Why is This Night Different from all Other Nights?*

25 Apr

*Do you ever set out on a well-planned journey and end up in a very different place?  Read on, my friend.

Last night, I had a bunch of friends over for Passover dinner.  Typically, I have a Passover seder with my Jewish family during the eight-day holiday.  A seder is an ordered dinner involving readings from the Passover guidebook, the Hagada.  It includes information about the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and the oppressive pharaoh.  In the Hagada, we read about the 10 plagues that G-d sent upon the Egyptians to encourage them to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, and the Passover seder traditions are rooted in those plagues and the Exodus story.  Since my friends are mostly not Jewish, and we’re all just college students looking for a good time, I decided to eschew the traditional seder and stick with a more basic dinner party format.  To lure everyone into spending Passover dinner with me (haha), I promoted the tradition of drinking 4 glasses of wine with Passover dinner.  Then everyone wanted in!

When I was planning my menu for the dinner, I wanted to use a lot of the Passover symbolism in the food so that I could at least speak the seder traditions through my food. Torn between my desire to be creative and my love for the traditional Passover foods, I wasn’t sure if I should make a traditional dinner or an intensely symbolic feast of modern cuisine.  In the end, I chose both.  I would base my appetizers on the 10 plagues and my main dinner on the seder plate.

To give you a jump start, here are the 10 plagues and a picture of the traditional seder plate:

10 plagues:

  1. Blood
  2. Frogs
  3. Flies
  4. Wild beasts
  5. Pestilence
  6. Boils
  7. Hail
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness
  10. Death of the First Born

After some free-writing and serious thought about how I could make appetizers inspired by locusts and death, I came up with a list of ideas, which I then whittled down, realizing ten appetizers would be quite a lot, especially if my Passover guests were primarily gentiles…

First list:

Blood            Blood sausage

Frogs everywhere from riverà jumping, etc            hoppin john           

Flies from dust            malto powder or something

Wild Beasts            Game or rabbit

Pestilence on livestock            brisket

Boils            bubbles…of what? Honey comb candy

Hail            frozen spherified milk?

Locusts            vegetarian dish (eating all the crops)

Darkness            Dark ale, dark food…

Death of firstborn            lamb’s blood

Yeah, not so much.  Can’t get blood sausage around here, hoppin’ john isn’t freaking kosher for Passover, buying frog online would take too long, and in the end, I did not in fact want to defrost a whole rabbit and make it into pate in four hours while doing other things.  My next list looked like this:

  1. Blood sausage or Campari-blood orange in gin…
  2. Shoofly pie balls with brown butter powder
  3. Rabbit or bison rilletes?
  4. Braised brisket
  5. Honeycomb candy,?
  6. Frozen milk caviar
  7. Chocolate, coffee, mushrooms, caramel, red wine, dark ale, black garlic, black pepper

But no rabbit…and I didn’t have any equipment to make, essentially, dippin’ dots to rep hail, so I scratched that, instead trying to spherify sour cream…round and white=hail?

After my boyfriend and I went shopping for ingredients and wine, I think he was really curious what the hell I was planning.  So we tried to make sense of it… and we planned to make this menu:

Blood: Campari-blood orange ice cubes dropped into gin
Flies: Shoofly pie filling truffles rolled in brown butter powder
Pestilence (on livestock): Braised brisket appetizer
Boils: Honeycomb candy
Hail: Potato crisps with caramelized onions and sour cream spheres
Darkness:  Mushrooms…? Dark ale…? I didn’t really know…
Main Course:
Matzo with Ashkenazi and Sephardic Charosets
Matzo Ball Soup in Dashi Broth
Duck Fat Roasted Chicken
Hard Boiled Duck, Goose, and Hen Eggs
Grated Horseradish

So we started toiling in the kitchen, for about five hours…and after about four, we had successfully witnessed the plague of boil(overs)s, when the honeycomb candy flowed out of its pot onto the electric range, burning and sticking everywhere.  We were also skeptical of the dashi broth, since neither of us had ever made it before.  It tasted good, but did it have enough flavor?  I made it with kombu, bonito flakes, soy sauce, lemon peel, and ginger.  On the fail side, my shoofly pie filling came out liquid (not enough egg?  substitution of Matzo meal for flour?), and the honeycomb candy we poured into pans had set but was still sticky.  We assumed this was due to not using corn syrup, but instead honey, since corn syrup is not kosher for Passover. Womp.

