A family's celebration of Passover and Seder

The Seder plate holds foods symbolic of the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt and slavery.

'From down the block, we knew when they were making gefilte fish," Martin Yaschik says with a smile, remembering from his childhood the distinct aroma of ground fish patties poaching in stock.

"They" were his mother and grandmother cooking together for the Jewish holiday Passover, preparing one of the many dishes for the traditional Seder meal. The family feast is held on the first and second nights of Passover, which begins this year at sunset Saturday and continues through April 26.

Sydney Richman, Yaschik's mother, is still serving gefilte fish for Seder. These days she's able to buy it frozen at the grocery store, one of the few concessions to convenience that Richman makes for the annual gathering at her South Windermere home.

Richman goes all out for Seder, as she has for many years. She and her husband, Billy Richman, will host family and friends — 25 people in all — for dinner Saturday evening. They'll move furniture and set up tables from one end of the dining room to the other side of the living room.

"You do a lot of work, so you might as well invite a lot of people," she reasons.

Passover is a daunting task, even for someone who keeps kosher in her home year-round. The house must be made "kosher for Passover," meaning the kitchen gets a scrub down, like a major spring cleaning. Countertops are covered with paper. Dishes, silverware and glasses also must be changed out.

"You're not supposed to have contact with anything you had before," Richman explains.

The home must be rid of "chometz," or leavened foods, including anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt). Most Jews in the United States are of European heritage, or Ashkenazi, which means they also avoid corn, rice, peanuts and legumes during Passover.

Once the house is cleaned, Richman turns to cooking for three days straight. Among the dishes she'll prepare are beef brisket, roast turkey or chicken, chicken soup with matzo balls and a matzo stuffing with vegetables. (Matzo is an unleavened, crackerlike bread made with flour and water.)

Richman also will make a traditional side dish of carrots called "tsimmes" or "tzimmes." There are many variations on tsimmes, she says. This year, hers will be a sweet-savory combination of carrots, prunes, sweet potatoes, apples and honey.

Charoset, a mix of grated apples, chopped nuts, cinnamon and wine, is another perennial favorite, Richman says. The paste symbolizes the mortar that Jewish slaves used to build pyramids in Egypt.

Richman will spend an entire day baking cookies that will be served with fruit salad for dessert. Each recipe bears the name of its source, friends in the Jewish community who've become known for a certain cookie or treat over the years.

They include Lilla Levine's Nut Cookies, Hannah Schwartz's Brownies and Joellen Kirshtein's Matzah Toffee Bark. Many of the recipes are found in the "Garden of Eatin' '' cookbook published by Brith Sholom Beth Israel Sisterhood, from the Rutledge Avenue synagogue that the Richmans attend.

Richman, whose maiden name is Solomon, grew up in Moncks Corner. Her family was one of three Jewish families in the Berkeley County town at the time, so Richman often traveled to Charleston for her religious and social life.

Richman says her mother was a good cook, and that she learned by example. "I like to cook. ... I was cooking when I was very young."

She's fond of traditional Jewish dishes, such as kugels, rolled cabbages and pickled tongue but, as a Southerner, also has a penchant for okra gumbo, fried chicken and grits. ("They're not anti-Jewish," she points out.) Pound cakes and cheesecakes are a specialty.

Richman started keeping kosher about 20 years ago, first with kosher for Passover. "At some point I was the only one of my friends that didn't keep kosher," Richman says. That inspired her to go to the next level, keeping strict kosher all the time. That means following a number of dietary laws, such as separating dairy foods from meat, and only using specially marked products.

"My friends kind of teased me because I was so strict," Richman says. "I decided if I was going to do it so late in life, I was going to do it right."

Richman, 73, carries a reference booklet in her purse for insurance. "It's very complicated but after a while, you get used to it. Every once in a while I mix things up."

But the products are more expensive and sometimes difficult to find. She's already been shopping for Passover 20 times, for example, waiting for certain kosher foods to arrive in the stores. "You keep going until you see it."

Richman enjoys the rituals of Passover and their meaning: the Seder plate of bitter herbs, the shank bone and roasted egg; the big bowl in which her husband washes his hands; the goblet of wine for Elijah.

One of her treasured possessions for the table is an embroidered cloth bag with three compartments for holding matzo. It holds special memories as well.

"It was my father's. I like it, it's symbolic to me," Richman says.

Richman's recipes

"We like it simple," Richman notes in the margin of this recipe. "I cut the brisket the next day when it is cool and it slices beautifully."

Brisket

1 large brisket (up to 10 pounds)

1 package onion soup mix

Several onions, cut up

In a roasting pan, place onions under and on top of meat. Spread soup mix on top; add a small amount of water to pan. Cover and cook in a 350-degree oven for up to 3 hours, until meat is well-done and fork-tender.

Carrot Tzimmes

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 large carrots, scraped and sliced in rounds

1/2 cup pitted prunes

1 cup water

1 apple, cored and cubed

Honey to taste (start with 1/4 cup)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 25 minutes. Pour into a 9-inch square baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.

— Recipe from "A Garden of Eatin' " cookbook

"This is to die for," says Richman. "It's a simple thing but it tastes so good."

Joellen Kirshtein's Matzah Toffee Bark

4 boards matzah

2 sticks pareve margarine

1 cup brown sugar (kosher for Passover)

1 (12-ounce) package chocolate chips

1 cup chopped nuts, such as pecans or almonds

Line a 10x15-inch jelly roll pan with foil; spray well with nonstick spray. Place matzah side by side on foil. Boil the margarine and sugar together for 3 minutes or until bubbly and at soft ball stage. Pour immediately over the matzah. Bake at 400 degrees for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with the chocolate chips. As they melt, spread evenly over the matzah. Sprinkle with pecans or almonds while still hot, and press down lightly. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Break into pieces and store in a cool place.

— Recipe from "A Garden of Eatin' " cookbook

Hannah Schwartz's Brownies

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup cake meal

2 teaspoons instant coffee (optional)

3/4 cup cocoa powder

1 cup oil

1/2 cup nuts, or more to taste

Beat eggs, add sugar. Blend in salt, cake meal and coffee, if using, and mix well. Mix together cocoa and oil, add to other ingredients, and then add nuts. Pour in a greased 13x9-inch pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Check at 25 minutes. Do not overbake.

Passover food traditions

Passover celebrates the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt and slavery more than 3,300 years ago. One of the most significant holiday rituals is removing chometz, or leavened foods, from the home. Jews are commanded not to eat chometz at any time during the eight days of "Pesach" and to eat matzo, an unleavened, crackerlike bread made with flour and water.

Removing chometz and eating matzo commemorate the hurried flight from Egypt, so fast that bread did not have time to rise. Chometz is anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water.

Many Jews in the United States also avoid corn, rice, peanuts and legumes during Passover.

Seder dinners, celebrated on the first two nights of Passover, include a number of foods symbolic of the Jewish exodus. The Seder plate contains these items:

-- Two kinds of bitter herbs, representing the harshness of slavery.

-- Charoset, a sweet apple paste representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build Egyptian pyramids.

-- A roasted shank bone symbolizing the lamb sacrificed on the eve of the exodus.

-- A boiled egg recalls festival offerings brought to the Temple in Jerusalem.

-- A nonbitter root vegetable such as celery or parsley, dipped into saltwater, which symbolizes tears the Jews have shed.

-- Teresa Taylor