Reimagining the Seder Menu

by Meredith Jacobs

Paula Shoyer has built her career pebble by pebble. “You often hear people say they built their business brick by brick,” she said over coffee near her Chevy Chase, Md. home. “But really, there are pebbles thrown in. You may have a brick here and a brick there, and then a handful of pebbles. And, then, one day, you realize you’re standing on a mountain of bricks and pebbles and look around and think ‘How did I get here?’ And you realize that all those bricks and pebbles, all those steps—big and small—got me here.”

For the lawyer who took pastry classes at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris “just for fun” (she graduated from the esteemed program in 1996), her new cookbook The New Passover Menu (Sterling), is yet another brick in the amazing career she’s building. Her third book, Menu is the first to go beyond kosher desserts and includes the full gamut of Passover foods—from Seder-worthy entrees to kosher- for- Passover waffles.

Shoyer (who was honored as a JWI Woman to Watch in 2015) travels the world, promoting the book and teaching cooking classes from Israel to Brooklyn, and she admits that never in her “wildest dreams” did she imagine one day being flown to Hong Kong to teach cooking to its Jewish community. But it wasn’t a grand plan that got her where she is today. “You just have to keep your eyes open,” she advises. “Because you don’t know what steps will take you in the right direction.”

Which is how this latest book came to be. Shoyer was in San Diego promoting her previous book, The Holiday Kosher Baker, when her literary agent called to tell her that Williams Sonoma and Crate & Barrel thought there was a need for a really great Passover cookbook.

With four children (a daughter, 20, and three sons, one 18 and 15-year-old twins), one wonders how Shoyer has time to feed her family let alone develop enough recipes to fill three cookbooks. Shoyer explains that she creates recipes every day. “Every time I cook something for my family I look in the fridge and think ‘What do I have?’” The only difference when she’s writing a book is she has to measure and record.

Her goal is to take traditional recipes that r guests will recognize, but change them up just enough so that they’ll say “Oh, what’s that?” Among her creations: matzo balls flavored with ginger and cilantro, brisket osso bucco, linzer tart with nut crust, and an innovative Seder plate salad made with lamb, hard boiled eggs, parsley leaves, and a horseradish dressing.

She credits Diane Ash, her assistant, for making it all possible. “She’s in my house right now,” Shoyer says, “testing out a new gluten-free recipe.” Shoyer also has helpers all over the world testing her recipes, making certain they work with different water, different ovens, and different climates.

She also credits her children for providing inspiration—from necessity. During Passover, her kids are on vacation from school, which means she’s making breakfast throughout the day. “I feel like a short order cook,” she jokes. So her gluten-free waffles were born. Of course, she had to make certain to create a kosher for Passover version of her favorite recipe, the triple-chocolate biscotti—perfect for Seder dessert or any time with a cup of coffee.

The new book identifies what can easily be made in advance (a must, she says, when hosting a Seder), as well as a list of equipment, because the average home cook may not have the same arsenal of cooking equipment for Passover that she would for other times of the year.

Currently on tour for The New Passover Menu, Shoyer also consults with various restaurants and bakeries to help them create delicious pareve desserts. And, she’s in talks to produce her own line of frozen chocolate babkas.

“The journey has been fun, but it’s hard,” she shares. “I’m still the mom of four kids. But it’s important for me to model to them that you can take a kernel of an idea and—step by step—build something great.”

Meredith Jacobs is vice president of communications for JWI and author of Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat (William Morrow Paperbacks).