If the four questions of Passover reflected the queries posed at the bakery, they might read like this.
1. Why is this holiday different from all other holidays?
On all other holidays, we provide both gluten filled and gluten free baked goods to the masses. On this holiday, we continue to offer both with a slight emphasis on accommodating those I affectionately refer to as my peeps.
2. Why on this holiday do we eat only unleavened desserts?
On this particular holiday, we eat unleavened desserts because we are celebrating and remembering the Exodus from Egypt following generations of slavery. It is also because that is what our grandmothers served at their Seders; primarily in the form of towering sponge cakes and dry macaroons because flourless chocolate cakes had yet to come into fashion.
3. Why is this year at the bakery different from all other years at the bakery?
This year is different because the bakery has doubled in size allowing more elbowroom amongst the macaroons.
4a. Is this a Kosher kitchen?
4b. Are you Kosher for Passover?
See answer 4a.
As we approach the week of leavened flour deprivation, there are a few holiday traditions that we maintain around the Baker’s bench. There will be a brief conversation about Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film starring Charlton Heston as Moses and my former boss as Pharaoh Ramses. Three, possibly four of us will confirm seeing the film. A few members of the staff will claim to have heard of the movie or vaguely acknowledge that their parents have heard of the movie. This will segue into a conversation about The Sound of Music and then The Wizard of Oz, popular with and seen by everyone. We will then play the game, “How many macaroons were sold last Passover?”
Elijah’s big night kicks off next Friday but the week leading up to the holiday is fraught with customer anxiety and staff uncertainty. As the sole employee with decades of Seder attendance and Seder preparation under my bandana, I can confidently say that Passover brings out the whine in the matzoh munchers.
There is a tendency for people who are too busy to bake or simply don’t bake to ask a myriad of questions. Is the pecan torte a cake or a tart or a sponge cake? Is there gluten? Is there dairy? Does it taste like a Passover cake? Can you put half a dozen chocolate dipped macaroons in the same box with half a dozen plain? Do you use butter or margarine? Is it Kosher? (Still no.) Is that the cake that was featured on Martha Bakes?
I hate to tell you but before Martha became Martha, it’s doubtful that she was crafting intricate Afikomen coverings and baking her own matzoh. Tablescapes wasn’t a word. Passover meant the dining room table was set with a tablecloth and napkins that required ironing. Sterling silver had its chance to shine as candlesticks and place settings. Additional chairs were squeezed around a table stretched as far as it would go. The fragrance of spring flowers mingled with the aroma of matzoh ball soup, chopped chicken liver and if you were lucky, homemade gefilte fish with freshly grated horseradish. I was lucky.
We never thought to dub the final course of the meal a Passover Dessert Buffet. Jessie would prepare a Kiss Torte, over-filling a gigantic springform pan with meringue as thick as marshmallow then baking it in a very slow oven. Split and filled with whipped cream and strawberries, this often served as a birthday cake for my father. There was also a towering sponge cake served with a fluffy lemon sauce that reminded me of lemon meringue pie without a crust. Chocolate and vanilla macaroons tumbled out of canisters and a box of jellied fruit slices lounged on the server. In the event there wasn’t enough to sustain us while we hunted for the Afikomen, a cut crystal dish was filled with toasted coconut marshmallows. Marcy Goldman had yet to invent matzoh crack crunch and Danny Macaroons wasn’t old enough to launch his coconut empire.
For the ultra observant, Passover is a sacred holiday with a very explicit code of behaviors; if you have to ask, then it’s unlikely you fall into that category. For the rest of us, those I like to think of as Casual Observers, Passover has sufficient restrictions implemented to make us pause and remember.
As a baker, Passover teaches patience and discipline. Patience in dealing with the retail public and discipline in working in an environment filled with baked goods that you can’t eat for 8 days.
Though rooted in the past, Passover is a changin’. With a tinge of sorrow, I read Joan Nathan’s column in the food section this week advocating vegetable court-bouillon instead of fish stock in gefilte fish. Call me set in my fish poaching ways, but it seems just the slightest bit sacrilegious. For decades, my mother burned up the telephone wires with her friend Elaine talking carp, whitefish and pike, fish stock, fresh horseradish and beets. Their Passover dialogue was as predictable as the nine, no twelve egg Passover sponge cake found on page 120 of my grandmother’s Settlement Cookbook.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself in the Seasonal aisle at Shop-Rite, seeking a fresh box of matzoh cake meal, one that hadn’t expired last year. Standing face to face with a wall of macaroon canisters, I realized it has been years since I’ve purchased a commercially prepared macaroon, longer still since consuming one. In all of their 10 oz. plastic lidded glory, the choices were positively dizzying, bordering on the ridiculous. In a state of coconut shock, I snapped a picture and sent it to Sibling Sister, a superb macaroon maker in her own right. She replied almost instantly; “Man, oh, Manischewitz.”