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Food Bytes PG Cookbook The Food Chain
Kitchen Mailbox Countdown to Dinner Dining
Cookbook a Passover inspiration

Thursday, March 25, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

There's nothing like a cooking disaster to demonstrate how much I have to learn. Let's start with what I knew about Passover foods. I'd learned that matzo couldn't simply be kosher, it had to be kosher for Passover. So I was happy to find a kosher-for-Passover matzo meal at the store.

When I got it home I noticed that it didn't say matzo cake meal, just matzo meal. Same thing? I decided to tough it out. Wrong. My Passover Popovers were as heavy as hockey pucks, though rather tasty. If it's dough, my husband, Ace, will eat it. So he ate them, anyway, dipping each in strawberry jam.

The Mississippi Praline Macaroons, though, were another story. Wonderful! They couldn't be easier.

The recipes came from "The New York Times Passover Cookbook" edited by Linda Amster. We receive dozens of cookbooks each month - some great, many horrible - but I pulled this one out of the stack because I figured if any newspaper knew about cooking for the Jewish holiday, it would be The Times. Our main story on Passover was being written by Sharon Eberson, so I passed it on to her. (If I had read Sharon's story and recipes before I started cooking, I wouldn't have messed up the way I did.)

My inspiration to look into the book myself came from a Fox Chapel reader, Ethel Fine Christin, who called from Stuart, Fla. Christin met Amster on a bus going from the Boston airport. "We've been friends for 15 years," says the cookbook editor.

Many people have said nice things about the cookbook. The great recipes aside, the wonderful essays in the book - remembrances by Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton and Molly O'Neill - were all great sense-of-place stories and in themselves almost worth the $25 price.

I've always admired Jewish cooks, anyway. Their holidays are such a wonderful meld of spirituality, history and food. Especially food.

At some Passover tables, the contributions of women are honored in a special way. Writes Joan Nathan: "Many feminists today have also introduced the cup of Miriam, in honor of Moses' sister. She played a central role in the lives of Moses and the Jewish people, especially ensuring that they had water in the desert. Miriam's cup is, therefore, filled with water."

Amster , The Times news research manager, says she was inspired to compile a book after fielding all those "I lost my favorite recipe, and it wouldn't be Passover without it," calls to The Times from friends. (The PG gets lots of calls just like that. In Pittsburgh, hapless husbands allegedly throw out a lot of important stories, and dogs seem especially hungry for favorite recipes.)

For many years I've wondered why some families have two Seders. Nathan, a noted authority on Jewish cooking, explains: "Many families have Seders on both nights of the holidays, a custom derived as Jews moved farther away from the land of Israel. Wanting to be correct on the date of the Seder and not fail to perform it at the specified time, many Jews took to celebrating on two nights. Some repeat the same menu; others with more time or resources prepare two different meals."

Traditional families, Nathan writes, have separate sets of dishes, cutlery and cooking utensils just for Passover. "These are kept carefully packed away the rest of the year."

Amster, a New Yorker who was raised in a kosher home, says her own family's menu "seldom strayed from the traditional. The gefilte fish, the chicken soup with matzo balls, the roast chicken, the tsimmes, the potato kugel and the sponge cake were as much a part of Passover as the Four Questions - and almost as unvarying."

Over the years, she innovated. The cookbook has 50 years of recipes from the newspaper files, the earliest one that ran in 1871 in a household hints column. "It introduced New Yorkers to Stewed Fish a la Juive. Juive is Jew in French," she says.

For two years Amster went through the recipes, discovering there was a preponderance of desserts. (Sounds like my recipe box.) "There was an imbalance with so many dessert recipes. Lots of cakes, because you can't just go out and buy a cake, and it's one of those holidays when you like to bake," says Amster.

