Taking a modern approach to Passover desserts
At Passover, because tradition rules, I’m willing to bet that, at most seder tables, undistinguished sponge and honey cake, coconut macaroons and probably some dried fruits cooked into a compote are trotted out at meal’s end, met with no discernable oohs and aahs of rapture from those at the table.
Why not bend tradition a bit in the name of making the last course as delectable as the dishes that precede it? Adhering to the albeit fluid rules that proscribe chemical leavening, and flour- and corn-based products, there’s still a whole world of modern and delicious desserts that can grace the Passover table.
Arid though the desert was that our ancestors had to endure during their captivity, dry cakes were not part of the deprivations and don’t need to be today. Pastry chef that I am, I am not content to end the meal on a blah note.
Three factors are key: First, whip the eggs and sugar for the cake bases until they are light in color and fall in wide ribbons from the whisk attachment of the mixer. Second, fold the dry ingredients into the base with a light hand (and I do mean hand — splay the fingers of your hand, and lightly comb through the beaten base as you add the dry ingredients, folding only until the dries disappear into the mix). Third, keep an eye on the cakes as they bake to avoid drying them out by over-baking. Ethereal and moist cakes are the goal.
Here’s a recipe for a pistachio cake with a creamy citrus curd that will leave your Passover guests asking for more.
PISTACHIO CAKE FILLED WITH CITRUS CURD GARNISHED WITH CITRUS FILETS AND SALTED PISTACHIO CRUNCH
This is a moist pistachio-flecked sponge cake (made with matzah cake flour), which is drenched in a syrup flavored with the juice and zest of seasonal citrus (tangerine, low-acid Oro Blanco grapefruit, pink-fleshed pomelo and lime) and filled with a creamy starch-free citrus curd. Filets of the citrus fruits adorn the top of the cake, which is then crowned by a shard of pistachio crunch flecked with bits of sea salt. Complex in taste, simple to execute, this cake is a fitting ending to any seder but is truly a dessert for all seasons. Just choose fruits in season to create the syrup and the garnishes.
1/3 cup pistachios, finely ground (if possible, use commercially made pistachio flour, which is more finely ground and uniform in texture)
Scant 1/2 cup matzah cake flour
Scant 1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, separated
Zest of 1 medium lime
Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray or flavorless oil. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper. Spray the paper lightly and set the pan aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Sift together the ground pistachio flour and matzah cake meal; discard any larger pieces that remain in the sieve.
In the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and half of the sugar until the mixture is light and lemon-colored and falls from the whisk in a thick ribbon. Fold in lime zest.
In a clean, dry bowl with a clean whisk, beat the egg whites until frothy. With the mixer running, add the remaining sugar and beat until stiff but shiny peaks form. Lightly but thoroughly, fold the pistachio flour-
matzah cake meal mixture gently but thoroughly into the beaten egg yolk base. Then fold the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture. Immediately scrape the mixture into the prepared pan.
Bake the cake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the cake feels firm to the touch and is slightly browned. Do not overbake. Remove the cake from the oven and set on a cooling rack.
When cool, remove the cake from the pan and place it on a cake cardboard set on a turntable. Using a long serrated knife, cut the cake into two even layers and set aside.
FOR CITRUS FILETS:
1 medium pink grapefruit
1 medium white grapefruit
1 medium blood orange or navel orange
1 large tangerine
Using a small serrated knife, cut a thin slice from the top and bottom of each citrus fruit. Then, following the contours of the fruit, remove the white pith surrounding the fruit. Over a bowl to collect the juices, which will be used in the citrus syrup, release each filet from the fruits by working the knife just adjacent to the connective membranes, making the first cut toward the center of the fruit and then next cut away from the center. The filets should then neatly release from the connective membranes of the fruit. Remove and discard any seeds. Continue until all filets have been removed, keeping each variety separate. Store, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to assemble the dessert.
FOR CITRUS CURD:
1/2 cup fresh squeezed citrus juice (a combination of tangerine, grapefruit and lime works well here)
4 large eggs
Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-ounce pieces, softened
Place the juice, eggs and sugar into a stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan half-filled with simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water. Cook the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it becomes as thick as a thin mayonnaise. Remove from the heat. Press through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean heatproof bowl. Whisk in the butter, piece by piece, keeping the mixture emulsified. When cool, place the curd, covered, into the refrigerator until ready to assemble the cake. (Note: You will have leftover curd to use for another dessert if you use it as a single layer between the two layers of cake, rather than spreading it on the top layer of the cake as well, as noted below.)
FOR CITRUS SYRUP:
1 cup mixed citrus juice, sieved (made from the juice that has collected when preparing the citrus filet garnish)
Simple syrup (1/3 cup each of granulated sugar and water, boiled until the sugar dissolves completely), as needed, to lightly sweeten the citrus juices
Combine the mixed citrus juice and enough simple syrup to lightly sweeten. Brush the layers of cake liberally with the citrus syrup and set aside at room temperature, covered, to prevent drying out. Reserve the remaining syrup in the refrigerator for use when plating and serving the dessert.
Note: Depending on the size of the fruits and how juicy they are, it may be necessary to supplement the juice by extracting the juice from additional fruits.
FOR PISTACHIO CRUNCH:
Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
Scant 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted in a preheated 350 F oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until lightly brown and fragrant, and kept warm until combined with the syrup below
Fleur de sel or other sea salt, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Ten minutes before you begin making the pistachio crunch, place a Silpat-lined baking pan into the oven to heat.
In a heavy saucepan, cook the sugar and water, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 320 F on a cooking thermometer. Combine the syrup with the warm nuts and quickly pour the mixture onto the heated baking pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake until lightly golden. Remove from the oven, immediately sprinkle the salt lightly and evenly over the crunch and store in a cool, dry place. Break the crunch into irregular-shaped shards just before plating the desserts.
TO ASSEMBLE THE DESSERT:
Assemble the cake by spreading half of the citrus curd on one cake layer. Top with the other cake layer and press lightly to compact. If desired, spread remaining citrus curd on top of the top layer of cake. Otherwise, reserve leftover curd to serve over berries or lightened with whipped cream for a nice secondary dessert. Chill the cake until just before serving.
To serve, cut the cake into 8 equal portions. Top each portion with a filet of each type of citrus fruit and garnish with a shard of pistachio crunch. Place the portions onto serving plates and pour an equal amount of citrus syrup onto each plate. Serve immediately.
Makes 1 cake, 8 servings.
Illuminated Reflections: On view through May 8, 2011, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049; (310) 440-4500.
Robert Wemischner is the author of four books, including his latest, “The Dessert Architect” (Cengage Learning Inc., 2010). He teaches professional baking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. To learn more, visit his Web site, RobertWemischner.com.
For more Passover recipes visit jewishjournal.com/passover_food.