Tag Archives: borscht

Matzo Caffee a la Dad

ON  PASSOVER, WHEN WE’RE FORBIDDEN to eat any of the five grains–wheat, oats spelt, rye, barley — except in the form of matzo,  naturally a number of specific recipes involving matzo developed. I’ve been thinking about all the food traditions I grew up with on this holiday, realizing that I make an effort to keep some of them, fail to keep others and toss some away without regret.

For example, I do make kneidlach (matzo balls) for a chicken or vegetarian soup and matzo brei for a special breakfast, but I don’t make a roasted turkey with my mother’s wonderful matzo-mushroom stuffing. I fail to make an authentic fermented beet borscht as my Baba (my mother’s mother) did — but come to think of it, I don’t remember my mother making this either. Perhaps she made it before I was of an age to remember, and gave it up.  She let Manischewitz handle the borscht-making and served the ruby-colored soup hot or cold, pouring it into bowls in which we’d crumbled matzo pieces and topping it with a dollop of sour cream, great for a Passover lunch.

And despite my fond memories of making sponge cake with my mother for the Seder dinner — besides the matzo meal, nine eggs were required, with silky-beaten yolks and whipped egg whites in the batter, and a frosting of egg whites and honey — I prefer my own custom of making flourless chocolate walnut torte.

One of my favorite Passover matzo traditions  is one that my father introduced,  a simple European treat that he would make nearly every day of the eight-day holiday, starting on the first morning: Matzo Coffee. We knew by its German name, Matzo Kaffee. Or, in a more personal rendition, Matzo Caffee a la Dad.

Matzah Kaffee 1

Passover in Chicago, April 2000. Dad was 89 then.

Dad would break most of a sheet of matzo into his coffee cup, crunching it into small pieces, then adding sugar and milk to the cup.

Matzah Kaffee 2

Finally, he poured hot coffee into the cup, right to the brim.

The result was softened, sweetened matzo floating about in some milky coffee. We made a similar children’s version, Matzo Cocoa, which was simply broken-up matzo pieces covered with hot chocolate. Both Matzo Kaffee and Matzo Cocoa are hybrids of food-and-beverage: you take sips of the coffee or cocoa and spoon out the softened bits of flavored matzo. Mmmmm.

I admit, it’s not for everyone. It has very little nutritional value, and doesn’t hold a candle to a good coffee and buttered toast or a croissant. Most people who didn’t grow up with it look upon it with disdain, as if you had torn up a piece of toast into little pieces and tossed them into a cup of cappuccino.

It’s certainly not an essential food for Passover, but rather a minor tradition, probably born of the monotony of eating dry, unsalted matzo day after day. Whatever others thought, we  loved it and had it (or the cocoa version) often, either for breakfast or for an afternoon snack. Still today, for me the taste and messy consumption of Matzo Caffee ala Dad  carries so many pleasurable associations.

My father — in a play on the word Seder, which means order — insisted there was a also a certain order to be observed when making Matzo Kaffee. On the last Passover of his life, when he was 93, he wrote the instructions for each of us four children in his inimitable handwriting.

Matzah Kaffee order

I love the “WOW!! What a TREAT!!” which captures my Dad’s vitality and almost childlike enthusiasm, while the instruction “Do NOT change order to do it o.k.”  reminds me of the authoritarian side of his character.

Twelve years after he wrote it, this little card is one of my most treasured documents from my father. And, yes, of course, I’m still enjoying that special Passover treat, Matzo Caffee a la Dad.



Filed under breakfast, Praise for other cooks, spring, Uncategorized

Beets and potatoes (and grandmothers from Russia)

beetspotatoes1A few days ago, I was talking on the phone with my cousin Yael–an Israeli, though she’s lived in the United States for decades now–about the traditional foods we had on Passover.

Our grandmothers were sisters — from the village of Shumsk (or Szumsk) in Russia (though sometimes the region was part of Poland and currently it’s part of the Ukraine) — and Yael and I discovered that both of us grew up with potatoes on the seder plate, either instead of parsley or alongside it. Why? Because in Russia (or Poland or Ukraine or whatever) there were no fresh vegetables growing in April.


I found radishes at the farmers market here, but it might still be too early for them in the Ukraine. Or Russia. Or Poland.

Passover foods generally involve a lot of potatoes, but beets are also traditional, especially for Jews from Eastern Europe, as it was another root vegetable available in early spring.

Yael told me about a sweet-sour beet salad she makes for Passover, and that reminded me of beet borscht. On Passover, my mother always served it a special way with an egg whipped in the soup tureen, turning the borscht from wine-red to a frothy deep rose color. Yael’s family made it that way too, she said.

