When the daffodils began to flower, it was the signal that a procession of delivery men would appear at my grandmother’s door in advance of Passover.
My grandparents lived in an apartment in Queens, N.Y., at the top of a steep staircase. There was a landing at the top of the stairs that served as a place to catch one’s breath after the climb, and as the staging area for the stream of ingredients that were to be laid in and consumed during the holiday week. Those things that required cooler temperatures would go on the fire escape outside the kitchen window — things like horseradish root and spring onions.
The egg man brought six dozen eggs, their open cardboard holders stacked two dozen on a sheet. The matzo man hauled boxes of Horowitz Margareten matzoh up the flight of stairs to the apartment kitchen. It was so fresh, my grandmother said, it was “hot matzoh — right out of the oven!”
The seltzer man brought big water cooler-sized bluish glass bottles with gleaming silver spouts that fizzed loudly as the adults pushed the lever and topped glasses of whisky or wine with the stuff. The bottles were left on the landing at the top of the stairs, to be hauled into the kitchen as needed.
In the space between the refrigerator and the sink counter, brown paper bags from the supermarket were folded and stored. These special artifacts were a necessary part of the process to create the Passover sponge cake that my grandmother made. It had a caramelized sugar crunch on its crust that, to me, was the sole reason to eat it. Lemony, crunchy, cloud-like, I consumed this favored dessert throughout the holiday, shunning macaroons (to this day I cannot abide coconut), Passover thumbprint cookies with red jelly centers, and boxes of nut cookies that everyone seemed to bring.
To prepare the sacred sponge, a brown paper supermarket bag was cut open from top, then the bottom was cut off. Laid flat, Grandma taught me how, with a sharp pencil, to trace the outline of the bottom of the tube pan with the hole in the middle onto the inside of the bag. Carefully, I cut the outline and the center hole. The pattern was then fitted to the bottom of the pan. As no grease was used (it would keep the sponge from rising to its full height), accuracy here was important.
Then, we measured the circumference of the pan and cut a length of brown bag, a little taller than the walls of the pan. If done right, the cake would rise above its metal moorings and up the brown paper to majestic heights. The brown paper ring was carefully fitted around the inside of the pan so that it overlapped, to hold the batter, allow it to rise and for the top to caramelize — the magic of egg whites and sugar — undisturbed.
Zesting lemons was a task I was usually given. The springtime clear and cleansing smell permeated the kitchen and the batter.
Once the batter was mixed and placed in the oven, I was reminded not to jump up and down — not to open the oven, not to walk too heavily anywhere in the kitchen — as I peeked through the oven door to check on the cake’s progress. This added to the magic and anticipation.
The sugar/lemon aroma filled the kitchen when the cake was removed. The cake pan was flipped onto a serving plate, its feet elevating it above the dish so that it could cool, allowing the release of the distinctive cake perfume. When cooled, the bottom section of the pan was pushed down so that the cake could be inverted once again without its metal sides.
It was time to unwrap the marvel.
The cake striptease was to be performed slowly so that the cake would release from the paper but not deflate. The slow, steady, revealing pull of the brown paper around the outside of the cake created tension against the sponge, teasing, the cake hesitating to leave its paper mooring for an instant, then pulling away and voluptuously springing into its pulchritudinous airy shape.
I love this cake eaten unadorned, cut right off the serving platter and crushed into my mouth if I’m alone, but putting it on your own plate among guests, with a few cut strawberries or a strawberry rhubarb compote isn’t bad either.
GRANDMA’S PASSOVER SPONGE
6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
Zest of 1/2 of a lemon
6 tablespoons potato starch
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line the bottom and sides of a tube pan with a cut-to-fit brown paper bag or parchment paper as described above.
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until well combined and lightened slightly. Add the lemon zest and potato starch. Mix well. In another large bowl, with a hand mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
Using a spatula, carefully fold a glob of egg white into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Then fold in the remaining egg whites carefully, so as not to deflate the mixture.
Pour evenly into the tube pan. Bake for 40 minutes, until light brown on top. Remove from oven. Place upside down on a plate, resting the tube pan on its feet to cool for at least an hour. Carefully remove the bottom of the pan, invert onto a serving plate and slowly unwrap paper.
Note: For a larger cake, use 8 eggs and ½ cup potato starch. Follow the same directions as for the 6-egg cake.