Although many holidays are celebrated with symbolic foods, none quite matches Passover for the lavish meals presented at the two traditional Seder dinners. For Jews around the world the meals mark the opening of the week’s observance and kicks off eight days of abstaining from leavened products.
As a child in Brooklyn, I assumed the reason for two nights was so that we could go to my maternal grandparents the first night and to my father’s family on the second. The latter being far sterner as that grandfather was a rabbi.
Those almost-identical meals held a magical allure for me as they do in memory. Both were comprised of fun and laughter while we challenged each other to bravely eat slivers of the fiery bitter herb, horseradish that would inevitably make use choke. The heat was then tamed with the addition of the sweet ginger-and-cinnamon-scented apple, walnut and wine spread, Charoset.
But food alone is not the reason for my enduring nostalgia. At both Seders, I would see many relatives I had not seen since the year before, and at my mother’s family, there would be my adored six boy cousins. I was the only girl among the grandchildren for most of my childhood. Sitting at “the childrens’ table” with my wonderfully funny male cousins was a treat and odds I have not often enjoyed since. We progressed through hard-boiled eggs served in a small dishes of salt water, oniony, peppery gefilte fish, dill-flecked matzo ball chicken soup (or, on the second night, the cold, pungent fermented beet borscht that is called Russell), on to stuffed breast of veal or brisket, potato kugel and a few—very few—vegetables.
We finally ended with light and lemony flourless walnut sponge cake and almond macaroons. Then, bleary-eyed we joined in the final wine-lubricated fest of traditional Passover songs.
3rd Generation Matzo Balls (Knaidlach)
This matzo ball (knaidlach) recipe was handed down by my grandmother to my mother and finally to me, and it appeared in my 1979 cookbook-memoir, From My Mother’s Kitchen.
Some like their matzo balls airy and light, while others like them stoutly leaden. It’s an enduring argument that takes place at Seders around the world. I am in the middle: light on the outside but a bit firm (al dente) to the spoon edge as it cuts through. Cooked leftovers are delicious sliced and lightly browned in butter for the non-kosher, or in margarine for the observant.
6 Tbsp Very cold water
3 heaping Tbsp Schmaltz, rendered and solidified chicken fat (Come on...Passover is only once a year—live a little!)
Kosher coarse salt
Generous pinch ground White pepper
Two-thirds to three-quarters of a cup Matzo meal
2.5 to 3 quarts Water, for boiling
Beat the eggs lightly with the cold water. Add the chicken fat and stir gently until it dissolves. Add half a teaspoon of salt and a generous pinch of pepper.
Gradually beat in the matzo meal, 2 tablespoons at a time, proceeding slowly as the mixture thickens to avoid adding too much. It should be the consistency of light mashed potatoes. Chill, lightly covered, for 5 to 7 hours.
One hour before serving, bring 2.5 to 3 quarts of water to boil and add a handful of salt. With wet hands, or two tablespoons dipped intermittently in cold water, shape the mixture into balls about 1-inch in diameter. When all are formed, drop gently into the boiling water. Cover the pot loosely and let boil at a moderately brisk pace for about 25 minutes or until balls float to the surface. Remove one test ball and cut open to see if it is still faintly firm but cooked in the middle. If so, remove all with a slotted spoon and serve in hot chicken soup. To prepare these two hours ahead (the maximum for best results) place drained cooked knaidlach in a colander, cover lightly and set over a pot of hot water until serving.
Yield: 10 to 12 large matzo balls.