Whitefish, carp and pike are swimming circles in the bathtub. The house cleaning takes on a fevered pitch as every last leavened crumb is vacuumed. As the sound of the Hoover reaches the hallway, that is the five-minute warning. I scoop up the toys from my closet floor where I covertly (or so I thought) eat sandwiches and cookies. The year before, along with the secret stash of crumbs, I also lost all my fabulous Barbie stilettos to the Hoover.
The Jewish year is 5722 (1962) and Passover is approaching.
Preparing the Seder feast in advance, I watch my mother make chicken soup with matzo balls, dress chickens for roasting, and scoop potato kugel into casseroles. Thankfully, the family gets the bathtub back because Mom is finally using the very um, fresh whitefish, carp and pike to make homemade gefilte fish. Dessert is cardboard sponge cake, sweet and gritty with no flavor. Manischewitz canned macaroons on the side.
The evening of the first Seder arrives. I am sitting at one end of the small Passover table, squeezed between Fake Aunt Hope and my brother who seems to have eaten beans the day before. My 6-year-old stomach is churning from hunger and stage fright. As the youngest child I will recite the four questions from the Passover service booklet, the Maxwell House (yes, coffee) Haggadah. As the service drones on past my bedtime, I am so sleepy that all I want to do is lean on my brother and close my eyes, no matter how much he stinks.
Finally, all eyes turn to me. I squeak out the first questions in a whisper. Why is this night different from all other nights and why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzo, but on this night we eat only matzo? My elderly faux uncle yells out, “Can’t hear you, Missy!” Beet red and humiliated, I stutter, making my voice crack. Now I imagine that everyone thinks I am on the verge of tears. I am.
The Ad Man purses his ridiculously large lips, my mother audibly holds her breath, my brothers stifle giggles, and Fake Aunt Hope leans over and pats my arm enveloping me in her stinky perfume. I push the Haggadah up to my nose, adjust my geeky glasses, take a deep breath and loudly mumble each question into the fold of the book.
As the fourth glass of sticky sweet Mogen David
swill wine is poured, the front door is opened to welcome the phantom Prophet Elijah who whooshes in, drinks up his wine with a little help from Fake Aunt Hope and apparently leaves as the door is closed. We are all awake now from the cold rush of air -- it is the middle of April and snowing in Syracuse.
Everyone raises their wine tumbler in a final toast: Next year in Jerusalem! they shout with imbibed enthusiasm. And it is finally time for dinner. The feast’s perfume has overtaken Fake Aunt Hope’s cloying scent and on this night, I am a grateful little girl.
But Passover isn’t over just yet. For seven days I construct matzo sandwiches for lunches. Tuna on matzo. Peanut butter and jelly on matzo. Egg salad on matzo. Ham and swiss on matzo. OK, kidding about that one.
Try eating a matzo sandwich. It's a little like taking 40 Ritz crackers, taping them together and smashing some filling inside, picking it up and crunching. The only possible outcome is a pile of crumbs. I use the matzo as the placemat and eat the filling with my fingers.
Over the years, Passover became more about how to make the food a little more interesting and still maintain the religious traditions. We tuned up the lowly, cloyingly sweet macaroon and made it a springtime delight. It has a deep coconut flavor infused with (Meyer) lemon.
Now, if only someone could think of a way to make matzo a little more interesting.
Coconut Lemon Macaroons
2 large eggs, separated, using whites only
½ cup white sugar plus 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon almond flavoring
Zest from 2-3 lemons (Meyers are perfect)
3 cups flaked unsweetened coconut (Bob’s Red Mill)
Pinch of salt
- Preheat oven to 350. Turn oven down to 325 once the cookies go in.
- Mix the sugar and the lemon zest with your fingers in a large bowl. Let the two infuse for about 5 minutes. Then, with a wooden spoon, mix in all the remaining ingredients until thoroughly incorporated. With wet hands gather a scant ¼ cup of coconut dough and form into haystacks on a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet. Pinch the tops to form loose haystacks (keep your fingers wet). Let sit for about 45 minutes before baking. Bake about 20 minutes at 325. Turn oven off and let macaroons sit until lightly brown about 10 minutes longer. Remove from oven and cool. Makes about 12 large macaroons.
Bon appétit and happy Pesach.