And it seemed there was a recipe for every kind of gefilte fish, a Passover staple for many Ashkenazic families. Jewish people cooked according to what was available in their part of the world, she says. Charoset, or clay, which represents the mortar the Jews used to build the pyramids in Egypt, is a "perfect example. In Eastern Europe, it's made with apples, walnuts and sweet wine. The Sephardim make it much more varied. In the Middle East, there were the dates and figs and, in Italy, oranges. There are seven different ones in the book."

Because Amster wanted to present dishes for each part of the Passover dinner, she located other Times recipes that, though they weren't printed specifically for Passover, could meet the dietary requirements of Passover.

She says she was "astonished by how much we had, and also by the scope of it. We had traditional, cherished heirlooms and recipes by famous chefs, wonderful classic recipes."

And they'd already been tested, though she did update some of them for today's more modern kitchen equipment and techniques.

She also went to cookbooks by New York Times writers such as Craig Claiborne, Sheraton and O'Neill, where she found recipes to balance her original batch. "They all had to conform to dietary restrictions and turned into recipes that were strictly kosher for Passover."

This was the most difficult part, she says. "The only foods that are hametz , or forbidden, universally by biblical law are fermented or leavened wheat, rye, oats spelt and barley and their related products. The other types of food acceptable or not depends on the community."

For example, she says, in Yemen they eat sesame seeds, but the Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jews) will not eat seeds. (In fact, for some Jews the matzo cake meal in the popovers would not be considered kosher for Passover.)

Meat and dairy are not mixed. Each recipe is labeled Meat, Dairy and/or Pareve (acceptable with either meat or dairy dishes.) The popover recipe, for instance, is labeled pareve/dairy, the designation depending on whether water or milk is used.

Amster is especially pleased with a recipe from Paul Prudhomme, the New Orleans Cajun chef. In 1996 Prudhomme was invited to Israel to develop recipes for the country's 3,000th anniversary, and his Veal Roast with Mango Sauce has never before been published.

She worked with the Orthodox Union, the biggest organization that certifies foods, but some things do change. For example, confectioners' sugar was once forbidden because it contains cornstarch, but now a sugar without the starch has been created and is kosher for Passover.

Still, Amster includes a warning label: "Given such complexities, some recipes in this book may be acceptable to one community of Jews, but not to another. Although I have consulted a number of religious authorities to ensure that the ingredients are permissible at Passover to one or more communities, it is the ultimate responsibility of the reader to ascertain if a particular recipe meets the Passover dietary standards that he or she observes."

Whatever your faith, the cookbook offers wondrous foods. I observed that my husband ate every last one of the popovers.

Mississippi Praline Macaroons (Pareve)

The late Felicia Schlenker, one of the first Jewish people to live in Natchez, Miss., "pralinized" a recipe for Viennese Passover nut meringue kisses by substituting brown sugar and pecans for sugar and almonds.

3 large egg whites
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup roughly chopped pecans
Pareve margarine for greasing cooking sheet
24 pecan halves for topping

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Beat the egg whites to form peaks. Gradually add the sugar and beat until the whites are stiff. Stir in the chopped nuts.

Spoon a heaping teaspoon of macaroon mixture on a greased cookie sheet. Press down to shape into a macaroon. Place a pecan half on top. Bake for 30 minutes, checking occasionally, until cookies are hard but still shiny.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies. (We have a powerful mixer to beat egg whites, so ours made 3 dozen.)

From "Jewish Cooking in America", included in "The New York Times Passover Cookbook" edited by Linda Amster.

Passover Popovers (Pareve/Dairy)

An extremely popular Passover recipe.

2 large eggs
1/4 cup water or milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup matzo cake meal

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Oil a standard muffin tin with 21/2-inch cups.

In a bowl, beat together the eggs, water or milk, oil and salt. Add the matzo cake meal (not matzo meal), stirring with a fork until ingredients are well blended.

Pour 3 tablespoons of batter into each cup of the prepared muffin tin. (We had only enough batter for 9 or 10 cups.) Bake in the lower third of the oven 30 minutes until nicely browned and firm to the touch. Makes 12 popovers.

"The New York Times Passover Cookbook" edited by Linda Amster

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