Lotsa Matzo

With nouvelle Jewish cooking, unleavened bread can undergo delicious transformations into tacos, spanakopita, baklava and more

April 12, 2000|By Jeannette Belliveau | By Jeannette Belliveau,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Any style of cooking bound by strict rules found in the Old Testament, and molded by a people who often struggled to obtain food and spices in Poland and Russia, is likely to be highly traditional and at times austere.

Yet, as that cuisine enters its fourth millennium, the winds of change are blowing strongly over Jewish cooking. And what better time to experiment with new food preparations than at Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday that starts at sundown next Wednesday?

Actually, immigrants have been adapting Jewish food to New World tastes and products ever since 1654, when the first Jewish settlers, from the Iberian Peninsula, arrived in Colonial America.

But a trend toward nouvelle Jewish cooking appeared in the 1980s, according to Joan Nathan, author of "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf, 1994) -- and seems to be exploding today.

Americans traveling to the world crossroads that is Israel encountered falafel, carrot salad and other dishes brought by Jews from more than 70 countries, she notes. Meanwhile, in the United States, young secular Jews returned to observing their faith more strictly, eating kosher but bringing a lighter, health-food orientation. And being a chef became a more accepted profession for Jews.

In Baltimore, classes in contemporary Jewish cooking offer everyone, even non-Jews, easy, tasty and healthful versions of surprisingly varied menus, with appeal to foodies, ethnic cuisine fans and children alike.

Imagine, for example, tacos, spanakopita, baklava, broccoli quiche, cannelloni and a spectrum of other foods, all prepared with the humble matzo (Hebrew for unleavened), the bread eaten during the eight days of Passover in devout homage to Moses' hasty flight from Pharaoh.

The eclectic new cooking "speaks to the way we eat today," says chef Amy Bernstein of the Classic Catering People in Owings Mills. "I'd much rather have falafel and tacos than what I grew up with -- chicken, potato and overcooked broccoli. The newer recipes reflect the way we eat now at home."

Bernstein has started to offer a cutting-edge Lotsa Matza class, demonstrating to home cooks how to proceed from various forms of matzo to "Unbelievable Brownies," Caesar salad croutons that explode with flavor, tortilla chips and matzo vanilla crisps. "Who says matzo has to taste terrible?" she asks as she prepares matzo baklava.

During the class, as she handles the matzo, her mantra appears to be, "Butter both sides." The generous applications of butter, as well as top-grade Parmigiano-Reggiano, honey, cinnamon and bowlfuls of sugar, reassure participants that today matzo, known as the "bread of affliction," will be anything but. She uses regular matzo, farfel (broken matzo, which comes ready-made in a box) and matzo meal.

Bernstein's baklava recipe appears easier than the authentic Greek version requiring phyllo. The chef takes large matzo squares and renders them as pliable as noodles or dough by dampening them between paper towels.

She brushes the prepared matzo with butter, then sprinkles each layer with ground walnuts, ground almonds, sugar and cinnamon. Her syrup has an intriguing spicy citrus essence, lent by adding a cinnamon stick, lemon and orange to a honey base.

Her class, 15 women with lively minds, peppers her with questions. "Can you use Egg Beaters instead of eggs?" "Can you drop the walnuts from the recipe?" "What's the difference between regular and kosher salt?"

A half-hour later, the teaching kitchen at Classic Catering is redolent with the aroma of the evening's creations. Class members deliver their verdicts. "The spanakopita is wonderful, very light and flaky," says Beverly Sunshine of Pikesville. Adds her friend Sonya Goodman of Owings Mills, "The baklava is excellent.' " "The tacos and tortilla chips are excellent," adds Sunshine. "The croutons are fabulous," says Goodman, echoing others who deem them actually "addictive."

Would they try these recipes at home? "Certainly," say Goodman and Sunshine in unison. "They need to have more classes like this," adds Goodman, eager to prepare delicious food during Passover -- and the rest of the year. She and others in the class conclude that the recipes also would appeal to children.

Despite the lashings of butter, the dishes still appear comparatively healthful. Matzo, as a baklava ingredient or a taco shell, seems to be more substantial and less fatty than either phyllo dough or a flour tortilla. In fact, it is naturally free of fat and yeast.

Nothing is fried. Everything has been baked, which darkens the taco shells to a pleasing whole-wheat shade. Somehow, these dishes look like they could have been prepared at an ultra-trendy West Coast health-food bar, rather than at a Lotsa Matza class outside Baltimore.

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