Test Kitchen Community
Passover Favorites from the America’s Test Kitchen Book Team
Finally, a humble dish called charoset gets its due.
04-05-2017
America's Test Kitchen

At America’s Test Kitchen, we think every meal is important. But some occasions call for extra attention, and the Jewish holiday of Passover is one of those occasions. This holiday, which lasts for up to eight days, is all about symbolic foods—those you can't eat and those you're expected to. Observers abstain from eating certain items, including anything that's been leavened, and partake in seders, long meals that feature traditional items such as hard-boiled eggs and matzo.

We asked members of the ATK books team about their fondest Passover memories, their favorite holiday dishes, and what must-have recipe they’ve served at seders past (or will serve in the future). Here's what they had to say.

Anne Wolf, Senior Editor

There’s so much historical and religious significance behind the holiday, but growing up, Passover was all about spring, gathering around the table with cousins I rarely saw, playing with your food (dipping parsley in salt water?!), telling silly jokes about lounging on pillows at the dining room table, and participating in the long-awaited, high-stakes, free-for-all Matzo Hunt. (The kid who found the hidden piece of matzo would win bragging rights and five dollars.)

Sephardic charoset stole my heart. This dish marries my childhood memories of family festivities with my adult palate and love for Middle Eastern flavors.

My favorite Passover dish is charoset, a fruit and nut mixture that symbolizes the mortar used to build the pyramids. Being of European Jewish descent, my family’s version always consisted of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and red wine. I have fond memories of standing on a stool at my grandmother’s kitchen counter as her helper—I was in charge of the charoset. I hadn’t yet developed my love for red wine, so I kept adding more and more cinnamon and sugar, trying to mask the sharp, pungent flavor of the alcohol. My grandmother and mother noticed the sweet, overly spiced concoction and confiscated it from my grasp.

As I grew older, not only did my taste for red wine evolve, but I fell in love with Middle Eastern cuisines and ultimately became a chef specializing in food from this part of the world. [Ed’s note: Read this article to learn how Annie’s experience cooking Middle Eastern food influenced her recipe development for The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook.] Sephardic charoset, or that coming from Middle-Eastern Jewish culture, stole my heart. Based on dates and other dried fruits, pistachios, and warm spices, this dish marries my childhood memories of family festivities with my adult palate and love for Middle Eastern flavors. While working on the Foolproof Preserving book last year, we developed a recipe for Spiced Fruit and Nut Conserve, inspired by Sephardic charoset. With rich flavors of ruby port, medjool dates, almonds, and pistachios, this sticky spread is most definitely going to be at the center of my Passover seder table this year.

Alyssa Langer, Editorial Assistant

My earliest memories of Passover go back to my nondenominational K-12 school as a child. During that week, the dining hall provided matzo for those observing. I distinctly remember how less-than-thrilled the Jewish kids were, but the non-Jews were fascinated and excited by this temporary dining hall special that they'd slather with butter or PB&J. I found the plain matzo underwhelming, probably because I was spoiled by my mom's fried matzo—called "matzo brei"—which she's made year-round for as long as I can remember (see photo on left, below).

Every family seems to have their own variation of charoset, but I've yet to taste one I didn't like.

Besides matzo ball soup (that combination of schmaltz and salt will make anything taste incredible), my favorite way to use matzo is to coat it in caramel and chocolate, transforming the dry, bland cracker into sweet, crunchy matzo brittle. My family usually tops the brittle with slivered almonds, but you can get creative here; I recommend trying rainbow sprinkles (for the kid in you), dried lavender (if you're feeling classy), and flake sea salt (for that irresistible salty-sweet combo).

But the underrated star of the Passover seder, in my opinion, is charoset. The mix of apples, nuts, spices, and wine is ground in a food processor until the paste resembles mortar, symbolic of the materials the Israelites used to build the pyramids in ancient Egypt. Matzo is the perfect neutral vehicle to carry this sweet and spicy spread. Every family seems to have their own variation of charoset, but I've yet to taste one I didn't like.