Baba (Edess Kanfer Arshack)

Baba (Edess Kanfer Arshack)

My mother told me that her mother (my Baba) always made rossel (or rossl or rosel), which is sour or fermented beets, a kind of starter for genuine beet borscht.  She started the fermentation six weeks before Passover, putting cleaned and peeled chunks of beets in an earthenware crock and covering them with water, checking every few days. The women neighbors in Rock Island, Illinois, where my mother’s family lived, would come to the house and take a cupful of Baba’s rossel so they could make their own borscht.

Looking around the Internet, I noticed a couple of things about rossel. For a long while it fell out of favor as it takes quite a bit of planning and some attention. (Even my mother, who kept so many food traditions, never made it.) Plus people’s tastes had changed and sour fermented beets didn’t sound so appealing –although kosher dill pickles, which are fermented cucumbers, never lost their fans.

But recently, it’s having a bit of a come-back (though one couldn’t exactly call it a resurgence) as fermented foods are becoming more popular. Now I am seriously thinking of making rossel next year (my Jewish cookbook says three or four weeks ahead is sufficient), and perhaps some of my trusty readers will try it too. As Levy‘s bakery famously said, “You don’t have to be Jewish . . .”

In the meantime, I tried Yael’s beet salad with lemon juice and a touch of sugar, which captured the flavors of our shared history.

It made me think of the freedom our grandparents found when they left the Old Country, and that, along with the marvelous color, made me happy.

Ship postcard

The ship that my grandmother took to America

Sweet-and-sour beet salad

beetinfoilYael boils the beets. I baked them, wrapped tightly in tin foil, on a cookie sheet. Either way, if they’re large, they’ll take a while.

(By the way, I first removed the beet greens and steamed them, for another use. Don’t throw them away!)

gratingbeets2When the beets are cool, you peel them and grate them. I think next time, I will under-bake them just a little. These were a bit too soft.

Once they’re grated, add lemon juice, sugar (I’d go easy on that) and a little salt, to taste.beetsalad
There are many ways you could serve this salad, of course, but I thought it looked nice against the green of romaine lettuce leaves. You could fold the leaves around the salad and eat it as a finger food. It looks like a new Passover tradition for me!

For more on beets: A valentine vegetable

For more about Passover:
Edible, tangible memory
A cake for all seasons
Time for quinoa



Filed under Praise for other cooks, salad, soup, spring, Uncategorized, vegetables

Fresh from the pantry (with a little help)

The other day, when snow and ice prevented me from the serious weekly trip to the grocery store, I turned to my cupboard for ideas. Cathy had just written me that she’d made borscht and I remembered the cabbage-beet borscht I make from time to time. I’d lost the actual recipe long ago, but I remembered that with a certain number of canned goods, a cabbage and an onion, you could make a hearty pot of soup.

I chopped a large onion, shredded half of a medium-large cabbage and sauteed them in a little olive oil in my Dutch oven, then put the lid on and “sweated” the vegetables till they were tender.

Then I put in a pinch or two of  thyme, a can of chopped tomatoes, a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, and a can of beets with their juice (Note: I had whole beets in a can so I diced them. Of course, you could use fresh beets instead, and I felt a little guilty using canned beets, so I later added some beets I’d roasted in the oven wrapped in foil, then diced).

Then I added about 6 to 8 cups of light broth or mixture of water and broth (chicken or vegetable) and a bay leaf, and let the whole thing simmer for about an hour.

As you can see, the soup turns a lovely color somewhere between coral and plum. Now here’s the part that makes it borscht-like: the sour-and-sweet. Many traditional borscht soups (beet soups, basically) are naturally sour from fermentation, but you can achieve a similar flavor by adding lemon juice or vinegar to the soup before serving, and balancing the acidity with a little  sweetness from brown sugar or honey.

I used a few tablespoons each of lemon juice and brown sugar — how much and how sweet or sour is a matter of taste.

With a piece of dark bread and maybe a little cheese, it’s good peasant food to warm you up on a winter day.

Other meals can emerge from the cupboard (and freezer) too — like the black-bean salad I made yesterday.

I started with a can of beans, some corn from the freezer, and a little bulgur from the cupboard. In the summer I like cherry tomatoes in this salad, but for this winter version, I used more-available fresh ingredients:  green onions,  cilantro, and red pepper (and of course, you could use bottled roasted peppers or frozen peppers instead).

Dressed with a little oil and fresh lime juice, salt, cumin and ground chipotle (one could add some diced jalapeno or hot sauce for more heat), it’s another quick and simple meal –and all from what I had on hand.

For this time of year, when we non-Californians are deprived of the pleasure of farmers markets and farm stands, it may be worthwhile to take a look through the pantry (cupboard or freezer — what have you) and see what you have.

The contents of those long-neglected cans, bottles, jars or packages — with a little help from the produce department –just might lead to the next inspiration….

p.s. I try to always have lemons, onions, olive oil and some pecorino cheese on hand. With three of these four ingredients, along with some dried pasta and some capers I keep in my fridge, I can always make lemon linguine (or spaghetti or fettuccine) for supper.


Filed under salad, soup, supper time, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter