Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Chametz, se'or, matzah--and the best Passover cookies ever


Photo credit: C. Gonzales - Challah credit: yours truly
Chametz.  Se'or.  These are words that strike fear in the hearts of many women after the almond trees have blossomed in spring.  But what are they exactly?  In the English translations of the Torah, they are both referred to as "leavening," a vague term that has confused many over the years.

Chametz is the noun form of the verb "l'hachmitz" which means to ferment/sour and refers specifically to a fermented grain product.  To get even more detailed, the grains are wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats and fermentation occurs when water and the natural yeasts in the air come in contact with one of the five grains and sits for 18+ minutes.

Before freeze-dried yeast packets existed, people used se'or, which is what is known today as sourdough starter.  Baking soda and baking powder are not chametz, but beer, pasta and vinegar made from any of the five grains are.

Matzah.  Flour and water mixed quickly and cooked into a flat bread.  Yeminite matzah is like a cross between a tortilla and a pita.  Ashkenazim seem to have invented the motto "no pain, no gain"--their matzah is full of holes and is cooked to a crisp.  If you are from Eastern Europe, stock up on laxatives before the holiday…kosher for Pesach ones, of course.  Ashkenazim also avoid all beans, seeds and grain-like vegetables (collectively referred to as kitniyot), although many who have made aliyah have adopted the local custom of not avoiding everything that was ever sold together with grains in the markets and find that—while chametz is still missed—no one feels like they are starving for the week.  Oriental and Sephardic Jews check through their beans and rice before Pesach (although Moroccans and some others avoid a few specific kitniyot) to make sure that no stray wheat berries landed in the wrong sack.  It's also worth mentioning that Chabadnikim don't eat matzah that has become wet.

So what do you make if you live in a mixed family of a million traditions, or none at all?  I'll share a really easy recipe with you that always comes out tasty and is a real crowd pleaser.  It's so hard to screw up, in fact, that it doesn't even have exact measurements.  I didn't have cookbooks or measuring cups when I got married, so this is honestly how most of my recipes look:

Chocolate chip coconut Passover cookies

2-3 egg whites
bag of finely shredded, unsweetened coconut
2 packets of vanilla sugar (if you're in the US, use real vanilla and couple spoonfuls of sugar)
optional: up to 1/2 c. more sugar, depending on your family's taste buds
very much not optional: a whole bag of chocolate chips

Beat the egg whites.  Add the vanilla sugar (and other sugar, if that's how you like it) and really beat the heck out of them until they're standing in peaks.  Go ahead, take out all your frustration here.  Doesn't that feel good?

Now get out a flexible spatula and gently fold in a generous amount of coconut (amount will depend on the size of your eggs and how many you use) and all of the chocolate chips.  Be gentle here--there's a time and place for every kind of action.

Drop spoonfuls onto cookie sheets lined with baking paper.  Bake in your oven on some temperature or another.  Most of my ovens over the years have been barely limping along and who knows if yours is too, so just try a moderate heat until they are golden on the bottom and not mushy in the middle.  You'll quickly find what works best in your oven.  These don't stick around long enough to photograph.

Have a really happy, kosher, amazing and meaningful Passover!