Thursday, March 28, 2013

Passover Lemon Almond Sponge Cake with Warm Lemon Sauce


My parents were the model of discreetness. Social, well-known and very involved with our local synagogue, family mealtimes were nonetheless private affairs, the six of us finding ourselves around the dinner table every night without guests, friends, family or company of any sort. The food was plentiful but plain, a mix of Russian Jewish cooking, all-American meat-and-potatoes cuisine and 1970’s convenience foods. The holidays in our home followed form and were low-key and simple, never much hoopla or decoration, rarely a lot of special cooking or baking filling our home with culinary memories.
Passover was the exception. The Jewish festival, joyous in its commemoration of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt towards the Promised Land, was a treat because we went to celebrate – and eat – at the Rosenberg’s house. Mrs. Rosenberg was the Jewish Mama extraordinaire, overseeing her kosher kitchen and her family with love, tradition, an iron fist and a huge personality. And her cooking was everything that my own mother’s was not: extraordinary and delicious! Her Apple-Noodle Kugel warm from the oven, dense and just sweet with a crisp cinnamon-sugar topping, was my ultimate comfort food; I loved it so much that she made a huge baking pan of it just for me as a special Bat Mitzvah gift! She was a legendary cook in our small Jewish community, so spending Passover at her home was sure to mean a fabulous meal, an event looked forward to eagerly by a happy eater such as I.

A dinner with family and relatives.

The rules concerning what is to be eaten and, more importantly, what cannot be eaten by Jews for the duration of the 8-day festival is extremely strict. Jews are forbidden to eat chometz, any food containing barley, wheat, rye, oats, and spelt. No leavening is allowed. The interdiction of these ingredients symbolizes the fact that the Hebrews had no time to either wait for these five grains to grow or to let their baked bread rise as they made a hurried escape from Egypt. Ashkenazi Jews, whose origins are in Europe, also avoid eating corn, rice, peanuts, and legumes while the Sephardi Jews of Northern Africa and Spain do permit them. The days leading up to the holiday thus consist of an intense and thorough cleaning of one’s home in order to rid even the tiniest trace of each and every one of these foods. Followed, of course, by the cooking and baking of dishes and baked goods specific to and allowed during the holiday.

The first night – and for many the second night as well – of Passover is observed with a very traditional and festive ceremonial meal called a Seder at which the story of the exodus is read aloud. The meal follows a very specific order and is a combination of rituals and symbolic foods; food and the rituals surrounding the preparation and eating of meals are intertwined with each and every Jewish holiday, yet none more so than Passover. The meal, the food placed on the table during the reading of the story and the story itself are woven together and intimately connected. In the center of the table is placed a beautiful, decorative plate holding six symbols necessary to the retelling of the story: maror and chazaret, the bitter herbs, normally horseradish, symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of slavery; zeroa or a roasted lamb shank or bone, symbolizing the Paschal sacrificial lamb that was offered in the great Temple in Jerusalem; charoset, usually a brownish-red mixture of nuts, apples, ground cinnamon and red wine representing the mortar the slaves used to build the Pyramids in Ancient Egypt; karpas such as celery, parsley or lettuce to be dipped into salt water representing the tears of the slaves, the dipping process symbolizing hope and redemption; beitzah, a roasted egg, both a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple as well as a symbol of Spring and thus renewal.

The seventh symbol and the most well-known food of Passover is the matzoh, a special unleavened flatbread of Passover-friendly flour and water which is not only symbolic of our escape from slavery and the 40 years spent wandering through the wilderness, but it is eaten as a reminder of what we were running from, a life of slavery and poverty thus inspiring humility and the true appreciation of our freedom. A plate covered with a decorative cloth holding a stack of three matzot is placed on the Seder table next to the Seder plate, each one playing a very specific role during the meal. And finally, the last symbol, near the Seder plate and the matzoh, is placed Elijah’s cup filled with wine; this is for the Prophet Elijah whose visit is said to precede the coming of the Messiah.

