For many, Passover is a time to focus on reflection and family; for Williams Sonoma’s senior copywriter, Marni Chan, it’s an opportunity to remember her grandmother through a not-so-traditional recipe for brisket.
The recipe I associate with my Jewish grandmother, Gramma Bobbie, is not actually a very Jewish recipe. It’s not kosher (because it mixes milk and meat) and it’s not kosher for Passover (because the stabilizing agents in prepacked ingredients are considered leavening). But for me, Gramma Bobbie’s brisket is inextricably linked to Passover.
I was 23 the first time I attempted to cook a Passover seder. Like a first Friendsgiving, I teamed up with other urban twenty-somethings who were also not going home for the holiday and we hosted our own version. We invited another half-dozen curious gentile friends and borrowed a folding table from someone’s office. My friend Dan made matzo ball soup, his friend Sam printed Haggadahs off the Internet, and I was in charge of the brisket.
Intimidated by the unfamiliar protein, I immediately called my gramma for advice. “Heeeello!” she trilled, always excited to hear from any of her 11 grandkids. “Gramma, I promised to make brisket for 10 people. HELP.” She was pretty used to this. In the early days of adulthood, she was my version of Google for “How to Make Potato Latkes” during Hanukkah and “How to Make Cream Cheese Kugel” whenever I was feeling nostalgic.
I dutifully took notes as she launched into a recipe. Like most cooking, making good brisket is all about ratio and technique. And like most grandmothers, mine had a magic touch. She could put any meat in the oven and it would come out delicious, and within her ratios, she improvised. Sometimes her brisket had orange juice, sometimes it had wine. Once she even used ketchup.
Clearly wanting to set me up for success, on this occasion she listed a version that was guaranteed to taste good, using easily found ingredients. It goes like this. “Get three-quarters of a pound of fresh beef brisket per person.” Now, most butchers will advise half lbs. per person, but my gramma would be horrified if anyone ever went hungry. “Not corned beef!” This may seem obvious, but apparently my cousin had recently made this mistake—the labels do look similar.
“You want a whole brisket, French quarter, or front end piece,” she instructed. “Next, line the pan with foil and cover the bottom with finely chopped onions and garlic.” The next bit is where she improvised. “Add the meat and cover with one can of Campbell’s® Cream of Mushroom Soup and add one package of Lipton® Onion Soup Mix on top.”
The concentrated soup base creates a nice gravy when slow cooked with the rendered fat, meat drippings and onions, but it can be substituted for any braising liquid if you keep kosher. And I’ve been told that Lipton makes a kosher for Passover version of its Onion Soup Mix—which makes sense since many American Jews of the last century are fairly loyal to it.
Then, seal the foil around the brisket and bake for two and a half to three hours at 350-375ºF, depending on your oven. After resting, “slice the meat very thin against the grain.” This was the most important part to her, and for me, the hardest to master, because identifying the direction of the grain can be tricky. Then return meat to the gravy.
Ten years later, I still love this recipe. It’s evolved alongside my culinary skills and kitchen equipment. These days, I like to use Morris Grassfed brisket (100 percent grass-fed and finished beef, dry-aged for 21 days). The onions have become shallots. I now prefer to sear the brisket and put it in a pressure cooker, instead of the oven, and my slicing knife is much sharper. But I stand by the convenience food flavors and delight in the high-low alchemy of it all.
Why? Because life, like cooking, is also about balance. There’s room for nostalgia next to modernity, and there’s a case for pre-packaged, semi-homemade ingredients alongside small-scale, artisan-butchered beef. Because it’s delicious and it makes people happy. Don’t tell your food snob friends what’s inside, and I promise: They’ll love it.