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Finding Freedom at a Soviet Seder Table

Finding Freedom at a Soviet Seder Table

This year for Passover, we are gathering at the James Beard House in New York City to honor Soviet traditions and roots with five women in food that we admire. What started as a project to look at the connection between Soviet cooking and Jewish cuisine has evolved into something deeper — a way to connect to a modern Jewish exodus, and to honor the efforts of Soviet Jewish families to celebrate Passover both in the USSR and with a renewed spirit in the U.S. And, the recipes those experiences inspired.

Seder leader Darra Goldstein, a scholar and author of The Georgian Feast, explains: “I spent several Passovers in the Soviet Union, in Moscow and Tbilisi, Georgia. Getting good food was always an issue, and people went to great lengths to prepare a special Passover meal. It was very hard to get matzo in Russia.”

That struggle was felt first hand by chef Bonnie Morales’s family in Belarus. “My parents had to sneak out in the middle of the night with flour hidden in suitcases to go bake matzo at an underground 'bakery' because it was forbidden.”

Once in the United States, her family’s Passover traditions shifted and her parents deferred to their “Hebrew-school-going-kids” to lead the Seder, she adds. At our Soviet Seder, Bonnie, who is the co-owner of Kachka in Portland, will serve “West Coast” gefilte fish, a riff on the dish her family made when she was growing up, as well as duck fritters called chremslach, and her exceptional infused vodkas.

Sasha Shor, who is preparing crispy deviled potatoes with chrain, lamb tartare with walnuts, and chanterelle-stuffed matzo balls for the Seder, also recalls her family looking to her to lead a Seder when she was younger than 10. Her family had only recently immigrated to Nashville from Moldova when, with the help of her Jewish day school, she led her family’s first Seder in her lifetime. “I remember looking over to my grandfather and he had tears running down his face. He said he never thought in a million years that he’d be sitting at a Seder and his granddaughter would be leading,” she told us last summer.

As she readies for this year’s Seder, Sasha adds that she wishes he were here to witness it. “I would want him to see that their huge sacrifices were not taken for granted and we continue to fan the flames of Jewish tradition and continue to explore it in our own unique ways, with food and family at the center of it.”

For Marissa Lippert of Nourish Kitchen + Table, the evening is also a way to honor her grandfather whom she called zayde, the Yiddish term for grandfather. “He passed away nearly 20 years ago, so it’s particularly meaningful to me to honor his Russian heritage at such a cherished space as the Beard House,” she says. Her dishes for the evening, including beet-pickled quail eggs with “karpas tears” or drops of salt, take “inspiration from a traditional Seder plate, or at least the plate we typically use in my family,” she says.  

The evening’s pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz, who’s the power behind the celebrated desserts at New York’s Flora Bar and Cafe Altro Paradiso, didn’t have a history of family Seders to draw on, as she’s not Jewish. Instead, she’s leaning into her father’s Ukrainian heritage and asked her chef de cuisine Zach Zeidman for help creating a tastier matzo. She will also cap the evening with a macaroon-inspired cake with layers of chewy coconut disks (think: large cookies) and walnut meringue. For her, the Seder has offered an opportunity to continue to fold her personal narrative into her work.

For each chef participating in the Seder, the evening has taken on deep meaning, a way to explore their roots in a place that no longer exists, along with the traditions that came from it and grew out of a new life for their family in America. Sasha explains the echo of Passover in her own experience leaving the Soviet Union. “We had also escaped a very dark and hateful place...we dove into this holiday fully and really wanted to embrace what it stood for.”

It’s a sentiment Bonnie has felt profoundly recently. “I think I took my freedom for granted until literally last week when a guest at one of our restaurants carved a swastika into our bathroom mirror,” she says. “Ever since that happened, I've been very motivated to celebrate my culture even more and doing things like this Seder are critical.”

This Passover, we hope you will join us in New York for this special evening — or bring a piece of it home to your family with Natasha’s dessert recipe below. May we all know freedom, peace, and acceptance in the year to come.

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

Coconut Macaroon Layer Cake

This sophisticated show-stopping cake takes a page from the classic Passover coconut macaroons and layers in a walnut meringue and dark chocolate ganache. It all comes together under a blanket of whipped cream. To make it pareve (free of meat or dairy), you can replace the cream with coconut cream, which plays up the flavors of macaroons.

