Here’s a cake that’s both Moorish and ‘more-ish’. Moorish because its ground walnuts and almonds, orange zest, cinnamon and rose water are evocative of North African cuisine. More-ish because, as I discovered when I served it this week, one serving was not enough for the guests around my table. This cake is also unusual because it contains no flour. That makes it both gluten-free and ideal for serving during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Gâteau noix-amandes-orange / Walnut-almond-orange cake
Passover and Easter are both coming up soon (April 5 and April 8). I’ve posted various Easter recipes on this site, and this year I decided to post one for Passover (aka Pesach), the holiday commemorating the exodus of the Jews from ancient Egypt. It is a time when Jews are meant to consume no flour except in matzo — unleavened bread. In the Ashkenazi world, cakes served during the eight days of Passover are typically made with matzo meal and can be, well, a bit stodgy. But when I moved to Paris, where many Jews with North African roots have settled, the world of Sephardic cooking opened up to me.
Sephardic Passover cakes generally use ground almonds or walnuts instead of matzo meal, and are leavened with beaten egg whites. They are often flavored with orange or lemon, redolent of Spain, while rose water evokes the cuisine of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. I’d made such cakes before, but couldn’t remember the recipe. Looking for inspiration, I turned to Claudia Roden’s wonderful Book of Jewish Food, which features many Passover cakes. I combined three of her recipes to create today’s offering.
At a Seder, the traditional meal on the first (and sometimes also the second) of the eight nights of Passover, the dessert is highly anticipated after several hours of reading, eating and drinking as it signals the approaching end of the festivities, which generally conclude with song. The meal begins with the reading of the Haggadah, which tells the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt via the Red Sea after God appears to him in a burning bush. Once he gets the message, the story goes, Moses tells everyone they have to leave at once. The women object that their bread hasn’t had time to rise. But they must go quickly, so they bring the unleavened bread along for the journey — hence matzo.
The Seder is hardly a solemn affair. Each participant will drink four glasses of wine during the reading of the Haggadah. Before the Seder begins, the door of the home is opened and an extra glass of wine is set on the table in hopes that the prophet Elijah will appear. Although no one ever sees Elijah, that glass of wine is always empty by the time the Seder concludes. Perhaps (she said knowingly) it is surreptitiously consumed while the children are searching for the Hafikomen, another high point of the evening.
And what is the Hafikomen? A Seder table is always set with various items that symbolize the ordeal of the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt. In the center of the table are three matzos, generally covered by a napkin. Toward the start of the meal, the middle matzo is broken in two, and one of the halves is hidden. As the children sit through the reading of the Haggadah, they never lose sight of the fact that by the end of the evening they will hunt for the Hafikomen, and the one who finds it will get a present.
Also on the table are parsley or celery, symbolizing the arrival of spring, to be dipped in salt water, representing the tears of the enslaved Jews. Bitter herbs, generally horseradish, also represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. The bitter herbs are eaten between two small pieces of matzo with haroset, a mixture of fruit and nuts representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the pyramids. In the Ashkenazi tradition, haroset is often made of apples, walnuts, cinnamon and a splash of red wine, and is quite delicious. (I considered putting that recipe on the site today, but instead opted for the cake.) Claudia Roden gives five Sephardic recipes for haroset — from Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Italy and the Piedmont region of northern Italy. They use dates or raisins or chestnuts rather than apples, but the concept is the same. The final two symbolic items on the table are a boiled egg that has been roasted and a roasted lamb bone. These are merely observed, not eaten.
All this is just a prelude to the festive Seder dinner, which can vary widely. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the meal may begin with matzo ball soup — chicken broth with fluffy dumplings made of matzo meal. My grandmother, not necessarily the world’s greatest cook, was a real pro at matzo ball soup, so the first time I made it I thought it would be easy. As I proudly brought the steaming bowls of soup to the table, a guest dipped in her spoon, tried a dumpling and exclaimed, ‘These aren’t matzo balls — these are cannonballs!’ Oops. The next year I tried again, using Claudia Roden’s recipe. Success.
Another first course that is often served in Ashkenazi families is gefilte fish, known in French as carpe farci (stuffed carp). When I was a child, gefilte fish came in the form of small, largely tasteless lumps from a jar. Well, they don’t serve gefilte fish out of a jar in France. To make it, I was told, and this was back in the ’70s, one needed to go to the fish monger and buy a live carp that was to be brought home and kept alive in the bathtub until one was ready to cook it, at which time one first had to kill it. I decided to pass on that. Instead, my boyfriend’s mother — who had been born in Poland, fled to Paris in the ’30s and survived the Nazi occupation of France — gave me her recipe. She mixed fillets of cod, or any white fish, with eggs, matzo meal, onion, carrots, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar, and formed little oval loaves that she simmered in fish stock. Truly delicious.
The main dish at a Seder is frequently chicken or lamb, dishes that are also often served on Easter. The two holidays are linked, of course, because, according to the Gospel, when Jesus gathered with his apostles for what became known as The Last Supper, the meal was a Seder. The dates of both holidays are determined by the lunar calendar, although they rarely coincide, because Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday while Passover moves around. Did the concept of the Easter egg evolve from the Passover egg? Perhaps…
In any event, given all the wine that is consumed before and during the Passover meal, not to mention the arguing over the fine points of the text and the telling of funny stories, the conversation tends to be lively by the time dessert appears. If you happen to be celebrating Passover and decide to make the walnut-almond-orange cake, I have no doubt it will be appreciated. Inevitably, shortly after it’s served, the participants will break into song.
But this cake can be served any time of the year, at lunchtime, teatime or dinnertime. If you’d like to go with a Mediterranean theme, you could start with Moroccan carrot salad and eggplant caviar, serve a chicken tagine as the main course with couscous and a salad, and conclude with the cake. Your guests just might start to sing…