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In Defense of Bubbe's Passover Desserts

Top: Salomon's grandparents, Bubbe and Popper. Bottom from left: Sharon and her sister Rose. New York City, 1951.
Top: Salomon's grandparents, Bubbe and Popper. Bottom from left: Sharon and her sister Rose. New York City, 1951.
courtesy of Sharon Salomon

Editor's Note: Last week, a well-known Phoenix bakery put out a press release advertising some admittedly tempting Passover desserts, with a curious sales pitch: "Passover is around the corner (starting sundown April 6) and those who love sweets are already thinking of what to serve besides their grandmother's boring old flourless chocolate cake (which was passed down from a recipe in the old country and truthfully not all that tasty)." Actually, there's an entire food trend called "bubbe cuisine" popping up in places like San Francisco (including in their food truck scene). Wondering how people in Phoenix feel about the bubbe thing, we ran this by some friends on Facebook. A few, to be honest, agreed with the baker's press release. Not Sharon Salomon. Salomon, a Phoenix-based registered dietitian and freelance writer, knows her way around the kitchen, kosher or otherwise. And her grandmother was a fantastic cook. We asked for her take. She shared a primer on the holiday and its food tradition as well as her opinion on bakery-made Passover desserts.

The countdown to Passover has begun. Jews around the world are busy cleaning their cupboards, shopping for ritual foods, and getting out their dishes for a special seder meal commemorating the holiday that begins at sundown on April 6.

By the end of the week, they will have eaten their last slice of pizza, their last egg roll, and their last bowl of Cheerios, foods prohibited during the holiday.

Our holidays frequently have food rules attached. Holidays when we don't eat at all and holidays when we eat lots of food and holidays when we have to eat our food outdoors in a specially built shelter. Passover is no different. There are rules.

Some people might sum up Passover with this old joke: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat." A bit simplistic, but an apt description of the Passover celebration.

At a seder, we retell the story of Passover, congratulate ourselves that we are alive and well, and then spend the next few hours eating a special meal prepared with ingredients unique to the holiday. For some, it's all about the food.

What will we be eating next Friday and for the eight days following? Matzoh. And matzoh in many different ways, both savory and sweet. Whole, layered, ground, crumbled, coated, soaked or mixed with other ingredients.

But don't feel sorry for us just because we won't be chowing down on big bowls of pasta or crusty loaves of bread. We've got our own goodies that make the holiday memorable.

Maybe you've been lucky enough to have matzoh ball soup. Passover food. Or matzoh brei, an omelet like concoction of crumpled matzoh cooked with eggs. Passover food. Or gelfilte fish, a sort of fish ball eaten with tingly spicy horseradish. Passover food. Or potato kugel or brisket. All foods typically eaten during Passover.

I'm not a fan of plain matzoh, although a piece of matzoh smeared with chicken fat (aka schmaltz) and sprinkled with salt is definitely a holiday treat for me.

What's a meal, especially a holiday meal, without dessert? Judging from a recent Facebook post, some people think that traditional Passover desserts are boring and tasteless. I don't know who's been making that poster's desserts, but my desserts, made from my bubbe's (grandmother's) recipes, are anything but boring and tasteless.
 
Bubbe, who was from the "old country" (Poland), was a consummate baker. She didn't read women's magazines for trendy recipes, nor did she own a bookshelf full of Passover cookbooks like I do. It was all in her head and in her hands. She taught my mother, and she taught me.

Traditional Passover cakes made with matzoh meal (just ground up matzoh) can indeed be leaden, dull, and tasteless, but my bubbe's were light and airy, made with I don't know how many egg whites. Egg whites are de rigeur for Passover baking. Lots and lots of beaten egg whites.

One of her best desserts was a Pavlova like dessert -- just a big crispy sweet meringue (those egg whites again) filled with fresh fruits and drizzled with chocolate.

Bubbe loved to feed her family. It gave her joy to carry on the traditions of our ancestors. It surely gave all of us joy to eat what she prepared for us. But if your bubbe was less than competent in the kitchen, you might consider buying one of the many Kosher for Passover cake mixes because buying a cake from a bakery, even if it is baked with matzoh, is not Kosher for Passover. I'm just sayin'.

Later this week we'll share one of Phoenix New Times Managing Editor Amy Silverman's grandmother's Passover dessert recipes.

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