Of all our family traditions, the Passover seder is the one we look forward to the most. We all fight over who will host it, but no matter, everyone pitches in with the cooking, making sure the seder plate is appropriately filled, the multicourse table properly set. My father and brother, Dennis, share responsibilities for hiding the afikomen and rewarding the lucky child who finds it. Although my father leads the service, with Dennis by his side, all generations participate, down to my 6-year-old granddaughter, Tiara.
Although we love retelling the story of the first Passover -- we use our best Hollywood voices -- and are often moved to tears at the horrors endured under Pharaoh, like any good story, we are lightened by the happy ending and the unique way we obtained our freedom. The only problem with poignant storytelling is that it is endless and it is often two hours before we get to the main course.
Because we are starving, we gratefully pass the parsley around, anxiously dipping it in salt water and hungrily stuffing it into our mouths. Next comes the hard-boiled egg, although I hate filling up on eggs when I know my favorite brisket isn't far behind.
For most of us, the most fun is making the charoset sandwich -- mixing the sweet fruit and nuts with the bitter horseradish and piling it between two pieces of matzah to symbolize the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. The trick is to put just the right amount of horseradish, or else we are caught quite breathless and giant tears overwhelm our eyes.
Tiara always wants as much as the big people. But, I caution her to look at the other end of the table at her cousin, Joey, who is coughing and choking -- he thinks he is impervious to his grandmother's horseradish. When we are finally finished experiencing the trip through the Red Sea, out of Egypt and singing about the joys of spring, all of us matriarchs hurry to the kitchen to serve up the best meal of the year.
Baked Brisket1 4- to 5-pound beef brisket Kosher salt, to taste Ground black pepper to taste 1 teaspoon paprika 3 to 4 onions, sliced 1 cup water 1 cup dry red wine 3 medium carrots, cut into chunks 3 to 5 whole garlic cloves 2 to 3 celery stalks, sliced 8 to 10 small new potatoes 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme 1 bay leaf
Preheat oven to 350 F. Rub both sides of meat with salt, pepper and paprika. Spread half the onions over bottom of a shallow roasting pan. Place brisket, fat side up, in the pan; top with remaining onions. Add 1/4 cup of water. Bake, uncovered, basting occasionally, until meat and onions begin to brown, about one hour.
Pour in enough of the remaining water and wine to reach halfway up the sides of the meat. Add remaining ingredients, cover and reduce heat to 300 degrees. Cook until meat is fork-tender and the thickest part of the brisket registers about 175 F on a meat thermometer. Cover brisket loosely with foil; let stand for 20 minutes before carving. Slice brisket diagonally against the grain, about 1/8-inch thick. Brisket can be prepared up to two days ahead and reheated in the gravy. Serve with horseradish or whole grain mustard. Total cooking time is about three to four hours (one hour per pound).
Adapted from "The World of Jewish Entertaining" by Gil Marks, (Simon & Schuster, 1998).