Giving the Seder Italian accents


For Jews throughout the world, Passover, which begins at sundown April 21, marks the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. For Edda Servi Machlin, author of the two-volume "Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews" (Giro Press), it is also a time to remember the Seder of 1944, when she and her siblings were in hiding from the Nazis in Italy.

More than anyone else, Machlin, a historian of Italian-Jewish life, has brought to the American public the food and stories of the Tuscan town of Pitigliano and its surroundings. Machlin, who wrote her first book in 1981 and her second 11 years later, serves heirloom recipes at her Seder. The menu includes what she calls "haroset Edda," the fruit and nut paste served symbolically at the Seder to remind Jews of the times of slavery in Egypt, when they were making bricks.

The meal itself starts with her jellied striped bass, followed by roast lamb or veal and vegetables, and an almond torte and her mother's biscotti for dessert.

Besides her Seder dishes, Machlin's recipes are helpful to pasta-loving Americans deprived during this eight-day period when all leavened products are forbidden. Not only does she make homemade Italian noodles from matzo cake meal, which she serves with tomato sauce, but she also bakes several matzo "mazzagnes." Layered with pesto and ricotta cheese or a meat sauce with mushrooms, these are great family meals at Passover, or any time during the year.

Mazzagne al pesto (Matzo lasagna with pesto sauce)

Makes 8 servings

1 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves

6 large sprigs Italian parsley, stems removed

2 cloves garlic, coarsely cut

1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup grated Italian Parmesan cheese or kosher Passover cheese

salt, freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup unsalted butter

6 tablespoons Passover cake meal

1 cup hot milk

1 cup ricotta cheese

8 egg matzos

1 cup milk

Pulse basil in bowl of food processor with parsley and garlic until finely chopped. Add nuts and pulse few seconds longer (you will want some "crunch" in sauce). Transfer to bowl. Add oil and Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let pesto sauce stand at room temperature at least 1 hour before using.

Meanwhile, heat butter and cake meal in saucepan and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add hot milk all at once and cook 2 minutes longer, stirring vigorously with wire whisk. Add ricotta and simmer, stirring, until ricotta is almost completely melted.

Coat bottom of deep, 8-inch-square baking dish slightly larger than the matzo with 1 tablespoon pesto sauce. Make layers with matzo followed by pesto sauce followed by dollops of ricotta sauce. Continue to make layers until all ingredients are used, ending with ricotta sauce. Use spatula to spread sauce evenly over top. Pour remaining 1 cup milk over top. Cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes or until bubbling. Cut into 8 squares. Serve immediately with salad.

This matzo is an introduction to the traditions of the Italian Jews. To be truly correct for Passover, matzo making must be rabbinically supervised.

Cazzima semplice pitiglianese

(Italian Matzo)

Makes 12 matzo

3 cups cold spring water

7 cups matzo cake meal

In large bowl, quickly mix water with enough cake meal to form very stiff dough. Spread remaining cake meal on smooth working surface (preferably marble or glass) and turn dough out onto it. Knead with force 3 minutes. During first phase of kneading, make a few cuts in dough with sharp knife, which will enable you to incorporate more flour into it. Continue to knead quickly until dough is perfectly smooth.

Divide dough into 12 equal parts (at this point, the more people helping, the better). Have each helper knead little pieces of dough until elastic. With rolling pins, roll each into 9-by-5-inch ovals or 6-inch disks.

To finish edges, place thumb at angle to edge of disk and pinch with thumb and index finger to create small bump. Repeat at same angle all around so that bumps are same distance apart.

To make holes, 1/4 -inch inch from pinched border, pinch piece of dough with thumb and index finger, creating 1 small tear on each side of pinch. Move thumb into hole made by index finger and pinch dough with 2 fingers, following shape of dough and repeating process above. Continue all around until an outer ring of holes is completed. About 1/4 -inch in from outer ring, pinch dough and make another loop of holes to make decorative circle. Repeat until you have 3 concentric loops of holes. At this point, matzo will look like a doily and is almost ready to bake.

With metal comb or fork, pierce tiny holes all over matzo to prevent swelling and blistering during baking. Place matzo on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 550 degrees on middle rack 6 to 7 minutes or until matzos are pale brown.

This is the Italian Passover version of the central European Jewish mandelbrot.

Biscotta della mamma (Mother's biscotti)

Makes about 60 biscotti

1 1/3 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

3 large eggs

3 cups matzo cake meal

1 cup whole almonds

Combine sugar, salt, oil, vanilla and almond extracts in bowl and beat with mixer or by hand until well-combined. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add enough matzo cake meal to make soft but manageable dough. Fold in whole almonds.

Turn dough out onto oiled work surface and divide into 3 equal portions. Oil hands and shape each portion into a 15-inch long cylinder. Place cylinders on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 on middle rack 25 minutes.

Remove from oven. Raise temperature to 450 degrees. Cut through each cylinder diagonally, making about 20 slices per cylinder. Place slices on greased baking sheet, cut side down, and bake 10 minutes longer. Cool biscotti thoroughly before storing.

(To order Machlin's books, write or call Giro Press, P.O. Box 203, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10520, 914-271-8924.)

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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