My great-grandmother Gouda escaped Germany by boat at night when she was in her 60s. My grandfather, Opa, fled with her and his wife and two small children when he was 42. Both lived long, energetic, brave lives in their adopted country. She, chasing her great-grandchildren around in a playful hide-and-seek when she was 95 years old. He, rebuilding the synagogue he abandoned in Grebenaou for a smaller one in the Bronx. Both also had elaborate Passover breakfast rituals involving broken pieces of matzah.
"Gouda lined her half-full coffee cup with thin strips of matzah," my mother told me. Then, in the order they went in, she lifted each piece out, sprinkled it with sugar and ate it. "She had to work quickly, otherwise the matzah would become too soft and drop off," my mother said, "and when I was a young girl, I watched, waiting to see if even one would break!"
When I was a young girl, I watched Opa gather the small, leftover pieces of matzah, and pour them in his half-full coffee cup. "Nothing should go to waste," he would say. Then he took one big piece of matzah in his hands and crumbled it over the cup until it was filled to the brim. When he was satisfied with the matzah-to-coffee ratio, he pushed down with a big spoon, crunching the pieces closer and closer together, allowing the warm coffee to soak through. Then he waited, for a minute or two, before he carefully placed the saucer over the cup. Flipped. Jiggled. Lifted. Voila! A matzah mountain.
With a small silver spoon, he sprinkled a layer of sugar, like new snow, over his mountain, and from the top down, working gently, spoonful, by spoonful, in silence, he ate, until the mountain was gone.
According to "The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary," matzah symbolizes freedom. But broken matzah, an integral part of the Passover seder, symbolizes the struggle for freedom and the reality that no one is totally free. So maybe it is no coincidence that my biggest moves to new cities happened around Passover. And that the foods from those first seders stand out for me, some dry and strange, some smooth and magically sweet.
When my daughter was 2, we left our home in Atlanta for a fresh start in Portland, Ore. In Atlanta we lived in a ranch house, within easy driving distance of five brothers and sisters, their spouses and children, my parents and a thick group of old and new friends. In Portland, I rented an apartment about 20 minutes away from one college friend and his dog, Moose.
The emptiness was palpable as was the excitement in arranging our furniture in a new place that over looked a park with an orange climbing gym and a swimming pool surrounded by plump bushes and flowering trees. But when the holidays rolled around, I wondered who would share our table. Our liberated family of two felt small.
According to the aforementioned Jewish holiday guide, the core meaning of Passover is the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but it is also referred to as the Holiday of Spring.
"The watchwords of both Spring and Pesach are Rebirth and Hope," writes author Michael Strassfeld. And I clung to both ends of that spectrum. Eventually, I found a cozy Jewish preschool for my daughter to attend, and we met some new people and got invited to a big family seder. The faces were new as was the relentless black rain filling the windows, but the food was warm and plentiful: matzah ball soup, brisket, matzah kugels, warmed fruits, and more I can't remember.
But what I can never forget is the dessert. A cousin of the host bought a plastic bag full of broken matzah pieces half covered in a chunky chocolate coating. I was stuffed from the long meal, but with my last sip of wine, I took a bite of the sweetened matzah. Magic! The chocolate covered a buttery toffee layer in between, and it tasted like a gift. I got up from the table, joined the group of woman at the kitchen counter eating straight from the bag. We all agreed it was dangerously good. We laughed. We ate more.
After a while, I looked over my shoulder. My daughter played on the floor with her new friend. I looked out the window. The rains no longer seemed as dark. With each chocolate bite, my move far away from home lost some of its bitter flavor. And I learned what Gouda and Opa surely understood, that magic can be made from broken pieces, sweetened just right.
The Chocolate Toffee Matzah recipe is very adaptable, depending on how much chocolate and butter you want covering the matzah. My daughter and I make it every year, and she covers the pieces with indulgent quantities of chocolate, both milk and semi-sweet. But we always leave part of the matzah uncovered for ease of handling and visual variety.
