In honor of the beginning of Passover on Monday, we asked Noah and Rae Bernamoff from Brooklyn’s Mile End Deli for a classic holiday menu. Here, they share recipes from their Mile End Cookbook, and Noah answers our questions about his favorite Passover traditions. Read on to get inspired for your own seder.
What were your Passover traditions growing up?
We always had two seders, the first night and second night. The first night was a big blowout at grandmother’s, with lots of different tentacles of the family gathered. The second night was usually more relaxed, typically hosted by my mother. Both nights were similar in terms of tradition — recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt.
One of my strongest memories is of waiting for the moment when you transition to the meal, which happens in the middle of the storytelling. I used to wait for the hard-boiled egg with salt water to come. I never craved it at any other point.
Typically, my family’s meals would be representative of the themes of the seder plate: a lamb bone for the Paschal Lamb, and a bitter herb represented by parsley or romaine lettuce. There’s horseradish to symbolize the bitterness of the slavery, and charoset, a substance produced by cooking down apples and nuts with some honey and red wine; it’s sweet and crunchy and chunky, meant to represent the mortar the Jews used when they were building cities for the Egyptians. The egg is for the continuity of life. We had hard-boiled eggs in salt water, and we would eat charoset with freshly grated horseradish on matzo. It’s plain and annoying, but when you put charoset on it, it becomes sweet and crunchy and delicious.
Our meal always had chopped liver, which is made with a lot of egg (you can also make a vegetarian version out of eggplant and walnuts). The main course was always braised brisket. On the first night’s seder there were so many people there — 30-35 people — that one thing wasn’t enough. We almost always had brisket, roast chicken, and broiled salmon. My grandmother would always make kugels on Passover because they can be made with matzo meal instead of flour. The common theme of the meal is that none of the dishes have flour, or it has to be unleavened, so you have to use matzo meal. Cauliflower kugel is my family’s go-to Passover kugel. My grandmother would always cook roasted asparagus and roasted broccoli — simple and not particularly great, but everyone wants some green. To touch on the bitter herb thing, there was salad of romaine, endive, radicchio and sturdier greens. Dessert is tricky because you’re not allowed to use the ingredients you find in most desserts. She would make egg kichel and a flourless chocolate cake or brownies.
My grandmother would cook for weeks to make this meal happen, by herself. She’d freeze things; she had a system. We had chicken soup and matzo balls — perfect any time of year, but on Passover it actually made sense.
What about now — any new traditions you’ve adopted? How do you celebrate?
I don’t participate in big seders anymore. Being in Brooklyn I’m a little far from home, so I don’t have the opportunity. Since my grandmother passed away, my mom has taken over and is doing the first seder, and my aunt does the second.
I usually go to Rae’s family’s home for the seder. Her family is less gluttonous. It’s a lot of the same stuff: kugel is very popular, the chicken might be stewed instead of roasted, and braised brisket quite common. When we do it for ourselves, I’ll just roast a chicken quickly and we’ll make some chicken soup, or I’ll steal some from the restaurant. It’s just a simple, fresh dinner of chicken and bitter greens and roasted cauliflower — to me that’s a perfect Passover dinner.
Any tips for avoiding flour while cooking during the holiday?
Unfortunately, there’s no real replacement for wheat flour. But there are so many recipes out there that have been formulated to not use flour that it’s very easy to find alternatives. Or, look for a dessert that doesn’t use flour. Fresh fruit is a dessert, too — fresh fruit and whipped cream or sponge cakes without flour. Macarons are always a big hit on Passover because they’re meringue-based, just made with egg whites.
On Passover, you’re really restricted in what you can eat. That’s part of it: to be reminded of a historical moment and the story. It’s about withholding from certain things we consider everyday parts of our lives.
What’s the inspiration behind the dishes you chose for the Passover menu below?
The funny thing about Jewish holidays is that they’re pretty much all the same stuff, just rearranged. The most important thing is to be together. No one is getting stressed out about cooking for a large group, and no one is going to complain about anything. The food is not meant to be the focus; it’s togetherness.
I have distinct memories of making charoset when my sister and I were really young, and of learning about the traditions and food we ate during Passover. For these recipes, we put our own spin on everything. The only thing that’s as old and untouched as it gets is the chicken soup — there’s nothing different about this recipe than what my grandmother made. The brisket is a little richer than hers, since she braised with beef stock and Coca-Cola instead of red wine, which is very typical. Nana’s recipes are old-school, always missing directions or ingredients. Back then, people used to cook with feel and touch, but now people are scared of messing up need every little detail. She just knew what to do even though it wasn’t written down.
You make your own matzo. What would you say to people who think it’s too complicated?
