The Passover challenge. Every year, we face it: how to feed guests, families and ourselves food that observes the holiday traditions and prohibitions—but still tastes good. Enter the Passover recipe and meal “hacks.” Most of us have them, and nothing served as a better reminder than recently seeing Rabbi Avis Miller’s six-inch thick folder bursting with recipes she’s modified over the years for Passover.
An avid cook with whom I love talking about food, Rabbi Miller—Rabbi Emerita of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, and president of the Open Dor Foundation, Inc.—has gotten creative, pulling from family favorites, time-saving strategies and modern ingredients, tools and approaches. And she’s not alone. Shannon Sarna, founding editor of The Nosher and author of Modern Jewish Baker, expresses the creative sentiment well, saying, “There’s part of me that loves treating Passover like my own personal Chopped episode, ‘no chametz’ edition.” And as more of us have family members and friends on gluten-free diets, we’re also motivated to find gluten-free renditions of recipes, which, as a bonus, often taste fresher and better than versions with matzah.
Thinking about all the hacks, Rabbi Miller suggested compiling a list we could share, and I consulted other Jewish food writers to round out the resource. We hope these tips give you ideas for a less stressful, more meaningful, and much tastier holiday. And please feel free to share your own hacks in the comments!
Start Early. Although a time hack rather than a recipe hack, Rabbi Miller’s and others’ advice to start early is worth noting up front. Planning menus and ingredient needs, testing new recipes well in advance, shopping ahead while selections are good, and preparing and freezing items like soup stocks, brisket, meatballs, kugels and desserts makes it much easier to enjoy the holiday. One surprising and ingenious make-in-advance strategy comes from cookbook author, writer and professional baker Marcy Goldman: “One of my tricks for any Jewish holiday is to make the soup and matzah balls a month ahead and freeze everything in the pot and then just put it on the stove the day of the meal.” And if you don’t start Passover prep early? Save yourself stress and avoid tackling new and ambitious recipes at the last minute.
Seek Passover-Friendly/Hackable Recipes. “All year I keep my eyes open for recipes that are already Passover-friendly, especially desserts—cakes that use almond flour, flourless cookies and variations on mousse,” notes Sarna. It also helps to spot and save recipes that might be easily hackable, such as those that use minimal or no flour or have other components that could be successfully modified with Passover-friendly twists. One of my favorite dessert hacks comes from Goldman, who in seeking something her toddler would eat, eyed her old recipe for soda cracker (or saltine) candy and wondered whether substituting matzah would work. Boy, did it. Today her Matzah Buttercrunch from her book A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking is beloved around the world.
Use Flour Power. Although the long-standing substitution of matzah meal or cake meal for flour still applies, when almond flour became available for Passover, it offered a better-flavored alternative, especially for baked goods. Sarna recommends mixing flours when subbing for Passover, and she likes a mix of half almond flour and half matzah cake meal in her rainbow cookie recipe. Rabbi Miller uses almond flour to make her favorite chocolate pecan pie kosher for Passover. I use almond flour and potato starch for flour in my fudgy brownies and as a thickener for my brisket braising liquid.
Recently, kosher for Passover (and gluten-free) quinoa flour, banana flour and coconut flour have become available. I love how quinoa flour created a nicely structured and mildly nutty flavored crust in my new recipe for Passover-friendly lemon bars. But if you are ready to start substituting, note that alternative flours react differently from traditional white flour, so you may need to test recipes several ways.
Noodle Around. Those packaged Passover noodles…oy. But never fear—we’ve got both traditional and modern strategies for eating better noodles. Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-owner of The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, recalls, “One of my favorites for Passover that I learned from a great aunt is making ‘egg lokshen’ or noodles. Add a tiny bit of potato starch to beaten eggs and fry like a crepe.” From here, you can roll up the crepe and slice it into noodles ideal for soup or use the whole crepe for kosher for Passover blintzes (find the egg lokshen recipe in The Gefilte Manifesto). “Making cheese blintzes from this lokshen is a great hack,” he says.
Writer, teacher and caterer Susan Barocas turns to a more modern hack—making veggie noodles with a spiralizer (a vegetable peeler also works but makes wider strips). According to Barocas, “Zucchini works best for spiralizing, although yellow squash and beets are good, too.” To prepare the squash noodles, she recommends, “Cook minced garlic in some olive oil over medium heat for a minute or two until fragrant but not brown. Add the noodles, toss to coat well and cook, tossing a few more times, until just crisp tender. Just before finishing, stir in some chopped fresh tomatoes and fresh basil plus salt and pepper to taste.”
