Season to Taste: The Replacement
There are two schools of thought when it comes to Passover desserts, and each has pluses and minuses.
Copycats try to convince us that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, turning out brownies, muffins, cakes and cookies that approximate the leavened desserts we enjoy the other 357 days of the year. The Naturalists meanwhile avoid what can occur when we try to make a croissant out of potato starch and a sprinkling of fairy dust, instead baking desserts that do not mimic flour-filled ones. I am on the fence about which point of view I favor. While I have enjoyed Passover muffins and cookies, I am rarely so blown away that I can’t-believe-it’s-not-flour.
Several ingredients feature prominently in baking for Passover. Nuts are a natural choice—they are rich, decadent and, when ground, can stand in for flour in certain instances. They lend structure and body to desserts from macaroons to cookies, caramels and the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake. However, nuts do pose some challenges: In their ground form, they are heavier and oilier than flour, which makes them ideal for dense preparations but more challenging when the desired result is light and airy.
That is where egg whites come in. Used to inject volume, height and lightness (not to mention a little extra protein) into desserts, they are a staple no Passover kitchen should be without for making meringues, sponge cakes and more. But they are fragile, and baking chemistry dictates that a heavy counterpart—such as too much matza meal—can ruin the final product. So don’t discount whole eggs. The yolks act as natural leavening, which is essential when flour is replaced with matza meal.
Essentially chopped-up pieces of our seasonal flatbread, matza meal needs a lot of help, in the form of whole eggs for lift and oil for moistening, to make Passover desserts work. In recent years, cornstarch-free baking powder has become available—it turns out that there is nothing verboten about its ingredients bicarbonate of soda or cream of tartar—so feel free to use it to give lift to all sorts of treats. Matza cake meal, basically further pulverized matza, fares a little better, as it absorbs liquid more quickly and is less grainy. It is more expensive than matza meal, but easy to make at home: Place 1/2 cup matza meal at a time in a small spice grinder, or a minimum of 1 cup at a time in the food processor, and whir until fine.
I also use potato starch for its fine texture and feathery results. It contributes to gooey brownies and crispy cookies, and it’s gluten-free. But be careful: Sometimes recipes made entirely with potato starch can be gluey (imagine overcooked gnocchi and you get the idea), so combining potato starch and matza meal is a good idea.
Cocoa and baking chocolate are holiday mainstays as well. Luckily, the same Dutch-processed cocoa we use year-round is permissible on Passover, and you can find high-end baking bars at kosher stores and some supermarkets (semisweet chocolate chips work, too). If you are serving a dairy meal, make a chocolate sauce or fondue with butter and cream (opt for margarine and a splash of liqueur for pareve), perfect for drizzling over a dry cake or for dipping with fresh fruit.
If baking isn’t your thing, there is always fruit. Consider a fresh fruit salad with store-bought meringues, pears poached in a red-wine sauce or some roasted pineapple or apples with a homemade spiced-sugar syrup and macaroons from the bakery.
But if you are baking this holiday, try these delicious and easy nut-and-chocolate bars based on a year-round recipe that requires very little substitution. They come out chewy and crispy. Put them in a tin or wrap them in cellophane for a gracious gift—if you can bear to let them out of your kitchen.
Chewy Pecan-Chocolate Bars
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Brand-new Book of Great Cookies(Random House). Makes 24 bars.
1 TB melted margarine or oil
2 cups (1/2 pound) pecans
1 TB matza cake meal
1 TB potato starch
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp kosher-for-Passover baking powder
6 oz finely chopped semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 1/2 tsps vanilla
1. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet or jellyroll pan with aluminum foil, fitting the foil to shape of pan as closely as possible. Brush bottom and sides of foil with melted margarine or oil and set aside.
2. In a food processor, combine pecans, matza cake meal, potato starch, salt and baking powder until pecans are chopped into very small pieces but are not ground into a flour, about 15-20 seconds. Transfer to a bowl and reserve.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs, brown sugar and vanilla on high about 4-5 minutes, until mixture has thickened and the color of light coffee.
4. Pour the egg-and-sugar mixture over the ground nuts, then add the chopped chocolate; fold until all ingredients are incorporated.
5. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake until bubbly and top is cooked through but still pale, about 22 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely.
6. Cut cake in half, including aluminum foil. One half at a time, cover cake with a plate and flip over. Remove foil, then cover again with plate and flip back. Cut into bars.