Jewish life is full of food. It’s the standing joke that the observance of most holidays boils down to “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”
But joking aside, eating is as much a part of Jewish ritual as anything else. It’s said that once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and it was no longer possible to perform sacrifices of produce and livestock (which were used to feed the local clergy and their households), the family table became the altar, and our sumptuous meals replace the public observance.
Indeed, food itself is usually an integral part of each holiday, with specific dishes prescribed for each: fried foods for Hanukkah, sweet and round foods for the New Year, Hamentaschen for Purim, seven fruits for Tu B’Shvat, even challah and fish for Shabbat. Each of these foods represents something important in the observance of the holiday. The preparation and consumption of the foods is part of the observance – in a way it is how we worship and observe with our whole selves.Passover represents the pinnacle of ritual food prescription in Jewish life. We are commanded to drink four glasses of wine. We are commanded to eat bitter herbs. We are commanded to eat horseradish and apples. And we are commanded to eat matzoh; specifically, eat matzoh four times during the Passover meal, and do not eat any bread or any leavened products during the eight days of Passover. Cleansing the house of leavened products and eating matzoh every day is part of the tradition… as is the traditional gorging on baked goods at the end of the holiday!
Thinking up clever ways to incorporate cakes and other treats into the Seder and the rest of the week’s menus has been a sort of Olympic Games for Jewish homemakers for centuries. It is a challenge because no yeast, no baking powder, no sourdough, no fermentation can be used. Who can make the lightest sponge cake under those circumstances? How do you make a dessert that is worth eating?
Dealing with Food Issues
For those of us with food issues, especially grain and gluten intolerances, the challenge is twice as great. It is hard enough to think of tasty menus with lots of variety when you don’t have any grains in the house. But what about that commandment to eat matzoh!
So, depending on your degree of observance, and the degree of your food challenges, there are a few ways to go about this.
Make an Exception
Make an exception and eat the matzoh. To fulfill the requirement of “eating matzoh” one is supposed to eat “one kazayit” – a measurement of about .9 grams – at each part of the Seder where matzoh is to be eaten. If you can tolerate some grains without getting ill, this may be your choice.
Don’t Eat It
Don’t eat the matzoh, because it will make you ill. It’s a great feature of Jewish law (pikuach nefesh) that if fulfilling a commandment would cause danger to your life, you are prohibited from fulfilling the commandment. So, if eating the matzoh would make you seriously ill, you would be exempt from eating it. Of course, there are some interpretations of exactly how ill it would have to make you in order for you to be exempt. It’s generally agreed that if the illness would shorten your life in some way, that’s enough to excuse you. If this matters to you, the best bet is to consult with a rabbi.
Eat something else and call it matzoh. The Jewish principle of kavanah – intention – is another idea to invoke here. It’s said that it is kavanah that makes a prayer have weight, and that with true kavanah even the exact words of a ritual blessing are not essential. You could extend this idea to say that if you have non-matzoh with the kavanah of eating matzoh, you have fulfilled the commandment!
In Jewish law, only five grains are suitable for making matzoh: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. The only one of these grains that can be digested by celiacs and gluten intolerant people is oats, and there are quite a few celiacs who cannot digest oats at all. Even those who can are only able to eat oats if they were produced in such a way that they were not cross-contaminated with wheat.
If you are religiously observant, and want to truly fulfill the commandment of eating matzoh in a “kosher” way, there are certified kosher gluten-free matzoh varieties available. If you are willing to compromise and make a matzoh-like cracker that you can use for the Seder, here is a great recipe. In fact, it’s so easy to make and so tasty that you could use it year round!
These are made of kosher-for-Passover ingredients, and you can press them out to be just as thin as a mass-produced matzo. You can use almond meal, or grind your own almonds to get a chunkier texture.
Gluten-Free Mock Matzoh
Not GAPS Legal!
- 1/3 cup potato starch
- 1/3 cup almond meal
- 1 Tbsp flaxseed meal
- 2 Tbsp shortening or solid coconut oil
- 1-3 Tbsp warm water
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 450°F. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet.
