For as long as I have been celebrating Passover, my father would ceremoniously wrap a perfect square of matzoh in a linen napkin and then hide it in the living room. The hidden matzoh or afikomen, (derived from the Greek word for dessert) is a traditional part of the Passover festivities. Although it is not a sweet, it is intended to be the last bit of food eaten at the Passover Seder. My father always presided over the holiday table, telling the story of lengthy Seders he endured as a child and how his grandfather would try to fast forward through the Haggadah only to be reprimanded by his grandmother. Perhaps that is why our Seders were always abbreviated, culminating with the most important question, when can we eat?
This year, Passover begins on Monday evening, April 10th, concluding Tuesday evening, April 18th. On the final night of the holiday, my father will celebrate his 90th circle around the sun. He will blow out the candles on a Kiss Torte.
It is hard to pinpoint when the Kiss Torte made its debut at our Passover table. Lemon-flecked sponge cake, coconut macaroons and jellied fruit slices the color of crayons often shared the Passover dessert stage, but Kiss Torte was always the star. The baked meringue is a gravitational wonder, requiring an oversized cake platter to make its dramatic entrance. The torte foregoes flour and leaveners, relying on very few ingredients. Egg whites and sugar are beaten until thick with an added splash of vinegar and vanilla. Followed by a lengthy turn in what my grandmother liked to call a “slow oven,” the lofty meringue was then cloaked in swirls of whipped cream and crowned with blushing strawberries. This dessert will always be synonymous with my father’s birthday.
History suggests the classic meringue torte of German origin dates back to the 1800’s. Dubbed both a Schaum torte and a Schaumenetorten, the name roughly translates to “foam cake.” Served as a celebratory dessert, it was particularly popular amongst Wisconsin families, many of whom made their livelihoods as dairy farmers. The unleavened dessert ultimately found its way to the Passover table not only because it was flourless, but because it was the perfect canvas for spring fruit. The Joy of Cooking refers to the dessert as Schaum Torte, the Settlement Cookbook calls it Kiss Torte. In Australia and New Zealand, a similar baked meringue is known as Pavlova, in honor of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Some recipes call for the sweet meringue to be spooned or piped into individual discs, others pile the mixture into a springform pan. My grandmother chose the latter method.
Personally, Kiss Torte conjures a very distinctive sensory image: a tangle of sugar and egg whites heady with vanilla. Unlike any other cake baking in the oven, I remember the air being thick with what can only be described as sweet yet slightly toasty, like a perfectly, barely golden marshmallow. The fragrance crept beyond the kitchen door, hovering above the dining room table set for the Seder. Snug against starched damask linens and the good silver, Haggadahs graced each place setting. The first of the spring flowers sprawled casually in the center of the table; forsythia, daffodils, the occasional lily-of-the-valley. Crystal glasses winked in anticipation of napkins stained purple with droplets of wine and Concord grape juice.
My grandmother’s Kiss Torte pan now slumbers in the deep recesses of an overcrowded cabinet in my kitchen, making an appearance but once a year. The pan itself offers no indication as to its age, but it has been in our family for at least 60 years, probably more. Oversized and weightier than any other pans nesting nearby, this particular springform stands alone, measuring 3” in height, outfitted with both a 9” and 10” insert. Dependent upon the number of guests expected, the hostess can adjust the pan size accordingly. Despite years of scrubbing, the tarnished green/gray exterior stubbornly refuses to shine. The pan is crafted to hug the meringue tightly, secured by a side bar that resembles a dippity-do pageboy curl.
If that cake pan could talk, it would tell you to be gentle when transferring the fragile meringue from pan to platter. It would also suggest clearing room in the refrigerator before attempting to find a home for the completed dessert. Traditionally, bananas and strawberries lounged on lightly sweetened whipped cream tucked between the marshmallow-y interior and crackly exterior. Over the years it has become perfectly acceptable to swap out bananas for raspberries, but my grandmother would advise saving the prettiest of the crimson berries to decorate the top.
During the Seder, we ask and answer the four questions, distinguishing why Passover is different from all other nights. Unspoken yet understood, it seems that on all other nights, we are too busy to pause. On Passover, we gather around a table echoing with the voices of those who once pulled up chairs to nibble on matzoh with beet-red horseradish and homemade gefilte fish. We wait for steaming bowls of chicken soup to make their precarious entrance, begging the question: should the kneidlach bobbing in the rich broth be fluffy or firm? We remember those who came before and celebrate with those now seated elbow to elbow. My father blows out the candles as we sit patiently with cake forks poised. Tucking into airy slices of a dessert made lofty by the heat of a slow oven, we conclude our holiday with an oversized meringue sweetened with decades of memories.
For a recipe very similar to Ellen’s family’s Kiss Torte, try this lovely raspberry pavlova from our Fall ’16 issue!
Photos by Rachel Bowman