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Deconstructing| The seder plate

Spices flavor the Sephardic Passover


Every spring my husband launches into a rant about Passover desserts. It's all about his people's peculiar insistence on making elaborate cakes in the face of extreme ingredient limitations — no flour or leavening — and their ensuing delusions about the results.

"If 'it's so moist' is the best thing you can say about a 10-pound cake, you're better off eating an apple," he says.

Growing up vaguely Methodist, Passover foods were all new to me. At my first seder 23 years ago, we had gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, matzo kugel (pudding), flourless almond cake, macaroons and kosher wine. Last year the menu was basically the same.

The seder is the festive meal eaten on the first, and sometimes second, night of Passover, which begins at sundown Saturday, in memory of the exodus from Egypt. The meal does not start until the story of the exodus has been retold through the reading of the Haggadah and ceremonial eating of certain foods. There are feminist Haggadahs, Haggadahs for every special interest, kids' Haggadahs, even Maxwell House coffee puts out a fine Haggadah. But in my experience, the Passover meal is pretty much the same from place to place and year to year.

This has everything to do with the Jewish people I know. They are all Ashkenazic Jews, people whose origins are in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia; people who, on the surface, share little more than a propensity to lapse into Yiddish.

But the Ashkenazic culinary heritage developed cut off from non-Jewish influences, in shtetls and ghettos. It's no accident that I know only Ashkenazim; they account for two-thirds of the world's Jewish population, a fraction even higher in the United States. Sephardim make up the other branch of the world's Jews. "Sepharad" means Spain in Hebrew; originally Sephardic Jews were those whose families had come from the Iberian Peninsula. The term has broadened to encompass Jews of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia. And because of the vastly different settings and climates, Sephardic foods and flavors vary from one country and region to the next.

Generally speaking, whereas the Ashkenazic diet was limited to the available produce of Eastern Europe or Russia (potato, cabbage, onion, chicken, freshwater fish), Sephardim were more integrated in the Islamic world, a world filled with a range of heady spices, eggplant, artichokes, peppers, rice and saltwater fish. In Greece, Sephardim favored foods with garlic, lemon, oregano; in Turkey garlic is married with dill, parsley and mint; in North Africa one is likely to find cilantro and cayenne.

For this reason, Sephardic Passover foods and rituals vary greatly, subject to regional preferences. And because observant Sephardim historically were more liberal in interpreting the Jewish dietary laws than their Eastern European cousins, the additional restrictions for Passover are more broadly understood.

An older Ashkenazic woman I know dismisses Sephardim dishes as "fancy food." Indeed, Arabic influence has yielded traditional Sephardic foods that are exotically spiced; the bright tastes of Mediterranean produce have added intensity of flavor.

These looser rules have much to do with common foodstuffs of the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Passover table may include dishes of rice and fava beans, which are just coming into season. Artichokes, dill and spring lamb often make their debut on the Sephardic Passover table, more a tribute to the season than they are ripe with religious symbolism.

And I double-dog dare my husband to complain about Sephardic Passover desserts: marzipan or almond paste adds texture and delicate flavor to cakes, candies and cookies, sometimes flavored with orange or tangerine in Morocco, cinnamon in Iraq and dotted with candied citrus peel in Italy.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at

The seder commemorates the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt and is held on the first and sometimes second nights of Passover, which this year begins at sundown Saturday. At the seder, several foods are used to symbolize the plight of the Jews as they escaped slavery. After the retelling of the exodus story, a full meal is served.

According to Zell Shuman's Passover Seders Made Simple (IDG Books Worldwide, 2001, $16.95), the items on the Passover plate, with some variations in different communities, are, clockwise from top:

Zeroah, a roasted bone, usually a lamb shank. Lamb was eaten at the first Passover, and this bone represents the sacrifice of the animal.

Haroset, a mixture of apples, dried fruit, nuts and sweet wine. This melange represents the mortar the slaves used to make bricks for building the cities of the Egyptian pharaoh.

Karpas, parsley or celery leaves. These symbolize springtime, home and renewal. They are dipped in saltwater to represent the tears of slavery.

Baytzah, a roasted egg. A symbol of the offering brought to the temple; also representative of new life at springtime.

Maror, bitter herbs, usually horseradish. Symbolic of the bitterness that Jewish forebears experienced as slaves.

Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor


Orange Date Walnut Passover Cake

3 cups sugar, divided

1 1/2 cups water

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more to grease pan

4 whole oranges

1/2 to 1 cup orange juice

6 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups matzo meal

2 cups coarsely ground walnuts

1 cup tightly packed chopped dates

2 to 3 tablespoons orange liqueur

• Make a sugar syrup by stirring 1 1/2 cups of sugar into 1 1/2 cups of water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes, or until syrup is reduced to 1/3 of its original volume. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9- by 13-inch cake pan.

• Coarsely grate rind of oranges. Then juice the oranges, reserving juice and peel, and discarding any pith that remains. Combine reserved juice with enough prepared orange juice to make 2 cups.

• In a bowl, beat eggs with remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar. Add orange juice and oil, and continue mixing. Stir in salt, matzo meal, walnuts, dates and reserved orange peel. Turn into greased pan and bake for 45 minutes or until golden. Cut into 2-inch diamonds in pan.

• Stir liqueur into sugar syrup and pour over hot cake. Let sit a few hours before serving. Serves 12 to 16.

Source: This recipe is from Joan Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish American food, but adapted from Rebeca Esquenazi.


Chicken Tagine

The value of this Moroccan dish at the Passover seder is that it can accommodate a lengthy Haggadah reading. Kept warm on a back burner, it is patient.
1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup matzo meal

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chicken stock

1 cinnamon stick

2 (1-inch) pieces of ginger, peeled

1 1/2 cups pitted prunes, halved

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon orange zest

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, optional

1/2 cup toasted, slivered almonds

• Wash and dry the chicken. Salt and pepper pieces, dip in matzo meal to coat lightly. Shake off excess.

• Heat oil in a large saute pan with a tight-fitting lid. Saute the chicken pieces, in batches, on all sides until brown. Remove each piece to a platter and set aside.

• Saute the onions in the fat in the pan for about 15 minutes, until just starting to caramelize, scraping with a wooden spoon to dislodge the browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

• Combine the stock with the cinnamon and ginger. Simmer 10 minutes. Add the stock mixture to the saute pan along with the browned chicken pieces. Cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the prunes, lemon juice, zest and optional saffron and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Add water or more stock if necessary during cooking.

• Place the chicken on a platter. Top with sauce and toasted almonds. Serves 4.

Source: Laura Reiley, Times food critic

Spices flavor the Sephardic Passover 04/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 4:06pm]
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