There is something unmistakably challenging about the retail side of Passover. The anxiety surrounding a holiday steeped in restrictions hovers like a fine potato starch mist over the bakery. Why is it that Seder sweets encourage a mild hysteria in otherwise agreeable individuals? I like to think that if people baked a little more they might worry a little less. Perhaps they would understand that in the grand scheme of things, a flourless torte or a coconut-studded cookie is simply dessert.
No one seems to agonize over Easter sweets. Unabashedly colorful, there is no subtlety whatsoever in a package of Peeps, a bag of jellybeans or individually foil wrapped bunnies. Passover’s color palate is quite the opposite, taking its cues primarily from the beiges and whites of matzoh meal, potato starch, egg whites, and coconut.
Yes, there are bound to be a few rumblings from the carrot cake audience. Better with or without raisins and pineapple? Yes or no to coconut? How much cream cheese between and surrounding the layers; a slab or a schmear? But the truth is carrot cakes require nothing more than refrigeration to keep their cool and a long-bladed sharp knife to insure a clean slice. It also helps to carry the cake box without tilting it and set it in the car where it is least likely to encounter a 45-degree angle.
Passover desserts are needier, relying heavily on the alchemy of large, room temperature eggs, copious amounts of sugar, and either finely ground nuts or matzoh derivative flours. Macaroons, more confection than cookie, enjoy a blend of both sweetened, flaked coconut and unsweetened, desiccated flakes.
Strictly observant Jews tend to seek out kosher bakeries for their dessert needs. A bakery without a kosher kitchen however, must perform a delicate dance, tweaking recipes and ingredients. Passover sweets depend on whipped egg yolks and whites to do the heavy lifting. Flour is replaced with finely ground nuts or matzoh cake flour, stirring up additional concerns for anyone with food allergies. Hold on to your Haggadah- the adventure doesn’t end there, it only takes on speed.
The wheat flour found in matzoh can prove troublesome for those with wheat sensitivities, forcing them to find matzoh alternatives. I thought matzoh was the alternative until we could return to our regularly scheduled eating habits.
While matzoh can be made out of wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oat flour, traditionally wheat flour is the most widely consumed. For those wheat sensitive, spelt matzoh is the go-to unleavened bread. Those challenged by gluten however, may turn to matzoh made from oat flour. Not even Google maps can navigate the current dietary restrictions and allergens imposed by Passover. No wonder Elijah is late to the table; he took the wheat exit instead of exiting at spelt.
Which begs the question, decades ago, before faux gluten-free Passover products, sumac-infused matzoh balls, and meringue ‘stacks’, we somehow managed to enjoy the holiday. The major obstacles were red wine stains on a white damask tablecloth and being seated next to your least favorite relative. The Ninja slow cookers of our childhood were our mothers and grandmothers, and in my good fortune, Jessie. There was no time, and quite frankly, no inclination to stand in line at the neighborhood butcher or bakery or A&P and over share one’s food sensitivities.
Without benefit of food processors and microwaves, multi-generations of strong, thoughtful, intelligent, family-centric women orchestrated the multi-course Passover dinner with precision. White fish, carp, and pike was methodically ground then shaped into patties. Hands dusty with matzoh meal gently lowered ovals of gefilte fish into a heavy, enamel stockpot of simmering fish stock. The sting of onions and freshly grated horseradish was softened by the sweetness of apples and grape juice, the warmth of cinnamon. Walnuts fell topsy-turvy into a weighty hand cranked nut grinder attached to the side of the kitchen table. Dozens of eggs were separated, the yolks beaten ribbony thick, the whites almost too voluminous to be contained within a mixing bowl. The air was sweet with sugar and toasty from walnuts. We were not allowed to jump or open the oven door for fear of impacting the 9-egg sponge cake slowly rising in an ungreased, footed tube pan. Stray crumbs from sheets of Streit’s matzoh left a trail between the kitchen and the dining room. Certainly my grandmother wanted everyone circling the table to be happy, but if you were served something that you couldn’t eat, you simply didn’t eat it. If something didn’t ‘agree’ with you, there was Alka-Seltzer or Bromo-Seltzer in the medicine cabinet.
The many degrees and ideologies of Judaic observance spark uncertainty when faced with a week long on deprivation and short on leavening. This applies to everything served at the Seder, including the final course. And for the record, despite the fact that the Hagaddah tells us to eat matzoh (also known as the afikomen) for dessert, we would much prefer a few chewy macaroons or a slice of something chocolate.
Clearly this is the case in our immediate area. Faced with the challenge of baking 200 dozen macaroons in a few short days, I did what any thinking woman would do; I reached out for Macaroon Support. Blondilocks arrived on the scene, armed with a bandanna and a ¾ oz. purple handled ice cream scoop. Over the course of 3 days, we listened as customers voiced concern and uncertainty over gluten and wheat; someone actually asked if there was flour in the flourless Passover torte. Exasperated, I turned to Blondilocks, rolling my eyes and shaking my head. My Passover retail rant continued, peppered with snippets of new information fueled by articles such as “What You Don’t Want To Eat At This Year’s Seder.”
Maybe we know a little too much, or we think we do. Maybe we should just stick to reading the back of the box of matzoh cake flour. Blondilocks listened to me rattle on and then responded with the calm, sage, advice of a woman wise beyond her years. She reasoned that Passover is truly personal and maybe I shouldn’t be so judgy. Gathering up her bag she suggested the upcoming holiday be dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure, Passover edition.” And with that, she handed me her bandana and hugged me goodbye, brushing a few wisps of sweetened, flaked coconut from the toggle buttons of her navy blue coat.