Esther Levy's Sweet Passover Solution

Every Passover, Jewish families around the planet strive to make creative use of matzo. Although the dishes prepared with it are often beloved and nostalgic, by the end of the week incorporating the symbolic bread can feel like a struggle.

This issue is timeless. In 1871, Esther Levy wrote Jewish Cookery, and offered her readers a solution: Matzas Charlotte, a dessert of softened matzo layered with fruit and custard.

The History

A Cookery Book Properly Explained, and in Accordance with the Rules of the Jewish Religion, Jewish Cookery Book, or Principle of Economy, Adapted for Jewish Housekeepers, with the Addition of Many Useful Medicinal Recipes, and Other Valuable Information, Relative to Housekeeping and Domestic Management is notable as the first Jewish cookbook published in America. Little is known about the author, Mrs. Esther Levy (neé Ester Jacobs), but she writes to her readers with a strong, encouraging voice.

Many of her recipes are about aspirational cooking. She wants her readers to know they can achieve the diversity and luxuriousness of the foods of an American middle-class family while maintaining an adherence to Jewish law. Her recipes include Gumbo made with okra, Philadelphia Pepper Pot soup cooked without traditional tripe, and instructions for cooking kale.

When it comes to Passover advice, Levy carefully explains how the house must be cleaned as well as the symbolism of the Seder meal. This careful instruction makes me curious as to whom her intended audience was; it seems any Jewish reader would be familiar with the annual practice. Perhaps a new wife and mother – maybe a young woman who has immigrated away from the tutelage of her mother and grandmother – would pick up Levy’s book as a replacement for intergenerational knowledge. Levy also makes note of a common issue for new Jewish immigrants living in small spaces: each year, it was easier to throw out your old dishes and buy a new set for Passover. These new dishes would become the household’s everyday dishes after the holiday. This system was more practical for tenement dwellers than storing a special set of holiday plates.

Levy marks certain recipes in her book as Passover appropriate, like Matzo Cleis Soup, which we know today as matzo ball soup. In her chapter on Puddings, she calls one recipe “Matzas Charlotte (unleavened bread for supper.),” a Kosher for Passover version of a popular dessert.

“Charlottes” were invented in England in the last part of the 18th century, named for Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. The dish became “Charlotte Russe” – or Russian Charlotte – in early 19th-century Europe, when Russian food and dining habits were very trendy. The dessert could be composed of many layers of custard flavored with mace (a part of the nutmeg fruit), vanilla beans, almonds, peach leaves or cinnamon, mixed with lemon and brandy whipped cream; layered with almond cake and frosted with rose- or lemon-flavored royal icing, and finally decorated with strawberry slices or white grapes, as in this recipe from 1847.

By the late 19th century, Charlotte Russe recipes became simpler and standardized like this recipe: ladyfingers or sponge cake pressed into a round mold, then the center filled with whipped cream, custard or blancmange stabilized with gelatin. When the filling firmed, the dessert was turned out of the mold. After the turn of the 20th century, pre-packaged, commercial ladyfingers were bought, instead of being made from scratch.

But an even simpler, and cheaper version of Charlotte Russe was available in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes called “Charley Roose,” for 3-5 cents a kid in Brooklyn could head to a local bakery, and purchase a confection made from cake scraps topped with whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and a maraschino cherry. Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, authors of The Brooklyn Cookbook, recounted the dessert was “surrounded by a frilled cardboard holder with a round of cardboard on the bottom. As the cream went down, you pushed the cardboard up from the bottom, so you could eat the cake … these were Brooklyn ambrosia.”

According to a Politico article by Leah Konig, Holtermann’s Bakery on Staten Island is perhaps the only New York City bakery that still makes these treats. Sometimes, they use the scraps and ends from jellyroll cakes as the base, instead of plain cake.


The Recipe

From Jewish Cookery by Esther Levy, 1871.

Matzas Charlotte (unleavened bread for supper.) Soak about three matzas (cakes) in cold water; when tender, strain them dry on a sieve by layering each piece separately; have ready some butter and some stoned raisins, grated peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar; lay the pieces on a dish in layers, and put the fruit on with a good custard, prepared in this way: one quart of milk and seven eggs, well beaten with four ounces of white sugar, and a stick of cinnamon.

Matzo Charlotte (Modernized)
  • 4 cups whole milk 1 stick cinnamon 5 large eggs 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 cup dried fruit
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Zest of half of a lemon
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. nutmeg
  • 3 matzos

1. Make the custard: Add cinnamon stick and milk to a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. In the meantime, in a glass or rubber-bottomed bowl whisk together egg and ½ cup sugar until blended. After milk comes to a boil, pour slowly into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden

spoon, until custard thickens slightly and evenly coats the back of the spoon (it should hold a line drawn by your finger). Chill at least three hours or overnight.

2. Prepare the fruit: In a small saucepan, add fruit, butter, lemon zest, spices, remaining sugar and 1 cup boiling water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer ten minutes. Chill at least three hours or overnight.

3. Soak the matzos: Soak each matzo in a bowl of water for 30 seconds. Drain on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet or towels.

4. Assemble the Charlotte: Lay one matzo in the bottom of a pie plate or on a cake stand. Spread with ½ cup custard and then sprinkle with ⅓ of the fruit. Repeat with remaining matzo, and decorate top with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

The Results

As I sliced into the dripping mass of Matzas Charlotte, and scraped a serving onto my plate, saturated strips of matzo clung like tentacles to the serving dish. I stuffed a wad of dessert in my mouth. The sludgy custard gave way to stringy matzo, and the tart fruit bursting in my mouth had the texture of plump beetles. The dessert lacked any real flavor, beyond the sensations of slightly sweet and sour. If I were a child in the 1870s who only had sweets on Passover, I’d love it.

But I do think there is a better way to make this dessert today. Charlotte Russe has a British cousin, the trifle: layered cake, custard, and fruit, topped with whipped cream, often displayed in a clear trifle dish designed to show off the layers. Consider using Matzas Charlotte as inspiration for a Matzo Trifle: softened matzo, layered with this recipe for rich custard (just don’t freeze it) and fresh fruit compote, and top it with real whipped cream. Or perhaps just take your inspiration from Brooklyn: top your matzo with some Kosher-for-Passover whipped cream in a can, a maraschino cherry, a scatter of sprinkles--and call it a day.

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