If you’ve never tasted homemade matzo, then you’re really missing out. It’s so much better than the stuff that comes from boxes in the store. You’ll probably want to make it throughout the year because it’s just a simple, delicious cracker.
I didn’t grow up making my own matzo, but I think it’s a really great thing and such a central part of the tradition. In many ways it’s the defining food of Passover. If someone wanted to give it a go, I’d say do it for the seder and buy it prepared for the rest of the week.
It’s meant to be an extremely simple dough: there’s no rising or proofing. You just roll it out, bake it off, and it’s really fast. At the Passover table you’re supposed to eat plain matzo, but at other points in the week, sprinkle za’atar or sea salt on it. Make your own spice mix and mix it in, or garnish it with a spice blend. It’s an opportunity to make it exciting and give it more flavor, which you never find on a commercial level.
Besides your matzo ball soup, what are some of your favorite uses for matzo?
Matzo brei is a great breakfast dish. You crumble the matzo — not finely, just in chunks — and place it in lukewarm water to soak for a couple of minutes until it gets soft. You whisk an egg with a little salt and pepper, dip the matzo in the egg and fry it in a pan with some butter. It makes a fried pancake. Flip it once, then put sugar or jam or syrup on top. Ask most Jews what they love about Passover and they’ll say matzo brei. You don’t even need a recipe.
Any other planning or entertaining tips?
The nice thing about the seder is that the word “seder” actually means “order,” which in and of itself dictates how you go about doing the service on Passover. My family used to go around the table and let everyone tell a part of the story. There were a lot of songs — I learned all the songs in school. You’re there with your family, so no one’s trying to be cool.
You drink four glasses of wine, so there’s a cool opportunity to pair wine a little bit. Have two glasses before the meal and two glasses after. Before, serve an aperifif, such as a sparkler or white Riesling, and serve red wines with dinner. Technically the wine is supposed to be kosher, and there are great ones on the market now.
It’s important for everyone to sit together around the table and share in the tradition of having the seder. I think it’s special to be able to share that moment with your family. Even if you’re not religious, there’s a really strong benefit in creating a table that allows you to interact for that first part. The seder is very interactive, telling the same story year in and year out. It forces you to reflect on present-day issues a lot of us are dealing with, which are not so different from issues people have dealt with for thousands of years. The table should not exclude anybody, even if it’s ramshackled to fit 30 people.
4 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to top the matzo (optional)
2 tablespoons canola oil
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon warm water
Preheat the oven to 500°F and place a pizza stone (ideally) or a 10-by-15-inch baking sheet on the bottom rack.
In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients until they come together to form a dough. If the dough is sticky, add a bit more flour.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Flatten a piece slightly and pass it repeatedly through a pasta maker, reducing the thickness each time until you reach the minimum setting. (Or you can simply roll the dough as thinly as possible with a rolling pin.) Repeat with the remaining dough pieces.
Trim the flattened dough pieces so that they will fit snugly onto the pizza stone or baking sheet. Use a fork to prick holes in the surface of the dough. For salted matzo, brush or spray the dough surface lightly with water and sprinkle with salt.
Carefully slide the pieces of dough onto the pizza stone or baking sheet. Bake until the surface of the matzo is golden brown and bubbly, 30 seconds or so. Using tongs, carefully f lip the matzo pieces and continue to bake until the other side is browned and lightly blistered. (Keep careful, constant watch to keep the matzo from burning; the exact cooking time will vary from oven to oven, and will get a little longer with each subsequent batch.) Makes about 8 large sheets.
1 cups matzo meal
4 large eggs
1/3 cup Schmaltz
¼ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon baking powder
8 cups chicken stock (if not cooking the matzo balls in the Chicken Soup)
Thoroughly mix all the ingredients except the chicken stock together in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours. (You can make the mixture a day ahead; you’ll need to store it in a sealed container that has enough room to allow the mixture to expand.)
Form the matzo mixture into balls that are a little larger than a quarter; they should be completely smooth on the outside with no cracks. Cook the matzo balls in barely simmering chicken stock for 20 minutes, or just add the balls to your chicken soup 20 minutes or so before serving (around the same time you’d put the vegetables in), keeping the soup at a low, steady simmer. Makes about 10.
