The Ten Plagues? Perhaps. The parting of the Red Sea? A strong contender, to be sure. But, of all the miracles associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover, the greatest miracle of all just might be a kosher for Passover dessert that you'd be proud to serve anytime of year -- not just at the Seder, the ritual meal that marks the first two nights of the holiday, which begins Monday at sundown.
"You really could say that we eat our way through the story of Passover," says Rabbi Josh Breindel, of Temple Anshei Amunim, (Hebrew for "people of faith") in Pittsfield.
Most Jewish holidays have a connection to food, says Breindel, but on Passover, that focus is especially clear.
The most notable example is the prohibition on eating any leavened food during the holiday's eight days. Instead, Jews are commanded to eat matzah, a dry, unleavened bread that recalls the haste with which their ancestors fled Egypt, without even enough time for the dough to rise. Breindel also cites the other ritual foods eaten at the Seder as designed to help participants recall the Exodus story. Bitter herbs, especially horseradish, recall the bitterness of slavery. Charoset (chopped apples, nuts and sweet wine) resembles the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build Pharaoh's cities. Fresh green herbs, like parsley, are a sign of spring, and the salt water they're dipped into, of tears.
Nearly as central to the holiday as these items, displayed on the often-ornate Seder plate at the head of every holiday table, are the matzo ball soup, brisket and potato kugel (think casserole) that traditionally form the core menu of so many contemporary American Jewish Seders.
Dessert, on the other hand, has always been something of a desert, in part because of the prohibition against leavened foods on Passover, and in part because of the year-round prohibition of mixing milk and meat during the same meal for Jews who observe the kosher dietary laws. However, on a holiday that is also known for its Four Questions, asked by the youngest child able to do so, local restaurateur and caterer, Dawn LaRochelle, has a unique answer to the unofficial fifth question of "When do we eat?" or, at least, to the question of what to eat for dessert.
"After the heavy Seder dinner, we like to end on a lighter note," says LaRochelle, the owner of Perigee Restaurant in Lee, and Apogee Catering, who adds that her Pomegranate Poached Pears "satisfy the sweet tooth in us without weighing us down."
She touts them as a heart-healthy, out-of-the-box choice for her health conscious family, or anyone looking to try something new this year at their Seder. Of course, if you're looking for the old tried-and-true, look no further than the brisket, a Seder staple for generations.
The perfect cut-with-a-fork brisket is also one of the minor miracles of the holiday. To achieve it, LaRochelle recommends the second (deckle) cut. Most supermarkets only sell the leaner first-cut, so she suggests a trip to the butcher. She also maintains that while most brisket recipes call for braising it uncovered at 350 degrees, a longer, slower braise at 300 degrees, covered to retain moisture, makes for a much more succulent piece of meat.
"I am a big proponent of using thermometers, and the internal temperature of a perfectly tender brisket should be about 200 degrees," says LaRochelle.
For the best results, she recommends refrigerating the brisket, unsliced, overnight in the braising liquid before reheating covered, in a 300-degree oven until warmed through, and serving the next day.
With these two recipes on the Seder table, though, the biggest miracle of all just might be having leftovers. Happy Passover!
Pomegranate Poached Pears
Dawn LaRochelle suggests serving these sprinkled with toasted pistachios and Pesadich (kosher for Passover) dark chocolate shavings. Vanilla ice cream or pareve (non-dairy) vanilla ice cream is also a delicious addition.
8 Bartlett pears, peeled and cored, stem side intact, 1/4 inch sliced from bottom (so pears can stand up when plated)
6 cups pomegranate juice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup orange juice
1 cup firmly-packed light brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Zest of one orange, cut into strips
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons orange liqueur mixed with 2 tablespoons cornstarch to make a slurry
Chopped toasted pistachios (optional)
Dark chocolate curls (optional)
Vanilla ice cream (optional)
Using an apple corer or small, sharp paring knife, carefully core each pear from the bottom. Peel the pears, leaving the stems intact, and cut a small slice off the bottom of each pear so that the pears can stand upright.
In a large non-aluminum stockpot over medium-high heat, combine the pomegranate juice, white wine, orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon stick, orange zest and vanilla and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, add pears cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until pears are tender (you want to be able to insert a small knife easily into the bottom of the pear).
Remove the pan from the heat, and allow the pears to cool in the poaching liquid. Refrigerate, covered, at least four hours, and preferably overnight.
Remove pears from poaching liquid. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick from the poaching liquid.
Pour about 2 cups of the poaching liquid into a small saucepan set over medium-low heat and simmer until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Whisk slurry into the liquid reduction. Continue to simmer, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until the liquid is reduced to a glaze.
Place one pear on each of eight plates, and then ladle some of the reduced poaching liquid over the pear. Sprinkle with toasted pistachios and chocolate shavings to garnish, and/or serve with vanilla ice cream alongside. Serve remaining glaze alongside.
Slow-braised brisket with apricot-cognac glaze
Serves 8 to 10
Start preparing this recipe two days before your Seder. Letting it marinate, refrigerated, in the spice rub overnight gives it incredible depth of flavor, and refrigerating the cooked brisket in the braise overnight lets the juices permeate the meat even more, guaranteeing flavorful and succulent results, according to LaRochelle.
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1 5-pound brisket (preferably second cut)
2 tablespoons oil, divided
1 cup chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, smashed
4 cups beef broth
1 1/2 cups Ramapo Valley Honey Beer (it's kosher for Passover, but you can also substitute red wine)
3/4 cup cognac
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup Pesadich soy sauce (or use recipe below to make your own)
Few sprigs fresh rosemary
Few sprigs fresh thyme
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 plum tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 2 cup apricot preserves
1 tablespoon cognac
Kosher salt (to taste)
Freshly-ground black pepper
Mix all rub ingredients together in a small bowl; rub all over brisket. Cover and chill overnight. Let stand at room temperature for one hour before continuing.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a Dutch oven or large, heavy oven-safe pot over high heat. Add brisket, fat side down, and sear until well-browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Turn and sear the other side and additional 3 to 4 minutes until well-browned; transfer to a plate with tongs.
Reduce heat to medium and add remaining tablespoon oil. Add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, until onion is browned and caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add broth and all remaining ingredients and bring liquid to a simmer. Return brisket to Dutch oven or pot, cover tightly with foil and transfer to preheated oven.
Braise for 5 to 6 hours, or until tender. Using a large spatula, transfer brisket, fat side up, to a large plate.
Strain braising liquid into a bowl; puree the vegetables in a blender or food processor and reserve; store overnight in covered container. Return the liquid to the Dutch oven or pot, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes. Return brisket, fat side up, to Dutch oven or pot with reduced braising liquid. Refrigerate, covered, overnight. The next day, skim fat from top of brisket. Let brisket come to room temperature, then reheat at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes, until warmed through.
Transfer 1/4 cup braising liquid to blender or food processor. Add preserves and cognac and puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat broiler. Spread 3 to 4 tablespoons glaze on top of brisket with the back of a spoon. Broil until browned and glazed, watching carefully to prevent burning.
Warm the reserved pureed vegetables in a saucepan over medium heat. Transfer brisket to cutting board. Slice against the grain and serve atop the warmed vegetable puree, ladling braising liquid over and drizzling remaining glaze on top.
Passover soy sauce
Yield: 1/2 cup
1/4 cup beef broth
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
Salt (to taste)
Freshly-ground black pepper (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, uncovered, until liquid is reduced to 1 2 cup, about 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate, tightly covered.