It’s a shame that my brother’s an environmental historian, because he’d make a damned fine food writer. He’d be one of those issues writers, verbose (in a good way) about Things That Need To Be Discussed. He’d be a good raw milk advocate, and he’d detail the best way to cure venison sausage, and he’d write about how a stranger fries trout in Tennessee, if there are really good trout in Tennessee. (I’m not one to know.) And every April, his Haggadah (PDF) – the religious guide to the Jewish Passover service that’s traditionally done the same way every year – would be anticipated like the New Yorker’s cartoon issue.
That’s how I see it. It’s not that I look forward to The Uncle Josh Haggadah Project – that’s what we’ve all come to call it, my family and the separate group of friends he shares Passover with each year in San Francisco – because I’m so into religion. On the contrary, I only really like the tradition of Passover because it instigates a familial bond we might not otherwise get every year when April rolls around. I don’t really observe, if by observe you mean cutting out everything but matzo. (I do add matzo to my diet, though, and as my sister points out, it makes fine fodder for a prosciutto and cream cheese sandwich, which is obviously Kosher.) I stink at remembering the story, and frankly, I don’t find it all that interesting, which means that reliably, on the day Passover starts, I’m frisking the internet for a dummy’s guide to the Seder plate when I get a nice long email from Josh. I know that makes me the world’s worst Jew, but seriously, doesn’t the whole schmegegge about Moses floating down the Nile in a wicker basket get more interesting when you learn that it was found on Craigslist, listed as a two-bedroom with on-site laundry?
Here, celebrating means channelling Josh’s voice, and a proper feast, and not much on the religious front.
This year, I’ll be celebrating with my husband and Graham, who might be actually old enough to find the matzo. My mom will be here, as will my sister, and whichever soul walks past the door when we open it. We’ll start with artichokes with homemade garlic aioli, then we’ll have matzo ball soup, fragrant with lemon peel and peppered with parsley. There will be brisket with carrots and parsnips, and sautéed spring greens, and roasted potatoes. And then, when we can’t possibly eat a bite more, we’ll have cake.
Flourless cake is the Kate Moss of the pastry world. It always seems like it should be too anemic to stand up, but there it is, beautiful, even if you wish you didn’t think so. This version, structured with almond meal and eggs and flavored with bananas and cocoa, isn’t exactly congruent with the whole doing without concept that surrounds Passover. But you know what? Once you take a bite, I’m not sure you’ll be all that concerned.
Flourless Chocolate-Banana-Almond Cake (PDF)
Flourless cakes have been a Passover staple for ages. Although this simple, satisfying cake is made without chametz, you may find yourself making it all year long, because it carries the flavor of a chocolate-infused banana bread but only takes half the time to bake. The cream cheese ganache that tops it is like a cross between whipped cream and cream cheese frosting—serve it dolloped on top of the cake, with extra sliced bananas.
Time: 20 minutes active time
Makes: 8 servings
For the cake
Vegetable oil spray
2 large ripe bananas
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups almond meal
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 tablespoons canola oil
For the cream cheese ganache
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup regular cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
Note: If you can’t find almond meal, make your own: Toast slivered almonds on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 8 minutes, or until they begin to brown. Let cool completely, then grind cooled nuts in a food processor or coffee grinder.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray an 8-inch cake pan with the vegetable oil spray. Line the pan with a round of parchment paper, and spray the parchment. Set aside.
Mash the bananas in a mixing bowl with a large fork, then stir in the sugar, honey, salt, and vanilla. Set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs for about 1 minute on medium speed, or until foamy. Add the sweetened banana mixture, and mix again on medium-high speed until very smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the almond meal and cocoa powder, and mix on low speed until well blended. Add the canola oil, and pour the batter into the prepared pan. (It will be thin.)
Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is slightly domed and firm in the center. Cool cake 5 minutes in the pan. Invert onto cooling rack (run a small knife around the edges if necessary), then invert again onto a plate.
While the cake cools, make the cream cheese ganache: Beat the butter and cream cheese in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium speed until smooth. Add the cold cream and sugar, and whip again on high speed, scraping the bowl occasionally, for a minute or two, until light and fluffy.
Serve the cake with the cream cheese ganache, topped with extra banana slices.
How Jewish tastes
Making matzo at home brings with it an unusual challenge: because the goal of eating matzo is to remember the sacrifices our forebears made, it’s not really supposed to be enjoyable. Store-bought matzo, if made appropriately, should leave one with the approximate sensation of having eaten crisp cardboard made out of dust. It’s shattery. It’s white. And it’s very, very plain.
The problem is, I usually avoid boxed matzo. I don’t steer clear because of the taste. I skip it because it’s just the type of white-flour product—plain, slightly sweet, and likely quite processed—that makes me feel crummy. Gluten-free matzo are commercially available, but they’re heinously expensive. And unlike regular boxed matzo, which often come in various flavors, gluten-free matzo are (in stores near me) always naked.
I lined up my matzo musts: First, I wanted my crackers to taste like an everything bagel, with a smattering of seeds. Second, I wanted to avoid grains, lest someone question my devotion to Ashkenazi Judaism (to which I am not even slightly devoted), practitioners of which typically avoid all grains during the holiday. Third, the matzo had to be disappointing in some way. There’s no point in making a cracker that doesn’t taste like suffering if you’re going to eat it for a week straight while pretending to suffer. I couldn’t call it matzo if it didn’t leave me needing a glass of wine, or at the very least, water.
