When Life Gives You Matzoh


Hillá Meller

Passover food laws are not easy to observe. No breads, no flours, virtually no grains or grain-derivatives, no legumes (for Ashkenazis, or Jews of Eastern European descent), no corn. Most alcohol is off-limits. And the Biblical amount of matzoh consumed can cause a veritable plague of constipation.

But hey, at least people lose weight, right? No complex carbohydrates; plenty of fruit and vegetables; quality sources of protein. Every year, the Passover-observant find solace in the ostensible health benefits of an otherwise grumble-worthy week of food.

And every year, they're mistaken (and, oddly, surprised). Increasingly, the Passover menu is simply less Passover-ish, thanks in part to kitchen creativity, corporate interests, and even modern science. In short, even Passover is no match for culinary ingenuity.

Take, for example, the no-flour proscription, a hulking obstacle for any self-respecting kitchen. Passover cooks long ago discovered that a mix of potato starch and matzoh meal—simply ground-up matzoh—can substitute for flour. The mixture is admittedly volatile, and the ideal ratio varies from dish to dish, but generations of experimentation have yielded hundreds of recipes. So, for breakfast, how about Passover waffles, or even pancakes? You can buy kosher for Passover breakfast cereal, no mean feat considering it can't contain corn, processed wheat, or any grain. Yet, somehow, Crispy-O's Real Cocoa Flavored Kosher for Passover Cereal exists, with only these ingredients. (Not for the faint of heart, though—it tastes like a chocolate cereal made from potato starch, which it is.)

With this makeshift flour, you can even make pasta. There are egg noodles, sure, but there's also pasta primavera. And cooks have figured out which pastas lend themselves well to Passover cooking. Potato gnocchi, for instance, is great—as little flour as possible is used, so a substitution of potato starch/matzoh meal is hardly noticeable. There is even scacchi, an old Jewish-Italian pasta-less lasagna that uses matzoh instead of noodles.

It's the same for desserts. Ground nuts can also substitute for flour, along with matzoh cake meal (which is matzoh meal even more finely ground). My sister can make biscotti that inspire instant Passover guilt. (The last time she baked them, though, she mistakenly coated the top with salt instead of sugar. They were still eaten.) And Passover cakes can be works of art. One popular kosher site puts it like this:

Passover cakes are somewhat challenging to make because they are made without flour. Their fragile structure is based on whipping the egg whites until they triple in volume to become a fluffy meringue. Then the delicate white clouds are gently folded into the egg yolks that have been beaten with sugar until they're a pale golden yellow. My mother would carefully fold in the potato starch/cake meal mixture.

Food companies are helping out, too. In Israel, a major company called Osem has miraculously created kosher for Passover self-rising flour from potato starch, matzoh meal, and artificial leavening ingredients. From here, anything's possible. Hillá Meller, an amateur chef based in Washington, D.C., was able to bake a marble cake (pictured above) of which the look, texture, and taste give not a hint of Passover. Even Pillsbury gets in the Passover game—in Israel, the company markets a Passover pancake mix.

In fact, even ingredients that are only questionable, not outright prohibited, have their Passover substitutes. Lemon juice can double for cream of tartar. Pureed cottage cheese mixed with butter can stand in for cream cheese. Substitute raw jicama for water chestnuts. Here's a handy list of other Passover pinch-hitters.

Food corporations, too, are forced to substitute ingredients in their Passover products. If the grain used to make vinegar, for example, comes from wheat or corn, then the vinegar is no good. And neither is anything that uses vinegar as an ingredient, like ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or pickles. For these products to be kosher for Passover, only vinegar derived from a kosher for Passover source—such as wine—can be used. (Heinz used to take out ads reminding their consumers that their products are not kosher for Passover.) Some companies substitute glacial acetic acid, which is compositionally identical to vinegar but derived from petroleum, in their Passover products. Soy sauce, too, can be mimicked. McDonald's in Israel sandwiches its burgers in special Passover rolls, made from—you guessed it—matzoh meal and potato starch.

The most famous Passover substitution, however, is in Coke. There's a long and colorful history to how a notoriously top-secret recipe was certified kosher in the first place, but Passover posed a new problem: Coca-Cola sweetened its products with corn-based sugars. After some negotiation, the company agreed to use cane and beet sugars in its special kosher for Passover edition, which has become somewhat of a specialty item, and not just for Jews—consumers of all religions claim the lack of high-fructose corn syrup is a vast improvement. It sells out quickly.

Of course, Passover inspires creativity not only with ingredients but also with dishes. Explorations with vegetables, fish and poultry are far more common than they are during the year. And the rise of gluten allergies is, while tragic, a boon for the Passover recipe-seeking.

Matzoh, for its part, is amazingly versatile. In addition to being, essentially, a big cracker that is good with nearly everything, it can also be used to make matzoh meal, matzoh farfel, and matzoh brei, a kind of Passover french toast so good it's served year-round in a variety of Northeastern non-kosher diners.

And sometimes it's as if God himself intervenes to make Passover more palatable. Sushi, ever since its popularity explosion, has been considered the holy grail of Passover cooking. Pasta and even bread had been conquered, but how do you make sushi without rice? Enter quinoa. Rice isn't technically prohibited, but the orthodox rabbis, due to fear of it being confused with the verboten grains, nixed it. But since quinoa didn't exist outside of South America until recently, it escaped the ban. Ditto with amaranth, an African grain. Passover chefs are just beginning to explore the possibilities.

Passover cooking, of course, will always be hampered. The limitations can be pronounced and the ingredients few. But this year, there's no reason to sacrifice taste, variety, or calories.