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A Twist on Tradition

(by Barbara Ballinger)

Passover is an emotional, nostalgic Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt. For years, our family has gathered as many people as possible around our Seder table, reflecting our open-door policy of including friends and almost-strangers who’ve never participated in the story of Passover.

It’s a great story: There’s the miracle of the Red Sea parting so that Moses could lead his people to freedom in the Holy Land. There’s a heroic plot line of surviving in the desert for 40 years. And there’s delicious food, like the cinnamon-apple relish called haroset, signifying the mortar between the bricks of the houses where the Jewish people were forced labor. They fled so quickly from Egypt that they didn’t have time to let their bread rise, which is why we eat unleavened matzoh.

When I was growing up in Westchester County, New York, my parents hosted the second night of Seder. My mother brought out her elegant green and gold china, crystal goblets, silver that she had patiently polished, and linens—no paper napkins. She cared greatly about her table, lining up the cutlery in perfect military rows and writing place cards after deciding who would sit where. She took charge of everything, from soup (matzoh ball, of course) to dessert (macaroons and seven-layer chocolate cake from a local bakery). I don’t remember being asked to help, and I don’t remember offering. She was efficient in her homemaker skills, having trained as a dietician. The kitchen was totally her domain. The only thing that seemed to make her nervous was whether the matzoh balls would be light and fluffy. They always were.

After my father died, my then-husband and I took on the responsibility, first in our Chicago home and then in St. Louis. We did so with a bit of trepidation; my father had led a wonderful Seder service. My mother helped by gifting us the blue Haggadahs they had used (the book of text for the celebration), with one inscribed to my dad by a patient, a beloved rabbi at a prominent temple in New York City. We slowly added our own twists—homemade desserts like Ina Garten’s macaroons. We also asked my mother to make her haroset. That was a Passover staple.

I love that the holiday has kept evolving with new generations. My daughters became good cooks, adapting the recipes to suit our more sophisticated culinary taste buds. Daughter No. 1 was put in charge of the vegetables, often something with shaved or sautéed Brussels sprouts, which never would have been allowed to replace the traditional spring asparagus at my parents’ table. Daughter No. 2 would make her flourless key lime pie, which we decided was so good, it could be served any time of year (the true benchmark for a successful Passover recipe).

This year, because my 99-year-old mother can’t travel the two hours to my home or the same distance to other relatives, we will bring the Seder to her. We will take out her good china, crystal, and silverware, now rarely used. And we will buy part of the meal since cooking in her apartment is more difficult (and her nearby fishmonger makes fabulous gefilte fish). She can no longer make her haroset, but has instructed us how to do so and become our chief taster.

We will decide where to hide the afikoman, the half piece of matzoh that signifies that end of the Seder (although it also serves to keep young children like my grandsons awake), and when to open the door to let in the prophet Elijah (we don’t actually see him, but a cup of wine will be waiting for him). The final sentiment of the Seder found in the Haggadah is the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” The story of Passover has, at its core, a message of optimism: that slaves can go free, and that the future can be better than the present. But before we finish this Seder, we will repeat what I consider the most important twist on tradition: That next year, when my mother will be 100 years old, we will be together again, not in Jerusalem, as the script goes, but in my mother’s apartment again.


Barbara Ballinger is a writer in the Hudson River Valley of New York. She is the co-author of Suddenly Single After 50 and Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life After 50 .

Gammy’s Haroset

1 1/2 - 2 c. chopped walnuts

4 medium apples, cored and finely chopped (with or without skin)

2 - 3 t. cinnamon

approximately 1/2 c. sweet red kosher wine

Combine walnuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine—depends on how soupy or not you like it.

Refrigerate until serving.

Ina Garten’s Coconut Macaroons

14 oz. sweetened shredded coconut 14 oz. sweetened condensed milk

1 t. pure vanilla extract

2 extra large egg whites

1/4 t. kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Combine coconut, condensed milk, and vanilla in a large bowl.

Whip egg whites and salt on high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until they make medium-firm peaks.

Carefully fold egg whites into coconut mixture.

Drop batter onto sheet pans lined with parchment paper using either a 1 3/4-inch diameter ice cream scoop or 2 teaspoons.

Bake for 25 - 30 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool on wire racks.

(Two options: Add dried cranberries or dip finished cookies in melted chocolate.)

Makes 20 - 24.


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