This holiday is one of the big ones, not only in the Jewish calendar, but as an inspiration behind the Festive Food Project. Even though neither of us was raised Jewish, the mere mention of Passover always had us clamoring for a seder invite or at the very least, sharing a big pot of matzah ball soup with our families. Zanthe began learning about Jewish food from attending her husband’s family Passover celebrations, and from Passover to Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, she’s had two happy decades of learning about Jewish culture and food traditions over meals shared with family and friends. There are many wonderful cooks and writers who specialize in Jewish food, including Joan Nathan, and Claudia Roden’s incredible Book of Jewish Food in particular, discovered by chance in a summer rental, opened up a whole new world of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic recipes. It’s a treasure trove of personal and cultural history.
The eight days of Passover celebrate the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt: one thing that makes it such a special holiday is how many of us can relate to the idea of seeking freedom. We also love that Passover is celebrated primarily in the home, with a traditional dinner, or seder. Jews in the diaspora sometimes hold a seder on each of the first two nights of Passover, to cover the time period when Passover begins in Israel; Zanthe’s family does two seders because it’s a way to celebrate with more people. It is a lengthy meal replete with rituals, songs, wine and the telling of the Passover story from a book called the Haggadah. It’s also a lot of food: the first thing everyone eats is a whole hard-boiled egg, and hours of eating and drinking follow. As with Thanksgiving, every Jewish family interprets the traditional dishes through the filter of their own cultural heritage.
The most important Passover tradition besides the seder also has to do with food: the avoidance of foods called chametz, or foods made from the five main grains (it’s a good week for the gluten-free). Ashkenazi Jews also avoid beans, corn, peanuts and rice (though there’s been a new ruling allowing those foods just this year, which is very exciting!). The only grain product allowed during Passover is matzah, or matzo: the flat, cracker-like “bread” which commemorates the unleavened bread ancient Jews had to eat during their hurried escape from bondage. Observant Jews purge their homes of chametz before the holiday (sweeping crumbs with a feather into a wooden spoon and burning them with a candle); some have a separate set of Passover plates or even a whole Passover kitchen with appliances never touched by chametz. We don’t go that far, but we do make liberal use of matzah in our Passover recipes, and this chocolate matzah in particular is so addictive we always end up making several batches. Our other two recipes, for a delicious sweet-and-sour brisket and a classic golden matzah ball soup, have transcended the holiday table to become classics that make any meal a special one.
Sweet and Sour Brisket
Adapted from the New York Times
This is one of those Frankenstein recipes: what goes in sounds totally improbable and what comes out is amazing. Perhaps Frankenstein isn’t a perfect analogy…what this produces is so much better than a freakish monster. We can’t host a seder without it. Be sure to cook this at least one day ahead of when you plan to serve it.
One 6-7 lb first-cut brisket, rinsed and patted dry
1 medium onion, quartered
One 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
6 large cloves of garlic
¼ cup Dijon mustard
½ cup dry red wine
1 can (1½ cups) Coca Cola (or ginger ale, but no diet soda!)
1 cup ketchup
¼ cup honey
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
½ cup olive oil
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper
optional: 1 oz dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, then drained, rinsed well and chopped
Heat the oven to 350℉. Put all the sauce ingredients except mushrooms (and not the brisket) in a blender and blend until smooth. You may want to blended the ingredients in 2 batches, if it seems like too much liquid for your blender. Add chopped mushrooms after blending.
Place the brisket fat side up in a metal (flameproof) roasting pan or large dutch oven, season with salt and pepper and pour sauce over it. Cover tightly with foil (and lid, if using dutch oven) and bake for two hours. Carefully turn brisket over and cook uncovered for one hour more.
Cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, preheat the oven, move the brisket to a cutting board, cut off fat, and slice against the grain into slices of about ½ inch. Skim congealed fat from sauce in pan or pot, then place over burners and bring to the boil. Taste and boil to reduce for a few minutes, if necessary. Place the sliced meat back into the sauce and heat in the oven, covered, for 20 minutes.
Classic Matzah Ball Soup
Adapted from Gourmet Today
For Matzah Balls:
¼ cup minced shallot
¼ cup rendered chicken fat or schmaltz
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ¼ cups matzah meal
¼ cup seltzer (or water)
1 tbsp finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 ¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
10 cups best quality chicken stock (if you ever make it yourself, this is the time!)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup finely chopped parsnip (about one medium)
1 cup finely chopped carrots (about 2 medium)
2 tbsp freshly chopped dill
In a 10” skillet, heat chicken fat and cook onion, stirring, until just golden, about five minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly. Stir in eggs, matzah meal, seltzer, parsley, salt and pepper until combined. Refrigerate at least an hour and as long as overnight.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, and roll cold matzah mixture into balls with dampened hands, either 8 large ones or as many small ones as you like (we prefer the daintier size, and make about thirty 1” balls). Try to handle as little possible so they don’t warm up too much. Add to boiling water and simmer, covered, until cooked through, about 30 minutes. Remove carefully with slotted spoon into a shallow bowl.
Meanwhile, bring stock to a simmer in a large stock pot and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add parsnips and carrots and cook until just tender, about six minutes. Add Matzah balls to pot and and simmer, uncovered, for six minutes. Serve sprinkled with chopped dill.
Note: Soup can be made up to three days ahead and kept refrigerated. Add dill before serving.
½ box matzah
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 ½ cups best-quality bittersweet chocolate chips
1-2 tsp flaky salt, such as Maldon or fleur du sel
Preheat oven to 325℉. Line a jelly roll pan (must have sides) with parchment paper, and cover the bottom with a single layer of matzahs, as closely fitting as possible.
In a saucepan, melt butter and sugar and stir until combined. Watching to be sure it doesn’t boil over, boil for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour and spread it over the matzahs. Bake for 12 minutes.
Take out of oven and sprinkle evenly with chocolate chips. Wait one minute, then spread them evenly with a spatula as they melt. Sprinkle with flaky salt and cool completely. Refrigerate overnight, then break into chunks and store in an airtight container in fridge (it won’t keep long, because you will eat it).
Variations: You can also use white chocolate, and sprinkle with chopped nuts or cocoa nibs.