My parents were the model of discreetness. Social, well-known and very involved with our local synagogue, family mealtimes were nonetheless private affairs, the six of us finding ourselves around the dinner table every night without guests, friends, family or company of any sort. The food was plentiful but plain, a mix of Russian Jewish cooking, all-American meat-and-potatoes cuisine and 1970’s convenience foods. The holidays in our home followed form and were low-key and simple, never much hoopla or decoration, rarely a lot of special cooking or baking filling our home with culinary memories.
Passover was the exception. The Jewish festival, joyous in its commemoration of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt towards the Promised Land, was a treat because we went to celebrate – and eat – at the Rosenberg’s house. Mrs. Rosenberg was the Jewish Mama extraordinaire, overseeing her kosher kitchen and her family with love, tradition, an iron fist and a huge personality. And her cooking was everything that my own mother’s was not: extraordinary and delicious! Her Apple-Noodle Kugel warm from the oven, dense and just sweet with a crisp cinnamon-sugar topping, was my ultimate comfort food; I loved it so much that she made a huge baking pan of it just for me as a special Bat Mitzvah gift! She was a legendary cook in our small Jewish community, so spending Passover at her home was sure to mean a fabulous meal, an event looked forward to eagerly by a happy eater such as I.
The rules concerning what is to be eaten and, more importantly, what cannot be eaten by Jews for the duration of the 8-day festival is extremely strict. Jews are forbidden to eat chometz, any food containing barley, wheat, rye, oats, and spelt. No leavening is allowed. The interdiction of these ingredients symbolizes the fact that the Hebrews had no time to either wait for these five grains to grow or to let their baked bread rise as they made a hurried escape from Egypt. Ashkenazi Jews, whose origins are in Europe, also avoid eating corn, rice, peanuts, and legumes while the Sephardi Jews of Northern Africa and Spain do permit them. The days leading up to the holiday thus consist of an intense and thorough cleaning of one’s home in order to rid even the tiniest trace of each and every one of these foods. Followed, of course, by the cooking and baking of dishes and baked goods specific to and allowed during the holiday.
The first night – and for many the second night as well – of Passover is observed with a very traditional and festive ceremonial meal called a Seder at which the story of the exodus is read aloud. The meal follows a very specific order and is a combination of rituals and symbolic foods; food and the rituals surrounding the preparation and eating of meals are intertwined with each and every Jewish holiday, yet none more so than Passover. The meal, the food placed on the table during the reading of the story and the story itself are woven together and intimately connected. In the center of the table is placed a beautiful, decorative plate holding six symbols necessary to the retelling of the story: maror and chazaret, the bitter herbs, normally horseradish, symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of slavery; zeroa or a roasted lamb shank or bone, symbolizing the Paschal sacrificial lamb that was offered in the great Temple in Jerusalem; charoset, usually a brownish-red mixture of nuts, apples, ground cinnamon and red wine representing the mortar the slaves used to build the Pyramids in Ancient Egypt; karpas such as celery, parsley or lettuce to be dipped into salt water representing the tears of the slaves, the dipping process symbolizing hope and redemption; beitzah, a roasted egg, both a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple as well as a symbol of Spring and thus renewal.
The seventh symbol and the most well-known food of Passover is the matzoh, a special unleavened flatbread of Passover-friendly flour and water which is not only symbolic of our escape from slavery and the 40 years spent wandering through the wilderness, but it is eaten as a reminder of what we were running from, a life of slavery and poverty thus inspiring humility and the true appreciation of our freedom. A plate covered with a decorative cloth holding a stack of three matzot is placed on the Seder table next to the Seder plate, each one playing a very specific role during the meal. And finally, the last symbol, near the Seder plate and the matzoh, is placed Elijah’s cup filled with wine; this is for the Prophet Elijah whose visit is said to precede the coming of the Messiah.
