Passover began at sundown last night, an annual reminder to Jews around the world of the sacrifices their ancestors made in their quest for freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. Passover brings yet another struggle to the forefront each year, as well: what to serve for dessert?

The ban on leavened foods such as yeast breads (or any grain product that isn’t fully cooked within 18 minutes of contact with water, so as to avoid rising) means a lot of favorite desserts are suddenly out of the running for inclusion in the Seder menu, the traditional feast commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  Many Jews include rice, corn, peanuts, and beans on that list just to be safe–they’re also used in breads.  Fleeing from the pharaoh’s army, the Hebrews didn’t have time to let their bread rise before they left; they certainly didn’t have time to bake a cake. 

Consequently, Jewish cooks have been pretty inventive in their use of matzo, the flat, crisp–and bland–unleavened bread eaten during the Passover celebration. Ground, it’s used as a thickener, or as a coating for fried foods. Whole, it’s used in everything from a form of French toast called matzo brei to a snack cracker. Here, it’s dessert.

Strawberry chocolate timbale-featured.jpgThis is not a simple dessert but it’s celebratory and does bring together some nice symbolic aspects of the Passover celebration.  Matzo is, literally, the foundation while strawberries represent the first fruits of spring.  Dark chocolate adds a slightly bitter note to the flavor over all.  The matzo, which forms the structure of the timbales, will need to be baked twice.

Chocolate strawberry timbales

4 pieces of unsalted matzo (one piece is back-up)
2 cups orange juice
3 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon vanilla
Zest from half an orange
8 ounces dark chocolate (80 percent cocoa if you like your chocolate bitter)
2 tablespoons pareve margarine or shortening
Powdered sugar

Special tools you’ll need: four 6-ounce custard cups or timbales, a double boiler, a pastry brush, parchment paper, and a 4-inch pastry cutter.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

• Combine prepared strawberries with sugar, cardamom, vanilla, and orange zest. Give the mixture a few thorough stirs and set aside.

• Place the matzo in a baking dish just large enough to hold them stacked on top of one another, and then pour the orange juice over them. Make sure each piece of matzo is doused in juice. Let them soak long enough to become malleable but not soggy, anywhere from five to 10 minutes. If you let the matzo get soggy, you’ll curse yourself for having attempted this recipe.

• While the matzo is soaking, grease the custard cups with the margarine or shortening.

• Carefully remove the matzo from the orange juice (a wide spatula is helpful here), and cut two of the pieces into quarters.

• Using the pastry cutter, cut four circles from the third piece of matzo, and lay them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

• Press two of each of the matzo quarters into the greased custard cups, overlapping them as needed. Trim the overhang so that the edges of the matzo align as neatly as possible with the edges of the cup.

• Place the custard cups and the matzo circles in the oven. Note: the custard cups will need to bake for about 30 minutes for the first go-around. The circles, however, will bake very quickly, and should be removed after about 10 to 12 minutes, when they’re crisp. You may also need to loosely cover the cups with aluminum foil after about 15 minutes to keep the edges from burning.

• Remove the custard cups and let them cool for half an hour. When they are cool, ease the matzo cups gently from the containers. They’re still soft at this point and you’ll probably need a knife to separate the matzo from the sides of the cups. When you’ve done that, tip the cups over and jiggle them gently until the matzo separates from the bottom and comes out.

• Place the matzo cups, bottoms up, back on the baking sheet and return them to the oven for another 15 minutes, or until they’re crisp. Remove from the oven and let cool, completely, again.

• In the double boiler (or, barring that, in a stainless steel bowl placed over a sauce pan of boiling water) melt the chocolate.

• Brush the melted chocolate over the outsides of the matzo cups, and on both the top and underside of the circles. Coat them thoroughly. Place them on waxed paper or a plastic wrapped plate and then put them into the freezer for about 15 minutes or until the chocolate is hardened. You’ll have chocolate leftover in the double boiler. Don’t eat it; you’ll need it.

• When the chocolate on the matzo cups has hardened and can be handled without smearing all over your fingers, fill each of the cups with the macerated strawberries, draining off as much of the juice as possible.

• Place a matzo circle over the open end of each cup and then, using the leftover melted chocolate, glue them into place, sealing the strawberries inside. If you have gaps between the circles and the cups that can’t be completely sealed with the chocolate, don’t worry.

• Return the cups to the freezer for another 10 to 15 minutes, allowing the chocolate glue to harden. If you had gaps in the seal between the cups and the circles, gently tip the timbales over so that the excess moisture drains out.

• Plate each timbale flat side down, garnish with leftovers from the strawberry/sugar mixture, and then sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Serves 4

Photo by Eric Burkett