On Passover, Jews have developed a complicated series of food practices that all stem from remembering the ancient Jews’ hurried exodus from Egypt by eating unleavened bread for a week. Our ancestors had to leave Egypt right away as soon as Pharaoh finally relented to free them from slavery (and in fact, he changed his mind and sent his army to chase them to the Sea of Reeds… so it was a good idea to hurry!) and thus we eat flat crunchy bread like they did, instead of fluffy bread that’s had time to rise.
Somehow, this has led to the idea that not only bread is what matters, but anything that in ancient times the rabbis decreed you could make bread out of – wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats – can only be made in the form of matzah, carefully prevented from leavening by being made with flour and water, shaped into flat wafers, and fully baked within 18 minutes before there’s any possibility of any rising at all happening.
And then, to add to this, someone had the idea that things that might fool your neighbor into thinking you were making flour out of it or eating something that looked like bread or like it was made out of flour should also be off limits – so Eastern European Jews also have avoided corn, rice, and legumes like soy and peas, since the middle ages or so.
All kind of interesting, but then we started getting creative in other ways – we can’t eat this food, but let’s come up with tricks to make it taste like we are anyway. Which isn’t entirely consistent with how rice and corn got on the “avoid” list in the first place, but oh well. There’s a long standing tradition of Passover desserts that are light and fluffy cakes made with things like ground nuts or coconut held up in a suspension of well-beaten egg whites. And you can bake with matzah, too, if you grind it up fine enough – you can buy it ground into “cake meal” which is as fine as flour. But since it’s already been baked, you’re reasonably guaranteed it won’t rise anymore. Plus, you can go to the supermarket and buy some rather awful processed food that looks like O shaped cereal or, but tastes like potato starch. Er. Yum.
Many years, I’ve been satisfied with just thinking of things I can cook that don’t have as many carbohydrates – maybe we’d have 2 vegetable sides instead of a vegetable and a starch. We do that when it’s not Passover too. There are plenty of tasty things to be made with matzah, too – I’ve got a crazy cheesy casserole, you can make something a bit like lasagna, and of course there are matzah balls, which I even eat like gnocchi outside of soup. A recent discovery has been that since the list of extra foods to avoid was made up in the middle ages in Europe, and nobody in medieval Europe had ever encountered quinoa before, it’s now every foodie’s favorite Passover rice pilaf substitute.
But particularly now that my child is old enough to notice what’s missing from our pantry this week (and to complain that she and her dad are being limited by mom’s adherance to dietary traditions that the rest of the family doesn’t even have to follow!) I’m thinking more about how to replace some of those things we’re missing on Passover without using crunchy matzah. So last night, we got out our hand-crank pasta maker, and mixed up a cup of finely ground matzah cake meal, 2 eggs and a yolk, 3 tbsp of olive oil and 2 of water, and turned it into a slightly fragile pasta dough. (thanks, <a href="http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Passover-Pasta-Primavera-242020"epicurious!) Fettucini like noodles took, oh, probably 45 minutes to work through the pasta maker in batches, and then 2 minutes in boiling water to finish. Meanwhile, I defrosted some pesto I made last fall, grated some parmesan, and dinner was all set!