During my childhood in the Netherlands, spring was heralded by my mother’s birthday on the 22 of March, followed by “grote schoonmaak,” the thorough spring-cleaning of our home, and the delivery of two oversized boxes of Hollandia Matzos by Van Gend & Loos, the Dutch UPS of the past.
My Jewish father taught me about the 10th plague inflicted upon Egypt, which would cause all firstborn children and livestock to be killed. By smearing the blood of the sacrificial lamb on their doorposts, the Jews saved their firstborn from death; the doors of their homes were “skipped,” in Hebrew “pasach,” which was why the holiday was called Pesach (Passover).
My non-Jewish mother told me that Pesach was the Jewish Easter, and Easter a heathen celebration of spring. Spring, of course, was the end of the long cold winter, and a new beginning, which was symbolized by eggs. Each year my mother presented me with a string pouch filled with egg-shaped sugar candy, and a colorful basket with fluffy yellow Easter chicks, chocolate eggs wrapped in colorful silver foil, and an Easter bunny.
Pesach started with the seder dinner, which was different from the regular Sabbath evening meal because we would have matzah instead of bread, matzah balls in our soup, and gremchelich (thick pancakes made from matzah brei with raisins, slivers of almonds, and sometimes candied ginger) for dessert. The way I remember it, the question-and- answer ritual at the seder had more of a conversational quality to it, perhaps because I was an only child, and most likely because my father was the only one who really knew the haggadah (book that tells the story or Passover).
In preparation for the seder my father would tend to the beef and vegetable stockpot of soup, while my mother soaked matzah in hot water, and fried a chopped onion in chicken schmaltz (fat) to make matzah balls for the Pesach soup, and prepared the mixture for gremchelich. We would eat those thick pancakes for dessert at the seder and throughout the following week as a snack with our tea or coffee.
For maror (the bitter herbs, standing for the hardships suffered in Egypt) and the vegetable, my parents used radishes and parsley that we dipped in a bowl with salty water (tears shed in Egypt). For charoset (symbolizing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt) my mother mashed chopped walnuts and tutti frutti (mixed dried fruit) together. A chicken bone was added to our seder plate instead of the traditional lamb shank. Three circular matzahs were slid in between the folds of napkins– two for the blessing of the bread, half of the third set aside as afikoman (which comes last). But I can’t remember ever having played hide and seek with that piece of matzah as is common in American households with children.
The Passover of my childhood was carbohydrate heaven. The morning after the seder we set our kitchen table without plates so that we could butter the large round matzah without breaking it, and although I’m sure the table was covered by a vinyl tablecloth, I also seem to recall newsprint, and the added pleasure of reading while eating matzah with shredded cheese, soft boiled or fried eggs, brown sugar or honey. From early on I knew how to trace the dots along the center line of the matzah and cut mine in half. I knew there was nothing like a sweet or savory filled matzah sandwich.
This annual bliss continued until my father died. Not that my mother stopped ordering matzah, making matzah ball soup and gremchelich after his death. No, I stopped eating matzah when the 16-year-old daughter of a Jewish girlfriend of my mother’s told me matzah was terrible for a girl’s figure!
These days I tell myself cleaning house will make up for those extra calories. My husband and I continue my parents’ traditions. After Purim I’ve got matzah on my brain and plenty of time to clean house and prepare physically and mentally for our own interfaith Pesach.
Here are the traditional recipes my parents prepared for our annual Dutch seders.
Break the matzahs in a colander, pour hot water on the pieces, let cool. Beat eggs together with sugar and cinnamon. Squeeze excess liquid from matzahs, combine matzah mush and egg mixture in a large bowl, mixing well by hand (keep it lumpy). Drain water off raisins and pat them dry with kitchen towel, add to batter together with almonds and lemon rind. If the mixture seems to wet, add some matzah meal (I like to make my own, using a rolling pin or a bottle to crush pieces of matzah folded inside a (clean) napkin or kitchen towel.
Heat oil in a skillet. Using two soup spoons, create balls of mixture and gently put them in the hot fat, flatten the ball with fork or spatula while the gremchelich cook, turn them over with a spatula when golden brown. Serve dusted with powdered sugar.
Chop the tutti frutti into small chunks (make sure there are no pits in the prunes), sprinkle with cinnamon and mix in chopped walnuts. If not sticky enough to shape into small balls add some sweet wine or honey.
Clear Beef Broth with Spring Vegetables
For the stock:
4-6 cups of water (1 cup per person)
2 or 3 meaty beef shanks (cut off excess fat)
2 tsp kosher salt
2 large carrots scraped clean, cut in 1-inch chunks
2 peeled stalks of celery, cut in 1-inch chunks
1 leek, (white and green) cut in length, and quartered, washed very well (dirt hides between layers)
2 sprigs of parsley
1 Tbsp fresh or 1 tsp dried thyme
1 turnip, quartered
2 peeled cloves of garlic
5 mushrooms, peeled and sliced
Vegetables for Soup (to be added after straining of stock):
2 large carrots scraped clean and sliced thinly, or 1 cup of baby carrots cut in half
1 heart of celery, all the light colored stalks, with leaves, cut in ¼-inch slices.
2 or 3 small leeks, most of the green removed, cut in length, then in ¼-inch slices
4 mushrooms, peeled and sliced
Rinse shanks, add to large stockpot, add salt, cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim off foam, and continue doing so until very little foam or no foam appears. Add all of the other stock ingredients, bring to a boil again, then lower flame and let simmer for 3-4 hours.
Place clean, damp cheesecloth in colander, and place colander over a large pot. Strain stock through colander. Put the meat (which by then falls off the bone) back in the broth, and add the soup vegetables. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. After this you may cool the soup and refrigerate, or bring back to soft boil and start adding matzah balls.
Matzah Balls for Soup (makes 12)
3 Tbsp (or more as needed) matzo meal (see gremchelich recipe)
1 Tbsp oil
½ tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp (more or less) black pepper (optional)
1 medium size onion
1 tsp ginger powder (optional)
Break matzah in colander, dampen with cold water, and shake off excess liquid. Matzah pieces should not be too wet. Fry finely chopped onion in oil until golden brown. In large bowl, beat eggs until fluffy, mix well with moistened matzahs, onion, salt and spices. Let rest for 1 hour. Heat your favorite beef, chicken or even mushroom stock. Divide matzah mixture in 12 equal amounts and shape into balls. If mixture is too damp, add matzah meal. With the help of a soup ladle lower the balls into the softly boiling liquid. Cook for 20-30 minutes until the balls are done and bounce to the surface. If you made large balls, cut one in half to check whether it’s done on the inside. Consistency should be firm and dry, not dark and soggy.
Eat well, enjoy, and Chag Sameach!