Harvey’s charoset pyramid. (photo by Shelley Civkin)
As the Torah commands us, we tell the story of Passover and the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt to our children and ourselves every year, by reading from the Haggadah. Coming from a secular home, I don’t recall our family owning a single Haggadah. Instead, my father had a little black notebook in which he wrote down the story of Passover and the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. It took about five minutes for Dad to read it, and then we had our seder. It wasn’t particularly traditional, but it was meaningful nonetheless.
On the all-encompassing journey called Yiddishkeit, preparing for Passover scores about an 18/10 on the commitment scale. Between the feathers and flashlights, flourless sponge cakes and briskets, a balabusta has her work cut out for her. And then some.
As an accidental balabusta and relative neophyte to traditional Passover preparations, I want to get with the program as much as possible. I scared myself the other day though, by reading articles about what goes into getting ready for this significant holiday. One such article – called “Cook your Pesach while you sleep” – was particularly troubling. It seems to me that a Pesadik balabusta requires at least 36 hours in every day to prepare her food for the seder, a month ahead of time. She might also require a housekeeper to do all the laundry and clean the house while she’s tethered to the kitchen, cutting, peeling, blanching, baking and roasting the eight-course meals she’ll serve to her 42 guests over the two nights of Passover. Oh, and did I mention the other two minor meals she needs to organize daily for her family during the eight days of the holiday? Holy flourless kugel, Batman!
And then there’s the issue of finding and removing all the chametz from your home. Let me confess something right from the get-go: I am not an observant Jew in the strict sense of the word. I do observe certain things, like going to synagogue every Shabbat, lighting Shabbat candles, doing the odd mitzvah, and studying a little Torah. That’s about the extent of it. I refrain from eating chametz during Pesach, but I have never actually removed all the chametz from my home before the holiday. And I don’t keep kosher. However, I do eat matzah religiously during Pesach. And I kind of have a crush on shmurah matzah.
As for that age-old shmurah versus Manischewitz matzah debate … I wholeheartedly throw my vote behind shmurah. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s so worth it. Having visited Kfar Chabad on our trip to Israel last year, we went to their shmurah matzah factory and witnessed how the matzah is made by hand. Seeing the meticulous precision with which everything is measured, timed and baked, it was a fascinating and educational experience. And did I mention its unique flavour and round shape? Sure, parts of it can be burnt, but that just enhances the taste. Once you go shmurah, you’ll never go back.
I’m the kind of accidental balabusta that, instead of making matzah ball soup, brisket, tzimmes and macaroons for Pesach, I’m inclined to make hotel reservations in Whistler and call it a day. There’s no need for me to be Jewish Wonder Woman. Gal Godot has that covered. I know, not every woman who prepares for Pesach considers herself Wonder Woman. But, given the magnitude of preparation that must get done in advance – and done to rigorous standards – I’m pretty sure that devotedly observant women qualify for that title. As for me, I’ll do the best I can to honour the traditions, prepare a welcoming and tasty seder for my family, then enjoy a plotzfest.
Preparing for Pesach can be dangerous though. A couple of years ago, I decided to forgo the store-bought chrain (horseradish) and make my own. I found a recipe, then went out and bought the fresh horseradish root. It looked innocent enough. From a distance. Nobody told me that taking a close-up whiff of newly pulverized horseradish root is akin to inhaling mustard gas. I thought I’d burned my lungs. Sure, it produced that unrivaled heat I always admire in a memorable horseradish. However, it almost knocked me out. This Pesach, I plan to simplify the process by buying horseradish. And saving my lungs for more important things … like breathing.
On the topic of food … my husband Harvey makes the ultimate Passover crowd-pleaser: a visually stunning, delicious pyramid-shaped charoset. He got the recipe decades ago from the L.A. Times. It never fails to impress guests. Here’s the recipe.
HARVEY’S CHAROSET PYRAMID
1 unpeeled pear, cored and chopped roughly
1 unpeeled apple, cored and chopped roughly
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped almonds
1 cup chopped hazelnuts
1 cup chopped pistachios
1 cup chopped pitted dates
1 cup chopped raisins
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
sweet wine, preferably Manischewitz (about 1/4 cup)
extra dates to decorate the plate
- Put all the nuts in food processor and chop, but not too finely. Place in a bowl.
- Put dates and raisins in food processor and chop, but not too finely. Place in separate bowl.
- Core and roughly chop apple and pear by hand, then put in the food processor, along with the nuts, and the raisin and date mixture. Add cinnamon, ginger, apple cider vinegar and wine. Chop till it’s all mixed together. Be careful not to overdo it – you don’t want it mushy.
- Remove it all from the food processor and shape it into a pyramid with a spatula. Then use a small, sharp knife to lightly make “brick” shapes in the pyramid. Refrigerate. Put whole dates around the outside before serving.
For another Passover culinary experience, check out Jamie Geller’s recipe for potato kugel cups at joyofkosher.com/recipes/potato-kugel-cups. You can YouTube it, too. If you’re not afraid of hot oil in a 425°F oven, this recipe will knock your Pesach socks off. Personally, scorching hot oil makes me a bit skittish. But the result is potato heaven.
As Pesach approaches, it’s a time to clean house, both literally and spiritually. It’s a time to remember how blessed we are in our freedom as Jews today. And it’s a time to hold close our traditions, pass along the story of our exodus from Egypt to the younger generation, and be thankful for where we are now.
So, eat the matzah and bitter herbs and drink those four cups of wine. Then go out and buy lots of Metamucil. Because you’re going to need it after eight days of matzah. But check with your rabbi first to make sure Metamucil is kosher for Pesach.
Wishing you all a meaningful and freilach Pesach.
Shelley Civkin, aka the Accidental Balabusta, is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News.