This kugel recipe is a Passover adaptation of Betty Goodfriend's wondrous lokshen (noodle) kugel.
Finally, the Obst und Gloessien is from my German grandmother.
CHOCOLATE TOFFEE MATZAH
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 box matzah
3 cups (at least) chocolate (semisweet morsels, dark or milk bars chopped with serrated knife, or any other chocolate)
chopped nuts (optional)
Line two cookie sheets with foil. Arrange matzah, broken in half, on lined cookie sheets. (Some overlapping is fine.) Melt butter and sugar over low heat, stirring constantly. Pour over matzah parts and spread with spatula. (It will not cover completely, which is fine, but you can alter to taste.) Sprinkle chocolate morsels and shavings over matzah.
Bake in 300-degree oven, approximately 5-10 minutes, or until chocolate melts. (Hint, the morsels may not look melted but take out and spread with spatula or knife to test. Bake a few more minutes if still solid.)
Remove from oven, spread chocolate over matzah while still warm. Sprinkle with nuts (optional). Put trays, uncovered, in freezer until hardened, about 2 hours. Break matzah in smaller, uneven pieces and store in sealed plastic bags in freezer until you are ready to eat.
BETTY GOODFRIEND'S MATZAH KUGEL
6-8 Tbs. margarine
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 can pineapple slices or chunks
4 large eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil plus 2 Tbs.
1/2 cup pineapple juice (from can, optional)
1/3 cup Sabra liqueur
1 tsp cinnamon (to taste)
8 matzahs, broken in 1-1/2-inch to 2-inch pieces
3/4 cup raisins
1 Tbs. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
chopped walnuts or almond slivers
Melt margarine and pour into 9-by-13-inch glass pan. Make sure all sides are greased. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over bottom. Arrange pineapple slices in a layer.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put broken matzah pieces (not too small or they will become mushy) in medium bowl and pour warm water over to soften. Soak approximately 3-4 minutes.
Drain. Squeeze out liquid completely. Put raisins in small bowl and pour hot water over to plump. Drain.
In large bowl, whisk eggs, white sugar, oil, pineapple juice and liqueur together. Add cinnamon. With wooden spoon, mix in matzah and raisins into egg mixture.
(At this point, Goodfriend says to taste for salt, and add if needed.) Pour matzah mixture over pineapples in baking pan.
For topping, mix all ingredients together and sprinkle over top. Dot with extra margarine if desired.
Bake for one hour. Test at 45 minutes to see if bottom is dark. If so, move pan to higher rack in oven and bake 15 minutes longer.
Variation: Arrange red cherries, chopped walnuts or pecans on bottom layer of pineapple.
Allow kugel to cool 10 minutes and then (using oven mitts) flip onto slightly larger serving platter for a beautiful upside-down kugel.
OBST UND GLOESSIEN
(Fruit and Dumplings)
4 matzahs crushed, or 3 cups matzah farfel
12 oz. package mixed dried fruit
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 Tbs. matzah meal (heaping)
2 Tbs. sugar
In medium bowl, soak matzah in warm water until soft. Drain and squeeze out liquid. (It is important to drain well, as dumplings will not hold with too much moisture.)
In small bowl soak fruit in lemon juice.
In medium pan, sauté matzah in vegetable oil. Set aside. Put fruit in large pot and add water to cover well above fruit. Simmer covered for 1/2 hour.
In large bowl, mix beaten eggs, matzah meal, sugar, salt cinnamon. Add matzah. Mix until moist enough hold together. Form into matzah ball-size dumplings. Set aside.
Bring fruit to a slow boil and add dumplings. Add more water if necessary. Simmer covered for 1/2 hour. Test with knife, dumplings should be cooked through and not soggy in the center. Serve warm. Traditionally served as a side to brisket.
Variation: Add liquor or red wine to fruit sauce.