Ask most Jewish children, ‘‘What’s your favorite holiday?’’ and ‘‘Hanukkah’’ is the quick response. For me, all the gaily wrapped gifts in the world can’t hold a candle to the magic of Passover.
When I was growing up, my huge, raucous family would gather for the Seder (‘‘order’’ in Hebrew), the traditional Passover meal commemorating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. My grandpa would officiate at the mile-long table laden with brisket and tzimmes (carrot stew), stuffed chicken and kugels, and splendid Passover confections. Or so I’ve heard: I was never there!
My family spent our Passovers — a magical weeklong celebration — in resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where my dad, a singer and cantor, performed Seders complete with choir for 850 people.
As I tackled my first home Seder, I began to create meaningful — albeit less grandiose — memories for my own family.
When Passover begins at sundown April 12, it marks the culmination of weeks of preparations for Jewish cooks. Julie Ghodsi of Golden Dreidle in Costa Mesa, Calif., reports that despite the gift giving at Hanukkah, more Jewish cookbooks are sold for Passover.
‘‘This is the time of year when people are looking for traditional childhood favorites,’’ she said, ‘‘but they want something new, too, particularly fun and creative desserts. Passover is like the Jewish Thanksgiving. People go all out to prepare a full-course meal with the whole family gathered together.’’
I asked the authors of four new cookbooks about their recipes and received much more than cooking advice.
Susie Fishbein’s ‘‘Kosher by Design Entertains’’ (Mesorah, $34.99) offers spectacular menus and beautifully photographed serving ideas with the simple, yet elegant recipes. The book has nine parts, and many of the recipes are appropriate for Passover. Fishbein includes a list of recipe adjustments for the holiday’s dietary restrictions.
‘‘A good restaurant meal is great,” said Fishbein, ‘‘but when you open your doors to people you love — where are you more comfortable than in your own home?”
Fishbein was raised Orthodox so the Jewish holidays were important family celebrations. Passover was especially hectic. ‘‘So many people, so much to do,’’ she recalled. ‘‘The child in the least favor at the moment would be sent outside to scrape the maror (horseradish). Someone else would be chopping nuts. Grandma Mollie would be making matzo meal pancakes.’’
Passover wouldn’t be Passover without my mom’s incredible chicken soup, but I’m trying Fishbein’s Carrot Coconut Vichyssoise, using my mother’s soup as a base. ‘‘I do the same thing,’’ confided Fishbein. ‘‘When I’m short on time, I’ll use our local kosher butcher’s homemade chicken stock.’’
We will dine on Tunisian lamb. I found the recipe in ‘‘Jewish Food: The World at Table’’ (HarperCollins, $29.95) by Matthew Goodman, ‘‘Food Maven’’ columnist at the Forward, the 105-year-old Jewish newspaper.
‘‘While in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewish tradition, beef is commonly the main course,’’ Goodman told me, ‘‘in much of the Sephardic (Spanish) world, lamb is much more common as the centerpiece of the Passover tradition, and in Tunisia certainly lamb was the most common Passover dish. Lambs were, of course, butchered in the springtime — think of spring lamb — so it’s part of the celebration of springtime, the abundance of spring.’’
Goodman offers recipes from 29 countries. ‘‘What I tried to do with this book was to locate and preserve food traditions from communities around the world that are today endangered because the communities themselves are endangered,’’ he said.
What makes food from these divergent communities Jewish food? ‘‘There are very few dishes that are shared by all Jewish communities,’’ noted Goodman, ‘‘and only one shared ingredient, matzo. You couldn’t define a cuisine based entirely on matzo. Jewish food is food made by Jewish communities through the centuries and sustained by them, wherever they happened to be.’’
Potatoes are always a featured side dish at our Seder, and I’m trying Moroccan Mashed Potato Casserole from Gil Marks’ ‘‘Olive Trees and Honey’’ (Wiley, $29.95).
‘‘A custom arose in Provence beginning about 800 years ago amongst the Ashkenazi,’’ Marks explained, ‘‘to restrict foods such as legumes for Passover, and over the centuries other items were added to this general category, such as corn and rice.’’
Marks is a rabbi and historian as well as a chef. His new book offers 300 flavorful vegetarian recipes from Jewish communities around the globe — from Mediterranean mezes (appetizers) to savory pastries to tantalizing stews — and chronicles the fascinating culinary history of such diverse communities as India, Alsace (France), Greece and Uzbekistan, offering menus and commentaries about the Jewish holidays, deepening our understanding of their historical context.
‘‘By doing the Seder we’re really reliving the events of 3,500 years ago at the original Exodus. By eating the matzo, we literally relive the experience, which ingrains in our memory more than just words.’’
The Seder developed over the centuries, Marks said, and was adapted and changed by different cultures. Take the Seder plate on which the symbols of Passover are arranged. ‘‘Originally the Seder took place around a series of small tables or trays containing different items, such as the maror (bitter herbs) and matzo, and the tables were moved in and out of the room in the course of the Seder.
‘‘In early medieval times, when the original Jewish communities were merging in Alsace, they no longer sat on the floor or would lie on benches, as they did in Roman times or in the Middle East. In Europe people sat at tables with chairs, so a custom developed of putting the Seder items on one plate, which replaced the small tables.’’
Dessert calls for creativity, for the Bible commands that Jews eat no leaven (yeast) during Passover, as our forefathers, fleeing Egypt in haste, had no time for bread to rise. All baked goods contain various forms of ground matzo and/or potato starch with eggs, giving them their ‘‘lift.’’ It’s a challenge, but resourceful Jewish cooks through the ages have risen to it.
One look at the Raspberry Meringue Gâteau in ‘‘Crowning Elegance’’ (Wimmer, $34.95) by the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School of Skokie, Ill., and I knew I had found a sweet ending to our sweet celebration.
‘‘Crowning Elegance’’ was conceived as a fundraiser for the school, where a good part of the students’ day is spent on Hebrew and Judaic studies.