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Passover Desserts Reimagined

The author of the popular cookbook Hip Kosher, shows us how quick changes can lead to sweet finales.

By Ronnie Fein
Photo by FoodCollection/Glow Images
Spring 2011

When my son-in-law told me his cousins served the “same-old same-old” dessert at their Passover Seder last year, I was a little surprised when he told me what that dessert was. “You know, the usual flourless chocolate cake,” he said.

With that, I realized a generational shift had taken place. Thirty or so years ago, I remember saying the same thing to my mother about sponge cake. That’s what everyone baked for Passover when I was a kid. Then flourless chocolate cake came along and it was a sensation: the new go-to holiday dessert, proof of a newly emerging kosher cuisine that was modern, chic and delicious.

So has flourless chocolate cake become the new sponge cake? I don’t think so. Good recipes endure, and well-loved dishes become part of our tradition, part of what makes our Seders so special. I bake some variation of flourless chocolate cake every Passover; in fact, there’s a recipe for one in my book, Hip Kosher. And I also bake a sponge cake, because Passover without my Aunt Roz’s recipe would be unthinkable.

But it’s a long holiday with lots of special meals for family and friends, all of whom like a good dessert. I’m the kind of cook who likes to experiment and tinker, so I try a new recipe or two every year. Something unexpected makes dinner more interesting, and besides, most people are willing to taste something new if it’s sweet.

Find Ronnie's Passover dessert recipes in our recipe archive.

Passover Blueberry Crisp
Orange and Peppered Strawberries
    with Passover Zabaglione
Baked Pineapple Meringue
Chocolate Cashew Torte
Stuffed Strawberries
Kiwi Fool
Toasted Almond “Napoleon” with
    Balsamic- and Jam-Glazed Bananas

It’s not always easy to decide which new recipe to try. Today we have less time to devote to cooking. And, on top of the usual Passover prohibitions, we’ve self-imposed even more hurdles that make it harder. Today we want more balanced meals. Less fat. Less sugar. Fewer carbs. Lighter desserts after a huge, multi-course dinner. We also want food to be exciting. Kosher cuisine has become as sophisticated as any other, and anyone who watches food shows on TV or reads a food magazine—and who doesn’t?—expects something more than whatever it is that’s the same-old, same-old.

It sounds daunting. But it isn’t impossible to come up with new, exciting treats. In fact, in some ways holiday cooking is easier today than it was for our moms and grandmas, thanks to thousands of kosher-for-Passover products they never imagined: Passover confectioner’s sugar, baking powder, fine chocolate, good wines and brandies, even balsamic vinegar. If they’re not at your local supermarket, you can get them online.

To branch out a little, first, remember that Passover comes in springtime, when the weather is warmer and we can take advantage of fresh, seasonal fruits. I use strawberries a lot during the holiday (all spring, actually). Not only are they sweet and thus require little sugar, they’re also beautiful enough to serve without much fuss. They come to life when combined with a multitude of other flavors, including some surprising ones.

My recipe for Orange and Peppered Strawberries with Passover Zabaglione shows how versatile strawberries are and how flexible this recipe can be. Freshly ground black pepper gives unexpected and pleasurable heat to the sweet fruit—but you can leave it out. You can serve the berries with or without the zabaglione, and vice versa. Or serve them with orange sorbet or in a meringue shell. The fruit will be fine even if you prepare it hours ahead. The zabaglione is wonderful whether you serve it hot, straight out of the pan, or warm or even cold (to chill it quickly, place the bowl of zabaglione into a larger bowl filled with ice and stir for a few minutes). Once cooked, zabaglione will hold together for about an hour.

The Strawberry Strategy
Try these quick and easy approaches—not even really recipes—for preparing the delicious strawberries that turn up in stores this time of year. These preparations have little added sugar and no fat. Cut up the berries and:

  • sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and
    chopped fresh mint
  • add a hint of sugar, orange marmalade and fresh orange peel
  • mix with some chopped fresh ginger, Passover confectioner’s sugar and
    brandy, sweet white wine or orange juice
  • puree fresh strawberries (or raspberries) and use as a sauce for sliced kiwi fruit; add orange sections if desired
Pineapple may be around all year, but it begins its most delicious time starting right around Passover, so it’s another fruit I use often during the holiday. Like strawberries, pineapple is naturally sweet and partners well with a variety of flavors. One of our family’s favorite recipes is a fat-free Baked Pineapple Meringue, a gorgeous dessert with its pile of luscious fruit inside the shell, capped with a fluffy, toasty-tipped meringue.

It looks elaborate but is simple to make, and you can do the cutting and combining in advance. Add other fruit if you like—chunks of mango or papaya, grapes, raspberries, kiwi, blueberries. And if you don’t have the time or inclination to make the meringue, serve the macerated fruit by itself in dessert dishes. For a dairy dinner, I substitute a small blob of whipped cream on top (and a garnish of toasted almonds or crushed toffee).