This year, I actually made my own homemade matzoh following this wonderful recipe on Leite’s Culinaria. Easy and quite a lot of fun, it made matzoh, while not looking like the boxed we are used to, was absolutely so delicious that even my men who dislike matzoh with a passion, have been enjoying it immensely! Even if you do not celebrate Passover, these make fabulous crispy, thin crackers perfect for dip!

Mrs. Rosenberg’s holiday meal – her Passover Seder - would invariably begin with a bowl of homemade chicken soup with hand-shaped matzoh balls, always inspiring hours of debate over the quality of firm versus fluffy matzoh balls, followed by her magnificent brisket, a rich, root-vegetable-laden beef stew. The brisket would be served with matzoh farfel kugel, a seasoned savory baked pudding made with crushed matzoh, matzoh meal, onions and eggs as well as green vegetables, mashed potatoes and homemade Kaiser rolls, matzoh meal replacing the flour. Dessert was a traditional Passover sponge cake and a luxurious dried fruit compote, long-simmered prunes, apricots and raisins. A traditional feast filled with traditional foods found on so many Passover tables across the country. We would all joyously sing and laugh throughout the meal, the children waiting impatiently for the search for the Afikomen, the middle matzoh of the stack on the holiday table, which was hidden during the meal by Mr. Rosenberg and inspiring an animated search by the youngsters, the winner receiving a small gift, usually a fifty-cent piece.

Cooking and eating during Passover is a meticulous, studied affair, and many of us go out of our way to prepare special foods. Those Passover meals have left a warm memory and following in Mrs. Rosenberg’s culinary footsteps is never easy. Every year as this holiday approaches, I scour a multitude of cookbooks old and new for Passover-friendly recipes – flour and wheat products, grains and leavening agents are all forbidden. There is no way that I can go eight days without sweets in the house! As my own mother was not a baker, I grew up eating canned coconut macaroons and jelly smeared on matzoh to soothe my sweet tooth. All grown up, I spend quite a bit of time every year researching recipes and baking. This year, I was determined to create a cake that one-ups the old-fashioned, traditional Passover sponge cake, that inimitable standby, that emblematic myth of the holiday. Usually dry. Usually flavorless. A risky choice.

I scoured old cookbooks, played around with a few recipes, found a box of potato flour in my grocery store as I realized that all of my boxes of matzoh meal and matzoh flour had disappeared in the move. I had already made the Lemon Sauce and wanted something to accompany that smooth, luscious, tangy sauce. Lemons, almonds and a splash of vanilla. And I got beating! Egg whites, that is.

The cake was perfect! It rose to dizzying heights! Light and fluffy like a great Passover sponge cake, the ground almonds, nonetheless, produced a sponge denser and moister than average. The lemon and almond flavors were delicate yet present and the beautiful, smooth, tangy Lemon Sauce complimented it all to perfection. Whether for Passover or any other time of the year, this cake deserves a celebration!

Other festive Passover – but not only – sweets from Life’s a Feast:

Chocolate Almond Torte

Strawberry Mascarpone Cheesecake

Chocolate Espresso Pecan Torte

Chocolate Chestnut Fondant (omit the flour)

For more fabulous Passover recipes, visit these favorite blogs: Labna & Food Wanderings


4 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
Finely grated zest and juice from ½ lemon, preferably organic or untreated
¼ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup ground almonds
½ cup potato flour
Pinch salt + few drops lemon juice for whites
Handful slivered blanched almonds to decorate, optional

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Have ready a springform pan – I used a 7 ¼ inch-diameter x 4 inch-high springform but a regular 8-inch pan is fine, too.

Separate the eggs; place the yolks in a large mixing bowl and the whites in a medium bowl, preferably plastic or metal. Add a pinch salt and a few drops lemon juice to the whites and set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks for a couple of minutes until thick and pale. Add the sugar and continue beating until thick and creamy. Beat in the zest and juice of ½ a lemon and the vanilla extract until well blended and thick. Quickly beat in the ground almonds.

