFEE MATZO BARK
During the rest of the year, I make this irresistible bark with Saltines, but for Passover I use lightly salted matzo. The salt on the crackers contrasts brilliantly with the sweetness of the caramel and chocolate.
5 lightly salted whole matzo crackers
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
2/3 cup finely chopped toasted pecans, almonds or walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty foil and lightly spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange matzo on sheet, breaking them into pieces as necessary to fit in a single layer.
2. Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sugar and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 3 minutes. Pour the mixture over the matzo and spread to the edges of the pan with a spatula.
3. Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Transfer the sheet to the wire rack and drizzle chocolate over caramel. Sprinkle with nuts. Cool completely and break into pieces. Chocolate-toffee matzo bark will keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
CLASSIC COCONUT MACAROONS
Unsweetened coconut produces fluffy, not-too-sweet macaroons. Look for it in the natural foods section of the supermarket.
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon kosher-for-Passover vanilla extract (optional)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine sugar, coconut, egg whites, vanilla (if using) and salt in a medium mixing bowl and mix with a rubber spatula.
3. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets, and press each cookie into a pyramid shape with your fingers, leaving about 11/2 inches between each cookie.
4. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Slide parchment onto a wire rack and let cookies cool completely. Carefully peel them off parchment paper. Coconut macaroons will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week. Makes about 24 cookies.