Every year as Passover draws near my friends begin giving me pitying, almost apologetic looks. As a foodblogger and someone who frequently writes about baked goods, folks often get the impression that I can’t live without flour. “What are you going to eat during Pesach?” they ask me, “How will you manage?” Case in point: when I posted my buttermilk pretzels a couple weeks ago my friend Neil remarked: “Seriously, you are too much. First the bagels, and now pretzels! Passover must be hard on you.”
Passover (Pesach) is one of the major Jewish holidays and commemorates the biblical story in Exodus 15, which describes how Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. One of the most significant observances related to Pesach (and the one that affects bakers everywhere) involves removing all grain products (called “chametz”) from your diet. This includes anything made from the five major grains: wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. In the Ashkenazi tradition, corn, rice and beans are also prohibited because they can be ground into forms of flour. (Ultra-observant Jews even change what they feed their pets during Pesach so that they’re not benefiting from chametz by giving it to their animals, but my husband and I don’t do this because we’re not that observant and we don’t want to mess with Oreo’s diet.) The only bread product allowed during Passover is Matzah, which is a sort of cracker (unleavened bread) that reminds us how the Jews, leaving Egypt in a hurry, didn’t have time to let their bread rise before escaping. If there is anything that can be said about Judaism that holds true across denominations, it’s that food is a powerful symbolic tool in our traditions.
My husband and I are vegetarians so we follow the Sephardic custom during Passover, which means that we don’t eat any flour products but allow beans, and sometimes rice or corn, into our diet. That makes things easier, but there’s still the question of the chametz in my pantry: all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, pastry flour, whole wheat pastry flour, bran, oats… oy! Here is where my friends’ concern comes in, and truth be told, Passover used to be incredibly difficult. My husband and I ate so much pasta and bread that once it was all locked away we looked around our kitchen and panicked. What were we going to eat? Less than desirable “kosher for Pesach” products, it turned out, and lots of matzah, and cheese, and maybe some fruit. Our diet took a major down turn during Passover.
Yet over this past year we’ve cut back on these one-time staples in an effort to make our diet (and our bodies!) healthier. True, I do bake quite often, but not as much as many people think – about once a week on average, and most of it is given away to friends or co-workers. The rest of the time we indulge in a variety of delicious and Passover-friendly recipes, some of of which have been posted on this blog (see sidebar) but most of which haven’t made it online yet: scrambled eggs with dandelion greens and goat cheese; carrot leek soup or vichyssoise; pan-seared butternut squash; southwestern bean cakes; strawberries with peach ice cream and champagne – the possibilities are endless! Even the baker in me finds satisfaction by making treats like pistachio cake with chilled rose syrup or the fallen chocolate souffle cake shown here.
The chocolate cake is the newest addition to my repertoire and comes from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, which was featured on this site recently. I wasn’t planning to post another recipe from this book but when I realized how perfect the souffle cake was for Pesach I had to ask Melissa for permission to share it with you. She graciously gave me the go-ahead and also agreed to let me interview her. Continue reading below to learn more about the baking dynamo behind the Sweet Melissa Patisserie, what it takes to own a bakery, and how Melissa balances baking with a healthy lifestyle.
If you celebrate Passover, one more thing: chag pesach sameach!
In the introduction to your book you recount one of your favorite childhood memories: picking apples with your family, then making the apples into pies with your mother. Would you share another food memory with us?
Right after Thanksgiving, my mom and I would start baking for Christmas. We’d start with Pumpkin Breads and Cranberry Walnut Breads. We used to make a lot of these breads for giving to all of our neighbors and friends, and we baked them in coffee cans! My mom would save our coffee cans for the whole year prior, and we’d bake as many breads as we had cans. That to me was so fun, to reuse those coffee cans, and I loved the striped indentations that the can left on the bread, a perfect guide for slicing! After baking, we’d cover the cans with pretty wallpaper and cellophane on top, and tie it up with a ribbon. People were thrilled to receive one of my mom’s Christmas breads.
The recipes in your book are so playful and unique. How do you come up with them?
I strive to bake everyone’s favorite desserts, better than they’ve had them before. So when I am thinking of making a new recipe, I go back, to my childhood memories, as opposed to looking forward as many chefs do, they are trying to think of the next “new” thing. I focus on the best ingredients, and the best techniques, to take these favorites to a new level.
What is your favorite recipe in “The Sweet Melissa Baking Book?”
