Friday, April 18, 2008

On Passover, dessert can be a sweet surprise

Sweet meringues and tangy lemon filling combine in a light dessert perfect for Passover and other spring meals.Tradition writes the menu at many Passover Seders, the service and meal that marks the start of the Jewish holiday that begins at sundown Saturday.

If grandma started the meal with gefilte fish or chicken soup with matzo balls, you probably do, too. Brisket recipes get passed down through the generations like cherished photos or a beloved aunt's locket.

But when it comes time for dessert, this night can be different. It's a place to stretch, to be creative, to try out new recipes.

"You want to do all of the old, some of the new," says Judy Bart Kancigor, author of "Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes From the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, 2007, 656 pages, $19.95).

Passover commemorates the biblical story of Moses and the Pharaoh, when the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. They left in such haste that their bread didn't have time to rise, and throughout the week of the holiday, observant Jews don't eat regular bread and many other foods, such as pasta. Instead, they eat an unleavened bread made from flour and water called matzo, which also is sold ground (as matzo meal and matzo cake meal) and can be used for baking.

"People don't have to feel too sorry for us, because Passover is the best eating of the year," Kancigor says. "I think the restrictions bring out the best creativity of kosher cooks."
People think, oh Passover, all the restrictions, you can't use flour, how boring." She notes that the opposite is true. "We look forward to Passover the way non-Jews look forward to Christmas."

She plans on a variety of desserts for her Seder: chocolate-covered matzo toffee, biscotti-like chocolate chip mandelbrot, macaroons, farfel nut thins. She's thinking about adding pistachio macaroons sandwiched around chocolate ganache, a recipe she tasted at Wolfgang Puck's star-studded annual Seder at his Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills.

"I just make a lot," she said, then joked: "I'm very bad at making decisions, anyway."
Susie Fishbein has a different approach to Passover desserts. "People want to end the meal on a sweet note," she says, but that note should be a light one. Especially in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish households, the Seder can involve a long service, meaning that dessert isn't served until midnight or later. "You want something sweet but that is small and light, not something that's going to keep you up when you go to bed right out of the Seder," says Fishbein, a caterer and the author of "Passover by Design," (Art Scroll/Shaar Press, 2008, 272 pages, $34.99). One of her favorite Passover desserts is made by layering softened raspberry sorbet, vanilla ice cream and mango, passion fruit or lemon sorbet in ruffled paper cupcake liners. After the sorbets are refrozen, she inverts them on dessert plates and peels off the liners. She decorates the plates with fruit sauce or chocolate syrup, then garnishes with fresh raspberries. (To make 16 servings, use 1 pint of each of the two sorbets and 1 pint of ice cream. Soften each pint for 15 minutes, and freeze each layer for 15 minutes before adding the next.)
Cookies are another nice way to end the evening, she says, favoring Zebra Fudge Cookies, which gain their rich flavor from Dutch-process cocoa powder, and Lemon Meringues, big sandwich cookies made from snowy white meringue discs and tangy lemon filling.

Although the fudge cookies contain matzo meal and the lemon curd uses potato starch, two ingredients sold specifically for Passover, Fishbein does little shopping in the Passover aisle.

"Stop focusing on what you can't eat and focus on what you can eat, because there's so much you can eat at Passover time," she says. "I think if you focus on what you can use, it takes the pressure off."

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