“This can’t be called matzo,” said J, a high school friend who’s recently moved to Seattle. “It tastes too good.” She was munching on a cracker I’d made from a mixture of almond, coconut, and garbanzo bean flours—a mixture sprinkled with poppy, sesame, and caraway seed, crunchy sea salt, and dried onion flakes, then baked until the edges curled up. We dipped the crackers in hummus, pondered, and ate more.
“I’m no expert, but there is no way these are matzo,” she repeated. She was right. I wasn’t feeling even the least bit guilty about having a nice life, or peaceful surroundings, or leavened bread–not to mention making a cracker that took longer than the “official” limit of 18 minutes to make. I was feeling guilty about planning to not eat the same terrible cardboard everyone else planned on eating.
“They’re a cross between socca and a graham cracker,” declared Jim. And he was right. We actually enjoyed them.
The next day in the car, I started preparing Graham for what will probably be the first Passover dinner he will actually understand. I talked about how Jewish people take the holiday as a moment to slow down and appreciate what they have. About how we eat certain foods to celebrate the season, and how we always leave the door open, in part to welcome in anyone who might stop by with a hungry stomach.
“Mom, what does ‘Jewish’ mean?” he asked.
Right. I’d forgotten the basics. I’m a secular Jew: I’m Jewish by tradition and by generational duty, but not by proactive practice. We don’t talk very much about religion in our house.
“Jewish means something different to everyone,” I said carefully. I went on to give a very brief, very bad explanation of how religions differ, and how everyone needs to find out for themselves what practice works best for them, if any. Our conversation fizzled, and I cursed myself for being so unprepared.
Then, when we got home, I got an idea.
“Here,” I said. I handed him a matzo. “This is what Jewish tastes like to me.”
He refused to taste it. And in that moment—feeling guilty for giving the matzo too much flavor, and for failing to teach my son about my family’s past practices, and for realizing he had zero concept of what was going to happen later in the week at Passover dinner—I realized I could call it matzo. I’d suffered enough.
Eat it smeared with additional guilt.
Gluten-Free Everything Matzo Crackers (PDF)
Gluten-Free Everything Matzo Crackers
Made with a combination of garbanzo, almond, and coconut flours, these crackers have a texture slightly crisper than graham crackers, with a much more savory flavor. Topped with a smattering of the seeds you might find on an everything bagel—plus caraway, a favorite of mine—they make a good substitute for any cracker you’d use for hummus, cheese, or tuna salad. Put them on the Passover plate, if you feel like it—but be warned that they’re more flavorful than traditional matzo!
Look for minced dried onion in the spice section of your local grocery store.
Time: 35 minutes active time
Makes about 6 servings
2 teaspoons poppy seed
2 teaspoons white sesame seed
2 teaspoons dried caraway seed, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons minced dried onion
1 1/2 teaspoons crunchy sea salt, crushed til fine if large
1 cup (100 grams) potato starch
1/2 cup (60 grams) coconut flour
1/2 cup (50 grams) almond flour
1/2 cup (50 grams) garbanzo bean flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
1/4 cup warm water
2 large eggs, blended
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, and space two racks evenly in the oven. Cut two pieces of parchment paper to fit the flat parts of two large (such as 12-by-17-inch) baking sheets. (You’ll roll the cracker dough out between the two pieces of parchment, so they need to be the same size. If you don’t have two baking sheets of the same size, just pick one, cut out two pieces of parchment to fit it, and bake the crackers in two batches.)
In a small bowl, blend the poppy, sesame, and caraway seed with the onion and sea salt with a spoon until well mixed. Set aside.
In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the potato starch, coconut flour, almond flour, garbanzo bean flour, baking soda, baking powder, and kosher salt just to blend. With the machine on low speed, add the oil, water, and egg. Increase speed to medium and blend for one minute, until crumbly. The mixture should clump together when you press a handful between your palm and fingers.
Pat the dough into a ball, then split it roughly in half. Place one of the parchment sheets on a clean work surface, then add half the dough. Top with the other sheet of parchment and roll the dough as thin as possible without breaking it; it should almost reach the edges of the parchment. (The goal is to make one giant cracker about the size of a baking sheet with each half of the dough.)
Brush one baking sheet with olive oil. Peel the top sheet of parchment off the rolled-out dough, then carefully invert the dough onto the prepared baking sheet, paper side up. Peel off the remaining piece of paper, and brush the dough with more olive oil.
Repeat the process with the remaining dough, using the same parchment paper. Scatter the spice mixture over both pieces of oiled dough, then pat the spices in with your hands so they stick. (If you’d like a more matzo-like look, use a fork or a rolling docking tool to poke small holes all over the dough.)
Bake the matzo for 5 minutes. Rotate the pans front to back and top to bottom, and bake another 5 to 7 minutes, or until the matzo is well browned on all edges and begins to curl up and off the pan. Transfer the crackers immediately to cooling racks and let cool for at least 30 minutes before breaking into pieces and serving.
Store any unused crackers in an airtight container, up to 3 days.
If you’ve followed the Uncle Josh Haggadah Project over the last five years, never fear, there is a 2015 edition. This year, it focuses on Montana, and was written in conjunction with our sister. Click here for the PDF of the 2015 Haggadah.
Filed under bread, commentary, Lunch, snack
Tagged as everything matzo, gluten-free matzo, homemade matzo, making your own matzo, passover, Uncle Josh Haggadah Project