I eagerly await the Waiter There's Something...events each month. So far we have had Stew and Pie, both of which were great successes. It was amazing to see how creative everyone was.
Whilst Pies and Stews are fairly easy to reinterpret, Easter Basket is a little different. Hosted this month by Johanna at The Passionate Cook, it has proved to be another food event to literally AND metaphorically get our teeth into.
I got to thinking. Paul and I are not religious so, theoretically, we can use Easter celebratory food from any religious denomination that we choose. Typical British Easter foods (from the Christian denomination) include the Simnel Cake (a light fruit cake adorned with the eleven marzipan balls to signify Christs loyal disciples) and Hot Cross Buns (the 'cross' on these spiced dough buns once representative of the crucifixion, now just a supermarket staple at this time of the year). Of course, we also have the Roast Lamb which once represented the sacrificial lamb but is now just a tasty excuse to cook a delicious Sunday meal.
I can't particularly recall my own family serving specific Easter foods, so to me personally it merely means stacks of chocolate Easter eggs but, as I get older, it also heralds the onset of Spring and plants bursting into life. The clocks are put forward and we no longer have to drive home from work in the dark, eager to get home and draw the curtains, blocking out the winter from view. We can start thinking about eating outdoors and preparing salads, foods that help us to lose our post-winter blubber.
Because I feel that if one thing should bridge the barrier between different religions, it should be food, I have decided to cook a Passover Cake for this particular event. There is a two-fold reason for this:
a) I didn't want to make a Simnel Cake or Hot Cross Buns because I'll be baking them next weekend for the Easter Bank Holiday family get-together.
b) I have been blissfully lost in Claudia Roden's wonderful Book of Jewish Cookery and wanted to cook something inspired by her deeply evocative reminiscences. Her delicious selection of Passover Cakes seemed a great place to start.
Passover, of course, does not have the same connotations as Easter despite being celebrated during April. As Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, Passover commemorates the fleeing of the Jews from Egyption slavery following Moses' great plagues and how God protected them during this time, over 3000 years ago.
Passover must be particularly pertinent for the emancipation of the Jews following the holocaust of the Second World War.
The enduring thread that ties Easter-time observances together though is that of the circle of life, death and rebirth, one that follows us all, regardless of our own personal beliefs.
Unlike Christianity, Jewish Cooking involves several dietary requirements that must be fulfilled; in short, what is Kosher and what isn't. In spite of these regulations though, a brief glance through Claudia Roden's magnus opus will leave you in no doubt that this is not a boring diet. I suspect that this is in many ways due to the eclectic origins of the food, from the Middle East, Spain and Eastern Europe which lends an exotic flavour to what could potentially have been an unfulfilling diet.
During Passover, these requirements are slightly stricter: amongst other food products, no leavening is allowed (which indicates flour made from wheat, barley, rye, oats, or any food which is considered to ferment, including alcohol). This means that Passover cakes must be made using alternative ingredients. Fortunately, ground almonds and egg whites produce marvellously moist, and long-lasting cakes without a hint of leavening. Additional flavours are added by way of orange or flower waters, various types of nuts, apples, chocolate etc. The cakes are often drenched with syrups to make them very rich and decadent, and then cut into small pieces which could satisfy even the sweetest tooth.
The cake I eventually decided to make was a Walnut and Syrup Cake, a recipe influenced by Spain, with its distinctive flavours of orange and walnuts. The orange particularly holds strong symbolism for the Spanish Jewish because it was they who originally cultivated it in Spain back in the Roman Times. They were considered experts in the growing of citrus plants, and during the 18th Century, Jaffa Oranges were first grown in Israel by migrated Jews. They are considered by many to be the sweetest oranges in the world.
The cake is incredibly easy to make but benefits from resting overnight in its heady rosewater syrup bath, ensuring that the cake is well steeped. The syrup also helps to preserve the cake slightly longer than a normal cake.
The flavour is not as sweet as you might expect, despite being liberally doused in at least half a pint of sugar syrup, but instead is dense and rich with the wonderful texture of the chopped walnuts mingling with the delicate flavour ground almonds and the bold orange zest holding the flavours together.
If, like us, you don't observe Passover, you could serve this cake, cut into small diamonds, almost as a petit fours after a rich meal, when a heavy dessert is just too much. It would also be a lovely light way to finish a summery meal.
WALNUT AND SYRUP CAKE, from Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food
Serves up to 10 people
5 Eggs, lightly beaten
100g Ground Almonds
150g Chopped Walnuts
Zest and Juice of one large Orange, Jaffas are best
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Rosewater
Make the syrup in advance as this needs to be completely cold for it to be properly absorbed.
In a large saucepan, add the sugar, lemon juice and water and boil for 10-15 minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved and the syrup is thickened.
Remove from the heat and stir in the rosewater.
Decant into a heatproof jug, leave to cool and then refrigerate until you need it. This can be made well in advance.
Making the cake:
Preheat the oven to 170c.
Line the bottom of a 9" Cake tin with baking paper and brush the sides and bottom with oil.
To make the cake, mix all the ingredients together until well combined and pour into the prepared tin. See what I mean about easy?
Place in the oven and bake for about an hour or until golden brown.
When baked, remove from the oven and invert immediately onto a deep plate, carefully removing the baking paper.
Cut into diamonds and pour over the syrup. I found that there was a huge amount of syrup made and I didn't use all of it, but just your common sense. If your cake seems a bit dryer, then use more syrup.
After half an hour, turn over the cake pieces so ensure a full and thorough bathing of the syup. You will see that the walnuts rose to what was the top of the cake and will look beautifully bronzed and glossy from the syrup.
I left mine to soak overnight and then placed the syrup drenched pieces on a cake stand for people to whisk away as they pleased.