The first December I lived in Trinidad, I went into the local post office to buy stamps. The postmaster informed me that he had run out of the Hanukkah stamps displayed in the case. Now, if there had never been Hanukkah stamps offered in this distant outpost, I would have understood ... but to run out? Who was buying them, I wondered aloud to the man behind the counter. "Maybe you should introduce us so we could light candles on Friday night."
Having experienced similar shortages when shopping for Passover foods during the six years since I'd left New York City, I ventured into the local Co-op and Safeway last year with a list of much needed products and a plea for abundance. In 2007 Safeway was wiped out of matzoh by the second day of Passover. I wanted to make sure the managers knew that this holiday lasted eight days and we, most definitely, did not fast.
My cajoling had done no good. The local markets, including Safeway, never received their full orders. Newspapers around the country reported on the shortage of Passover food products ranging from east to west. The scant supplies were a nationwide issue. Those of us living in the American Northwest Diaspora weren't so alone, after all.
Like Jews are historically known to do, I made the best of the situation. Armed with The New York Times Passover Cookbook (edited by Linda Amster), I cooked up a storm all week with the supplies at hand. For the first Seder I bought a hormone-free Rosie chicken at the Co-op ... not Kosher, but close enough. Re-reading Andre Balog's recipe for "Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic" -- remember how long the Israelites wandered in the desert? -- I found that I wasn't suppose to peel the 40 cloves, but leave the skin on, which made the task much easier for my 9-year-old. Rather than buy bunches of all the herbs listed, I used a pre-bundled trio of rosemary, thyme and oregano and it came out beautifully.
Mimi Sheraton's "Ashkenazic Horoseth" was so delicious our guests made two Hillel sandwiches each. I used Kedem grape juice instead of wine. A boxed organic chicken broth was a yummy base for matzoh balls made from the Manishevitz mix, and I followed my Aunt Linda's sage advice of adding a drop of seltzer to make them fluffy. For breakfast we sliced the leftover dumplings and fried them in Smart Balance buttery spread in a cast iron pan. Mouth-watering.
Later in the week I roasted the leftover chicken carcass in its pan with diced carrots, onion, celery, brandy and olive oil and then boiled it into a broth to house Carol Wolk's "Prize Winning Matzoh Balls." I couldn't understand why the balls were brown until I realized I had unwittingly bought whole grain matzoh meal. They were so good my son ate them four days in a row. The last soup I set them in was Miso Matzoh Ball Soup, first served to me at a Seder in Berkeley over two decades ago, when I was a vegetarian, by Brenda Lederman, who has since become a great chef -- the proprietor of Earth Angel Catering of Santa Rosa. Along with the usual soup vegetables, parsnips are a key ingredient, along with the mantra, "Don't let the broth boil once the miso is added." The main difference I found in using the whole grain meal is the dumplings need to cook longer, even when reheating.
For the community Seder put on by Temple Beth El in Eureka, my name, beginning with an S, ordained our family to bring desserts. I finally got to use the much coveted matzoh cake meal to bake "Ted's Sponge Cake," a recipe from the 1950s. Yummy! Separating and beating the eight eggs was nerve-racking, yet the consistency proved light and spongy, although a bit bland tasting. When I made another later in the week using my neighbor's farm fresh eggs, the yellow color was luminous, and the juice and zest of two Meyer lemons made for a more flavorful end result. My advice: Use two lemons. Lonnie melted semi-sweet chocolate chips and smeared the gooey mass onto sheets of matzoh. After hardening in the refrigerator he broke the matzoh into pieces, making a matzoh bark. Both dessert plates were left with nary a crumb.
Most Jewish baby boomers' first taste of alcohol was Concord grape at a Seder ... for example, at Aunt Tessie's in Queens. We've come a long way, baby. I buy kosher bottles from Jericho of Mendocino and non-kosher from a local vinter, Robert Goodman. His Pinot Noir not only tastes delicious but bears my mother Muriel's maiden name.
Humans crave ritual. Passover is a lot of work, but I love it. It brings back childhood memories, connects my family with the Jewish community and urges me to take the time to truly savor meal time with my family and friends. As modern life speeds along we tend to combine traditions, while creating our own anew. Holiday feasting connects us in such basic ways: sustenance, earth, communion. We come from different places. We come to share our customs. We come in peace. With matzoh ball in hand.
Ted's Sponge Cake
The "Ted" of this recipe, which appeared in a 1950s article without a byline, is not identified, but the sponge cake is a classic.
8 large eggs, separated and at room temperature or a little warmer
1 or 2 lemons, juiced and zested
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup, less 1 tablespoon, matzo cake meal, sifted three times
Preheat oven to 350 F
Lightly grease the bottom pf a 9-inch tube pan. Line with wax paper. Dampen the paper with a little cold water, if desired.
In a bowl, beat the yolks well. Add lemon juice and zest and mix with a spoon. In another bowl, beat egg whites until very stiff. Gradually add sugar to egg whites, beating after each addition. Gently fold in egg mixture.
Gently fold in cake meal, a tablespoon at a time. Turn into prepared pan and bake 40 to 50 minutes.
Carol Wolk's Prize-Winning Matzoh Balls
8 cups plus 1 tablespoon chicken broth
1 1/4 cups matzoh meal
5 large eggs
1 3 /4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vodka
2 tablespoons club soda
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Place 8 cups chicken broth in a deep pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine matzoh meal and eggs. Add salt, vodka, club soda, remaining 1 tablespoon chicken broth and vegetable oil. Mix well. Put in freezer for 45 minutes.
Form matzoh balls using about 2 tablespoons mix to make balls 2 inches in diameter. When broth is hot but not yet boiling, use a slotted spoon to place each ball into soup. Cover pot, cook 40 minutes and serve.