A Passover Legacy

Monday Morning Musings

Passover begins next weekend. I like to imagine people all over the world gathering together over tables filled with food and wine to share the story of how the ancient Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the United States, “the peculiar institution” of slavery threatened our nation and nearly destroyed it during the Civil War. Its legacy still affects our laws and culture. In the twenty-first century, slavery and human trafficking still exist throughout the world. So the Passover story about escaping oppression is still relevant today.

My grandparents were immigrants to the United States. They all sought a better life here than they had in Tsarist Russia, just before WWI. I don’t know if they thought about this when they celebrated Passover. Both of my grandmothers died when I was only a toddler. I never thought to ask my grandfathers when they were alive.

I am not religious, but I love the traditions of Passover. I “keep Passover” to an extant—not eating bread or leavened products during the period and even foregoing my usual morning oatmeal—but there are “forbidden” foods in my house that my husband eats. For me, the keeping of Passover is an homage to those throughout history who have not been able to celebrate the holiday. For those who strictly observe Passover, forbidden foods must be removed from the house (or at least the kitchen) before Passover. Referred to as chametz, the forbidden items include grains and grain products made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. Leavening products, such as yeast, are also prohibited. In essence, anything that might sprout is not allowed. (Matzah is generally made from wheat, but its preparation is closely supervised and must be done within 18 minutes.) Since even a trace of these grains are not supposed to touch other foods and mistakenly ingested, the kitchen, dishes, utensils, and pots and pans are supposed to be thoroughly cleaned and scoured.

Nineteenth-century cookbook author Esther Levy briefly explained the preparation for Passover in her 1871 cookbook, Jewish Cookery Book. Esther Jacobs Levy was an English woman who lived in Philadelphia at the time she published this book. It was the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States. In the introduction, she wrote:

            In preparing for the Passover, which generally commences in the middle of spring and lasts eight days, every particle of leaven must be out of the house by ten o’clock of the preceding morning. On the same day, 14th of Nisan, or on the previous eve, the house must be thoroughly cleaned from dirt, and everything must be in perfect order.

With what pleasurable emotions a Jewish woman must anticipate the time when she will see everything looking so brilliantly clean, and mostly new. Indeed, we should all be delighted, when we reflect that so much cleanliness is a preparation for becomingly celebrating our wonderful deliverance from bondage.

–Esther Levy, Jewish Cookery Book (Philadelphia: W.S. Turner, 1871): 8-9.

Levy goes on to describe the traditional Seder foods that are set before “the master of the house.” (This is the nineteenth-century, after all. Levy also assumes her readers have servants.) After Passover is over, she cautions that all crockery, utensils, and pans have to be scoured and put away to be used the next Passover.

Levy’s book does not contain too many specific Passover recipes. There is “Matzo Cleis Soup” (For Passover). The recipe describes how to make balls from matzo that is softened and mixed with fried onions, eggs, parsley, and dropped into soup. The soup is not specified. She also included a recipe for “Matzas Charlotte”, a type of matzah pudding type dish that is said to be for “supper.” It includes raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and custard made from a quart of milk and seven eggs. Sounds good to me!

Passover has been celebrated all over the world in all types of conditions: in war and peace, in cities and on farms, in prisons and in ghettoes. Recently, I came across this article on how US troops celebrating Passover during WWII. Take a look—it includes photos and menus.

I don’t remember much about Passover from my childhood. I recall some long and boring Seders with relatives droning on in Hebrew, which I could not understand, and probably most of the people there could not actually translate. There was no discussion, no jokes, and no singing. I did not understand the significance of the celebration. My mom’s chicken soup and knaidlach (matzah balls) were always spectacular. I think that’s why I never cared about the rest of the meal. I could simply eat the soup. The meal always ended with a dried fruit “compote,” bland sponge or angel food cakes, and canned macaroons. Oh yes, there was also the horrible Manischewitz wine. For the longest time, I thought all wine was like that, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone liked wine.

How things change! And not just the wine, which I’m sure will be delicious, although I don’t know yet what we will be drinking.

When I became a mom and we began to host Passover dinners, I wanted our daughters to understand what we were celebrating and why. When they were young, my daughters and their friends put on puppet shows during the Seder to explain the Passover story. As they got older, the children’s puppet shows were replaced with a Passover play with everyone sitting around the table and reading their lines. There’s a new play every year with sometimes crazy themes or settings and lots of bad puns.

My family loves our traditions–so I’ll be making brisket (now called “roast beet” from my young grandniece’s pronunciation several years ago) in the same way I’ve made it for years. I’ll cook chicken soup with knaidlach the way my mom always made them. (The secret to light, floating matzah balls is to separate the eggs and not to add fat to the mixture. I believe my mother learned this from her mother-in-law, my grandmother.) I drop the balls in boiling water and then add them to the soup–because in addition to chicken soup, I also have a pot of vegetarian broth. I’ve already made that and frozen it. My house may not be scoured and spotless, but I’m top of the food preparation.

