Now More Than Ever, Passover Is a Time for Tradition

Photo by June Hersh

A plague strikes and causes people to disperse, a sea parts to naturally enforce travel restrictions and a tribe wanders in the desert searching for food. No, that’s not a news report from April 2020, but the story of the Exodus more than 5,700 years ago. What ties those ancient occurrences to today’s new normal are not the miraculous events, but rather the traditions that grew out of that search for freedom.

As we navigate Passover 2020, this will not take 40 years for this to resolve, so if our ancestors could endure what they did, so can we. We need to bring meaning to the holiday whether we are celebrating together or over Zoom. Matzo isn’t the only thing that binds us (literally and figuratively), tradition is what matters. Preparing a cherished family dish is the perfect way to do that. Find one traditional recipe that your family cannot celebrate the holiday without and focus on making that the star of this year’s Seder. Maybe do a family cooking session with every person making that one special food or take the time this year to teach it to the next generation. For our family, that dish would be matzo meat cakes.

I come from a mixed marriage, my mother’s family is Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish ancestry) and my dad is Sephardic (Spanish Jewish). At our Passover holiday table, we enjoyed the standard fare of matzo ball soup, potato kugel and brisket. But what set our table apart were the Sephardic influences, none more important to our family than matzo meat cakes. My great grandmother Esther’s version, with its roots from the Isle of Rhodes, is slow simmered ground beef, married with lightly caramelized onions, then sandwiched between softened matzo and baked to a crisp golden brown. That is the dish we cannot live without, and by sharing it with you, I just might make it a regular guest at your Passover Seder.

Passover Meat Cakes

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • 3 pounds of ground beef (chuck preferred)
  • 10 large onions, peeled and chopped
  • 10 ounces chicken broth
  • 10 eggs, divided
  • Matzo meal
  • 6 square individual foil pans, or one very large pan*
  • 2 boxes plain matzo

Method:

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, cook and stir the ground beef, over medium heat, until completely browned, 8-10 minutes.  Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Pour off the fat from the pan.  Add ¼ cup of oil to the skillet, cook and stir the onions, over medium heat until soft and golden, 10-15 minutes.  If your pan cannot hold all the onions, cook them in batches, adding additional oil if needed.  When the onions are lightly browned and softened, add the meat back into the pan.  Pour one-third of the stock into the meat and onion mixture.  Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook 1 ½ to 2 hours, adding a little stock every 30 minutes.  Season generously to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the meat and onion mixture into a bowl and let it cool. If time allows, overnight in the fridge is best, allowing the flavors to truly meld. Let the meat come to room temperature before the next step.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and pour a little olive oil into the bottom of each aluminum pan.  When the oven is hot, place the pans in the oven to heat the oil- this will prevent the meat cakes from sticking to the pan and help the bottoms crisp up.   Beat 5 eggs and add to the meat mixture.  Slowly add matzo meal until the mixture is thickened and a little gummy, and all the liquid has been absorbed.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat the remaining 5 eggs with 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Lay a damp cloth on your counter and dampen a second cloth.  Now comes the delicate portion of the recipe which takes a little practice to get it just right; hang in there, it will be worth it. Hold 1 piece of matzo under warm running water until it is pliable, like a piece of wet cardboard.  Place the matzo on the damp towel and repeat with a second piece of matzo.  Cover both pieces with the second damp towel and lightly press down. 
  4. Remove one pan from the oven and swirl the oil to evenly distribute.  Hold one softened piece of matzo in your hand, and dip your other hand into the egg and oil.  Coat the matzo on both sides with the egg and oil, (you can use a pastry brush, but it’s so much less fun).  Place the matzo in the pan. Spoon one-sixth of the meat mixture onto the matzo.  Generously coat both sides of the 2nd piece of softened matzo with the egg and oil and top the meat mixture.
  5. Lightly press down to evenly distribute the meat sandwiched in between the two pieces of matzo.  Using the tip of a very sharp knife, gently score the cake into 4 pieces, being sure not to pierce the bottom of the pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes, when done the tops of the matzo should be golden brown and the meat just beginning to ooze from the sides.  Remove from the oven and set aside. Repeat with the remaining five pans.
  6. When the meat cakes have cooled a bit, finish scoring them into 4 pieces, then using kitchen shears, cut away the corners of the pan to create a flat surface.  Use a spatula to coax the meat cakes from the pan.  Flip them over to allow the bottoms to dry out.  When room temp, cut each square on the diagonal, creating a triangle. You will have 8 triangles from each pan. Serve hot or cold.

*If you cannot find the individual pans, use a large roasting pan and fit as many “sandwiches” as you can in the pan.  You might need to match several batches.

For non-meat eaters, an alternative is to create a spinach and feta filling, similar to that of spanakopita.  Prepare them as you would the meat cakes. This is a wonderful version for a light lunch or a dairy dinner.

Much like Butterball’s turkey hotline, I am on call to answer your questions.  Got to my website www.junehersh.com and submit a question.  These days, I’m at home 24/7 so it is likely you’ll get a very fast reply.

June Hersh is the author of Recipes Remembered, a celebration of Survival, The Kosher Carnivore and Still Here, Inspiration from Survivors and Liberators of the Holocaust.  Her next book, Yoghurt a Global History (Reaktion Books, UK) is due out in 2021.

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