I didn’t grow up with a “Jewish Grandmother” and for that I will always be resentful. Yes, I had grandmothers (in fact I had three, if you count “Nanny,” my mother’s step-mother), and yes, they were Jewish, but they weren’t what you’d think of as "bubbes." One was cold and withholding and her idea of a treat was a painfully dry Pecan Sandie. The other had an estranged relationship with domesticity, and Nanny made it clear she preferred her “real” grandchildren to the ones produced by her step-daughter. I always wanted the kind of grandmother who told you you’d catch cold if you didn’t wear a sweater when it was 70 degrees, whose kitchen smelled like chicken soup (even though I hate chicken soup), and who brushed the hair off your forehead.
Nanny and Grandpa, my mother’s father, hosted Seders for their large, blended family at their apartment until they moved to Florida in the mid-1970’s. Nanny, despite being a decent cook, showed her ambivalence in the oddest of ways. As I've mentioned, we kids tore apart the house searching for the afikomen we got the most inappropriate prize: a large chocolate Easter bunny. Talk about mixed messages.
As adults, we all have to “get over it” and create lives of our own, often informed by what we wish we’d had. These days the Passover Seder is held at my parents’ place, even though they have three grown children who theoretically could be hosting themselves but wouldn’t dream of it since our father loves having the whole "mishpochah" around his table. Under the most normal of circumstances he is a bossy guy which often causes me to answer “Why is this night different from all other nights?” with “It’s not.” But of course it is and he adores his official role as “leader.” His Haggadah is filled with little notes in the margins, who should read what, who didn’t do a good job reading what last year, which grandchild learned to actually read this year and will finally be able to tackle the Four Questions.
Every Passover I make a flourless chocolate cake (since my sister and mother won’t open their mouths unless cocoa is involved). For years I played with dense cakes filled with so much artery clogging butter that we practically had to roll away from the table, unable to find the energy to actually stand up and walk. But a few years ago I found a recipe in the Times that has now become the Seder standard.
"Nana José’s Chocolate Pecan Cake" is from Patricia Jinich, a Mexican-Jewish culinary instructor (with an upcoming show on PBS) who works in the Washington, DC area and grew up in Mexico, the result of her grandparents’ emigration from Eastern Europe. What first grabbed my attention was the idea that anyone has a Nana named José. What’s in a name? José seems so exotic and I bet she’s a lot of fun. Regardless, it’s much more glamorous than my Sylvia and Mollie. But more importantly it is a lovely cake. There is only a bit of butter and the whole thing is topped with a juicy, sweet and citrusy berry medley. It’s simultaneously decadent and refreshing and a great way to end the traditionally heavy Seder. But it is so good there really isn’t any reason for it to be specific to Passover. It’s a wonderful, wheat-free alternative for those who are living gluten-free and looks so pretty piled high with berries (and whipped cream if you feel like being super indulgent) that it would be at home at any festive meal. Even Easter!
Meanwhile, luckily for my nieces, my mother is doing the perfect job as a very contemporary "bubbe" (although she’s probably going to kill me for referring to her in the same sentence as any Yiddish word, but that’s a whole other story) combining love, care, warmth and so much fun. I’m sure they won’t waste any time on resentment and I’d like to think if I’d had a nana name José, I wouldn’t have either.
Not My Nana José Chocolate Pecan Cake
Adapted from Patricia Jinich, The New York Times, March 31, 2009
Printer Friendly Version
1/2 stick plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 ounces chopped dark chocolate, (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Chips)
1 cup pecans
6 large eggs
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Zest of 1 lime
¼ cup fresh lime juice (you’ll need 2 limes)
3 pints assorted berries, washed and, if you use strawberries hulled and quartered.
Preheat oven to 350
Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and grease with the 1 tablespoon butter.
Combine remaining butter in microwave proof bowl and nuke for thirty seconds, stir and nuke again until melted. (Or melt together over double boiler.) Let cool.
In bowl of a food processor chop pecans finely. Add eggs, vanilla, sugar, salt and the melted chocolate/butter mixture, processing until smooth.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until a cake tester/toothpick comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes. Do not over-bake. Remove to wire rack and let cool completely.Directions-Garnish
In a large bowl combine brown sugar, lime zest and juice. Add berries, toss mixture together gently and let macerate until ready to serve. Stir again just before serving.Remove cake from springform pan, place on serving platter and top with berry mixture.
Yield: 8-10 slices