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The Great (Passover) Dessert Challenge

French-trained pastry chef Francois Payard thought he had done his homework when he opened his first patisserie in New York in 1997, but he soon realized that the learning curve might be a bit steeper than he’d anticipated. That year he stocked the display cases with a surplus of Easter-friendly confections, anticipating a rush of biblical proportions.

“Was I ever wrong,” said the celebrated Frenchman Payard, who now operates 13 sweets-centric establishments around the world. “Passover was much, much bigger for us.”

Bigger, indeed. As Passover approaches, chefs around the country are plotting their Passover dessert menus. Some keep their selections rooted in tradition and others seek a creative edge, but the common denominator is a quest for good taste in the face of some very basic culinary conundrums, and an inclination whenever possible to favor culinary expertise over gimmickry.

“No flour and no dairy? That’s tough,” said Zohar Zohar, owner of New York’s Zucker Bakery, which features many Israeli-style pastries. “The stricter you are, the harder it is,” she added.

For Payard, what started 14 years ago with flourless chocolate cake has grown into a seasonal business featuring six items — with more new products on the way. “We try to develop something new every year,” said Payard, who begins plotting his Passover production six months in advance, sometimes running through a new recipe concept as many as 20 times before he gets it right.

This year’s dessert debutante is a chewy meringue kiss Payard makes by whipping a classic Swiss-style meringue of heated egg whites and sugar, adding ground toasted nuts and then freezing the batter before slicing and baking. The result is a fragile, soft-centered confection with a shattering shell that melts on impact. “We think it’s going to be big,” said Payard, who isn’t Jewish but enjoys telling his Passover-observing customers that his first girlfriend was of Moroccan-Jewish descent.

He’s also quick to remind this reporter that his desserts, though inspired by the holiday, aren’t under kosher supervision — and many contain dairy products, meaning they can not be served after a meat meal.

So do the desserts made by Zucker’s Zohar, who’s been asked to handle the sweet stuff at this year’s James Beard House Passover Seder in New York.

Since she isn’t bound by religious practice, she has no problem taking an unconventional approach to her Beard House task, where she’ll serve a midcourse of milk-and-honey soup with honey, yogurt ice cream and almond brittle, as well as a dessert of individual haroset-flavored cakes accented with apples, cinnamon and walnuts.

Still, every year at her East Village shop, she recreates a classic Passover dessert similar to one many Israelis grew up on: layers of softened matzo, in this case moistened with Stumptown coffee, drizzled with a halvah-laced coffee-chocolate sauce.

Cloud Cookies: Payard puts his own twist on this Passover treat. Try the recipe below. Image by Adeena Sussman

For a modern take on the matzo layer cake his grandmother used to make, wedding cake guru Ron Ben-Israel, who also hosts the Food Network’s “Sweet Genius” and produces a separate line of kosher cakes, sprinkles his matzo with apple juice, then enrobes it in a special ganache he creates using top-quality chocolate, simple syrup and almond or rice milk in lieu of cream. “A good ganache is something everyone should have in their repertoire,” said Ben Israel, who also recommends using it in Passover-friendly ways: as a cake icing; in a silky pot de crème (a mousselike pudding) or, when chilled, as the base for simply decadent truffles.

For some bakers, Passover is also a chance to employ ingredients they love. At New York’s recently opened Breads Bakery — an offshoot of the wildly popular Tel Aviv chain Lechamim — proprietor Uri Scheft uses top-quality, German-made Lubeca marzipan in a variety of desserts.

Scheft, who trained in Paris under legendary baker Eric Kayser, plans to incorporate more marzipan items into a Passover-friendly item this year, though his specific menu hasn’t been finalized. “I love its delicate nature, Passover or no Passover,” said Scheft. “The fact that it works for the holiday is a bonus.”

While many pastry gurus look at Passover as a culinary challenge akin to offering one or two vegan or gluten-free options amid a sea of quotidian options, others are literally bound to traditions.

