My Passover cooking philosophy – with the exception of matzah brei and matzah ball soup – is to avoid matzah in all of its permutations (farfel, matzah meal, cake meal). Rather than attempt to construct a facsimile of a leavened sweetie (or even worse, use a boxed cake mix), I like to find ways to use naturally Passover-friendly ingredients in ways that I’d gladly eat the rest of the year.
Which is why I found myself nodding as I read “Don’t Make Passover Too Easy,” the New York Times op-ed that my friend Jeff Yoskowitz wrote last week. In it he makes a compelling argument that “embracing the holiday’s tedious dietary restrictions, not working around them, is critical to appreciating this holiday on a deeper level. And to eating well.” He encourages readers to go back to basics, to cook the way they did generations ago before there was a Passover aisle with its ersatz cookies, its pizza and s’mores kits. To turn to seasonal produce and cook from scratch and have fun with the challenge.
Or, if I were cooler, I’d probably say yaaaaaaasssss!
The article reminded me of how when I met Jeff with his beard and skinny jeans and artisanal gefilte fish company where his title is “chief pickler,” I knee-jerk dismissed him as a hipster and joked that he probably lived in Brooklyn. He does. He then guessed that I lived in the conspicuously Jewish enclave known as the Upper West Side. I do. Touché, Jeff, touché. (I have no idea whether Jeff remembers this conversation, but we’ve moved past any early awkwardness.)
In the article, Jeff doesn’t use the word nostalgia, perhaps because it’s gotten a bad rap in its association with hipster-ism* or its tendency to devolve into excessive sentimentality. But in my book, Passover is the nostalgia-ist of all holidays because it requires a week of stringent food restrictions, and a reliance on recipes passed down through the generations is often the only way to make it through. Even more, the preamble to the seder dinner involves a retelling and symbolic reliving of our communal history. What better way to relive an experience than by immersing ourselves in the foods that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents ate**, and if you go back far enough (or, in many cases, not that far at all) what our ancestors ate in the country they came from that’s not our current country, because weren’t we all – Jews, Americans – immigrants at some point?***
It’s not surprising, then, the holiday prompted my friend Gabi to coin the term “granny chic” in another recent Passover food-related article in the Boston Globe. Gabi writes about her first time making her mother’s version of her grandmother’s favorite spongecake (10 eggs!) and dried fruit compote. In the article, she addresses the nostalgia issue head on, sharing Jewish cookbook author (most recent: King Solomon’s Table, more on this as soon as I can get it down on paper) and food storyteller Joan Nathan‘s perspective that strict adherence to authenticity can be overrated and improving upon the nostalgic recipes of our past is the way to go.
The Passover recipe that’s most nostalgic for me, that most reminds me of my own Bubbie, is her Passover “bagels.” They are essentially dense heavy rolls with a thumb print in the middle, heavily sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon (so their belly button fills with the sweet mix), and baked for at least an hour until they finally dehydrate enough to hold their shape and develop of crust. I’m not sure why we didn’t just call them doughnuts, but tradition is tradition and my mom continued making them until just a few years ago when we opted for lighter fare. I can’t help but wonder if we should bring them back next year, keeping the cinnamon sugar but using some non-matzah meal flour alternatives to free them from their hockey-puck heft.
All this has been a really long-winded introduction to the recipe that I have for you today. And perhaps an explanation – to myself at least, since writing and reading often help me figure out what’s behind what I do – for why I opted for such a potchke (translation: fuss in Yiddish) of a recipe for this year’s seders. All the talk of nostalgia got me thinking about what Bubbie might have wanted after dinner and before the afikoman. She was a woman who orchestrated setting the cloth-covered table with dishes for every eventuality, a thematic centerpiece, and pitchers to hold seltzer. Never, ever were we to have a plastic bottle displayed.
So I decided to make a showstopper of a dessert: a lime curd tart on a coconut crust. Something that, after the dinner plates had been cleared and everyone had sat down again, could be presented to the table on a special platter. The Passover equivalent to my bubbie’s Thanksgiving Jell-o mold.
This was a major departure from my tendency to make petite sweets – chocolate cakelets, macaroons, mandelbread. And in my quest to develop a recipe that would work, I followed the advice of Anna Gershenson (she’s Gabi’s mother and has a lifetime of catering and teaching experience) and did something I’ve never done: I broke down and bought potato starch. Using an ingredient that I wouldn’t normally use during the rest of the year was hard for me to stomach, and I stubbornly researched recipes for over a week to avoid it. Eventually I realized that to make the dessert I wanted without laborious recipe testing would require borrowing a failsafe technique developed over many Passovers: potato starch to provide structure to both the crust and curd of the tart I had been dreaming of.
Sure, the crust takes an hour and a half to make, but most of that time is waiting. And, yes, the curd requires a lot of zesting and juicing and tedious stirring over the stove. But the result was exactly what I was looking for. The potschke is worth it and I think I can pat myself on the back and say that Bubbie would have been proud.