Simmering Vegetable Broth

Simmering Vegetable Broth

What has changed over the years at our family Seders are the actual Seders, which have become more elaborate in a crazy, totally irreverent way. True believers would not approve, but we enjoy our crazy Passover play. I used to write the plays, but now our daughters write them. I have no idea what they’re planning for this year, but I do appreciate that they agreed to write it again. Shout out to you, girls! One daughter and her fiancé will be at dinner. I hope our other daughter and wife will join us for the play via SKYPE. Oh, the wonders of modern technology!

Another change over the years is our desserts. In the past I tried cakes made with matzah meal (sorry, they always taste like matzah to me) or potato starch, but now there are truly wonderful dessert recipes—cakes and cookies you would eat the rest of the year. So I’ve been testing some. You know, in the interest of our Passover guests. My husband has reluctantly agreed to taste them. “If I must,” he says, as he takes another cookie.

I could eat flourless chocolate cake anytime. OK. I have. Don’t judge me. What’s wrong with breakfast chocolate?

This is my go-to recipe. I bake it at 325 degrees.

I also tried this one. Instead of cayenne pepper, I used ginger (not that I mind cayenne pepper, but chocolate and ginger is amazing). I garnished it with a chocolate glaze made by melting dark chocolate chips and studded it with candied ginger. YUM!

I tried these cookies from Jew Wanna Eat. I added ½ a bag of mini-chocolate chips, which I highly recommend you do, as well. Chocolate and coffee. Do I have to explain?

Coffee Meringues with Chocolate Chips

Coffee Meringues with Chocolate Chips

On Saturday night, technically the second Seder, I’ll sit at my table with my family and friends. We’ll be a group of old and young, gay and straight, Jews and non-Jews. The food will be important, of course. We’ll eat matzah, the unleavened bread, symbolic of the hurried flight of the Jews from Egypt. We’ll eat the matzah balls, the recipe a legacy from my grandmother. We will be following ancient rituals of dipping greens in salt water and of saying “Dayenu” as we recall the plagues. We will drink wine–4 cups are supposed to be consumed during the Seder.  We will be connected to the ghosts of our ancestors, and I will remember those who are no longer at our Passover table. More importantly, we’ll combine old traditions with new twists and combine ancient rituals with new innovations. I hope my daughters will remember these dinners. I hope my young great niece and nephews will, too. In time, I hope they will create their own traditions. This is the true legacy of Passover–friends and family gathering to break bread (which we do quite literally at the Seder), to share stories, to remember the past, and to create new memories.

The Influence of One

“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”
–George Eliot

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.”

– Ansel Adams

Influence. Who influences us and who do we influence, perhaps unknowingly? A recent blog post by Laurie Buchanan on her Tuesdays with Laurie blog made me ponder these questions.

We’re all influenced by the times in which we live. Perhaps a Neolithic storyteller imagined worlds beyond ours, a place filled with fantastic creatures that swooped down from the sky. It’s possible. But it’s unlikely that he or she imagined televisions or the Internet. Perhaps though that storyteller inspired others to create new tales or paint, or think of worlds beyond. Entirely possible, and a scene I like to imagine. Still, although a rare genius such as Leonardo da Vinci can imagine or predict objects far beyond the imaginations of his or her contemporaries (see for example, his moveable cart, “the world first self-propelled vehicle” ), most of us are constrained by our times and knowledge.

As a historian, I study the past and past influences. In turn, I’m influenced by the words and actions of those who lived long ago. As a writer, I’m influenced by everything around me. But who knows for sure where that creative spark comes from? I have some way of seeing things that others perhaps do not, some odd synaptic firing that allows me to put images into words on a page. But I am still influenced by what I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I’ve heard, art I’ve admired. I’m influenced by the sound of the crows outside my window engaged in their “Marco Polo” calls to one other, the sunlight reflected and glimmering on the butterfly bush gently swaying in the faint summer breeze, and the cat sleeping next to me, lost in his feline dreams.

As a writer, I hope that my words influence my readers, and make them think, laugh, or cry. As a human being, a parent, wife, and friend, I also hope that I’ve influenced others, as they’ve influenced me.

Last week all of these various worlds—history, creativity, family, and influence came together in one wonderful example.

