It's still actually Passover, although you wouldn't know it from either the contents of my cupboard or the composition of the meals I've been eating up and down the glorious state of Vermont over the past five days. Before we left town, however, we did have a rather lovely seder.
We had people up to my father's big old pre-war apartment in Yonkers, which is actually a great place to entertain, since it has a full dining room and a quite large living room, both with lovely river/Palisade views. Can't quite promise folks the same views or leg-room when they join us in our East Harlem digs. And besides, my dad is getting on in years, and basically doesn't like to leave the house if he can help it. So we tend to bring family parties to him. In addition to the five of us (Dad, bro, sis-in-law, G and me), we had some cousins and some friends, bringing us to a total of 11.
We had a lot of fun with the seder part. We do tend to get a little panicky around the religious/ritual parts of it, since none of us are observant and we've never had any formal religious instruction. So we rely on our friend Teddy (aka my "other brother"), his wife Ruth, daughter Nora and brother-in-law Henry to bring the Haggadahs and lead us through a lighting-fast version, in deference to my father's age and inability to sit at the table for too long. This year Teddy & Co. also brought yarmulkes. If I were a blackmailing sort, I'd post the photos I took of my brother in a little pink velvet number, and G in basic black, which refused to stay on his luxuriant crop of hair.
Dinner was a nice mix of the traditional and some contemporary choices. We started with chopped chicken liver paté (the real deal -- I made it myself, due to the dearth of ritual Jewish food available in Spanish Harlem; nary a matzoh to be found at the local Fine Fare Foods grocery store). I updated that one with a splash of cognac -- not kosher, but delicious. We went on to matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish with both red and the white horseradish. I made my mother's recipe for potted chicken with meatballs, but gave it a twist by using Molly's recipe for minted lamb meatballs, minus the tomato sauce and cooked right in the chicken gravy. This was a great success. It was served with rice pilaf, since my brother recently decided through some sort of complicated logic that is a) known only to him, and b) patently absurd, that we qualify as Sephardic (Spanish/Italian/Middle Eastern/Asiatic) rather than Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jews. He decided this based on the fact that he wanted to eat rice, which is allowed the Sephardim but not the Ashkenazim at Passover. We also had roast asparagus, tossed salad and a noodle pudding (which one of our guests who shall remain nameless insisted was made with "matzoh" noodles).
I love the challenge of dessert at Passover. As many others do, we tend to turn a blind eye to the kosher laws that we don't observe at other times of year, like the mixing of meat with dairy. But I always enjoy trying to make flourless desserts. One of this year's specialties was Thomas Keller's Lemon Sabayon Tart, pictured above. I made the pinenut crust with almond meal as a substitute for flour. The filling was delicious, but the crust definitely needs some work. I'll try the standard pinenut shortcrust pastry next time -- since it won't be Passover any more. The other dessert was a chocolate amaretti torte, which came out rich, chocolatey and with a nice amaretti crunch.
What I enjoyed most, however, were the two kinds of charoset we had. It's one of those things like cranberry sauce, which I love to eat during a holiday and wonder why I can't have it more often. Charoset is a fruit and nut mixture that represents the mortar used to build the pyramids. Ashkenazic Jews tend to make a mixture of grated or chopped apples, walnuts, honey, spices and red wine. Sephardic Jews make a variety of different kinds of pastes composed of dried fruits and nuts. My brother made a truly delicious apple charoset, despite his recent Sephardic leanings, and the aforementioned friend Teddy brought his wonderful Sephardic version, which I beg him to make every year. He's held out for years on telling me the recipe, claiming that his charoset gains him entry to the seder. I've finally prevailed on him, though, and found out that he uses Joan Nathan's recipe for Venetian Charoset, which I'll share with you, since it's already been widely published online. You should try this regardless of whether or not you celebrate Passover, whether you're Ashkenazic, Sephardic, or Jewish at all. Like all good food, its deliciousness crosses all cultural and ethnic boundaries. It's so yummy that I might look into becoming Sephardic, however. I'll call my brother to find out how that's done, and I'll get back to you.
From "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" by Joan Nathan (Schocken Books)
1 1/2 cups chestnut paste
10 ounces dates, chopped
12 ounces figs, chopped
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup pine nuts
Grated rind of one orange
1/2 cup white raisins
1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup brandy
Honey to bind
Combine all the ingredients, gradually adding just enough brandy and honey to make the mixture bind.
Makes about four cups.
Postscript: I got hungry writing this post, and went to the fridge, whereupon I found the remains of this very charoset. After five days in the fridge, it was even better than at the seder. The brandy and honey had melded with the orange rind, the figs and apricots were fruitier than ever, and the nuts were still crunchy. As I stood at the fridge with my spoon, I decided that this would make an incredible filling for a breakfast pastry or even a coffee cake...a babka perhaps. Ideas began to blossom...