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French desserts may be key to tasty end of Seder meals

Andrea Abel

For all of Judaism's rich food traditions, the influence of American cooking on Passover desserts has fallen short, in my estimation. Witness the omnipresent American Passover dessert staple of the overly sweet coconut macaroon straight out of the Manischewitz or Streit's can. I have made various versions of tough, dry Passover brownies and the ubiquitous sponge cake, and I have strong childhood recollections of a prune-flavored mystery whipped dessert. Let's just say these are not the best examples of America leading the culinary charge. Passover begins at sundown Monday, lasts for eight days and celebrates the Jews' freedom from Egyptian slavery. Jews around the world partake in elaborate multicourse ritual meals called Seders,

which are accompanied by four glasses of wine, prayers, singing and the telling of the Passover story. As for holiday dietary rules, the quick rule is the prohibition of leavening - such as yeast - along with various grains. The exception is a specially prepared flatbread called matzo or any of the other products made from matzo.

Over the years I've altered my Passover dessert repertoire. Instead of trying to re-create leavened cakes and other confections with ingredients acceptable during the holiday, I find myself leaning toward recipes that simply avoid these ingredients altogether like flourless chocolate tortes and Italian pine nut-almond cookies made with almond paste, and fresh fruit topped with either whipping cream or an elegant zabaglione sauce.

So as I paged through Joan Nathan's recent foray into the fascinating and complex world of French Jewish cooking, "Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France," the Passover dessert recipes caught my eye. Mais oui! Of course, if any culture can pull off some downright delectable tidbits to end the Seder meal, leave it to the French!

Last November, I had the privilege to hear the renowned Jewish cookbook author and PBS cooking show host speak here in Austin. Nathan - who has a long relationship with France that started when she was in her teens - introduced the book accompanied by a brunch consisting of selected French Jewish recipes as she told anecdotes about how she sleuthed out each recipe from years of travel to France.

Nathan has long been a culinary idol of mine, teaching me through her more than half-dozen cookbooks ranging from modern Israeli cooking, Jewish cooking in America, and Jewish holiday baking. The brilliance of these French dishes is that they were not trying to emulate something that is prohibited during the holiday. Rather, in the best culinary traditions, the recipes sought to highlight and extol the exquisite deliciousness of a particular food, whether it is chocolate, pineapple, carrot, or dried fruits.

In her book and in a recent telephone interview, Nathan talks about the complex and diverse history of French Jews as well as French Jewish Passover traditions. Logically, there is no single French Jewish cuisine. "Regionalism is very strong in France," says Nathan. But beyond regional influences such as Alsace, Paris, and Burgundy, Jews have moved around by necessity over the centuries adapting to local culinary customs. Thus, for Passover, French Jews bring with them North African tagines, Polish gefilte fish, and Portuguese haroset.

When asked what distinguishes French Seders from American Seders, Nathan says, "I think the whole tenor is more reserved than what we would do. We tend to have huge numbers of people. They wouldn't do that. It would be smaller. That I think is one very important thing. Seders will not be as freewheeling as ours. They would be more like a French meal with good manners."

Nathan shares her recollections of the Passover desserts. "The carrot torte is a dish I remember I had on Passover. I tasted that when I was 20 years old at my family's in Annecy. I remembered tasting it and thinking, `Oh my God, this is so different than anything I'd ever had,'" she says.

As for the chocolate almond cake, Nathan admits that she had to change the recipe a bit. After sharing this 400-year-old recipe that had been passed down orally in Spanish, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and now French, the gentleman from Bayonne got cold feet about having his family secret published.

A Parisian Jewish woman originally from Morocco shared a Passover pineapple flan recipe with Nathan as an example of quick, easy, and delicious. One important note about this recipe: In the cookbook, the recipe lists either canned or fresh pineapple. However, only canned pineapple will work, as Nathan later found out. Fresh pineapple contains an enzyme that prohibits the flan from setting.

The compote of poached prunes and figs is a Passover dish eaten in Alsace and southern Germany along with chremslach, a type of fritter. Nathan suggests that other unsweetened dried fruits can be substituted in the recipe such as dried pineapple or apricots. I also added dried cherries and nectarines.

Chocolate Almond Cake

7 Tbsp. unsalted butter or pareve margarine, plus more for greasing

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

3 large eggs, separated

1 tsp. vanilla extract

11/4 cups finely chopped blanched almonds

1/2 cup matzo cake meal (Note: You can use all-purpose flour if making not during Passover)

6 Tbsp. confectioners' sugar

1 Tbsp. rum

Optional garnish: raspberries and whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch springform or cake pan.

Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over low heat. Let cool slightly.

Cream the butter or margarine with the granulated sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer equipped with a paddle.

Mix the cooled, melted chocolate into the butter. Then add the egg yolks, one at a time beating well after each addition. Finally, mix in the vanilla, almonds, and cake meal.

In a clean bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the cake batter.

Pour into the springform pan, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, inserting a cake tester or toothpick to make sure it is done. Cool on a rack, and unmold.

To make the glaze, dissolve the confectioners' sugar in the rum and 1 tablespoon water. Mix well. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake. This cake can also be cut into 1-inch circles or squares before glazing. If you wish, garnish with raspberries, and serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

Makes 1 cake, serving 8 people, or 24 1-inch circles or squares

Torte aux Carottes de Pâque

(Passover Carrot Torte)

Vegetable oil or spray for greasing the pan

7 large eggs

1 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

5 large carrots, peeled and grated (about 21/2 cups grated) (Note: grated carrots should be in between fine and rough)

11/2 cups ground hazelnuts or almonds (Note: measure after grinding)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch spring-form pan.

Separate five of the eggs. In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat the five egg yolks with the two remaining whole eggs, the sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla, and the lemon zest and juice. Mix in the carrots and hazelnuts.

Beat the five egg whites to stiff peaks in a clean bowl with clean beaters. Gently fold in batches into the carrot batter. Pour into the prepared pan, and bake for 50 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool before unmolding. Serves 8 to 10.

Compote de Pruneauxet de Figues

(Poached prunes and figs a la Alice B. Toklas)

1/2 lb. prunes (dried plums)

1/2 lb. dried figs

21/2 cups dry red wine, or more if necessary

3 cinnamon sticks

Grated zest and juice of 1 orange

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

3 peppercorns

3 cloves

3 Tbsps. sugar, or to taste

Whipped cream for serving (optional)

Put the prunes and figs, wine, cinnamon sticks, orange zest and juice, lemon zest, peppercorns, and cloves in a wide saucepan. If necessary, add more wine so that the fruit is just covered. Bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for about an hour. Stir in the sugar, adding more to taste if you like. (Note: Cooking time will vary depending on the moistness of the fruit. Check frequently and add more liquid as needed.)

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fruit to a bowl. Strain the liquid, and pour it over the fruit. Cover with plastic wrap, and let sit in the refrigerator overnight. Serve at room temperature, with or without the whipped cream.

(Can serve with chremslach, a type of Passover fritter, from Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America.)

Serves 6.

Parisian PassoverPineapple Flan

11/2 to 13/4 cups sugar

Juice of 2 lemons (4 Tbsp.)

15 canned pineapple slices (Two 20-oz. cans of rings of unsweetened pineapple)

11/2 cups unsweetened pineapple juice, fresh or reserved from the can

10 large eggs, beaten

1/3 cup potato starch (Note: You can use corn starch if making not during Passover)

Stir 1 cup of the sugar with the juice of one of the lemons (2 Tbsp.) in a small saucepan. Heat the pan, stirring constantly, until the syrup begins to bubble. Stop stirring, and allow the pan to sit over the flame until the syrup begins to turn golden at the edges. Remove from the heat. Brush down any sugar crystals with a brush dipped in cold water. Occasionally rotate the pan to mix the syrup without stirring it. Continue doing this until the syrup is evenly golden.

Carefully pour the resulting caramel into an ungreased 10-inch flan mold or round cake pan, making sure you swirl the caramel up the sides of the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and put 15 pineapple slices in the food processor. Pulse until chunky but not pureed. Set aside in a bowl.

Mix 1/2 cup of sugar and the pineapple juice in a saucepan and simmer slowly for a few minutes to dissolve the sugar. Then pour into the bowl with the chopped pineapple. Taste, and add 1/4 cup more sugar if needed. Let cool slightly, and whisk in the eggs, remaining lemon juice, and potato starch. (Note: To avoid lumps, I reserve a small amount of beaten eggs to whisk with the potato starch before adding to the pineapple mixture.)

Pour the pineapple mixture into the flan mold, and set the mold in a bain-marie, a larger pan filled with hot water to come about halfway up the side of the mold. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes, cool, and refrigerate at least a couple of hours. Before serving, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan. Cover with a plate, and carefully flip over to release.

Serves 8.