Those who read my last post, know that in my house the Mandelbrot cookies I bake are known as “Mommy Cookies,” and that I baked them for my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Two days after the wedding, while visiting a historic site, my newly married daughter and her wife encountered a historical interpreter portraying an early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant making Mandelbrot in her New England kitchen. My daughter’s reaction was to get a bit teary-eyed (as I did when she told me the story), as she thought of how I make those cookies, our Mommy Cookies. A traditional recipe that I’ve updated became a family tradition that has influenced and affected my daughter and me. The reenactor, however, will never know how her portrayal in that historic site resonated and influenced my daughter.

And now that I’ve told you, the influence of that portrayal has expanded.


“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5





Beware the Hammantaschen?

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

–William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2

 So. . .I just realized that this year Purim falls on the Ides of March. I guess that means you should be extra wary while consuming your wine and hope you don’t choke on your Hamantaschen. And stay away from theaters. And people with knives. You know, just in case.

The Ides of March simply means the middle of the month. Other Roman months also had Ides, but Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE. So that event—and then Shakespeare’s words–imparted a meaning to the date that had not existed before.

True confession: Despite a Ph.D. in history, I’ve never had a course in ancient world history. My lack of knowledge of Greek and Roman history is only matched by my even greater lack of knowledge about other ancient civilizations. I did have a book of mythology by Edith Hamilton that I used to like to read when I was a child. I think I “borrowed” it from my older sister. Yes, I was a nerdy child. What I have learned about ancient Rome I’ve gathered from my own browsing through texts, watching I, Claudius (I’m convinced that Claudius sounded exactly like Derek Jacobi and spoke with an English accent), and hearing my daughters discuss the information they acquired in their Latin classes in high school. Shout out to their wonderful Latin teacher!  Woot! I also witnessed a couple of “reenactments” of historical events in Rome and Pompeii during a trip to Italy with Latin students from my daughters’ high school. That was the same trip in which I discussed sex in ancient Rome with a grad student chaperone, and the girls’ Latin teacher and I compared the Rape of the Sabine Women with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (Clearly, I transitioned from nerdy child to nerdy adult.)

Second True Confession: I haven’t read Julius Caesar since I was in ninth grade. I do remember reading some of Calpurnia’s lines to my then boyfriend, now husband’s Caesar. And for some reason, “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look” became a favorite phrase in our little ninth grade group. I have no idea why now. I guess because we were ninth graders–and nerdy.

I do know that Romans, including Caesar, drank wine.

Caesar: Good friends, go in and taste some wine with me.

And we, like friends, will straightway go together.

Brutus: (aside) That every “like” is not the same, O Caesar,

The heart of Brutus earns to think upon.

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2

And that they had feasts, during which they reclined. Maybe because they were drinking wine, too. That’s a joke. Perhaps.  (The men—I’m not sure about the women–participating in the feasts reclined. Their slaves did not, which is why we’re told, to recline on Passover, since we are free.) Ancient Roman food often consisted of simple fare, such as bread, salty cheese, and fruit. Porridge-like dishes were common. Banquets featured more elaborate preparations, and the households of the wealthy displayed their wealth through the use of exotic ingredients. Dishes were often boiled or fried in olive oil—and strongly flavored sauces were essential. Garum, a fermented fish sauce was very popular. They also liked sweets made with honey.

On Purim, you’re supposed to drink wine, eat sweets, and celebrate! Traditional Purim foods often focus on beans, seeds, nuts, and dairy, as Queen Esther, it is said, did not want to eat food that was not kosher.

So what to eat for an Ides of March/ Purim feast? I haven’t quite decided. I’m thinking perhaps homemade falafel, pita bread, along with some feta or goat cheese and olives. The Romans ate chickpeas, if not exactly falalfels, and goat cheese, and olives. Queen Esther may also have eaten those foods. You’re welcome to top your falafel with some garum, if you want and happen to have it handy, but I think I’ll pass. Of course, top off the feast with lots of wine and Hamantaschen!

This is also the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, when many cities in the US host special bar crawls, and revelers in green hats and clothing stumble through the streets. For some who partake, the crawl will no doubt be literal. Feel free to add green food coloring to your Hamantaschen if you feel the need to eat green food. I don’t.

Enjoy your food and drink this weekend, whatever your cultural background. You might even want to start off your gastronomic weekend with a pie for Pi Day today! But remember,  if a soothsayer tells you to avoid going somewhere tomorrow, you might want to heed his or her advice.

I wanted to try more recipes for Hammantaschen, but with looming deadlines and various projects, I didn’t get a chance this week. This is the recipe that I’ve used in the past, and which I prepared for a talk I gave this week. It uses oil instead of butter, but it has a great orange flavor. I made prune and apricot fillinggs. Just cook the fruit with some water, orange juice, lemon, and sugar until they’re soft and then mash them and chill. I also mixed some ground walnut and coconut into blueberry jam. Experiment with various jams and fruit fillings. YUM!

