I thought this was pretty interesting.
April 5, 2006
It's Passover, Lighten Up
By JOAN NATHAN
WHEN Emily Moore, a Seattle-based chef and instructor, was invited to consult on recipes for Streit's Matzo, she assumed that the baked goods would have their traditional heft, because no leavening can be used during Passover.
Not so, said Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, a member of a prominent rabbinic dynasty, who oversees the company's ritual observances. Let the cookies and cakes rise, he told her. Let there be baking soda and baking powder.
"He acted like I was crazy," Ms. Moore said.
The biblical prohibition against leavened bread at Passover — which begins on Wednesday night — has kept observant Jews from using any leavening at all. Cakes and cookies of matzo meal (ground matzo), matzo cake meal (which is more finely ground) and nuts can be tasty, but dense.
So it will surprise many Jews — it certainly surprised me — that among the profusion of products that most Orthodox certification agencies have approved for Passover are not just baking soda, but also baking powder.
Some rabbis are lifting other dietary prohibitions that they say were based on misunderstandings or overly cautious interpretations of biblical sanctions, and because they want to simplify the observance.
"The holiday has become overly complicated, and people are turning away from the rigorous practice of it," said Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, the senior rabbi at conservative Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.
Last year, Rabbi Wohlberg said it was permissible for his congregants to eat legumes, called kitniyot in Hebrew. They are usually beyond the pale at Passover for the most rigorous observers, but are increasingly accepted by many Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, particularly in Israel.
"I have also talked to a lot of young mothers over the years whose children, for example, are lactose intolerant and want to use soy milk," Rabbi Wohlberg said. "But soy is a bean and hasn't been permissible."
The restrictions have their roots in the Book of Exodus, which tells of how the Israelites fled Egypt in such haste that they could not let their bread rise and become "chometz" in Hebrew. Only unleavened bread, matzo, is eaten during the eight days of Passover, in memory of the Israelites' hardships and in celebration of their escape from slavery.
"No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory" during Passover, it was written. But, as Ms. Moore said, "There is a lot of misunderstanding about what leavening means for Passover."
Jews avoid flour or grains, for fear that they might become leavened even without the addition of yeast. (Matzo meal, since it's already been baked, is less likely to rise and become leavened.)
Matzo, a simple mixture of flour and water, must be made in less than 18 minutes to avoid the possibility that the dough could ferment and then rise before being baked. "The Talmud says that it should take no longer to make matzo than the time to walk a Roman mile, which later generations understood to be 18 minutes," said Dr. David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
At Passover, some ultra-Orthodox Jews will not eat matzo that has become wet, including matzo balls. Instead of matzo meal, or the fine matzo cake meal, they use potato starch in cakes and other dishes.
But rabbis in even some of the most Orthodox associations say chometz does not refer to all leavening.
"There is nothing wrong about a raised product at Passover per se," said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, executive rabbinic coordinator and chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union's kosher division, the oldest and most widely accepted certifier of kosher foods.
Lise Stern, author of "How to Keep Kosher" (Morrow, 2004), said: "Chometz, which means sharp or sour, denotes bread that has a sourness to it caused by fermentation, occurring when liquid is added to any of the five grains mentioned in the Torah. This refers to yeast, not baking powder or baking soda."
Rabbi Soloveichik said: "They're just minerals. What do we care about minerals?"
While kosher for Passover baking soda and baking powder can be hard to find in supermarkets, they have been available in Orthodox neighborhoods for years. Erba Food Products, of Brooklyn, made kosher for Passover baking powder in the late 1960's.
Ms. Moore, who creates kosher recipes for the Elliott Bay Baking Company in Seattle, adjusted recipes for matzo meal, which is heavier than flour, to make vanilla sesame, lemon ginger and double chocolate mocha cookies with baking soda or baking powder (made with potato starch, not corn starch, which is made from a grain that is avoided).
The ban on legumes is connected to the ban on leavening. Jews in medieval Europe began to keep beans and lentils, as well as grains, from the Passover table because until modern times they were often ground into flour. The use of rice and corn were later restricted, too, by some Jews. But Sephardic Jews of the Middle East continued to eat them at Passover.
Over the past few years legumes have become accepted for Passover by the Israeli Army and the Masorti movement (as Conservative Judaism is known in Israel) partly because of increased intermarriage between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews, as those of European descent are called.
A delicious Moroccan Passover dish of shad and fava beans takes advantage of the freer interpretation of the Passover pantry and the bounty of spring.
The Passover table has changed in many ways. More than 21,000 kosher for Passover items are available in the United States, with 500 new ones this year, said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom, a marketing firm specializing in kosher food.
With such items as Passover pasta (made from potato starch), quinoa salads, tricolored matzo balls, and ingredients like grape seed oil, kosher organic chickens and matzo breadsticks, a lot of the suffering is being taken out of Passover.
In the weeks before Passover, many homes are rigorously cleaned, and every bit of chometz or leavening removed. Some people avoid cooking in their newly cleaned homes by going to a resort that is kosher for Passover, a practice that in the past few years has been boosting business in the Caribbean and around the country during a traditionally slow period.
At the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort and Country Club in Puerto Rico, Robin Mortkowitz, a therapist in Fairlawn, N.J., who became Orthodox when she married, was swept away by new foods like sushi made from quinoa, the sesame-seed-sized kernel cultivated in the Andes that many certifying agencies have ruled is not a forbidden grain.
"With people becoming more sophisticated, we have to step up the food program," said Sol Kirschenbaum, an owner of Levana restaurant in New York, which arranged the food at the Hyatt. "It's wild mushrooms and grilled rack of lamb, but I still need to have chicken soup and gefilte fish for the 60- to 90-year-olds."
Kosher companies are also sprucing up their food. Susie Fishbein, author of the popular "Kosher by Design" series of cookbooks, said she is creating recipes for the Manischewitz Web site and food boxes, like tricolored matzo balls with green spinach, yellow turmeric and red tomato paste, using olive oil instead of schmaltz.
"Companies like Manischewitz can't survive on kosher gefilte fish anymore," Ms. Fishbein said. "A whole new generation of cooks is looking for fresh ideas."
But some still find beauty in tradition. When the cookbook author Tamasin Day-Lewis made a flourless almond cake with a fresh orange and mandarin syrup for a party recently, some of her guests who were Jewish said, "This is perfect for Passover."