“Passover? Wow, I hate Passover,” Julien Bohbot said over the phone from Los Angeles, where he owns Delice, considered by many to be the most authentic French-style kosher bakery in America. Bohbot was just days away from opening the special production facility he operates every year for two weeks in advance of the first Seder.

“It’s a stressful, money-losing production,” said Bohbot, whose staff works 12-hour shifts to produce dead ringers for their usual cakes that call for mashed potatoes and potato starch in the batter (their kosher supervision is so rigorous that even matzo meal is off limits for Passover); devising crème pâtissière (pastry cream) using a secret recipe, and grinding freshly roasted pistachios for use in layered confections.

“I do Passover as a service to my customers,” said Bohbot, sounding more in need of a sugar-dusted hug every time he mentioned the dreaded P-word. “Everything, from nuts to parchment paper, is four times as expensive.”

His best sellers include decadent cakes filled with pareve hazelnut cream and ganache, as well as 12-packs of French-style macarons in flavors like pistachio and coffee. “We can’t make enough of them,” he said. “And we can’t wait for Pesach to end.”

Los Angeles chefs with less kashrut pressure tend to look forward to the Passover challenge. Over at Jar, Jewish chef Suzanne Tracht’s (non-kosher) top-rated “modern steakhouse,” pastry chef Sandra Bustamante will bake Meyer lemon cheesecakes for the restaurant’s annual Seder, swapping in matzo cake meal and ground almonds in the crust.

“I want to try new things but this is all everyone wants,” laughed Bustamante, who estimates she’ll make 16 of the cakes for the one-night affair. “And it’s gluten free, which a lot of customers also like,” she added. Two other gluten-free options this Passover will be served by chef Alex Raij at Brooklyn’s La Vara.

In addition to natias — an eggy, thickened rice pudding — Raij plans to riff off of the restaurant’s Moorish leanings by serving a brunch dessert of yogurt topped with salty-sweet haroset contaning pomegranate arils, chopped Medjool dates and dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend that incorporates nuts, seeds and spices.

While not every American chef seems compelled to stretch their creativity to the limit, Israeli cooks are taking the task head on. Renowned Israeli chef and restaurateur Meir Adoni, known for modern Mediterranean cuisine accented with touches of molecular gastronomy, called in from a photo shoot in Tel Aviv.

“I like to use coconut milk, not only as a dairy substitute but also to encourage tropical flavors,” said Adoni, who plans on adapting a recipe he developed for an upcoming cookbook: an Asian-inspired chilled coconut-fruit “soup” served alongside fritters whose filling is bound with the all-natural (and naturally kosher-for-Passover) gelatin substitute agar-agar.

Adoni, whose Sephardic heritage also frees him to use ingredients like cornstarch and tapioca pearls in his Passover creations, views the holiday as a worthy challenge. “There are no limits to creativity,” said Adoni. “Even on Passover.”

Adeena Sussman is a food writer, recipe developer and co-author, with Clio Goodman, of Puddin’ (Spiegel & Grau), an all-dessert cookbook to be released in October.

Meringue Kisses
Adapted from Francois Payard

Makes 45-50 cookies

1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) whole raw almonds
2 cups kosher-for-passover confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup (2 large) egg whites
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1) Preheat oven to 350°F. Toast almonds on a baking sheet until fragrant, 15 minutes. Cool.

2)Whisk confectioners sugar and egg whites in a bowl, set over a water bath and heat until mixture reaches 122°F on a candy thermometer, or is very warm to the touch, about 3 minutes.

3) Transfer to a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add lemon and beat on high speed until whites hold stiff peaks, 9-10 minutes. Add vanilla and beat just until incorporated. Add almonds and stir to incorporate.

4) Pour mixture over a parchment-lined 12 x 8-inch baking sheet. Place in freezer until firm, 2-4 hours depending on freezer. Remove from freezer and using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut into 1 1/2 x 2 1/2-inch pieces. Working quickly, place cut cookies quickly on a larger, parchment lined baking sheet, leaving ½ inch between cookies (cookies may lose their shape slightly). Place sheet tray back in the freezer for one hour.

5) Preheat oven to 300°F. Bake cookies until light brown, 35 minutes.

Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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