Though the title of this article may imply otherwise, don’t think that my fondest recollection of the Pesachs of yore is solely about cake and cookies. They stand out, not so much because pastries are what always punctuated our yom tov meals, but rather because of the interesting fashion in which the industry has evolved.
As a child and probably as a teenager as well, I had almost no expectations about cake or cookies on Pesach. Once upon a time, Pesach was about culinary minimization or perhaps even deprivation. In other words, you could not have this item or that product. Leaving your home to eat elsewhere was unheard of. It was dangerous; after all, it was Pesach.
The staples were, for the most part, the same from year to year. Just the other day I made myself a tuna sandwich at home and was looking for something to put inside the sandwich to enhance the taste. I found some Romaine lettuce, pulled out a long leaf, folded it over, and placed it on top of the tuna.
The immediate taste of that piece of lettuce felt almost exactly like the famous Hillel sandwich that is one of the high points of our annual Sedarim flavors. And that’s because it is all there together—matzah, marror, and charoses.
But the thrust of this essay is that modern-day Pesach observance as far as food is concerned all began with the innovation of different kinds of cakes which, in addition to tasting very good, also blazed the trail on communicating the message that you can enjoy Pesach food and not feel deprived. Granted, the lack of deprivation as the years transpired was a disappointment in some circles. Until that point in time, when it came to food Pesach was about what you were not permitted to ingest.
In my childhood home, our early Pesach observances always featured traditional foods, but in the aftermath of the consistency of sponge cake and marble cake made of potato starch there was an important change. A good deal of those pastry expansions was introduced by our mechutan Yumi Hirsch, a’h, a scion of the famous Hirsch brothers’ Pesach bakery.
I’m not sure what he did or how he did it, but on the occasion that we discussed cakes he talked about the adaptability of potato starch and how we can have great-looking and even great-tasting cakes on Pesach that are not gebrokts.
For those who consume gebrokts, which means that they cook or bake with matzah meal, creating and producing great-tasting Passover cakes is a less laborious effort.
As long as I’m mentioning gebrokts, let me digress for a moment before we get back to the cake and cookies. Back in the 1980s, when we began going to hotels on occasion over Pesach, it was apparently permissible to have gebrokts and non-gebrokts dishes and food in the same hotel.
For a good part of those years we went to Pesach programs that were organized and run by Izzie and Irwin Mehl of Queens, mostly at the Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake, New York. We had some of our most enjoyable Pesachs during those years. The key was that we were young, the kids were small, and the day camp and the food were very good.
The point that I’m trying to make is that if a main course, for example, had an asterisk next to it, that meant it was gebrokts. If you did not, as a matter of minhag, eat gebrokts, you just abstained from ordering those dishes. These days, and probably for the last 20 years or so, not only do Pesach hotels distinguish themselves by advertising if they are gebrokts or non-gebrokts, it is as if a hotel that features gebrokts cuisine cannot be in the same zip code as a hotel that cooks with matzah meal.
It’s a little odd but dabbling with cakes for Pesach is not really dissimilar to the gain of function research that scientists in China worked on to enhance the potency of the COVID virus in an effort to see if they could successfully develop a vaccine that could neutralize the virus.
OK, so seven-layer cake and jelly cookies are not as dangerous, that’s a scientific certainty. In those days, by the way, we came down with viruses too, like measles, chicken pox, and even mumps. We were vaccinated at one point or another and that was it. It did not become a political or financial tug-of-war where billions of dollars were at stake.
Where were we? I think it began one year with a jelly roll for Pesach. I opened the Pesach closet door at our home in Brooklyn and there it was, staring back at me from a plastic container, something I had never seen before on Pesach—jelly roll.
It was strange, but sitting there alongside the other cakes—sponge and marble—was this yellow-looking roll cake with the inner layers lined with red—probably raspberry—jelly. The top of the cake was decorated with white coconut. We took it out of the closet, found a knife, and cut a slice. It was sticky, and if a drop fell on your white yom tov shirt, that was it for that shirt that yom tov.
I’m not sure what the order was but it didn’t take long for the seven-layer and checkerboard cake and my personal favorite to this day—rainbow cookies—to arrive on the scene.
After that, the potato starch masters move in the direction of pizza, bagels, rolls, and even bread. OK, so it’s a little difficult to discern the difference between the sponge cake (the original) and what is supposed to be bread.
The bigger question is: what happened to our humble observance of Pesach? It seems like the objective of the chag, in the culinary venues anyway, is to make things look like it is anything other than what Pesach used to be.
There’s no question that today more than any time in the past—perhaps because of our advanced social media communications—we are very aware of the minhagim of other cultures that have evolved over the centuries. You know that if you are going to spend Pesach in Morocco or Dubai you’ll most likely have to duck in order to get out of the way of the various rice dishes.
Then there is what Sephardim refer to as “soft matzah,” which Ashkenazim would otherwise call pita. So even before the potato-starch revolution, the soft-matzah– and rice-eaters were the envy of many other people observing the chag with their own traditions.
We didn’t devote enough attention to the rainbow cookies that we cannot say enough good things about. They are perfect and delectable and because of their ingredients produce fewer crumbs than cookies we may consume throughout the year.
Speaking of crumbs, there is the matter of the staple known as “lady fingers.” Who doesn’t like a few lady fingers with a hot cup of coffee or a glass of milk?
The only change is that a few years ago someone thought the name “lady fingers” should be prohibited from display on our store shelves. (You can try to figure it out. If you don’t get it, good for you.) Now they are called “baby fingers.”
Today there are all kinds of cakes on the market with hardly any limitations except for a few ingredients here and there that are mostly not our concern. That’s for the kosher supervisory people to figure out.
It is additionally important to point out that just about all of these cakes are gluten-free, which gives people restricted to gluten-free diets the opportunity to stock up for the year ahead.
That’s the brief history of Pesach cookies and cakes. The bottom line is that today there is a great deal to choose from and a great deal to dine on. So are we moving away from the traditions of the Pesach our parents and grandparents knew and cherished, or are we just bringing the yom tov into our modern-day lives?
That might be something to ponder over a cup of coffee and a slice of sponge cake. Like the way it used to be.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.