What is the Passover Seder?
Every spring, on a day that is determined by the lunar calendar, Jews all over the world gather for the Passover Seder, a special meal with a participatory service at both the beginning and the end. Families and friends re-tell the story of the Jews’ deliverance from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh and miraculous exodus across the Red Sea. Prayers express the hope that freedom and liberation will come to all people everywhere. Even though the Seder revolves around an ancient story of oppression and bondage, it often includes references to modern-time slavery and the Holocaust. Still, it’s an upbeat holiday, celebrating a dramatic escape, liberation from the shackles of oppression, and expressions of hope that all people everywhere will someday be free.
Passover lasts for eight days, beginning with the Seder meal on the first night.
So, what’s to eat?
There are ritual foods on the Seder plate and often traditional foods on the dinner plate.
There are stringent cooking and dietary restrictions during the eight days of Passover, and these define “kosher for Passover,” a term seen on food labels. As the story goes, the Jews had to leave Egypt suddenly, so they didn’t have time for their bread to rise, and they had to eat unleavened bread. Tradition specifies Passover matzo, a ridged cracker-like flatbread that is baked in sheets, and for eight days, all over the world, Jews can partake only of matzo and have no leavened foods of any sort, including cookies, cakes, etc.
This mandate to eat only unleavened bread during Passover has challenged Jewish mothers and bakers for centuries. Finding an unleavened dessert to make for Passover Seder is an annual challenge, as is choosing a main course to cook that will not be irreparably harmed by sitting around for an hour while the story of the Exodus is told. Even though the ritual service is religious, those who attend the Seder still don’t want to eat mushy overcooked meat, dried out chicken, or cold soup. In addition, modern families are often dealing with additional time constraints when Passover lands on a weeknight.
So what’s a host or hostess to do, to make this night (which yes, is different from all other nights) fun, appetizing, and free from angst?
First, decide upon a menu that is delicious and varied, with steps that can be prepared in advance. Select a variety of dishes, some of which are light. Passover celebrates freedom, so you have the freedom to choose what you want to serve. Of course you can make your grandma’s brisket, or you can try our new Spanish-style version with a Sephardic influence, redolent with paprika. Or consider something different – short ribs can hardly be overcooked and our version is modern and mouthwatering with a surprise ingredient: chocolate. Both dishes can be fully cooked and even sliced in advance, reducing stress.
Many families are eating less meat, so we also offer delicious salmon recipes that celebrate spring flavors and are delicious enough for any celebration – one features basil, tomato and balsamic vinegar, and another features asparagus and blood oranges. Prep ahead and consider cooking the fish during the hard boiled egg, matzo ball soup and gefilte fish courses if that feels right to you.
Celebration of Spring
Whatever you make, remember that Passover celebrates spring and renewal, so serve your main course with fresh spring vegetables, echoing the green of the parsley on the Seder plate and consider adding a green salad, resplendent with colorful chopped vegetables, pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries, toasted almonds or pine nuts, and goat cheese if you are having a dairy meal.
Even though everyone is full, the crowning glory is always dessert, since it carries such a high degree of difficulty. Make it easy on yourself with one of the world’s greatest open secrets: since flourless chocolate cake is flourless (!) and needs no leavening, it’s the perfect solution. It can be made ahead – even pre-sliced – and we think it wins the Passover Dessert Challenge by a mile.
Last but certainly not least, there is the wine, traditionally a sweetened version but any wine that is kosher for Passover is acceptable. Since the service dictates that celebrants drink four glasses, this is a great opportunity to ask your guests to each bring a bottle and have various choices on hand.
The ceremony and the meal should be joyous, as hope is renewed for the possibility of freedom for all humankind. Modern Jews can decide to throw off the shackles of old-fashioned menus as well, embracing the lighter foods of spring and exploring new options for a modern Passover Seder feast.