Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and let your mind wander back to the very first Passover seder you remember. What’s that smell? If you’re Ashkenazi, it might be chicken soup–charoset–horseradish–aunt’s perfume — and a touch of gefilte fish (a probable yuck if you were not yet 10 years old).
And now where does your mind rest? Being so hungry, sitting still, listening to adults reciting one by one, the four questions (Who’s youngest? Me? Oh no, can I remember it all?), then the dry bland crunching of matzoh, crumbs everywhere, laughter, scents of the best dinner in the world, and cake and strawberries with whipped cream, falling asleep and waking up in the car, at home.
But what was that best dinner? The memories get to early adolescence and, at last, enough food to eat, more than enough: Roast chicken with matzoh stuffing, lamb braised in something wonderful that smells incredibly good, a sip of wine (still as awful as when I was 5), brisket with fruits and potato kugel, and green beans with nuts and asparagus and salad that no one eats — and the absolute best chocolate cake ever that is never as good except on Passover.
Do we remember any foods quite as intimately as we recall the ritual and festive tastes of our Passover seders and meals? Of course Passover has been replicated in our lives more or less exactly each year from earliest memory and will be again this year. But what creates the intimacy? Is it the foods themselves, the fact that we only eat them at this particular time, during this very beloved ritual? Or does the ritual, repeated just at this time every year with familiar and beloved people, help create the need to remember the foods?
A famous and familiar painter (whose identity is lost to my memory) said something while looking at the Tivoli Fountains that I have long relished, because I find it true and relevant here. He said that if you eat something while viewing a work of art, you will remember it well: The smells and the sensations of what you are eating will become part of your consciousness of that occasion and encompass the day around you and the way you felt while viewing the piece. Those sensations make more particular the aspects of its impact on you.
We cherish our food memories of Passover and in turn they help us to remember why we are there, together each year, to recount a story that becomes both universal in Jewish history and Jewish collective consciousness, and very personal to each of our experiences of our lives as Jews.
For some of us, the seder at Passover is the one time we connect ourselves with Jewish spirituality and ritual, feeling it impossible to sever the ties made from the earliest of our youths with the community of Jews at this feast. We also seek the springtime feast of connection with each other, our past, our season, our communal spirit, our collective view. And we come to the table each year with anticipation of progressing through the gamut of emotions that the seder brings, with its formal beginning and successive expressing of the story of liberation and covenant with our one God, its flavors and stories and roles to be played by all of us, and its inevitable end in an unforgettable meal in which we get to relax and revel until the table, covered in crumbs and wine stains, is reluctantly left and we drift back to our lives.
We need these food memories to bring us back each year to the Passover table: It seems unthinkable to proceed through the spring into summer without having eaten, recounted, talked, blessed and found some joy in this coming together. And to not include our Jewish children in our own best connection with Jewish ritual and spirituality is pretty much out of the question. We even come to like gefilte fish and horseradish, and crave matzoh as we grow older!
I will share with you a couple of recipes that anchor the Passover table, one Sephardic, the other Ashkenazic, hoping you will find in them some new tastes to add to the collective Passover food memory this year, and be even more excited to come to the seder.
Charoset from Turin
This absolutely delicious charoset is very easy and is more of a paste than the chunky style of the apple-and-nut variety. But it still uses sweet Passover wine!
1 8-oz can chestnut cream (parve)
2/3 cup blanched almonds, ground fine
2 hard-cooked egg yolks
Grated zest of one orange
Juice of one orange
About 2/3 cup sweet red kosher wine
Blend altogether in the food processor to a fine paste. If chestnut cream is unavailable, use cashews ground fine with 1/4 cup of sugar, and blend with the rest of the ingredients.
Yield: About 3 cups
Passover Matzoh Blintzes
1 cup potato starch
2 cups water
Oil for frying
Beat the eggs well. Slowly add the potato starch and water, beating well until the batter is pale yellow and foamy.
Lightly oil a 6-inch nonstick sauté pan (or crepe pan) and place over medium high heat. Using a small ladle, pour in the batter to coat the pan and drain off any excess batter. When the batter seems dry, turn the pancake out onto a cloth placed on a plate or flat counter. Continue making pancakes until all the batter is used up, turning out one on top of the last, being sure that they are not sticking together.
2 lbs. apples, peeled, cored and diced
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
1/4 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup raisins or other dried fruit
Preheat the oven to 400º. Grease a large low baking dish. Mix together the filling ingredients and let sit for about 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of each blintz, filling the center. Fold over each side, then roll up, jelly-roll fashion. Place, seam side down, in the baking dish, placing them in one layer. (Use two dishes if necessary). Continue until all the blintzes are filled.
Brush the tops of each blintz with oil and heat in the oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve as-is or with sour cream for a dairy meal.
You can freeze the blintzes in the baking dish before baking them. Put them in the oven at 350º still frozen and bake about 30 to 35 minutes until hot all the way through and golden brown on top.
Yield: Makes about 20