The best part, however, was about ten minutes before everyone arrived, and I realized we forgot to put the chicken in the oven.  Balls!  At least it wouldn’t take that long.  We impromptu slathered it with duck fat and stuffed a lemon up its butt before putting it into the oven.  By that time, our friends had arrived, and we had all our mise en place ready.  Because of some minor fails and some improvised add-ins, we served the following appetizers and then sat down to have some wine with our friends:

Darkness: Roasted Oyster Mushrooms on Cheese Crisps with Pimentón

Potato Crisps with Caramelized Onions, Brisket, and Sour Cream Spheres
Chimay-washed Cheese, Cana de Cabra, and brie

As you can see, we came out 2 for 6 on our appetizers.  Although it seems we were the plagued ones in this situation, we really just forgot the “blood” cocktails, scratched the “flies” and “boils” courses, and combined the “pestilence” and “hail” courses.  And the dark roasted oyster mushroom on the cheese crisp looked just like a solar eclipse, so “darkness” was a great success!  As for the cheese, my friends Brian and Isys brought it, and they and my friend Juli also brought some delicious wines.  Juli brought Loosen Bros Riesling; Brisys (excuse the celeb combination) brought Sheldrake Point Chardonnay, and Chase and I bought an Albariño, Borsao Crianza, Monte Garnacha, and Lameraux Landing Riesling.

All the wines were excellent, especially with the food, and I’m fairly certain we did not need that cocktail anyway.  Even though we went on another wine run, averaging about one bottle of wine per person.

potato chip, onion, brisket, spherified sour cream

As for the main meal, it all came out very well.  We loved the farm-fresh chicken, perfumed with lemon and crisp from the duck fat.  Speaking of duck fat, I made my matzo balls with duck fat as well, and they were yummy, floating in that dashi!  And the dashi was good!  Full of umami flavor, it was bomb-digs with the matzo balls.  Also, we made all those hard boiled eggs, and they were great!  The goose and duck eggs were gamier, and they were great on matzo.  The Sephardic charoset, made with bananas, dates, cloves, and walnuts (instead of almonds or pistachios) was very good, and the Ashkenazi apples, wine, walnut, and cinnamon charoset was so reminiscent of my childhood.

dinner aftermath: I could probably fit those 4 glasses of wine in that big glass...

duck, hen, goose!

By the end of the night, after drinking lots of wine, eating matzo ball soup out of Solo cups, improvising the shit out of our cooking, forgetting a few things, and enjoying each other’s company, I chalked up Passover to a great success.  At risk of sounding corny, it is really about the people you spend a holiday with and the good times you share with them.  I’ve never had so much fun watching my kitchen experiments flop, for one thing.  I guess it was OK because we came out with enough great food, but still…

Furthermore, even though we all soon realized I was in fact the token Jew of the Passover dinner, it was all good.  There’s this song we always sing at the seder called “Dayenu,” which means, “it would have been enough.”  The song exalts all the blessings the Israelites received from G-d after getting out of Egypt, acknowledging that the Exodus alone would have been blessing enough.

For me, my “Shaider” as I dubbed it, a marriage of my name, Shaina, and seder, was the best example of Dayenu.  Had I had one friend to celebrate Passover with and not ten, it would have been enough.  If I had ten friends to celebrate Passover with and I managed to burn all the food, somehow, with all that wine, it still would have been enough (probably, with modern day take-out).  Had I come out with a good spread and not been able to stay awake for long after all that wine, it would have been enough (enough already for my liver!)  Had I stayed awake until everyone left and then not woken up for work, it would…actually have sucked.  I did make it to work.  And it was a-ok!

The moral of the story, readers, is that sometimes things just work out alright, even despite the odds or the ostensible.  So I leave you with my Shaider four questions, a take on the classics:

Q: Why on this night only do kitchen experiments go mostly awry?
A:  Who knows?  Say dayenu and just forget about it!
Q: Why is there a hunk of lamb fat on the Shaider plate?
A: It is taking the place of the shank bone.
Q:  What are we going to do with all this extra brown butter maltodextrin powder?  
A:  I don’t know…save it for 2012?
Q:  Why is it that on this night only we have a 3:1 people to plate ratio?
A:  Oy vey! I don’t have enough plates! If we had to eat out of the pots and pans, dayenu!

All in all, the dinner was great…we cooked in a tiny kitchen with few serving vessels and utensils.  So throw us a shank bone!  It was delicious!

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One Response to “Why is This Night Different from all Other Nights?*”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Drinking Fond Memories « underBEVERage - April 25, 2011

    […] I had some friends over for Passover dinner, and I was sure to include some Spanish vinos in the mix.  One Albariño, one Garnacha, and one […]

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