Award-winning pastry chef Chris Hanmer doesn’t let a little matzah meal scare him. Hanmer, who, in 2011, came in first in the second season of “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” has been pastry chef at catered Passover programs at Ritz-Carlton hotels in Lake Las Vegas, Nev., and Naples, Fla.
And after five years of serving up his signature Passover brownies, carrot cake and molten chocolate cakes, Hanmer sounds like a seasoned Jewish homemaker.
“I really enjoy doing it. It’s like a big sporting event. It only comes once a year, but you prepare for it and prepare for it, and at the end of it you’re really exhausted and you swear you’ll never do this again. And then another year comes, and you say, ‘I’m ready for it!’ ” said Hanmer, who is not Jewish.
He now runs his own company, The School of Pastry Design in Las Vegas, and consults with Mark David Catering in New York, which runs the Passover program at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples. He talked to The Journal about his Passover preparations:
Jewish Journal: I always thought chefs at hotels that host Passover programs must think we’re crazy. We come in saying, “We need many lavish desserts for a whole week, and you can’t use any flour and most of them have to be nondairy.”
Chris Hanmer: I think that’s where the challenge part comes in, and that’s something that draws my personality. I’m used to dealing with flour and butter and sugar and cream, and so when I first tried the pareve Passover items — well, it’s difficult. I knew that it was hard to make, but I also knew there should be a way to do this better.
JJ: What were some of the things that you came up with that worked?
CH: My approach is, what would I do if I had to make Passover for myself? I try to put myself in that situation with a lot of my clients, whether it’s for cupcakes or high-end bonbons or Passover. So I took a couple of months for research and development to figure out how to take my recipes and modify them for Passover, replacing flour with potato starch or matzah, or other things that are common in the Passover environment.
So, that was full of highs and lows. I would start something and think, “Oh, this is going to be so good,” and then I’d taste and it’s like, “Awww.” But with some small modifications I was able to come up with some great recipes.
In fact, some of them, in my opinion, are so good that my wife and I prefer them over the non-Passover equivalents, like my Passover brownies or carrot cake.
When I developed a recipe for carrot cake, I gave it to the supervising rabbi to taste — and he knows kosher-for-Passover desserts are difficult. The look on his face was like seeing your son or daughter eat chocolate for the first time.
JJ: Do you have rabbis standing over your shoulder as you are baking?
CH: Oh yeah, absolutely. We have a rabbi mashgiach in there the whole time. Even though I’m not Jewish and don’t have any Jewish heritage, I really have a fascination and tremendous respect for the tradition and the people. The rabbis have a very serious job, and I take it very seriously when I’m working in that environment, because it needs to be respected.
I have found that coming from a non-Passover, non-kosher cooking background, all you have to do with the rabbis is just ask. They always have a great attitude and are so humble, and say, “You know, Chris, we can’t do this, or we can do this,” and they always give me a really interesting explanation based on the law.
JJ: What sort of interesting things have you learned?
CH: I think one of the hardest things for non-kosher people like myself to grasp is that the new day starts at sundown. As chefs, we’re thinking it’s sundown but we’re going to keep producing and working, but on some days of Passover we can’t — we have to stop at sundown. You have to be really organized and really aware of what you’re doing.
But once you understand it, you see that it’s not a burden; it’s a way of life and it’s been going on for thousands of years. I really like it.
JJ: What do you substitute to make the desserts pareve?
CH: What I usually do is use some nondairy whipped topping, and I make a version of pastry cream. I came up with a recipe that uses nondairy creamer, eggs, potato starch and sugar. It has a much different mouth feel and flavor than a nondairy topping by itself.
JJ: What are some common dessert mistakes that home bakers make for Passover?
CH: If you’re doing a cookie or cake recipe with matzah cake meal, adding some water to the recipe will actually help a lot. Matzah meal is so dry, because it’s already been baked, so all of the moisture is out of it. By adding about 10 percent additional water, it helps the recipe rehydrate.
I also like to use fruit in fun ways, like making cobblers or apple crisp, or using fresh berries and cooking them with a little sugar and lemon zest and making a nice fruit topping for a Passover cake or pareve ice cream. That is something they do a lot in professional baking that the home baker doesn’t do.
PASSOVER STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
1/3 cup almond flour
1/4 cup potato starch
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
2 tablespoons margarine
Preheat oven to 330 F.
Sift together the almond flour and potato starch and set aside.
In a stand mixer, whip the egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla extract until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
In a clean bowl in the stand mixer, whip the egg whites with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until stiff and about double in volume.
Fold the whipped egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Mix only until about half the whites are incorporated.
Slowly fold in the sifted almond flour and potato starch until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.
Place batter in two loaf pans that have been sprayed with nonstick spray.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Set aside to cool.
1/2 teaspoon potato starch
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 tablespoons margarine
Place the potato starch and sugar in a bowl and mix with a whisk. Add the eggs and mix well.
Warm the lemon juice in a pot on the stove. Pour 1/4 cup of the lemon juice into the egg mixture and mix well.
Pour the warm egg lemon juice mixture back into the pot with the remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice.
Whisk over medium heat until it thickens and just comes to a boil.
Remove from the heat and let cool for 3 minutes.
Whisk in the margarine one piece at a time, mixing very well. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic film, and place in the refrigerator.
TO ASSEMBLE AND SERVE:
1 pint fresh strawberries
1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Clean and slice strawberries and sprinkle with sugar. Mix well and let them rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Slice each loaf into 1-inch slices. Place 1 slice on each of 8 dessert plates. Spoon some of the sliced strawberries on top of the cake. Spoon some of the lemon cream over the strawberries. Repeat with another slice of cake, some of the strawberries and some of the lemon cream. Top each with a little fresh lemon zest.
Makes about 8 servings.