Joe Gitter, Test Cook

I recall various contests for who could eat the most horseradish and who could generate the greatest ratio of charoset to matzo without dropping any on the table.

Growing up in the UK, we always had a pretty traditional seder night. But it was eating familiar foods in an unfamiliar way that really sticks out in my memory: dipping eggs and parsley (always curly!) in salt water for a first experience of what over-seasoned tastes like; flicking wine onto a dinner plate and seeing what patterns we could make; staring at a really unappealing burnt lamb shank; and hiding the afikomanwhich somehow was always hidden behind a picture frame.

Without question the favorite dish of the night was the own-made "Hillel sandwich,” where the utterly scrumptious charoset is combined with horseradish between two shards of matzo. The customization this allowed represented my earliest moment of culinary self-expression. I recall various contests for who could eat the most horseradish and who could generate the greatest ratio of charoset to matzo without dropping any on the table.

This year I'll be making Moroccan Braised White Beans with Lamb from our new release The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. I think it's a particularly appropriate, if unconventional, choice. Like most of the meat dishes in the book, we tried to cut back on its quantity without sacrificing flavor. Passover is a celebration and a thanksgiving of moving out of hardship towards better times. It does so with good humor and the interplay of tradition, food, and metaphor. At Passover, we spend much of our time ruminating on the symbolism of the foods we eat, so I like the idea of extending some of that to the food outside of the ceremony and I think this dish will do that.

Melissa Drumm, Associate Editor

Everyone with a Jewish mom will tell you that their mom makes the best matzo ball soup, but I’m telling you, mine really does.

Holidays, in my family, are synonymous with food, so even on a holiday centered around giving up an extensive portion of our regular diet, you can be sure that we will eat well. We may not be the most traditional (this year, because of everyone’s hectic schedules, we’re doing a “later seder” at the end of April), but we’re certainly creatures of habit.

Our seder always starts with my mom’s matzo ball soup. It’s one of my favorite foods, Passover or not, and it’s now one of my (not-Jewish) husband’s favorites, too. Everyone with a Jewish mom will tell you that their mom makes the best matzo ball soup, but I’m telling you, mine really does. She says that the key to a perfect soup is a good kosher chicken, but for me it’s all about the always-perfect, light-as-air, fluffy-yet-filling matzo balls—comfort food at its best.

The soup is always followed by enough brisket, potatoes, and green beans to feed a small city (heaven forbid we should run out!). And for dessert, I started making these Triple-Coconut Macaroons a few years ago, and they disappeared so fast that I now always make at least two batches. I dip half in melted chocolate and leave the other half plain for the purists (or for breakfast…).

Sara Mayer, Senior Editor

Aside from the charoset, my favorite Passover dish is my aunt’s old-school peach kugel, made with matzo meal and canned peaches.

My family has a bunch of Passover traditions. First, we wear face masks that represent the 10 plagues. Each year it’s a fight to see who gets to wear the most fun and colorful masks. (Above is an old picture of me and my childhood dog, Charlie, wearing the masks for two of the plagues, hail and boils.)

When it comes to food, we always make a few different types of charoset. We’ve made versions that include apples and pears combined with walnuts and wine, and plums and peaches mixed with Sancerre. But no matter the flavor combinations, we always use fresh fruits, shredding and tossing them with nuts and wine.

Aside from the charoset, my favorite Passover dish is my aunt’s old-school peach kugel, made with matzo meal and canned peaches. It tastes like my childhood—sweet and mushy, in a good way. I’ve served Roast Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Coriander, Cumin, and Mustard Seeds at a seder and this year, I’m going to bring chocolate bark, which is a recipe we’re developing for our upcoming superfoods cookbook, Nutritious Delicious.


To learn more about the cooks behind our recipes, read these posts:


What's your favorite Passover recipe? Let us know in the comments!

Comments