As I said around this time last year, Passover is my favorite holiday. It is like Thanksgiving on steroids; Thanksgiving with four thousand years worth of family recipes and stories and traditions and ritual mandates. It also has challenging food restrictions thrown in.
The basic idea behind the food restrictions associated with Passover is that when Pharoah threw the Jewish slaves out of Egypt, the Jews didn’t have time to let their bread rise but just mixed together some flour and water and threw it in the oven while they packed. Preparing the ritual cracker, matzo, can only take 18 minutes or less from the time the water hits the flour until it is pulled out of the oven. If it takes longer to make the matzo, it is not kosher for Passover. One of the standard explanations of the baking time is that yeast begins to cause the bread to rise after 18 minutes, but it is more likely that the number 18 was selected because it has numerological significance in Judaism; it is the numeric value of the Hebrew letters for the word “chai” or “life.” (Practice tip; if you are invited to a bar or bat mitzvah, give the kid money in multiples of 18, depending on how well you know him or her. My standard is 36 dollars, but if I know a kid well, I might go as high as 72 or even 180).
During Passover Jews eat matzo to remember the hurried, stressful flight of the slaves out of Egypt. They don’t eat bread or cake or noodles or any leavened food, and most Jews whose ancestors came from Europe also avoid dry beans and rice and other foods that may swell in cooking.
An older rabbi speaking at my synagogue this weekend said when he was young, Passover was a time of deprivation; it was hard to go 8 days without leavened food. No sandwiches, no bagels, no pizza, no mac and cheese, nothing that wasn’t kosher for Passover. Lots of matzo ball soup, lots of egg salad on matzo, lots of eggs and matzo cooked together to make matzo brei. Now, he said, they have everything and Passover is not a hardship anymore; they even have kosher-for-Passover fruit loops. I guess I am old fashioned in my approach to Passover, no fruit loops. I kind of like the food deprivation part of Passover because I am always interested in deprivation in general. I don’t eat packaged kosher brownie mix or gluten-free Passover egg noodles.
In spite of my puritanism regarding Passover foods, I appreciate the cooking people do for Passover seders. They go out of their way to create elaborate meals around the Passover restriction on leavened food and the result is food that takes way longer than 18 matzo minutes to prepare Although I am somewhat indifferent to most Passover foods, not being a fan of brisket, desserts at Passover knock my socks off since they are not the usual boring cakes and pies and cookies.
This year my friend Joy gave me a new recipe for a Passover-friendly carrot cake. I tried a pre-Passover batch because you don’t want to show up at the potluck of the year with something you haven’t tested in your kitchen. It passed the test. For Passover, I will probably top it with my favorite frosting of all time; The Best Cream Cheese Frosting in the Known Universe. I have given you that recipe below. Joy said she eats the cake with ice cream or with one cup of mascarpone whipped with two tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar and two tablespoons of rum. Similar idea, but my frosting is better, I guarantee you. Enjoy!
RECIPE: FLOURLESS CARROT CAKE
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9” cake pan with parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil (my personal favorite kitchen accoutrement of the last decade) and coat sides with olive oil.
¾ cup sugar
½ cup olive oil
2 c carrots – peeled, grated, drained and then soaked in the juice of ½ lemon
½ c raisins boiled in ¼ c brandy or rum for 3 minutes
1 t vanilla
2 ½ c almond meal or finely ground almonds
½ t nutmeg
zest of one lemon
3 T toasted pine nuts
Whisk or mix (by hand) the oil and sugar together. Whisk in vanilla and eggs. Fold in the almonds, lemon-soaked carrots, and raisins. Add the zest and nutmeg. Spoon batter into the prepared pan evenly. Sprinkle the top with pine nuts.
Bake around 50 minutes to an hour or till brown and dry. If you gently push it with your finger tip it should spring back. This is a very moist batter, so if you under-bake the cake, it will be gluey.
RECIPE: BEST CREAM CHEESE FROSTING IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE
NOTES: This is enough frosting for a two layer cake, so either cut the recipe in half or use the other half for something else. You should make this with an electric mixture so it is really smooth but you can do it with a strong whisk and a strong wrist if necessary.
1 pound of cream cheese, softened
¼ pound unsalted butter, softened
2 ¼ cup confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream the cream cheese and butter together until absolutely lumpless, about four minutes with a mixer. Slowly add powdered sugar, mix until lumpless. Add rest of ingredients and mix well to combine. Use it on carrot cake, slathering cake liberally. Lick the bowl.