In a 65-year-old, silent, black and white home movie of my maternal family’s seder, everyone seems to be laughing and joking. I’ve scrutinized the six minute movie, wondering what they were talking about, and I’ve tried to glimpse the food too: a split second shot of my great-great uncle scooping up my great-Aunt Gertie’s famous gefilte fish with gusto (the recipe now too arcane for me to dust off, even for a holiday) and some mysterious cousin savoring a matzah ball.
The film cuts out after the soup, and I’m left only with my mom and uncle’s jotted-down recipes and vague memories. Our Passover Walnut Cake–another Aunt Gertie legacy–is a true gem. And while no one remembers for sure, a potato kugel and our wonderfully simple family brisket have always seemed just right for our seders.
I build our menu around these memories, inevitably updating the kugel, which we make in a cast iron skillet since we like it crispy, and the asparagus, which we roast and toss with balsamic, then garnish with minced hard-cooked eggs. After all, what seder is complete without dozens of hard-cooked eggs? And of course, there’s always glass after glass of wine. All of which tends to result in a scene not so different from our grainy old home movie: laughing, swaying adults, emboldened kids asking questions, and really good food.
2 bunches thin asparagus, tough ends snapped off
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced shallot or red onion
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 hard-cooked egg, peeled and minced
1. Preheat the oven to 450˚ F. Spread the asparagus on a rimmed sheet pan and drizzle with the olive oil. Season with salt.
2. Roast, tossing halfway through, until the asparagus are tender and crisp at the tips, about 20 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the asparagus with the shallot and balsamic, season with black pepper, and toss well. Roast for 2 more minutes.
4. Transfer the asparagus to a platter and drizzle with the liquid left in the sheet pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. Top the asparagus with the minced egg just before serving.
This is even better made a day or two in advance. Skim the fat before reheating gently, then slicing.
Serves 10 to 12
2 teaspoons canola oil
5 pounds beef brisket
2 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup boiling water
1 heaping teaspoon honey
1. Heat a wide, heavy casserole over high heat until very hot. Add a teaspoon of the canola oil, let it spread, then add the meat. Sear until deeply browned, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer the meat to a large plate.
2. Wipe out the pan and add a teaspoon of fresh oil. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
3. In a small bowl, mix the crushed garlic with the salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to spread this paste evenly all over the brisket.
4. When the onions are ready, pour in the boiling water, stirring to scrape up any cooked-on bits from the pan. Lay the brisket on top of the onions. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low.
5. Simmer gently, covered, turning the meat over every 1/2 hour, for 1 hour. Stir the honey into the pan juices and continue to simmer covered, turning the meat every half hour, until it is thoroughly tender, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours total.
6. If serving immediately, transfer the meat to a carving board. Use a spoon to skim any fat from the surface of the pan juices. For a thicker gravy, simmer until the juices are thickened as desired. Slice the meat thinly against the grain and return it to the pot. Serve the meat with the onions and pan juices. (Better yet, let the meat cool in the pot, refrigerate it overnight, then skim off any solidified fat, gently reheat, covered, and proceed with slicing and reducing the pan juices).
I see no need to peel the potatoes—one could argue that the peel is healthy, but really I’m just lazy, and no one seems to notice a difference.
1/4 cup olive oil or schmaltz
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 pounds (6 large) Yukon Gold potatoes, grated or finely shredded
3 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup matzah meal
1 rounded teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Minced fresh chives and parsley, for garnish (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. In a large cast iron pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil or schmaltz. Add the onion and cook until golden brown, 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place the shredded potatoes in a colander and squeeze them with your hands to rid them of some of their moisture. Transfer to a bowl and add the eggs, matzah meal, salt, and pepper.
3. Scrape the browned onions into the potatoes and mix well with a fork to combine.
4. Return the mixture to the cast iron pan, smooth the top, and bake until golden on top and crisp at the edges, about 1 hour. Serve hot or let cool and reheat in a 350˚ oven. Shower with the fresh herbs just before slicing and serving.
This Passover cake is easily transformed into a gluten-free cake for use during the rest of the year. Just substitute gluten-free crumbs (I grind rice cereal or rice crackers in the food processor) for the matzah meal.
Note for a pareve (neither meat nor dairy) dessert:
This cake is traditionally served with a dairy mocha cream frosting that sinks into the cake a little and is moist and wonderful. But if you do not want to serve a dairy dessert, bake the cake in one ungreased angel food pan with a removable bottom. Bake until the top springs back when gently pressed, about 45 minutes. Upend the pan on a wine bottle and let the cake cool upside-down so it won’t sink. Then slide a knife around the inner and outer edge to release the cake and unmold it onto a platter. Serve with tart fresh fruit—or better yet, a fruit compote made with tart dried fruits like apricots and prunes.
8 ounces walnuts
2 tablespoons matzah meal (or pulverized matzah)
10 large eggs, separated
8 ounces confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon wine or whiskey
Small pinch kosher salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line three ungreased 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper rounds. In a food processor, pulse the walnuts with the matzah meal until the texture is fine but still light and fluffy–do not overdo it or they’ll get greasy.
2. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks at medium-high speed until fluffy and pale lemon colored. Beat in all but 1 tablespoon of the confectioners sugar. Scrape down the side of the bowl and beat in the wine. Stir in the walnut mixture.
3. In a clean, dry bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and salt at medium speed until very foamy. Sprinkle in the reserved tablespoon of confectioners sugar and continue to beat until firm, but not dry, peaks form.
4. Whisk some of the beaten whites into the yolks to lighten them. Fold the remaining whites into the yolks until just combined. Scrape a third of the batter into each pan. Bake until the tops spring back when gently pressed, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool completely. Frost with Mocha Cream frosting or serve with fruit compote.
Note: This frosting includes an egg that isn’t fully cooked. Use a fresh, high-quality free-range egg or seek out a carton of pasteurized eggs if you prefer.
Makes enough to frost and fill three 9-inch cake layers.
9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 pint heavy cream
2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
Melt the chocolate chips in a microwave or double boiler. Let cool for a minute, then whisk in the egg.
In a large bowl, whip the cream with the instant coffee until it forms soft peaks. Whisk in the chocolate mixture.