There is something special about Passover. Childhood memories of sitting at the end of the long holiday table sipping our first taste of wine, asking the four questions, reciting the plagues while playing with toy frogs, and the search for the afikomen (which gives the youngsters their first taste of bargaining power) becomes implanted in our DNA. Passover Seder is the occasion that truly brings Jews (and non-Jewish family and friends) home for the holidays.
Creating the Passover table is an elaborate process. There are ceremonial items coupled with the desire of every hostess to create a holiday tablescape worthy of her guests. The word “seder” means, “order,” and like everything surrounding the holiday, there is an order to the dining table itself.
The focal point of the table is the Passover Seder Plate. They come in all shapes, colors, languages and artistic preferences. Here we chose a modern-looking clear Seder plate to complement the classic Spring pinks and greens in our FTD bouquets. Every Seder plate includes an appropriate place for the Seder service ritual items: the hard-boiled egg, bitter herbs (horseradish), lettuce, roasted shank bone, charoset and a green (many U.S.-based Jews use parsley or cucumber).
Next, matzo. We eat a lot of matzo. The general prohibition for observant Jews during Passover is a ban on yeast, because the bread did not have time to rise before the Jews fled slavery and Egypt. Instead, there is matzo, which is flour, water, salt and oil; made without yeast. Having no time to rise, it is the “bread of affliction.” As you can see in the picture, there is a full box of matzo for the table, and the three pieces of matzo (covered) to use as the afikomen, the ceremonial end to the meal.
Next on the table, the Cup of Elijah, which is a wine glass, and plenty of wine. Each person at the table will drink four cups of wine during the Seder meal.
One reason the Passover table is always so crowded is because we are commanded to welcome the stranger. No one should be refused a seat at the holiday meal. Many families invite interested non-Jews to the table to learn firsthand about the holiday.
Elijah’s cup represents the ultimate stranger. Each year the children at the table rise to go to the door and open it to check to see if this is the year of Elijah’s appearance. (Once, as a young child of 5 or 6, the screen door opened and shut for no apparent reason as I stood to peek outside the front door for the prophet. I was positive it meant Elijah had come to my Passover.)
Just as in November, Americans begin to salivate over mashed potatoes and pecan pie; at the time of Passover, our thoughts turn to matzo ball soup, kugel and gefilte fish. Although not required as a part of the meal, culturally they are as important to us as the shank bone (the symbol of the Exodus on the Seder plate).
Although my memories are all about the tasting of the foods we associate with the holiday and not the preparation of them; I thought it would be fun to include recipes of some of my favorites.
With the prohibition against yeast, good desserts at the holiday table are hard to come by. But, this chocolate matzo that my husband makes is my favorite.
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line baking sheets with foil and pinch the edges into a lip to contain drips. Grease the foil well with butter. Place the matzos onto the baking sheets, breaking them in half if needed.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan with the brown sugar over medium heat; bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer the mixture until thickened, about five minutes. Ladle the hot sugar mixture over the matzos, spreading the mixture over the matzos with a rubber spatula.
3. Bake in the preheated oven until the sugar mixture is bubbling and thick, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool until the toffee coating is firm, about 15 minutes.
4. Place the semi-sweet chocolate chips into a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on low until the chips are just melted. (Do not let the chocolate overheat or scorch.) Spread the melted chocolate over the toffee-coated matzos. Place the baking sheets into the refrigerator until the treats are cold, about 30 minutes. Remove the matzos from the foil, break up into pieces, and store in an airtight container or plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer.
Then there is the kugel, a casserole with as many variations as there are cooks (they can be sweet or savory). Of course, no one has ever comes close to my Bubbe’s (Yiddish for grandmother). Although that recipe will stay a family secret, here is one from a cookbook by Susie Fishbein.
Traditional Potato Kugel
Makes 12-14 servings
½ cup vegetable oil
8 medium potatoes
2 medium onions, quartered
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2½ tablespoons sugar
5 large eggs, beaten with a whisk
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F
2. Place the oil into a large 9×13 rectangular baking pan and set aside.
3. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add some ice cubes. Peel the potatoes and to prevent them from turning brown, place them into the cold water.
4. Finely chop the onions in the container of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Remove them and place in a large bowl. Cut the potatoes into chunks and place them into the food processor; process until almost smooth. Add to the onions.
5. Add the salt, pepper and sugar to the potato mixture. Add the eggs and stir until thoroughly combined.
6. Place the baking pan with oil into the oven. When the oil sizzles, carefully remove from oven and spoon some of it into the potato mixture. This will help make the kugel fluffy. Mix well. Pour the potatoes into the oiled pan.
7. Bake, uncovered, for one hour.
It is hard to bundle up 45 years of Passover memories into a single article. I hope I’ve given you some shorthand to create a Passover table. The easiest way to experience the holiday yourself is to attend a community Seder at one of your local Jewish congregations. Part of the fun will be hearing the memories of the others who, year after year, tell the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt.