Why is this night different?

This is beginning of the question that the youngest asks on Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights.? It is the start of the traditional “Four Questions” the part of the seder that was looked upon with anticipation and sometimes dread by the children at the table. As we enter into our second Pandemic Passover, this phrase, this question is particularly meaningful and relevant. It’s a year since we entered into the Pandemic Phase of our lives and with that has brought about a new way of living, a different way of living.

As many of you know if you have been following my blog, I lost both of my parents – first my dad 16 years ago, and then my mom just 3 years ago. Most of my family lives in Florida, so first off, this night is different because I will not be spending Passover with any family. Many of us who would normally travel or have a large family gathering, will once again be Zooming, HousePartying, GoogleHangingOut or whatever virtual means we chose to try to bring our loved ones into our lives. Things are getting better but still not safe enough for us all to be close. A dear friend of mine who I’ve known since high school came over for a small dinner, as she too has lost both of her parents and her siblings live far away.

I think this is the holiday that I miss my grandparents the most, especially my paternal grandmother — the one whom I write of often. Passover at her house was always something I looked forward to; it was kind of like a Jewish Thanksgiving Dinner (since she never had a Thanksgiving). The long table was laid out with her finest linens, Passover Plates and flatware, the door was left open so that Elijah could come in — or the cooking fumes could get out, and the table was filled with food. Grandpa would sit at the head and read, and read and read, while grandma would yell — Irving, “genug, enough” and of course he’d ignore her and keep going. We’d dip, we’d sing and we’d “essen fressen” — or eat until we were like a stuffed derma. Speaking of stuffed derma, that was one of the many amazing foods she’d have on the table. This is a Jewish style sausage, no pork of course and stuffed with savory matzo meal and paprika spiced stuffing. We’d congregate in her little kitchen because before the meal started, there would be plates of chopped liver with horseradish that she hand-grated with beets. Sweet and spicy, with the rich chicken livers cooked in schmaltz, (Jewish olive oil) I can still taste it. Organized chaos was really how the meal went, grandma with no patience, grandpa continuously reading, the kids getting stir crazy running in the halls, or getting yelled at to stay away from the windows — “You know could fall out…” We’d be shvitzing as if we were in a Turkish steam bath because of the building’s heat and the fact that grandma was too afraid to open the windows because as I said ” You could fall out.” We’d start off with bowls of steaming chicken soup with matzo balls, and her egg noodles — not the kind you find in the store, but more like ribbons of the thinnest egg crepe you could imagine. Next would be plates of her famous gefilte fish. She’d grind the fish by hand, a combination of “winter carp” pike and whitefish. I have a vague recollection of stories of her keeping the carp in the bathtub though I don’t ever remember seeing it there. I know that this is something that was done, there’s even a children’s story book called “The Carp in the Bathtub”. Can you imagine — you go to the bathroom to do your business and find a fish in a bathtub, Oy Vey! Anyway back to the gefilte fish, she boiled not baked hers and it was always served with a carrot round and loads of more horseradish. Then would come out the platters of meat, usually breast of veal stuffed with schmaltz laden matzo meal stuffing and beef ribs, carrot and prune tzimmes and maybe a boiled potato. Wine is a traditional part of the meal and grandma would only want the sweet stuff — Manischewitz. Once we brought a good bottle of wine and she took one sip, spit it out, said it was sour and asked where the Manischewitz was. This is a traditional Galitizianer, Eastern European style Passover meal.

Flash forward to this year’s Passover and from wine to food, to company, it was different. Before Passover night, I along with Les Dames d’Escoffier, presented a fantastic tasting via Zoom, of the Judean Hills Quartet Wines of Israel. Led by my friend Tali Dalbaha, we tasted four of the most amazing wines along with the winemakers — sorry grandma, this is what Passover Wine should taste like! Different, done by Zoom, not in person, but informative and fantastic.

Next was the actual dinner. So different from what I would normally have eaten, this time I wanted to go Sephardic. Whereas the Ashkenazi are of Eastern European dissent, the Sephardim are mostly from the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African regions. The foods couldn’t be more different! The Eastern European cuisine was based on Polish and German style cooking, heavy, heavy and well nothing light. Sephardic cooking combined the cuisines from the Spanish and the North Africans so it is much more aromatic and spice infused. We didn’t do much else very traditional, no reading from the Haggadah, no Seder plate, no dipping to commemorate the plagues, we just ate. But, to keep some tradition alive, I of course started with a traditional matzo ball soup, because it just wouldn’t be Passover without it! When I make mine, I always start with a whole chicken, carrots, a small amount of parsnip so the broth doesn’t get too sweet, a celery stalk and a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf, then I cover the whole thing in chicken stock and water — 2 parts stock to 1 water. To get a nice clear broth, bring to a boil then reduce to a just barely bubbling simmer and skim. The main was a delish recipe by Joan Nathan, and was layers of eggplant covered in caramelized onions and garlic, topped with pieces of browned, chicken coated in allspice, lime powder and tumeric and finally topped with chopped swiss chard. Instead of the traditional tzimmes (sweet carrots and prunes) I made roasted rainbow carrots coated in harissa paste and honey.

Lastly was dessert. Dessert at grandma’s would have been all kinds of sweets from boxes spread all over the table. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the jellied, sugar coated fruit slices that didn’t taste like fruit. There would be chocolate covered jelly rings, or chocolate covered cherries and chocolate covered matzo — don’t knock it until you try it! She’d have an array of Passover cakes which were usually jelly rolls — see a jelly theme here? Nothing home baked so I decided again to break tradition and bake. I found a fantastic recipe for an Orange, Chocolate Flourless cake by Nigella Lawson. What was so interesting about it and different was that you boil the oranges whole until soft and puree them whole with all the rest of the ingredients and bake. Amazingly fragrant, chocolate-orange goodness, you’d never know it doesn’t have flour. I’m sure she didn’t intend it for Passover but it was the perfect cake to end the meal. Oh yeah, wine, forgot wine. As I said no Manishewitz for me thank you, (sorry grandma)! We enjoyed the leftover wines from the Judean Hills Quartet — Sphera Sauvignon Blanc, Castel Rose, Tzora Shoresh Red and Flam Classico.

My Passover night was different from other nights, like my year was different from other years. But isn’t that how it should be? Every day is different, every year is different. We ask ourselves, “Why is this night different from all others?” and the answer is well, because it should be. We need to embrace the new, and not be afraid of the different. Try something new, out of your norm, out of the comfort zone. This past year has taught us that we need to find new ways to forge ahead, to embrace change and not be afraid of following a different path. So Chag Sameach, a Zissen Pesach, Happy Passover embrace your traditions but also don’t be afraid to try something new.

A Holiday Season Unlike Any Other!

2020 is about to end and I know that I can’t wait! I hear that collective sigh of relief from you all, as you wait with anticipation for the ball to drop — figuratively and literally, on what has been a pretty crazy, stressful and sometimes downright awful year. Through it all I drew my strength from my friends and family, but mostly from my friends who are my family. When I began to feel safe enough to start seeing my friends in person instead of virtually, it was such a great relief. I’ll never forget getting a call from my friend who said she was coming over. Now on a normal day that would seem well, normal; but in these crazy times I actually thought she was joking. Off to the store I went, probably in search of toilet paper, when I got a call from her saying “Where are you? Sammy’s in the window, now where’s the wine? I’m in the parking circle and you’re not home.” So I told her where the key was and where the wine was and that I’d be home in 5. What a joyous day! My first visitor in 3 months or so! We maintained our distance, sat at the table outside and just enjoyed being together after so many stressful months. My house became a bit like Noah’s Arc, they all came in 2’s, with an occasional 3rd, but no more than that! Food, cooking, eating and wine have always been an important bond with me and my friends, but never more so than during Covid. During Covid they escaped the city and came up to my suburban paradise (never thought I’d say that!) and for a moment all felt right. Of course we wore masks, sat apart and kept outside but we were together and it was amazing.

That takes me to today. We are now 9 months into this craziness and the holidays are here. Just when you thought it was getting better, we even had no more trouble getting toilet paper, it started getting worse. Warnings went up about social gatherings for the holidays and we were told to limit our personal interactions. 2020 just kept getting worse and well I just kept cooking, that was my therapy. The holidays was the time we could all depend on to get together. This year however, as we all know, is different. I decided that I would at least try to keep some of the traditions, even on a small scale, that I had enjoyed about the holidays. And for me that of course meant food. My family was not a very sentimental bunch but there were certain foods that were traditional for the holidays. I wanted to share some of them with you all, as well as some of the traditional foods that meant so much to some of my closest friends.

I decided after a lot of trepidation to go to my best friend’s house for Thanksgiving. It was only her immediate family and me. It was also her birthday and I really wanted to be there to celebrate. I decided that I’d bake a cake, but I wanted it to be meaningful so I searched through my mom’s recipes. Mom in my opinion made the best cheesecake ever. She used to say it was so rich and dense it would sink to the bottom of your toes! With it being Thanksgiving, I wanted something that spoke of the holiday and I found in her box of index cards, a recipe for a pumpkin cheese cake, woo hoo! Perfect I thought, and I took the recipe and made a few minor changes like adding bourbon, and made my own version — like a variation on a theme; the picture is below. BUT here is the recipe card for her ORIGINAL cheesecake; I can still see dad in the kitchen, mixing the cream cheese by hand. Check out her introduction to the recipe where she says “who can resist a cheesecake”. I love those little intros she wrote on her favorite recipes. I wanted to share her original one because that’s the one I remember her always making.

Next up is Chanukah, which of course as a kid meant presents, but it also meant latkes! FYI we ate latkes all year, large sized or small, but during Chanukah they tasted even better. Who amongst us can resist potatoes perfectly shredded with onions and fried in oil? In fact check out below on mom’s index card where she says they are “the closest thing to heaven”…Dad used to say grandma had stock in Planters Peanut Oil, the only thing she’d use to fry her latkes and all she’d have to do was tap the pan and they’d slide out on their own. We were traditional, no sweet potato, no beet, no way. Topped with sour cream only and it had to be potato, the starchier the better. Too wet, or too little starch and it will fall apart and no one wants that! We’d sit in the boiling hot kitchen as grandma would hand grate the onions and potatoes, and meticulously drain the liquid reserving the potato starch. Then she’d fry them to golden perfection. Later mom would do the same, in fact below is her original recipe card. On the first night of Chanukah this year, I had to have them so I made a little batch for myself. Really I think one of the best smells in the world, is the smell of onions frying and the house was filled with that scent. The next night the fry fest continued and I decided to make a batch of jelly doughnuts — my favorite food in the world! Yes I could have bought them but I really wanted to try my hand at making them as I had seen them on the Great British Bake Off. Paul Hollywood to the rescue, his recipe is perfect! 2 of my friends got wind of my making both latkes and jelly doughnuts and decided to come for a visit a few days later so I had to make them all again. Here we were in the kitchen at the table, where we belonged — socially distant and with the kitchen door wide open.

All for the love of pizzelle, is my next yummy holiday tradition. Ok well not my tradition because I never made them, but we were always gifted them during Christmas. My first introduction to this delicious Italian waffle cookie, was as a kid from the mom of a student of my dad’s. She would make us a huge plate of them and traditional Italian cookies. Delicate, beautiful and imprinted with her initials from the iron she had brought from Italy, these cookies lasted maybe a day before they were all gone. Now my friend’s dad makes them and always has a batch for me! His are laced with limoncello and are sweet and fresh and perfect with a cup of coffee. I invited them over for dinner the other night but only if he brought me pizzelle! As he sat at the table and watched me cook, I was forewarned that if he didn’t like the food I’d know it, he was not shy! I felt like I was cooking for my dad and started to get nervous, but after I put the plate of fish bathed in a lovely orange and olive sauce in front of him, I got the ultimate compliment when he had a second serving! I baked a holiday cake too, but true to his word, he didn’t like some of the cake and let me know it. He liked the cake but not the frosting, wanted another piece but told me to scrape off the frosting. He worked in many of the finest Italian restaurants in NYC and I loved sitting around the table and sharing food stories with him. Here’s a picture of his pizzelle with a coffee, and the fish dish and cake I made for him.

Next up is Christmas and my best friend (for whom I had to make the latkes and doughnuts, so you know I must love her) wanted us to carry on a tradition she used to do with her dad — Chrusciki. More frying for me! I started to think I might have a new career working as a fry cook, and I felt like I was working one of those fried dough stands at the state fair, but no I was hard at work in a kitchen in suburbia. All kidding aside, we had a great time. Once the dough was made and shaped, it was my turn to fry them to perfection and add the powdered sugar. We got into a rhythm and turned out what seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands of these little fried sweets. Ok I exaggerate because we ate as many as we fried, so who knows how many were actually made! More sugar her mom would say and we’d make it snow all over them with powdered sugar. We were in the kitchen together cooking and laughing it was a perfect day. Her cousin who is an essential worker, a doctor who is now overwhelmed by the pandemic, was supposed to be there to help us but obviously couldn’t. I don’t live far so I made a special delivery for her, left it by her door, and after her shift she ate the entire batch in one sitting!

This holiday season is downright weird. Don’t tell me it’s the new normal, it may be new but it’s not normal, as I’ve said before. We might not be able to have large friends and family gatherings. Many of us will have to connect via Zoom. Food may not be as plentiful as before. And some won’t be able to gather at all for various reasons. This is a tough year, and I know that I am lucky, I have my health, friends and family and am so grateful for all of that. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how you are able to enjoy what you have. For me cooking, being in my kitchen and sharing whatever I have with my friends brings me joy. It’s not about fancy ingredients, it’s about the love you put into it and the memories you make in the process. However you are celebrating this holiday season I wish you all health and happiness. And here’s to 2021!