I don’t know whether you throw a seder, make a seder, host a seder, or just plain have it, but yesterday, I created my very own out of nothingness. As is the tradition with Jewish holiday meals, you have to spend at least two full days cooking, and they need to be dishes like kugel, soup, and some sort of a roast. And there should probably be a bottle of wine for every two people, since the seder guide (Haggadah) commands that each person drinks four cups of wine, at the specified point, over the course of one meal. Four cups, unless of course you accidentally drink the second cup when you were supposed to just hold it up and say a blessing, and then you drink five cups, which is exactly what my 29-year-old brother did, and he ended up lying on the couch asking my mom for a ride to his friend’s house like some sort of drunk adolescent.
So I made a seder. I say “made” because it really did involve lots of creations- cooking, setting a table, deciding on our own style of seder plate arrangement, creating the flow and ambiance of the seder, etc. This is a cooking blog, however, so I’ll stick to the food creations, mostly. I spent about a week figuring out my menu. I knew there had to be matzo ball soup, sans chicken. I knew there had to be wine. I knew there had to be more matzo than anyone could really want. But that’s basically where it ended. How does one go about deciding what to feed people on this night that is different from all other nights? I started by taking the dish that I loved most from my past- a Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette (with gruyere and sage) from Smitten Kitchen. I removed the crust and instead put the dish on top of a bed of quinoa. Since I have a vegetarian household, that dish was my “roast” which was okay, since the squash was technically roasted. Once I had my main course set, I felt like some sort of appetizer and side dish were necessary, but I kept being drawn to dishes that called for cream and lots of butter and other heavy, way-too-filling items. I thought mini crustless quiches would work, but that would totally have competed with the squash. Then I wanted something with artichokes, but that never really got anywhere. Sweet potatoes are a common dish, so I was going to make whipped sweet potatoes. But again, so heavy and filled with fat, whereas I needed people to be able to stuff themselves on all my dishes and not get weighed down by just one.
The final menu was this: matzo ball soup (veggie broth, dill, sliced carrots) to start, then a spring greens salad with roasted beets and shaved carrots (and a homemade red wine vinaigrette), then a baked spinach dish, then the butternut squash with a side of sweet potato-apple kugel. If I could do it again and have more time and patience, I probably would replace the baked spinach dish with a lighter veggie dish, perhaps steamed or roasted veggies with a drizzle of olive oil, or something else that felt fresher and less daunting (this is a festival of spring, anyway). For dessert I made an almond-chocolate torte with a whipped cream frosting. I watched about five tutorial videos about how to fold in egg whites, but my torte was still dense and hard, albeit absolutely delicious. Most importantly, I learned that my dishwasher, when left ajar, can be used as a drying rack so I can continuously wash dishes and not take up counter space as I went through preparing each dish. In my relatively tiny Manhattan kitchen, that was a huge help.
For the soup, I cooked my matzo balls in water, but then starting the morning of the seder, I let them sit in the broth with dill and carrots. This helped give it more flavor, in addition to the bit of mushroom stock that went right into the batter. I’d recommend cooking your matzo balls in a broth, if you have it available. Also, to my surprise, matzo ball soup made with veggie broth instead of chicken can actually taste like Passover if you add enough dill and are surrounded by enough haggadas and kippot.
Roasting beets is a very dangerous adventure, and I despised the smell. You basically just wrap them in foil and let them cook at around 400 degrees, but they require lots of checking to make sure they don’t dry out (you can drop some water on them if necessary). Once they’re cooked, though, they are quite fun to play with. I just rolled them around in a paper towel and the skins came right off. Then I was able to decorate the side of the salad with big juicy slices. I ended up leaving a raw beet on the seder plate, in place of the shank bone that normally represents that Paschal sacrifice (see Wikipedia for more information).
The kugel was a dream. I made it a day in advance and it kept perfectly in the fridge. I got to use my new box grater, which I am now very thankful for, because I can’t imagine shredding three small yams and two large apples with just a small microplane. I added a tbsp of honey, 4 eggs to hold it together, and melted butter on top, then cooked it 45 minutes covered at 375. For the next twenty minutes, I cooked it uncovered but basted the top with more melted butter at each five minute interval to prevent drying out. It gave it a nice golden crisp.
The baked spinach was hell. Hell, I tell you. First of all, it calls for six pounds of spinach. At Trader Joe’s, the cheapest grocery store I know, fresh spinach costs 1.99 for each 6-ounce bag. I would have had to buy eight bags. Instead, I bought three 1-pound bags of chopped frozen spinach. Then, I could not for the life of me understand the instructions until right after making the dish, when it finally all made sense, so I ended up wilting the spinach in a big pot of water for ten minutes like a crazy person and then trying to drain all the water without losing lots of the pre-chopped spinach. OY. I also couldn’t use flour to set the dish, so I had to use my handmade matzo meal. I made that by crushing three pieces of matzo in a bowl with a bottle of K-for-P wine. Mmmm, the Jewish way (I should get a food processor). I added a bit of butter and gruyere, as well as topped it with more gruyere and matzo crumbs. It was ugly. It was everywhere. It tasted fine.
The butternut squash dish was amazing. The quinoa, which I forgot to rinse before cooking and it really didn’t matter for this dish thank goodness, added wonderful texture to the dish. I also can’t even begin to imagine how much healthier it is without that giant pastry crust. I roasted the squash for 30 minutes, then tossed it with caramelized onions, a ¼ tsp of cayenne, and freshly chopped sage leaves. Then I cooked it for about 25 minutes, until it was clearly browning on top. I transferred it into a smaller bowl, on top of some patted-down quinoa. I highly recommend this recipe. You can change it in so many ways, including adding nuts instead of quinoa for that great textural variation. I think I also used more cheese than was called for (I took a shortcut and got a pre-grated gruyere/Swiss mixture in addition to the bit of gruyere block I had in the fridge. Grating is not so fun.) Somehow, I did not get any photographs of the completed dish, which is too bad, because it was wonderful.
The dessert was hard to make, and I got what I expected. I was able to keep the batter fluffy until it came time to spread it out over four circles of parchment paper. All my spreading probably deflated the egg whites and left them more like cookies than cake layers. Regardless, almonds are amazing, especially when topped with a bit of bittersweet chocolate, a lot of whipped cream, and a handful of halved strawberries. The recipe for this can be found on smittenkitchen.com, and uses hazelnuts instead of almonds.
The seder was a huge success, and my small amount of patrons loved the food. My mother even said I “outdid” myself, and I’d wager she’s my toughest critic. We used “the Haggadah that blends brevity with tradition” with supplements from a Unitarian Universalist Interfaith Family Haggadah that is available for free online (http://uuja.org/holidays/lit/OrangesandOlivesHaggadah.pdf). We focused our seder on remembering that Passover is a time of freedom and a time to discuss issues of social justice and oppression, as well as what our part is in the system of oppression, just like my dissertation may hopefully someday do, if I ever have a hot second to get to that. If any of you ever get the chance to create your own seder, I highly recommend. It’s really rewarding to be able to share your own interpretation of the most-celebrated Jewish holiday. I only had four people, including myself, at this seder, but for a first-time, I think that’s the perfect number.