Next Monday at sundown, Jewish families across the country and indeed around the world will usher in the spring holiday of Passover with the traditional Passover Seder. 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 1) re-telling the story of Passover, which is the story of Moses leading the Jewish people out of bondage; 2) asking the Four Questions, which get to the heart of what makes Passover different from all other times of year; 3) a Seder plate with the important symbols of the holiday; and 4) 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.
Like many others, I am still in the process of finalizing my Seder menu. For those of you who could use some inspiration, here is a round-up of all my Passover recipes from the past three years.
For the Seder:
- My mother-in-law’s charoset recipe
- My matzo ball soup recipe
- My brisket recipe – good for all Jewish holidays!
- A dairy and nut-free Passover apple cake
For dinner ideas during the week of Passover:
Chag sameach! Happy Passover to all.