By the end of the meal, guests have typically feasted on matzoh ball soup, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish and horseradish, a substantial hunk of brisket or roast chicken or veal, some serious vegetable dishes, some kind of tzimmes (a sweet vegetable, fruit and sometimes meat stew) and/or potatoes and rice and salad. Not to mention earlier a couple of appetizers for the faint-hearted, as well as the bitter herbs, haroset (a jamlike sweet blend of fruits and nuts), matzoh and four glasses of wine that are part of the Seder service that precedes dinner.
So you might not think there'd be room for dessert.
And you'd be wrong.
A festive meal without a sweet finish is inconceivable. But a heavy Seder meal cries out for a light dessert. And Passover sweets, which by definition can't be made with flour, are weighed down by centuries of substitutions: matzoh meal, potato starch, macaroon crumbs, chopped walnuts and hazelnuts.
"All the Passover cakes I've come across have had that dry matzoh meal, cloying flavor that's so obviously 'Passover,'‚" laments Israeli baker and cooking teacher Celia Regev. "They're usually very heavy. The nuts together with matzoh meal make everything like mortar from the Haggadah."
How does she avoid those traditional cakes? By turning to classic French dessert recipes like sorbets or flourless chocolate cakes or petits fours made with almond flour. "They're just so tasty," she says. "And they give the meal a more modern twist. Everything is so traditional up to that point. It's nice to introduce something different."
For the ordinary home cook preparing for next Wednesday's Seder meal, of course, French pastries and sorbets can be a challenge. But Regev, 49, mastered classic techniques long ago she's well known in Israel for the French pastries she and her partner, Reviva Appel made for the gourmet takeout shop and bakery they established outside Tel Aviv 20 years ago. (Regev and her husband, Leo, an Israeli diplomat, currently live in the Washington area.)
It's encouraging to learn that Regev didn't even learn to cook or bake until she was a young adult. In Sydney, Australia, where she grew up, her parents ruled the kitchen. Her mother was an accomplished cook and her father was an able one as well he even taught himself to prepare a complete Chinese banquet. Food was important in their home, not only because they enjoyed cooking but also because their family culture demanded it. "With all the festivals and Shabbat [the Sabbath], so much revolves around food and the kitchen table in Jewish homes," she says.
At 19, she married, left home and struck out on her own in the kitchen. At first she learned technique by experimenting and reading cookbooks serious ones like the Larousse Gastronomique culinary encyclopedia. She taught herself to bake from books as well and began the love affair with French pastry that continues to this day.
But it wasn't until 1977 when she and Leo Regev moved to Paris, where he was studying French before joining Israel's diplomatic service, that she realized how much she loved cooking and baking. So she tasted everything she could: in shops, restaurants, bakeries. And she took top-of-the-line cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu and at the Culinary Institute run by master chef Patrick LeNotre and his wife, Marie.
Back in Israel in 1979, she tried her wings professionally by giving cooking lessons. Then after a while, inspired by what she had studied in France, she joined Appel one of her culinary students in a business featuring French sweets and savories. There, in a residential Tel Aviv suburb, instead of selling traditional (and popular) European specialties like Dobos torte a multilayered chocolate cake frosted and filled with mocha buttercream and strudel and baba au rhum, their shelves were stocked with delicacies like tarte aux pommes, brioche au chocolate, gateau succes a classic French cake of almond meringue and praline buttercream and tarte au noir.
"Israelis love to eat sweet things," says Regev. "It's definitely the most important part of the meal. It's a sweet tooth population."
The shop, and the neighboring tearoom that soon followed, were an immediate success. "If one wants to have a wonderful breakfast or brunch, that's the place," says Kena Shoval, wife of Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval. "She's an expert cook, a wonderful baker. Many of my friends used to go to her tearoom, and order and buy food from her store. I used to take home some of her very good cookies and cakes. They were delightful, very refined, very tasteful."
Regev's husband's reassignment, first to England in 1983 and then to Italy in 1991, resulted in her selling out of the business. But by then she'd realized that she could turn a potential problem moving from country to country into an ongoing culinary education, and a career as a baker and cooking teacher.
In each country, she has studied the culinary landscape, learning as much about the food as possible, reading cookbooks, spending time in restaurant kitchens and giving cooking lessons herself. "I've been lucky because I did have that focus," she says.
And just as she focused on pastry in France, she was fascinated by pasta in Italy. "The dishes that are almost invariably excellent there are the pastas and the risottos," she says. "I had to learn how to make them."
In Washington since 1997, she continues that pattern, teaching Italian cooking at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, baking mostly for friends and family and occasionally taking on more elaborate commitments. As part of Israel's 50th anniversary celebration last year, she made all the desserts at a D.C. Jewish Community Center gala dinner prepared by Jean-Louis Palladin and Tel Aviv chef Israel Aharoni.
She hasn't decided what she'll bake for her family's Passover Seder this year. "My husband usually loves whatever I make," she says.
But she knows she won't make the dessert she did last year. "You usually have the same family guests," she says. "And you want to change that menu. You want something new."
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