Cooking and eating during Passover is a meticulous, studied affair, and many of us go out of our way to prepare special foods. After all, it is a festive occasion. Every year as this holiday approaches, I scour a multitude of cookbooks old and new for Passover-friendly recipes – flour and wheat products, grains and leavening agents are all forbidden. There is no way that I can go eight days without sweets in the house! As my own mother was not a baker, I grew up eating canned coconut macaroons and jelly smeared on matzoh to soothe my sweet tooth. All grown up, I spend quite a bit of time every year researching recipes and baking. This year, I was determined to create a cake that one-ups the old-fashioned, traditional Passover sponge cake, that inimitable standby, that emblematic myth of the holiday. Usually dry. Usually flavorless. A risky choice.
I perused my old cookbooks, played around with a few recipes, found a box of potato flour in my grocery store as I realized that all of my boxes of matzoh meal and matzoh flour had disappeared in the move. I had already made the Lemon Sauce and wanted something to accompany that smooth, luscious, tangy sauce. Lemons, almonds and a splash of vanilla. And I got beating! Egg whites, that is.
The cake was spectacular! It rose to dizzying heights! Light and fluffy like a great Passover sponge cake, the ground almonds, nonetheless, produced a sponge denser and moister than average. The lemon and almond flavors were delicate yet present and the beautiful, smooth, tangy Lemon Sauce complimented it to perfection. Whether for Passover or any other time of the year, this cake deserves a celebration! And it is ideal for those following a gluten-free regime. Enjoy!
- The Lemon Almond Sponge Cake
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- Finely grated zest and juice from ½ lemon, preferably organic or untreated
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup ground almonds
- ½ cup potato flour
- Pinch salt + few drops lemon juice for whites
- Handful slivered blanched almonds to decorate, optional
- The Warm Lemon Sauce
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- Finely grated zest and juice from 1 lemon, preferably organic or untreated
- 2 Tbs cornstarch or potato starch (for Passover)
- 2 Tbs butter, cubed and softened
- [i]Prepare the Lemon Almond Sponge Cake[/i]: Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Have ready a springform pan – I used a 7 ¼ inch-diameter x 4 inch-high springform but a regular 8-inch pan is fine, too.
- Separate the eggs; place the yolks in a large mixing bowl and the whites in a medium bowl, preferably plastic or metal. Add a pinch salt and a few drops lemon juice to the whites and set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks for three or four minutes until thick and pale. Add the sugar and continue beating until thick and creamy. Beat in the zest and juice of ½ a lemon and the vanilla extract until well blended and thick. Quickly beat in the ground almonds.
- Using very clean beaters, beat the egg whites on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase the speed to high; beat the whites until thick, glossy and peaks hold. Do not overbeat until the whites are dry. Using a spatula, gently but firmly fold the stiff whites into the lemon almond cake batter in 3 additions. Fold in the potato flour with the third addition of the whites in order to avoid overworking the batter. Fold in the whites just until all the lumps of white have disappeared. Gently pour the batter into the springform pan. Dust with a couple of tablespoons slivered almonds.
- Bake in the preheated oven 30 – 45 minutes, depending on your oven and pan size. The cake is done when puffed, set and golden. Gently press on the top of the cake and it should feel set, much like an angel or sponge cake. A tester inserted in the center should come out dry. Remove the pan from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool before unmolding. Carefully run a long, thin blade around the sides to loosen the cake while still warm.
- [i]Prepare the Warm Lemon Sauce[/i] by first bringing the water to a boil.
- Sift the cornstarch or potato starch into the sugar in a medium heatproof bowl and stir. Whisk in the boiling water then, when smooth, return to the pan and continue cooking over low heat, whisking or stirring, for 8 to 10 minutes until thickened to the consistency of a sauce. Whisk in the lemon zest and juice.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter a cube at a time until the buttered is melted and incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Strain through a mesh strainer if necessary. Store in a jar in the refrigerator; to reheat, simply put the gelled sauce in a saucepan and heat very gently over low, stirring or whisking constantly, until pouring consistency (not too runny) and warm. Strain. Serve warm.