Using very clean beaters, beat the egg whites on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase the speed to high; beat the whites until thick, glossy and peaks hold. Do not overbeat until the whites are dry. Using a spatula, gently but firmly fold the stiff whites into the lemon almond cake batter in 3 additions. Fold in the potato flour with the third addition of the whites in order to avoid overworking the batter. Fold in the whites just until all the lumps of white have disappeared.

Gently pour the batter into the springform pan. Dust with a couple of tablespoons slivered almonds.

Bake in the preheated oven 30 – 45 minutes, depending on your oven and pan size. The cake is done when puffed, set and golden. Gently press on the top of the cake and it should feel set, much like an angel or sponge cake. A tester inserted in the center should come out dry.

Remove the pan from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool before unmolding. Carefully run a long, thin blade around the sides to loosen the cake while still warm.

Serve the Lemon Almond Cake with Warm Lemon Sauce.


2 cups water
1 cup sugar
Finely grated zest and juice from 1 lemon, preferably organic or untreated
2 Tbs cornstarch or potato starch (for Passover)
2 Tbs butter, cubed and softened 

Bring the water to a boil.

Sift the cornstarch or potato starch into the sugar in a medium heatproof bowl and stir. Whisk in the boiling water then, when smooth, return to the pan and continue cooking over low heat, whisking or stirring, for 8 to 10 minutes until thickened to the consistency of a sauce. Whisk in the lemon zest and juice. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter a cube at a time until the buttered is melted and incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Strain through a mesh strainer if necessary. Store in a jar in the refrigerator; to reheat, simply put the gelled sauce in a saucepan and heat very gently over low, stirring or whisking constantly, until pouring consistency (not too runny) and warm. Strain.

Serve warm.


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

This cake looks heavenly and really tempting! I love the fact that it is accompanied by a luscious lemon sauce.

Happy Passover!



Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said...

The post warms my heart. I can see that little girl eagerly awaiting Mrs. Rosenberg's meal. That cake is so close to perfect. Okay maybe it IS perfect.

Jasmine said...

Tomorrow I'm on holiday, 'cause my office closes for Easter. Guess what I'm going to bake? :)
I can't wait to try this recipe, Jamie!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

We had such similar upbringings, on opposite ends of the east coast. I love reading this post. And the cake? Well, Passover cakes have always had a bad reputation. This cake will change that.

Jamie said...

@Lydia: I remember reading a recipe for a Passover Sponge cake in a cookbook and the author going on and on about trying to create a Passover sponge that wasn't dry as dust like what we grew up on. Well, this one I made does that and I am proud and thrilled! It is really delicious and easy to make.

@Jasmine let me know!

Rossella said...

Really tempting cake.
As usual, your memories enchanted me.
Family and religious traditions have a strong power over me. I try to build mine in my little family composed of just two people, pretty in love:)

Michael said...

I'm going to a passover dinner on Saturday and need to bring dessert. This is PERFECT.

tasteofbeirut said...

I have enjoyed reading your family memories; and then I looked up when the photo finally loaded and I was blown away by that cake!!!! wow!!! all of a sudden i am in the mood for making a cake like this one. Happy Passover. and happy baking! :)

Lisa said...

I love that you explained the history of Passover and I LOVE that you made your own matzoh! I'm in awe! This sponge cake is a tower of gorgeousness and I think I'm going to do a lemon-lime version (per D's request) xoxo Happy Passover!!

Kiran @ said...

Happy Passover my friend. And that's a very light and delicious cake you baked. Thanks for sharing the memories with your family. Gives us all a chance to know you better. xo

Stacy said...

Our mutual friend, Jenni Field, told me ages ago that I needed to come over and meet you. She thought we had a lot in common. I'm sorry it's taken a while because I do believe she's right. I love the story behind this recipe! My mom always served her pound cake with a warm lemon sauce and I have continued the tradition. It's one of my girls' favorites now so I am certain that the tradition will continue. And I think that's what this whole blogging thing is about. Passing it on. Thank you for sharing your family stories and recipes.

Winnie said...

It's a gorgeous cake and I was waiting for your post.
I'm definitely going to bake this cake.
Happy Passover ♥

Rambling Tart said...