Serves: 10-12
Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes + 45 minutes baking time +  2 hours chilling time

For the Coconut Macaroon Layer:
4 eggs, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
¼  teaspoon kosher salt
3 ½ cups shredded unsweetened coconut

For the walnut dacquoise layer:
1 cup walnuts
2 ¼  cups almond flour
1 ½ cups confectioners sugar
¼  teaspoon kosher salt
9 egg whites
⅓ cup granulated sugar

For the chocolate ganache:
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
⅓ cup heavy cream or pareve option: ⅓ cup water

For the coconut whipped cream:
3 cups heavy cream or pareve option: 3 cups coconut cream* (from 3 - 13.5 oz cans)
1 - 13.5 oz. can coconut cream* (for pareve option omit)
Pinch of salt

For garnish:
Candied cherries, optional

Special equipment :
2 - half sheet trays
8” cake ring

*Note: The coconut cream as it is referred to in this recipe is the thick, white coconut fat that will separate from the liquid portion inside the can when chilled. Refrigerate the cans of coconut cream for at least 30 minutes before harvesting the cream layer from each can.

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two half sheet trays with parchment paper and grease with cooking spray.

2. Make the coconut macaroon layer: Place the eggs, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high until light, fluffy and doubled in volume, about 5-10 minutes. Gently fold in the shredded coconut.

3. Spread the mixture onto one of the prepared sheet pans in a smooth, even layer.

4. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the layer is set and the top is lightly golden. Set aside to cool.

5. While your coconut layer bakes, make the walnut dacquoise layer: Toast the walnuts in your preheated oven on a baking sheet or in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant and just beginning to darken. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes depending on your method. Nuts go from toasted to burnt very quickly so keep an eye on them!

6. Once cool enough to handle, place walnuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 10-15 times until finely chopped.

7. In a large bowl, whisk the walnuts, almond flour, confectioners sugar, and salt together.

8. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat until foamy, then slowly add the granulated sugar in a steady stream, continuing to beat until medium-firm peaks form.

9. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the almond flour and walnut mixture. The mixture will loosen up quite a bit, that’s normal!

10. Spread the mixture into the second prepared sheet pan in a smooth, even layer.

11. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the layer is set and top is just beginning to take on some color. Set aside to cool.

12. Make the ganache: Place the chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream (or water) to a simmer, pour over the chocolate and let sit until the chocolate begins to melt and soften. Whisk vigorously until smooth and even.

13. Once the cake layers have cooled. Use a cake round to cut out 2-8” circles from the coconut macaroon layer and 2-8” circles from the walnut dacquoise layer. There will be scraps! Enjoy them while you finish making the cake!

14. Spread a thin layer of chocolate ganache over the top of each of the coconut macaroon cake circles and place in the fridge to set, about 15 minutes.

15. While your ganache sets, make the coconut whipped cream: Place the bowl of your stand mixer in the freezer to chill for at least 15 minutes before whipping your cream. Harvest the thick, white coconut fat that will have separated from the liquid, from the can(s) of coconut cream. Allow to come to room temperature and soften a bit before using.

16. Place the heavy cream in the bowl of your stand mixer with a pinch of salt and whip until stiff peaks form. Pareve option: Place the softened coconut fat into the bowl of a stand mixer along with ¼ cup of confectioners sugar and a pinch of salt. Whip until stiff peaks form.

17. Whisk the coconut fat until smooth and gently fold into the whipped cream (omit this step for pareve option).

18. To assemble: Place a chocolate coconut macaroon layer on a platter or serving plate. Spread a thick layer (about 1 cup) of whipped cream evenly over top. The whipped cream layer should be about the same thickness as the chocolate coconut layer. Place a layer of walnut dacquoise on top of the whipped cream. Spread another layer of whipped cream over top. Add the final layer of chocolate coconut macaroon. Add another layer of whipped cream. Add the final layer of walnut dacquoise. Ice the sides and top of the cake with the remaining whipped cream.

19. Chill for 2 hours hours or up to overnight before serving. Garnish with boozy, candied cherries or enjoy as is!

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