MODESTO -- Tradition writes the menu at many Passover Seders, the service and meal that mark the start of the Jewish holiday.
This year, the first night of Passover falls on Monday.
If grandma started the meal with gefilte fish or chicken soup with matzo balls, you probably do, too. Brisket recipes get passed down through the generations like cherished photos or a beloved aunt's locket.
But when it comes time for dessert, this night can be different. It's a place to stretch, to be creative, to try out new recipes.
"You want to do all of the old, some of the new," says Judy Bart Kancigor, author of "Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes From the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, 2007, $19.95).
Passover commemorates the biblical story of Moses and the Pharaoh, when the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. They left in such haste that their bread didn't have time to rise, and throughout the week of the holiday, observant Jews don't eat regular bread and many other foods, such as pasta. Instead, they eat an unleavened bread made from flour and water called matzo, which also is sold ground (as matzo meal and matzo cake meal) and can be used for baking.
"People don't have to feel too sorry for us, because Passover is the best eating of the year," Kancigor says. "I think the restrictions bring out the best creativity of kosher cooks."
"People think, 'Oh Passover, all the restrictions, you can't use flour, how boring.' "
She notes that the opposite is true.
"We look forward to Passover the way non-Jews look forward to Christmas."
Susie Fishbein has a different approach to Passover desserts.
"People want to end the meal on a sweet note," she says, but that note should be a light one. Especially in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish households, the Seder can involve a long service, meaning that dessert isn't served until midnight or later.
"You want something sweet but that is small and light, not something that's going to keep you up when you go to bed right out of the Seder," says Fishbein, a caterer and the author of "Passover by Design," (Art Scroll/Shaar Press, 2008, $34.99).
Flourless almond torte with apricot compote
2½ cups (10 ounces) blanched slivered almonds
1½ cups sugar
7 eggs, divided
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups water
¼ cup sugar
2 cups (about 40) dried apricots, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray and line bottom with parchment. Spray parchment with cooking spray. Combine almonds and sugar in work bowl of food processor and process until finely ground.
Separate 4 of the eggs, placing yolks in a large mixing bowl and whites in another large mixing bowl. To the bowl with yolks, add remaining 3 eggs, salt, vanilla extract. Whisk until smooth. Stir in almond-sugar mixture until smooth.
Use an electric mixer to whip reserved whites until very floppy peaks just form. Gently fold into batter. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top with a spatula. Bake until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes.
Check on cake after 35 minutes. If it is browning too quickly, loosely tent with foil for final 10 to 15 minutes. Run a paring knife around the edges of the cake, but cool it completely in pan on wire rack.
For compote, combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and simmer until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in apricots, bay leaves and continue to cook another 5 minutes. Remove from heat, scrape into a bowl, add vanilla extract and let cool to room temperature. Remove and discard bay leaves.
To serve, release cake from sides of springform pan and sift some powdered sugar over it. Slice and serve with compote on the side.
Newsday columnist Lauren Chattman developed this recipe, and she advises that when making this torte, be careful not to over-beat the egg whites (they should form very soft, not stiff, peaks) or the cake may sink in the center as it cools.