I've celebrated Passover twice in my life with dear Jewish friends and had the most wonderful time. :-) The food was delicious, the wine plentiful, and the company superb. Your cake is so HIGH and the flavors sound perfectly light and festive. :-)

Marina @ said...

Oh how I loved your story. It's nice to hear that someone still honors the traditions in which they were brought up in.
The cake looks lovely too!

Jill Colonna said...

Jamie, I love how you've described Passover traditions to us and come up with such a light cake: keeping with tradition but raising the barrier! Perfection, as ever. Happy celebrations to you and your family.

The Cookie Fairy said...

The cake looks really high, light and delicious!
Besides I was also curious about trying that Homemade Matzoh recipe,
and your recommendation really convinced me to give it a shot :)
Sending Happy Passover greeting from Israel

Anonymous said...

Your cake is stunning, Jamie. So high and light with lots of bright lemon flavor. The lemon sauce is the perfect garnish. I enjoyed your post very much. Those wonderful family traditions are so important in life. Thanks for sharing some of yours.

Winnie said...

OK - I couldn't resist and baked it already.
I did make the sauce as well, but the cake is great as is

Thanks and Happy Passover

Shulie Foodwanderings said...

Happy Passover, Jamie. What a wonderful lemon cake. I can't believe the fluffy height! ....and what a surprise at the kind shootout!

Lora said...

What an elegant and beautiful addition to any Passover meal.

Kate | Food Babbles said...

I loved reading about your family traditions and this cake is simply stunning! The almond sponge and that warm lemon sauce sound like simple perfection. Absolutely lovely Jamie! Have a wonderful Passover!

Alexa said...

This looks great! I'll be making it for our end-of-Passover meal, but it definitely looks good enough to eat year-round.

Ivy said...

Happy Passover Jamie. The cake looks stunning and an amazing addition to the passover meal.

Laura Dembowski said...

Your Passover celebrations sound like a lot of fun! The cake looks great, but that sauce looks even better!

Cake Duchess said...

Such a sweet post with lovely memories. I love to photos of little you. You know how to bake your way into my heart with all you do...desserts just the way I like them. This is a stunner of a cake, Jamie. xo

Paula @ Vintage Kitchen said...

After all that incredible information about passover food I´m hungry! But the texture of that cake Jamie is truly amazing, so fluffy but with body. Quite remarkable, love it. Hope you had a great weekend!

Cristina said...

What a lovely post about family, traditions and sweet memories. :)

I love the look and sound of this lemon almond cake. This is my kinda cake! Can't wait to give it a try too.

Medeja said...

What a perfect looking sponge cake!

Lizzy (Good Things) said...

Jamie, how beautiful... the story and the cake!

Brooks said...

Jamie, I saw a photo of this cake afloat on the socialmediasphere (a new word I just made up!) last week and I had to return for a closer look. The sponge is glorious from bottom to top and the senses are heightened by the cap of warm lemon sauce. There's only one thing more lovely than the cake—the story behind it. Brava, my friend.

Sarah davis said...

Thank you for such a delicious recipe, but also many thanks for providing the information on Passover.
Happy Passover.

Elizabeth said...

The cake looks fabulous! Especially that crackled top. How stunningly beautiful with the little drizzle of tart lemon sauce.

But it's the matzo crackers that are really slaying me. I adore even boxed matzo crackers but those look brilliant!!

However, I'm confused. I looked at the LC recipe and see that it calls for wheat flour. If wheat is forbidden, how do you get to eat matzo crackers?

(Thank you for that list of forbidden foods, by the way. I am about to give a present of chocolate to a Jewish family and am relieved to see that none of the ingredients are on the forbidden list.)

Laura @MotherWouldKnow said...

I just finished baking the cake and unmolded it. Looks lovely and the crumbs I managed to taste were divine. Can't wait for tomorrow night's seder when I get to have a nice big piece, assuming it doesn't get gobbled up by the guests.

Rachel Page said...

So delicious! My husband wanted to learn to bake and this is what he picked for his first try. We have made it twice already!

Save Our Shekels said...

Absolutely the best Pesach cake I've made. Thank you!


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