Today is my sister-in-law K’s birthday. It’s also the beginning of Passover—starting at sundown tonight, for eight days observant Jews will forego all kinds of forbidden foods, known as chametz: bread, pasta, corn, legumes, rice, flour, yeast, baking powder & soda, and even mustard.* This includes any and all prepared foods made with even the tiniest smidgen of chametz—corn syrup alone wipes out a huge swath of packaged goods. (In fact, now is a good time to buy things like Coca-Cola, if you drink it, since the bottles marked kosher for Passover are made with actual sugar instead of that more highly-processed stuff.) This is all done out of respect for the ancient Jews’ pass over from slavery to freedom, when they fled Egypt without enough time to let their bread rise. It has to do with leavening—anything that swells up when cooked is considered a no-no, although I couldn’t possibly explain to you why some things that swell are still a-ok, like matzoh balls. This is why I am no longer an observant Jew: There are so many rules that my family just accepts without questioning, and once I was old enough to ask why we could eat meat after dairy and not vice versa—only to be answered with a shrug and “just because”—it stopped making sense to me. But for one week out of the year, at Passover, I swear off chametz.
As for my sister-in-law, well, having a Passover birthday means you get cheated out of a real birthday cake, because so many key ingredients are forbidden. It still doesn’t suck as bad as a late-December birthday, though—because the Jewish calendar is different from the one used in secular life, her birthday only falls on Passover every few years, and on a seder night, maybe once a decade. And just because we can’t have a traditional birthday cake, it doesn’t mean there’s no cake at all. On the contrary, in K’s honor I baked a more sophisticated, more decadent flourless chocolate cake, the kind served in high-end restaurants. It’s surprisingly easy to make, dense, moist, rich, and deeply chocolatey. This particular recipe is called a Chocolate Souffle Cake, although it’s more like a Fallen Chocolate Souffle Cake—when I pulled it out of the oven it was fully inflated, but an hour later it had collapsed into itself, as expected. (There’s a picture of it in the cookbook I used, and it’s clearly the effect they’re going for.) The only thing it won’t have is “Happy Birthday K” written on it, since kosher-for-Passover icing is beyond my capabilities—confectioner’s sugar is yet another no-no.
We’ll be seeing K and the rest of my family at the second seder, tomorrow night. I baked the cake for her today, since it needs time in the fridge to settle. Watch for a report on Monday as to how it tastes!
Weight Watchers readers: This is a WW recipe, adapted from Weight Watchers Entertains. Normally I hate WW recipes, since they call for so many processed foods and half the time they don’t seem to work. But this book was written with chefs from the Culinary Institute of America, and the recipe seems pretty sound. The best part: it only has 4 points per serving!
* I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, which means my ancestors were originally from Northern Europe. Sephardi Jews, who claim ancestry mostly from North Africa, have a much more lenient interpretation of chametz. Oh, how I wished to have been born Sephardi when I was a kid! We used to go to a seder at the home of my cousin’s in-laws, who were Sephardi (their Ashkenazi-Sephardi marriage was looked upon as mixed by some of my more stringent relatives), and to see peas and rice as part of their traditional dinner, but not be allowed to eat any of it…it was torture.
Chocolate Souffle Cake (Kosher for Passover)
8 oz high-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate [I used bittersweet]
5 T. kosher-for-Passover margarine or butter
5 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
¼ cup Cointreau or Grand Marnier
9 large egg whites
Preheat the oven to 350. Spray a 9” springform pan with nonstick spray and set aside.
Melt the chocolate and the margarine or butter in a double boiler set over barely simmering water.
[I used my great-grandmother’s double-boiler, which gave me a small thrill.]
Stir until smooth; set aside. [Take the top pan off the water, and dry the bottom of the pan. Chocolate and water do not mix, and mine looked like it was about to seize before I did this.]
With an electric mixer at high speed, beat the egg yolks and 1/3 cup of the sugar in your largest mixing bowl until tripled in volume and pale yellow. Gently stir in the liqueur, and set aside.
With clean beaters, with an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the egg whites in another large bowl until thickened and foamy. Beat in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until shiny, soft peaks form.
Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate mixture into the beaten egg yolks until almost blended. Gently fold in the beaten whites, one-third at a time, until just blended.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 minutes to an hour.
Cool completely in the pan on a rack.
Unmold onto a serving plate. Refrigerate at least one hour before serving.
Tip: It’s best to use a long, thin knife to cut this cake. Before each cut, dip the blade into hot water, then wipe dry with a clean towel.