Although it may seem like I just finished cleaning up from the March party in my 12 Parties for 2012 project, it is already time for the April party. Breathe deeply, people. The April party is a family holiday meal, namely a Passover Seder.
There are a million ways to host a Passover Seder. I grew up on Seders that were short on religion but long on delicious food. Many people, by contrast, have memories of childhood Seders that involved hours of mumbled Hebrew and long waits for anything resembling dinner. Some Seders have themes, such as feminist or vegetarian, that seek to break from tradition. And some Seders follow a script that has been fine-tuned over several decades.
If you are not Jewish, a Passover Seder may seem like a foreign concept, but in many ways it is a big holiday meal like any other. There are certain must-have foods, a few must-do rituals and a lot of family traditions. The key elements for a Passover Seder include re-telling the story of Passover, which is the story of Moses leading the Jewish people out of bondage; asking the Four Questions, which get to the heart of what makes Passover different from all other times of year; a Seder plate with the important symbols of the holiday; and the presence of matzo, the unleavened, cracker-like “bread of affliction.”
The elements of the Seder plate are: charoset, a fruit spread that represents the mortar that the Jewish slaves used to build the pyramids; bitter herbs –usually horseradish — to represent the bitterness of slavery; parsley or greens to represent spring and renewal; an egg, which I think also represents spring, but I’m a little vague on that; a shank bone to represent the blood of the Pascal lamb; and matzo. Matzo, of course, is to symbolize the bread that did not have time to rise when the Jews fled Egypt.
For the eight days of Passover, observant Jewish families do not eat any leavened products or any products containing wheat other than matzo. Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jews interpret this stricture differently from their Sepahrdic Jewish cousins. The most significant difference concerns rice: Sephardic Jews eat it and Ashkenazi Jews do not. (As so often, when it comes to food, the Sephardic Jews have the better policy.) It can be quite a challenge to follow these rules. Imagine having to avoid any product containing corn syrup, for example, which falls on the forbidden list. That”s why supermarkets sell special juices and sodas that are kosher for Passover.
What I have learned over the years is that other than these shared elements — the Seder plate, the matzo, the Four Questions and the ritual re-telling of the Passover Seder — a Seder can take many different forms and still be a Seder. The menu for a Seder will vary widely among families, depending on where their ancestors come from, where they live now, and what they like to eat. My in-laws, for example, serve turkey on Passover. Other people I know think brisket is the centerpiece of the meal. And don’t even get me started on lamb, which is either the traditional thing to serve or completely forbidden, depending on who you talk to. Many families start their meal with gefilte fish, but since neither my husband nor I care for it, we have never served it for Passover or any other holiday for that matter. I think most American Jews would scoff at a Passover Seder that didn’t include matzo ball soup, but for Sephardic Jews, who come from the Mediterranean, matzo ball soup is a complete oddity. So there you go. Like everything in Judaism, there is no easy answer.
And then there is the question of Passover desserts. Passover desserts cannot be leavened by baking powder or baking soda. They cannot contain flour or any other grain besides matzo meal — which is nothing more than ground-up matzo and tastes like sawdust. For many Jews who follow some version of the kosher dietary laws, a Passover dessert cannot contain dairy products either, because in all likelihood, the main course of the Seder contained meat. If you think this leaves you with meringues and sorbet for dessert, you’re pretty much right. Although there are a million recipes out there for Passover cakes and brownies that use matzo meal in lieu of flour and are leavened with nothing more than egg whites. How good these desserts are is another controversial topic. I am trying out a pareve (read: dairy-free) Passover apple cake recipe this year and I will report back. But I do not exactly have high hopes.
That being said, here is my Seder menu:
- Chopped liver
- Matzo ball soup
- Brisket and gravy
- Roast potatoes
- Matzo farfel kugel (matzo farfel is small pieces of matzo like crackers)
- Asparagus viniagrette
- Passover apple cake
It’s not the lightest menu I”ve ever seen. We may all be popping Tums by 8 pm. But there are some stars in that line-up. Matzo ball soup is one of my all-time favorite foods. I flavor my matzo balls with rendered chicken fat (schmaltz in Yiddish) and they are delicious. Here is the recipe, which I posted on my friend Kate’s blog Savour-Fare. My brisket recipe is also a winner. I make the meat and gravy the day before, which saves time on the day of the Seder and also improves the flavor. By making the brisket the day before, I can refrigerate and de-grease the gravy. And we all enjoy my mother-in-law’s recipe for charoset.We have even created a nut-free version for Zuzu.
Whether you are celebrating Easter or Passover this weekend, I want to wish you a very happy holiday. I hope everyone’s holiday meals turn out beautifully.