There are many who lay claim to the rich territory of flourless chocolate cake: candlelit first-date bistros, gluten-free bakeries, Nigella Lawson. But to me, it will always belong to the Passover dessert table, nestled between chubby cans of coconut macaroons and shards of chocolate-coated matzo bark.
Many Jews would argue that food is at the core of every Jewish holiday (see: Shabbat challah, Hanukkah latkes, Rosh Hashanah apples and honey). But Passover is on another level. The springtime holiday, which runs this year from March 27 to April 4, brings Jewish families across the world together around a ceremonial Seder dinner to tell the biblical story of Exodus, where Moses led the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt. It’s all symbolized in food, from crisp matzo (“the bread of affliction”) to the ritual Seder plate bearing bitter herbs, roast shankbone, egg, and fruit-and-nut charoset.
Passover cuisine is often defined by what it lacks: namely, grains and leavened foods like bread. (In kosher households, dairy is often also eliminated to accommodate a nice brisket or lamb roast.) But in reality, the Seder table is the picture of abundance, with its bountiful dinner — complete with four gloriously requisite glasses of wine — designed to contrast with the evening’s stories of scarcity. Matzo ball soup may get all the fame, but for a holiday that celebrates sweetness in the context of bitterness, dessert is where that symbolism really shines.
The flourless chocolate cake of my childhood Seders — carefully cut from the LA Times recipe section and immortalized with a plastic page protector — avoided flour substitutes entirely. The batter was simply butter, eggs, chocolate, sugar, and vanilla, and the resulting cake was so dense and fudgy, you had to sip water every few bites. It was perfect.
I know what you’re thinking: Is flourless chocolate cake even Jewish? Well, I have Wikipedia on my side, along with a hefty family collection of Jewish cookbooks. Our splattered copy of Tempting Kosher Dishes, published in 1930 by Manischewitz LLC to boost sales of its range of kosher products, boasts a recipe for chocolate sponge cake made from six eggs and finely ground matzo meal. Claudia Roden’s classic, The Book of Jewish Food, traces a recipe for torti di mandorle e cioccolata back to the Jewish Roman ghetto via a small cookbook called Dal 1880 ad Oggi: La Cucina Ebraica della Mia Famiglia. Printed in the handwriting of the author, Donatella Limentani Pavoncello, the recipe creates heft by finely chopping blanched almonds with bittersweet chocolate before mixing in whipped egg whites.
“Eggs are the trick to making a delicious flourless cake,” says pastry chef Claire Saffitz, who developed a Passover-approved recipe for chocolate wave cake in her cookbook Dessert Person. “Whipping the whites with a little sugar helps them maintain their foamy state, providing structure to the cake which normally would be provided by the gluten in flour.”
In 2021, flourless cakes of all kinds are a reliable Passover menu item for bakeries around the country. New York’s Breads Bakery, an Israeli destination for babka and other Jewish classics, mails its popular flourless brownie cake to devout fans across the country. “We have to gear up production massively for the holiday, because we’ll sell many thousands of brownie cakes,” says owner Gadi Peleg. “It’s absolutely nuts.”
Elena Vázquez Felgueres and Tamar Fasja Unikel, co-owners of Masa Madre, a Mexican-Jewish bakery in Chicago, both grew up eating flourless chocolate cake at family Seders in Mexico City. When it came time to develop Masa Madre’s first Passover-friendly menu item last spring, they put family recipes to the test: a puffy, souffle-style cake from Elena’s grandmother versus a denser, pecan-enriched cake from Tamar’s aunt. “They were both amazing, but we decided to go with Tamar’s recipe because it’s a more consistent bake for large-format production,” says Vázquez Felgueres. “But we decided to give it our own Mexican twist with a cafe de la olla ganache, a typical coffee we have in Mexico.”
The warming flavors of cafe de la olla — coffee, cinnamon, chocolate, and piloncillo — were an instant hit in cake form, especially because the prodigious amount of chopped pecans adds fat to the almond-flour batter, lending moisture and richness. “We mostly have either Latina customers or Jewish customers, so there’s always one part of our recipe that is new to our clients, which I think is cool,” says Vázquez Felgueres.
Masa Madre and Breads Bakery are part of a wave of modern Jewish bakeries, like Philadelphia’s Essen Bakery, Miami’s Zak the Baker, and Brooklyn-based Gertie, that embrace the full strength of the alt-flour aisle. Some recipes deviate from dairy-free tradition and use butter; others opt for potato starch or coconut flour. Regardless of the ingredient list, their presence on menus evokes feelings of comfort and nostalgia that are in high demand, especially in the era of the Zoom Seder.
Last year, the confluence of the pandemic and Passover left many families scrambling to adapt their menus and evenings for small groups and laptop screens. My own tiny Brooklyn kitchen table was crowded with wine, a bouquet of parsley, and a laptop displaying my family’s faces in little squares. Dessert didn’t make the cut.
One year later, Passover falls depressingly close to the pandemic’s first anniversary. There has been too much bitterness to reflect on. Still, I find myself cautiously holding space for hope — for springtime, vaccinations, and the promise of dessert.
Maybe I’ll carry a slice of flourless chocolate cake home from a bakery in a little pink box. Or maybe I’ll dig through the cornucopia of recipes I’ve amassed over the course of researching this piece. I’ll melt chocolate and oil, whip egg whites into a floating dandelion of a meringue, finally finish the bag of almond flour languishing in my fridge. Who needs all-purpose flour and butter to make something delicious? Each rich bite is a reminder that restrictions can still lead to sweetness.