I used large eggs instead of extra large eggs, and it came out fine.


(This recipe was in The Philadelphia Inquirer several years ago, but I don’t know who created it.)

5 extra large eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup corn/vegetable oil

½ cup orange juice

Grated rind of 1 orange

Grated rind of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. vanilla extract

6 ½ cups flour

1 ½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

Beat eggs until thick, but not foamy. Beat in sugar. Add oil, OJ, grated orange and lemon rinds, lemon juice, and vanilla. Mix at low speed. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt; slowly stir into egg mixture to moisten. Do not overbeat. Dough will be sticky. Spread dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet; cut into quarters and chill at least 3 hrs., up to 3 days. (Dough may be frozen. To use defrost overnight in refrigerator.)

When ready to proceed, work with one-quarter of dough at a time, leaving the rest refrigerated. Lightly dust a cutting board with flour. Gently knead the dough pliable. Roll to ¼-inch thickness. Cut into circles, fill, and shape into triangles.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 -25 minutes until golden. Makes about 60 cookies.


Birthdays and Bananas–Yes, We Have Some Today

Whether you cut them up into your cornflakes, oatmeal, or yogurt, bake them into bread or cakes, or eat them plain, enjoy bananas now—before they disappear from your local grocery store. Cavendish bananas, the only type of banana found in the United States (except for in a few, select locations), are susceptible to a variation of Panama disease, a fungus that wiped out the Cavendish’s precursor, the Gros Michel banana earlier in the twentieth-century.

By all accounts, the Cavendish is rather bland and not as tasty as other varieties—and there are over 1,000 different varieties of bananas that people in many parts of the world enjoy. Bananas were first widely introduced to the US at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, but it did not take long for the fruit to become a favorite. By the early twentieth-century, many cookbooks included banana puddings, pies, cakes, and other banana recipes. Fannie Farmer’s 1904 Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent explained how to serve a banana:

Remove skin from a thoroughly ripe banana, and scrape to remove the astringent principle which lies close to skin. Cut in thin slices, arrange on a serving-dish, sprinkle with sugar and a few drops lemon juice.

Banana is served frequently with sugar and cream, but proves difficult of digestion to most people in health: therefore its use would better be avoided for the sick.

–Fannie Merritt Farmer, Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (Boston: Little, Brown, 1904), 207.


 The United Fruit Company (later Chiquita) cleared rainforests and built shipping networks, which along with political domination, control over laborers, and aggressive marketing, helped to make bananas one of the most popular fruits in the United States. Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World discusses the history of bananas and everything else you ever wanted to know about the fruit. I heard him recently on an episode of the NPR show Science Friday. Koeppel likens the Cavendish banana to a Big Mac: “The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.” *

         In any case, the Cavendish is what we have here. At least for now.

So what do bananas have to do with birthdays? Well, this year our younger daughter, now living in her first post-college apartment, asked me to make her a banana cake for her birthday, which was last week. Our older daughter’s birthday is today, but unfortunately, she lives too far away to make a birthday cake delivery practical. Sorry, dear. February is birthday month for our family. My husband’s birthday is next week, and my mother-in-law’s birthday is this weekend. Yay! More birthday cakes!


The cake our daughter requested is a banana cake with chocolate chips and cream cheese frosting. Now you understand. Yes, major true drool factor here.


Chocolate Chip Banana Cake

 I’ve adapted this recipe from this one: http://www.bakersroyale.com/cakes/chocolate-chip-banana-cake/

(Her layer cake is much prettier than mine, but it is much easier to prepare and transport a cake in a 13 x 9 inch pan.)


2 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. baking soda

Pinch of salt

½ cup butter

1 cup white sugar

¾ cup brown sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

2 Eggs

3-4 bananas

2/3 cup buttermilk (I used dried buttermilk powder.)

1 package good quality mini chocolate chips

 Cream Cheese Frosting:

8 oz. package of cream cheese (Neufchatel is fine, too.)

4 oz. (1 stick) of butter

1 tsp. vanilla

Approximately 2 cups of confectioner’s sugar


Combine flour, baking soda, salt, and if using buttermilk powder). Whisk to combine.


Beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time; beat until combined. Add bananas. I kind of use the mixer to mix them in—they are not so totally mashed, and the little chunks give it a more banana-y flavor.  Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk (or water, if using dried buttermilk). Stir in chocolate chips. Pour batter into a greased and floured 9 x 13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Cool. Then frost—if you haven’t eaten all the icing already.

Combine frosting ingredients. I don’t like a super-sweet frosting, so adjust the sugar to your taste. Try not to slather it all over yourself, but you will want to.


Not a very good photo, but it is delicious!







* Dan Koeppel, “Yes, We Will Have No Bananas,” New York Times, June 18, 2008,