Everyone loves the recipe for Tropical Ambrosia with Chili-Lime Syrup from Hip Kosher. This dish is a riff on an old-fashioned fruit dessert well known in the Southern states. Classic Ambrosia recipes are famously sweet, but I’ve cut out the sugar and marshmallows and use just a little honey. I also include pineapple and mango because their spicy, acidic quality balances out the sugary oranges and coconut. And I add grapes for color. The big surprise here is a faintly hot sauce infused with ground chili pepper. This dessert is a mélange of tastes and textures that is amazingly refreshing even after eating several courses at a Seder. For those who don’t care for spicy food, the Ambrosia is just fine if you leave out the pepper.

Rhubarb is also just coming into season in April. You can stew it with a little sugar, add crushed straw-berries and mix it with sweetened whipped cream to make an easy, dairy “fool.” Or bake cut-up rhubarb and strawberries into a “crisp.”

Fruit crisps are ideal desserts for Passover because you can make them ahead of time and there are enough flour and grain substitutes for crunchy crusts. Use whatever fresh fruit looks good in the market. I often make blueberry crisp because it is a straightforward dessert that everyone likes, but sometimes I play around with the recipe and add a couple of cut-up pears or some navel orange sections, or I substitute fresh ginger or vanilla sugar for the cinnamon. Simple changes make the same old dessert taste different each time you make it.

I use fresh fruit to enhance more substantial Passover desserts, too, like my Aunt Roz’s sponge cake. Her recipe is a high and fluffy confection, miraculously moist, maybe because it contains 12 eggs and lots of orange juice. But it is just sponge cake, after all. I always grate in ample amounts of fresh orange and lemon rinds to the batter and serve the cake with grilled oranges, which not only make the dessert look beautiful, but also provide a tangy, juicy accompaniment to a kind of cake that can sometimes be a little dry.

With so many dietary restrictions to follow during Passover, we’re lucky for this multitude of fresh fruit. The same goes for nuts.

Nuts add texture and flavor, crunch and toasty taste. One of our all-time family favorites is a classic Hazelnut Torte, usually saved for a dairy meal because I frost it with whipped cream, although I some-times fill the layers with jam and, when I have the time, homemade pareve lemon curd.

Last year, after my son-in-law’s comment about that same-old dessert, I decided ground nuts might be just the thing to turn flourless chocolate cake into something new. My daughter is allergic to walnuts, so I never use them, and besides, they would be too bitter with the chocolate. And I use almonds and hazelnuts so often that I decided on cashews, which are soft and sweet. The cake was delicious and is terrific alone, but slathering the top with tart apricot jam complements the rich, eggy chocolate perfectly, and the chocolate glaze gives it a final, gorgeous flourish. The glaze couldn’t be easier to make; it takes less than 5 minutes to melt the chocolate with coffee powder and water.

The Delight of Grilled Oranges 
Grilled oranges glisten beautifully, adding eye appeal to even the plainest sponge cake. Place each serving of cake on top of two or three slices of grilled orange. The orange slices are also a tasty accompaniment to macaroons. Or grill fresh pineapple slices (same recipe) and serve them with the oranges. Here’s how: Peel four navel oranges, removing as much of the white pith as possible; cut the fruit into thick slices crosswise and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinna-mon and 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh mint. Broil or grill for about 20 seconds per side. 

Over the years, I’ve also made some changes to traditional nut-based Passover jelly rolls so they seem original and special. I use toasted nuts instead of plain, or I add a spice of some sort—ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. Mostly I use different preserves for the filling, and I’ll add some extra flavor there, too, mixing the jam with sweet wine, balsamic or raspberry vinegar, or ground spices. Or I include textural elements, like dried or fresh fruit. Or I puree homemade fruit compote and use that instead of jam.

The biggest change came a couple of years ago when I baked the jelly roll a bit too long and it cracked when I attempted to remove it from the pan. I knew it would never roll properly, so I cut the cake into three equal rectangles and layered the cake, jam and fruit instead. To give it a more finished look, I spread jam on top and sprinkled it with grated coconut. It was the same cake I always bake, but it looked so festive, everyone thought it was something new. I decided to call it a “Napoleon” because of the shape.

A good name can work wonders, too, I guess. But sometimes you don’t have to do much to make food new, fresh and interesting. A quick change here, a substitute ingredient there. Take advantage of fruit, nuts and other ingredients we can use. Despite all the culinary prohibitions we encounter during Passover—maybe even because of them—our wonderful celebration of freedom also frees us to be creative, resourceful and inspired in the kitchen.

Ronnie Fein, the author of Hip Kosher: 175 Easy-to-Prepare Recipes for Today’s Kosher Cooks (Da Capo Press), is a freelance journalist for Hearst-MediaNews and other publications, a recipe creator and a grandma. Visit her at www.ronniefein.com.   

More Passover cooking ideas: 
Vegetarian Fare Fit for a Seder  
Latina Passover Dishes
Passover Dishes from Susie Fishbein, Judy Zeidler and Edda Servi Machlin
Passover Recipes for a Crowd
Restaurant Seders at Spago and More

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