That’s like asking a mother to choose between her children! All of the recipes in my book are my favorite of its kind, so the chocolate chip cookie is my favorite out of the 30 I’ve tested. I certainly have my moods and cravings though, based mainly on seasonality. In the summer, I love peaches, raspberries and ice cream. So my North Fork Peach Raspberry Pie a la mode would hit the spot. In the fall, it’s all about apples and pears, so I look forward to baking recipes like the Pear Cranberry Pie with Gingersnap Crumble. Over the winter months, when fruit is not in season, I love to eat my Butterscotch Pudding, or Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Caramel Rum Raisin Sauce. Come spring, I am so excited to see the first tender stalks of rhubarb and then local strawberries, and Strawberry Shortcake is another of my favorite desserts.
What are the challenges of owning a bakery? The rewards?
Running you own business is hard, it’s true, but also rewarding. I would say the most difficult thing for me is opening a new store. The build out can be very stressful, and it takes my time away from the kitchen. Right now, I am expanding my original store, it will have lots more seating, a larger retail bakery area, and an enormous garden! But at the same time my cookbook was just released, and between the interviews and fun things like radio spots and live demonstrations, as well as managing my staff (over 40 people!), it’s a lot to do. I am happiest when I am creating new recipes, I look forward to writing my next book!
Do you have any advice for people who dream of opening their own bakery one day?
Owning a bakery is about baking yes, but you also have to have a strong business mind. If that is not your forte, then find people who have those skills, who you trust, to team up with.
What is the most popular item on your menu?
Our Chocolate Souffle Cake is very popular, as are the Chestnut Honey Madeleines, Sour Cherry Pie with Pistachio Crumble, Butterscotch Pudding, and the Bee Stings, all of which are in my book!
What is the one food you just can’t get enough of?
Chocolate Chip Cookies with Toasted Almonds… or Butterscotch Banana Sundaes with Salted Cashews
In your book you mention how you love to eat chocolate chip cookies, hand-rolled croissants or warm sticky buns for breakfast. What is another breakfast favorite?
Today I ate my Cherry Almond Granola with plain Greek yogurt. I also love to make and eat my Sweet Plum Clafoutis in my cast iron skillet. It is so delicious! Especially with a dollop of lightly sweetened sour cream.
How do you stay in shape even though you spend so much time around tempting baked goods? What is your food philosophy?
My motto is “If you are going to eat it it’s GOT to be good!” So I recommend staying away from packaged cookies and frozen bagels, and when you are going to eat something indulgent, make it worthwhile. If you want a warm sticky bun, get one from a place that makes an awesome one, or make your own!
Testing and tasting all of the recipes in my book meant that I needed to join the gym, so I joined The Fitness Collective, which is a great group of personal trainers – conveniently located next to my shop.
Fallen Chocolate Souffle Cake
Reprinted with permission from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, by Melissa Murphy.
Ingredients: Makes 1 cake
- 10 1/2 ounces best-quality semisweet (58%) chocolate
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 8 large eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup sugar divided into 2 equal parts
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
- 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier (I used Cognac)
- Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling
- Optional accompaniments: berries, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, warm fudge sauce
Before you start: Position a rack in the center of your oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 10-inch springform pan with nonstick vegetable cooking spray or butter. Line the bottom with a parchment paper round.
In the top of a double boiler set over simmering, not boiling, water, melt the chocolate with the butter, stirring until smooth. (I used a medium-sized metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. The pot should be big enough for half the bowl to fit inside it, but small enough so that the bowl can’t fall in. Also, make sure the bottom of your bowl is not touching the water – there should be at least 3-4 inches of space.)
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, whip the egg yolks with half of the sugar until doubled in volume. Add the melted chocolate and mix until combined. Add the zest and Grand Marnier and mix until combined. Transfer the chocolate batter to a large bowl. (Wash the mixer bowl and whip attachment very well, and dry thoroughly.)
In the clean bowl of the electric mixer, fitted with the clean whip attachment, make a meringue by whipping the egg whites until foamy. In a slow steady stream, add the remaining sugar. Whip until the whites hold stiff but not dry peaks.
Briskly fold one-third of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to lighten the batter. Gently fold the remaining two-thirds of the meringue into the batter until it is just incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan. Spin the pan to level the batter. Bake for 65 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake will fall as it cools.
When the cake is cool, release the springform ring and remove it. To release the bottom, invert the cake onto a flat plate and remove the bottom and the parchment round. Turn right side up onto a serving plate and dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Serve with vanilla ice cream or warm hot fudge sauce and garnish with fresh berries, if you’d like to make the dessert a little fancy. The cake keeps tightly wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 3 days. For longer storage, refrigerate wrapped in plastic wrap for up to 1 week. (Leave the cake in the pan for storage, it is delicate.)