FOOTNOTES (seriously, who writes a blog post with footnotes?):
* My working definition of a hipster as someone who “manifests nostalgia for times he never lived himself” comes from an opinion piece in the New York Times that I read back in 2012. Here, Christy Wampole (a Princeton professor of French literature and thought) argues that living ironically (as exemplified by hipsters) is a form of frivolity (my words, not hers) that is worth reconsidering in favor of seriousness. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of reading a bunch of Wampole’s articles and interestingly, after last year’s election, she wrote a follow-up essay about the political destructiveness of this ironic living and the importance of “good” seriousness in the face of a current administration that demonstrates an unapologetic, un-self-reflective, taking-itself-too-seriously brand of seriousness.
** The Jewish Food Society, founded by Naama Shefi, has as its mission to honor and revitalize Jewish culinary traditions. I wrote about their first public event, “Schmaltzy,” which was a Moth-like evening during which five different people shared food stories and their favorite dishes. The organization and event were also covered in NPR and Food and Wine.
Coconut macaroon crust
Adapted from Tori Avey. This is essentially one big macaroon that dries out in the oven to get completely crispy. I initially tried to use my own macaroon recipe but I didn’t make enough to fill the tart pan, and while cooking the egg white coconut mix on the stovetop first is helpful for shaping the macaroons, it’s not necessary for this crust. I scooped it into macaroons.
My crust was very difficult to remove from pan. Next time I plan to line the removable bottom with heavy duty aluminum foil so the tart can be easily removed (like I do for brownies). I’ll report back once I do this to update the recipe.
– 3 C shredded unsweetened coconut
– 4 egg whites (reserve yolks for lime curd filling, below)
– 1/2 C sugar
– 1 T potato starch (or cornstarch)
– 1/4 t salt
– Coconut oil for greasing
Preheat. Preheat oven to 325° F.
Stir. In a bowl, stir together coconut, egg whites, sugar, potato starch, and salt until thoroughly combined.
Wait. Allow the mixture to sit for 20-30 minutes so that the coconut soaks up the liquid.
Press. Grease with coconut oil a 9- or 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the coconut mixture into the pan. Use a measuring cup of the bottom of a glass to smooth out the coconut and to press it into the sides of the pan. Wet the bottom of the cup or glass if it’s sticking to the coconut.
Bake. Place the pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until the edges turn a light golden brown, but the center is still white. Allow to cool for a few minutes until you can gingerly handle the pan, and cover the edge with aluminum foil to stop the browning.
Bake again. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes or until the center turns golden brown. The center might be a bit darker than the edge. Allow to cool. If you’re going to make the whole tart, keep the oven on.
Lime curd filling
Adapted from Gourmet. I amped up the lime zest and replaced the butter with a quarter the amount of coconut oil. This curd is on the puckering side which is how I prefer it, but you can add a bit more sugar if you’d like.
Makes approximately 1½ cup
– 4 large egg yolks (leftover from the crust)
– 3/4 C fresh lime juice (my limes weren’t very juicy, so I needed 9)
– 2 T lime zest (if you have any left over, use it for the tart topping)
– 3/4 cup sugar
– 1 T potato starch (or cornstarch)
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– 2 T coconut oil
Whisk. In a 2-quart heavy sauce pan, whisk together egg yolks, lime juice and zest, sugar, potato starch, and salt until the potato starch is dissolved.
Cook. Whisk the mixture over medium-low heat, using a silicone spatula to reach into the corners and scrape the sides and bottom of the pan until the mixture is thickened and beginning to bubble around the edges, about 5 minutes. Whisk for another minute and remove from heat. At this point, the curd should be thick and jiggly.
Strain. Place a strainer over a bowl. With the spatula, scrape the curd into the strainer, pressing gently on the solids – this will remove any egg that might have cooked as well as most of the zest. Scrape any curd clinging to the underside of the strainer into the bowl. This whole process may take a few minutes.
Store. If not using right away, store the curd in the fridge.
Coconut lime curd tart
While the crust is baking, you can make the lime curd, or use whatever curd you’d like – either homemade or store bought.
I played around with a lot of decorating ideas, particularly since lime curd is really yellow from the egg yolks and I wanted to make sure you could tell it was lime rather than lemon. I initially candied lime peel but I allowed the peel to boil for too long (boiling removes the bitterness) before shocking it, so it turned an ugly shade of khaki. I was going to sprinkle it over the curd after the tart baked, but I didn’t feel like making a second batch. Ugly or not, I managed to eat almost the entire batch. In the end, I toasted some coconut and mixed it with lime zest and a little sugar – next time I’d probably sprinkle it over the entire tart so it doesn’t look like a fried egg.
– 1/4 C shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)
– 1 T lime zest (optional)
– 1 T sugar (optional)
– 1 coconut macaroon crust, baked (see above)
– 1 ½ C lime curd (see above)
Preheat. Assuming you’ve just made the crust, the oven should already be at 325° F, but if it’s not, turn up the heat.
Toast. While the crust is baking, pop the coconut into the oven to toast, no more than 2 minutes until it just starts to brown. Watch closely because coconut burns very quickly.
Mix. In a small bowl, mix together the coconut, lime, and sugar.
Fill. Spread the curd evenly across the crust. Sprinkle liberally with coconut-lime mixture.
Bake. Keeping the pan on the baking sheet, bake for 10-12 minutes until the curd is just set and no longer wobbles if you tap the pan.
Chill. Once the tart comes to room temperature, carefully wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. I like it right out of the fridge.