- In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Mix shortening or coconut oil into the dry ingredients using your hands. Add water just a little bit at a time until the dough makes a ball and isn’t too sticky.
- Knead well, making sure there are no big chunks of shortening. If the dough is sticky, add additional potato flour. Divide into four pieces, and flatten slightly. Place these on the baking sheet and apply gentle pressure with a rolling pin to press the pieces to about 1/4″ thick. Use a fork to prick rows of holes.
- Cook for 10 minutes, watching carefully to make sure they don’t get overdone. Underbaking them slightly is better than overbaking. Remove from oven as soon as the edges become slightly brown – The top should still be white.
Now, one of the times you eat matzoh during the Seder is for dessert. What? What kind of dessert is a dry cracker? No wonder it is called the bread of affliction!
Actually, the afikomen (dessert) is supposed to be the very last thing you eat during the Seder. It consists of half a matzoh, displayed and then hidden before the meal, and traditionally “stolen” by the children. In order to finish the Passover meal, the afikomen must be presented, and it is traditional for the kids to ransom it for small gifts or treats.
However, there is nothing to stop you from having a really delicious cake before the ritual afikomen, and fortunately there are dozens and dozens of delicious gluten-free treats available. This is one of our family favorites, and it can be dressed up with a variety of stir-in additions. It’s easy, too! I make it with whole eggs and baking powder frequently. For Passover, instead of using baking powder, you separate the eggs and whip the whites to provide the fluffiness.
Lemon-Almond Pound Cake
Almost GAPS Legal – see notes! This can be made up to three days in advance and stored at room temperature, well-wrapped.
- 1 cup GF flour such as Gluten-Free Mama’s Almond Blend or Pamela’s GF Baking Blend (This is the only part of the recipe that is not GAPS legal – I’m going to try a substitution with a reduced amount of coconut flour and an extra egg mixed into the main batter.)
- 1/2 cup plain, whole yogurt (or kefir or buttermilk)
- 1/2 cup almond flour or ground almonds
- 1 cup sugar or xylitol or equivalent stevia (1 tsp pure powder), or a combination (for GAPS, you need to substitute 1/2 cup honey for the sugar)
- grated zest of 1 lemon
- 3 large eggs, separated
- pinch of fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- (optional but recommended) 1/2 to 1 cup of tasty bits of your choice. Suggestions: chopped walnuts, chopped candied ginger, chopped dried fruit (apricots, cherries, dates, etc.), chopped raw cranberries, cocoa nibs, goji berries, etc.
- 1/2 cup liquid coconut oil (heat lightly, if needed, to turn it into liquid, but don’t make it hot)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and center a rack in the oven.
- Grate the lemon zest into a medium-sized bowl and add the sugar. With your fingertips or the back of a spoon, rub the zest into the sugar until the sugar is moist and aromatic.
- Add the flour, yogurt, ground almonds, egg yolks, salt, and vanilla and blend by hand until mixed thoroughly.
- Stir in the tasty bits. Pour the coconut oil in and fold it into the mixture. You’ll have a thick, smooth batter with a slight sheen.
- Beat the egg whites until they stand up in stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter.
- Cook in a loaf pan for a traditional pound cake, or in a 9” round cake pan. Grease pan generously with butter or coconut oil before scraping the batter into the pan and smoothing the top.
- If baking in a loaf pan, bake for 50-55 minutes, if in a round pan, for 35-40 minutes, until the cake begins to come away from the sides of the pan and the top is golden brown. When a thin knife is inserted into the center of the cake, it will come out clean.
- Transfer the pan to a rack and allow to cool for about five minutes, then run a blunt knife between the cake and sides of the pan. Unmold and cool to room temperature on the rack.
- Optional: brush the cake with a glaze made with 1/2 cup heated lemon or apricot marmalade mixed with a teaspoon of water until smooth.
For more recipes, get Rosalyn’s Kindle book, The Hasty Haggadah.