3 small chickens (about 2½ pounds each), each cut into 8 pieces
10 black peppercorns
2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste
4 medium parsnips, peeled, 2 left whole and 2 cut into 2- to 3-inch batons
4 medium carrots, peeled, 2 left whole and 2 cut into 2- to 3-inch batons
4 stalks of celery, trimmed, 2 left whole and 2 cut into 2- to 3-inch batons
3 large onions, peeled, 2 cut in half and 1 coarsely chopped
3 sprigs of dill
3 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
3 sprigs of thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
Matzo Balls (optional)
Cooked Egg Noodles (optional)
Place the chicken pieces in a large stockpot along with the peppercorns, salt, and enough water to cover the ingredients by about 2 inches. Heat the pot over medium heat until the contents of the pot start to simmer. Adjust the heat to maintain a low simmer and continue cooking, uncovered, for about 1½ hours, occasionally skimming off any foam and fat that rise to the top. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, remove the breast and thigh sections and reserve them for the soup (or another use, like chicken salad), leaving the drumsticks and wings in the pot. Add the 2 whole parsnips, 2 whole carrots, 2 whole celery stalks, and 2 halved onions to the pot and continue to simmer for another 1½ hours, stirring and skimming occasionally. Remove the pot from the heat and add the dill, parsley, thyme, and bay leaves. Allow the herbs to steep for 30 minutes. Then strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve, discarding the solids. Return the strained soup to the pot and bring it to a low simmer. Add the parsnip, carrot, and celery batons; chopped onions; and matzo balls. Simmer for another 15 minutes, then add some of the reserved breast and thigh meat, if you like. Simmer for 5 minutes more and season to taste. Place the egg noodles in bowls, ladle the soup over them, and serve. Serves 6 to 8 as an entrée.
Braised Brisket with Red Wine and Prunes
1 first-cut beef brisket (4 to 5 pounds)
Diamond Crystal kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 stalks of celery, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
Leaves of 1 sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
3 fresh bay leaves
25 pitted prunes
2 to 3 large onions, peeled and sliced
Cloves from 2 heads of garlic, peeled
2 cups dry red wine
¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
½ cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 cups water or Beef Stock
Pickled horseradish, for serving
Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Season the brisket on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the brisket until it’s well browned on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer the brisket to a roasting pan, fat side up, along with the carrots, celery, herbs, and prunes.
Add the onions to the skillet and sauté them over medium-high heat until browned. Add the garlic, wine, and ¼ cup of the vinegar and allow the mixture to reduce until the skillet is almost dry. Then stir in the tomatoes, brown sugar, and water or beef stock.
Pour the onion-wine mixture over the brisket. Seal the roasting pan with a double layer of aluminum foil and cook in the oven until fork-tender, 3½ to 4 hours. Allow the brisket to cool, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Carefully transfer the brisket to a serving vessel. Remove and discard the bay leaves and use a slotted spoon to remove the prunes; set the prunes aside. Then strain the cooking liquid into a bowl, setting aside 1 cup of the cooked vegetables and discarding the rest. When the fat has risen to the top of the strained cooking liquid, skim it off and then add the reserved cup of cooked vegetables to the bowl, along with ¼ of the reserved prunes.
Transfer the mixture to a blender (or use an immersion blender) and puree it until smooth. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of red wine vinegar to the pureed sauce and season it with salt and pepper to taste. Coarsely chop the remaining prunes and add them to the sauce. Slice the brisket thinly, across the grain. Serve with the sauce and horseradish. Serves 8 to 10.
Flourless Chocolate Cake
8 large eggs, chilled
½ cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 pound chocolate (Baker’s or similar brand), chopped into fairly uniform pieces
1 tablespoon dehydrated coffee (such as Folger’s Crystals or Medaglia d’Oro instant espresso)
Powdered sugar, flake salt, and fresh raspberries (optional), for serving
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on medium speed for about 1 minute; then increase the speed to high and continue to mix until completely smooth, about 5 minutes more.
Place the butter and chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water, stirring occasionally until they’ve melted, then add the coffee.
Scrape the butter-chocolate mixture into a large bowl, then add the egg mixture in 3 equal portions: Pour the first portion in fairly quickly and stir with a spatula until the ingredients are incorporated; add the other 2 portions more slowly, folding the egg mixture into the butter-chocolate mixture more gently. Continue folding the ingredients together gently until no streaking is visible and the ingredients have melded together.
Line a 12-inch round cake pan with a circle of parchment paper trimmed to fit in the bottom of the pan; grease the lined pan with a light film of oil or cooking spray. Pour the batter into the cake pan and set the pan in the middle of a baking dish; place the baking dish and cake pan in the oven and pour enough hot water into the baking dish to reach about a third of the way up the sides of the cake pan. Bake, rotating the cake pan 180 degrees halfway through cooking, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 140°F, or a toothpick inserted and removed comes out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove the cake and its baking-dish bath from the oven. Set the cake pan on a rack to cool, then run a small knife around the outside of the pan to loosen the cake from the sides. Invert onto a plate, removing the parchment. Refrigerate the cake for at least 3 hours or overnight to set. Let the cake come to room temperature; dust with powdered sugar and sprinkle with a pinch of coarse salt. Serve with fresh raspberries, if you like.