Most of us learn holiday cooking by a slow process of osmosis. I grew up enjoying and eating the foods that marked our Christmas dinners and our Easter breakfasts, watching my mother and gradually absorbing the recipes and rituals. Later, I added a few variations of my own.
I came to Jewish celebrations rather suddenly, at age 30, through my husband. And I've been having an adventurous, occasionally disastrous time playing culinary catch-up ever since. Particularly challenging for a gentile gal like me was learning how to cook for the Passover seder. This is a meal in which food is bound up with cultural tradition and family history. It involves multiple courses and (usually) a crowd. And there are two seders, at least outside Israel. That's right: You make a big, elaborate ritual dinner, and then you do it all again the next night.
Passover commemorates the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, when they fled without even time for their bread to rise. That means food served during the holiday cannot contain leavening, also called chametz. This designation includes obvious things like yeast, but it also covers grains that have been in contact with liquid for more than 18 minutes. That means conventional breads, cereals and pastas are right out, replaced by matzo, a flat wheat bread that is prepared and baked under strict conditions. Peas, seeds and legumes that resemble grains are also forbidden.
Chametz can pop up in unexpected places. Kosher for Passover Coca-Cola, for example, has to be made with old-school cane syrup instead of corn syrup. (Many non-Jews also snap it up because it tastes like Coke from the 1960s.)
Passover desserts can be particularly tricky. First of all there's regular kosher. If you've had meat in your meal, that means no dairy in the dessert. On top of that, kosher-for-Passover restrictions rule out most standard pies and cakes, so showstopper Passover desserts are difficult. (Though my mother-in-law, a brilliant cook and baker, somehow manages.)
This year, I'm trying homemade candied orange peel, having always loved the store-bought versions that are sold around Passover. I'm also making meringue-based cookies that are sometimes called Forgotten Cookies or Meringue Kisses or -- even more poignantly -- Forgotten Kisses. And chocolate bark is one of those sweets that looks impressive but is very easy and endlessly adaptable.
(One thing I have learned about kosher cooking over the years. There's always a discussion and debate. Quinoa, for example. Is it in or out? If you are being very strict, look for "Kosher for Passover" designations on your ingredients.)
Candied orange peel
4 navel oranges
750 ml (3 cups) granulated sugar, plus more for coating
500 ml (2 cups) water
Using a sharp knife, cut off the bottom and top of each orange, then score the peel into equal quarters. Peel the oranges carefully by working your thumb gently between peel and fruit, keeping the peel and white pith intact. Reserve the peeled oranges for another use. Cut the quarter-sections of peel into long, thin, uniform strips, about 6 mm (1/4 inch) thick. In a large, heavy, non-reactive pot, place orange strips, cover with cold water and bring to a boil, boil for 3 minutes, and then drain. Repeat the process two more times, using fresh water each time.
Clean the pot and then add 750 ml (3 cups) of sugar and 500 ml (2 cups) of water. Stir, and then cook at medium heat, uncovered, until boiling. Boil for 5 minutes and then add the orange strips. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook orange strips for about 2 hours, until liquid is reduced, thick and syrupy, and peels are becoming soft and semi-translucent at the edges. Adjust heat as necessary to keep at a simmer (small bubbles breaking rapidly across the surface, but not foaming up to cover the peel). Do not stir during this process, as this may cause the formation of large sugar crystals, but swirl the pan occasionally to ensure that all strips are evenly covered.
Remove from heat, cool and then drain strips. (You can reserve the liquid for another use. It makes a good simple syrup for iced tea.) Place about 125 ml (1/2 cup) sugar in a shallow bowl and dredge orange peels, working in small batches, and shaking off excess sugar. Dry on a rack for 4-5 hours, and then shake off any excess sugar clumps. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Tester's notes: If you like an intense, almost bitter orange taste, you can do the blanching process just twice. If you want a more mellow flavour, do it four times. If you want less sugary sweetness, you can skip the dredging step. These are also nice dipped in melted bittersweet chocolate.
2 egg whites, room temperature
160 ml (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
160 ml (2/3 cup) finely chopped pecans
160 ml (2/3 cup) mini chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F). Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or foil. In a glass or metal medium bowl using an electric mixer on medium-low speed, beat egg whites until foamy. Add sugar very gradually, increasing speed to medium-high, and beating until mixture is glossy and thick. Gently fold in pecans and chocolate chips. Using two spoons, ease about 10 ml (2 tsp) of the mixture onto the prepared sheets, spacing about 5 cm (2 in) apart. Place in preheated oven, immediately turn oven off, and then "forget" the cookies overnight, or for at least 6 hours, until crisp to the touch on the outside. Makes about 2 dozen.
Tester's notes: These are very simple to make, though there are a few tricks with meringue. Eggs separate more easily when cold, but beat up better at room temperature, so you might want to separate the whites right out of the fridge and then leave them in a bowl for about 30 minutes to warm. Plastic bowls sometimes retain grease, which will inhibit egg whites from whipping up, so stick with squeaky-clean glass or metal. And make sure to add the sugar slowly so it can dissolve properly. Most vanilla extract isn't kosher for Passover, but if that's not an issue, you can add 2 ml (1/2 tsp) when you fold in the nuts and chocolate.
Dark Chocolate Bark
450 g (16 oz) good-quality dark chocolate (up to but not over 70 per cent cocoa solids)
125 ml (1/2 cup) roasted pistachios (salted but not flavoured), chopped
125 ml (1/2 cup) dried apricots, chopped
Pinch Maldon sea salt, or other flaky sea salt
Line a 38 x 25 x 2.5 cm (15 x 10 x 1 inch) cookie sheet with parchment paper. Melt the chocolate, either by placing in a double boiler and stirring over simmering water, or use the microwave, though you have to be careful not to let the chocolate scorch. Ensure that the chocolate is chopped into small, uniform pieces for even melting, then place in a glass bowl and microwave on high in short bursts, removing and stirring every 20 seconds, then every 10, and stopping the process when some of the chocolate is still not completely melted, stirring and using the residual heat to finish the process.
When the chocolate is slightly thickened, glossy and smooth, pour onto the prepared pan and spread with a spatula. Scatter the nuts and dried fruit over top, and then scatter a pinch or two of sea salt. (And yes, there is something about Maldon sea salt that makes you want to toss it around like a TV chef, but remember that a little goes a long way.)
Cool in the fridge until set, about 15 minutes, then use a sharp knife to cut into the chocolate into 4-cm (1 1/2-inch) strips. As they are cut, the strips will probably break into irregular shards, which is fine. Store in an airtight container, with layers separated by wax paper.
Tester's notes: You can really adapt this recipe to any toppings -- almonds, pecans, dried cranberries or cherries, finely chopped crystallized ginger or candied peel.