Make the Most of Seder Fare. Taking advantage of the wonderful food that you already create for the seder is another hack. Bonnie Benwick, Washington Post Food deputy editor/recipes editor, shares a couple of strategies: “I make individual ‘trifle-y” post-seder dessert cups by layering leftover savory carrot pudding with crumbled canned plain macaroons, lightly sweetened whipped cream and toasted walnuts.” And to refresh subsequent servings of that leftover matzah ball soup? “I always load in more fresh dill. And I mean lots. No such thing as too much!”
That concept also applies to charoset. Leah Koenig, food writer and author of several cookbooks including Modern Jewish Cooking, says, “I like to make extra haroset. It lasts a few days after the seder and is a great, kid-friendly topping for yogurt in the morning.”
Doctor Passover Products. Rabbi Miller, who prepares two seders for more than 20 people each year in addition to entertaining houseguests for part of the week, does a lot of scratch cooking, but also makes the most of Passover prepared products. She crushes coconut macaroons to form a crust for her favorite cheesecake recipe; doctors a jarred sweet-and-sour sauce with onion, garlic and other seasonings for her homemade meatballs; dresses up muffin mixes with cinnamon, vanilla, berries or chocolate chips; and gives frozen Passover blintzes delicious flair with homemade blueberry sauce.
Make Better Matzah Brei (Fried Matzah). Many people look forward to the traditional egg-and-matzah dish for Passover breakfast. But a few tweaks can make it much more delicious. Benwick toasts the matzah boards in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes and says, “Sometimes I brush them with melted butter or hot sauce beforehand. The flavor bakes in, and the matzah brei will have more of a nutty flavor.”
Play with Quinoa. This high-protein, Passover-approved seed offers welcome chewiness and whole-grain nutrition, especially if you don’t eat kitniyot during the holiday. Both Koenig and Rabbi Miller substitute quinoa for the bulgur in tabbouleh. It can stand in for rice and add heft to hearty salads. I use it for a breakfast bowl—warmed and topped with some fruit, nuts and milk or yogurt.
Build Matzah Pies. In what might be considered a mighty fine and time-tested Passover hack for lasagna, Barocas points to delicious Sephardic savory matzah pies called minas (Spain, Turkey, and some other Sephardic traditions), meginas (Greece), or scacchi (Italy). Dampened matzahs line a baking dish, which is then filled with ground meat or vegetable and cheese mixtures of your liking (most recipes include sautéed onion) and covered with another layer of damp matzahs. Beaten egg is traditionally poured over top—although tomato sauce works well, too—before baking until cooked through and bubbly. She notes, “This is a dish that lends itself to customizing depending on the flavors of a family’s cultural background and tradition. Cumin (Middle East), allspice (Syria) and ras el hanout (North Africa) are some favorites.”
Feed the Kids Good Stuff. “For kids, particularly picky eaters who most likely can’t have their favorite carby foods for a week, ensuring they get good nutrition during Passover is tough,” says Koenig. “I like to start the day with fruit and veggie-packed smoothies that are simple to make.” Here are two of her winning combos:
“Sweet Potato Pie Smoothie: roasted sweet potato (scooped out of skin), banana, plain yogurt, cinnamon, milk, and ice cubes;
Chocolate Almond Butter Smoothie: banana, almond butter, cocoa powder, milk, maple syrup or honey (optional).”
And then there’s dessert. Sarna’s family eats little meat, so they enjoy a lot of dairy desserts. Last year, they upped their game. She says, “We invested in an ice cream maker, which was a welcome addition to our arsenal, and we made several ice cream flavors during the week.” Besides being fresh and delicious, homemade ice cream has the added bonus of being something both grownups and kids can enjoy creating together.
Get Crunch. When recipes call for breadcrumbs or croutons, chopped toasted nuts, toasted unsweetened coconut flakes or Parmesan cheese crisps can stand in. You can use coconut to coat oven-baked chicken fingers for a slightly sweet and crispy crust and sprinkle salads and casseroles with nuts and crumbled cheese crisps. And of course, crumbled matzah buttercrunch (if you are lucky enough to have any leftover) goes nicely on top of your ice cream!
More Substitutions: Need more ideas? Here’s a quick and handy reference for all sorts of Passover ingredient substitutions from the Orthodox Union: https://oukosher.org/passover/articles/pesach-recipe-substitutes/
Many thanks to Susan Barocas, Bonnie Benwick, Marcy Goldman, Leah Koenig, Rabbi Avis Miller, Shannon Sarna and Jeffrey Yoskowitz for their contributions to this article.