Any political handicapper who happened by the Old Executive Office Building of the White House on Wednesday no doubt saw a dream team in the making.
Picture this at the top of a ticket: Joan Nathan. A media savvy graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a long record of experience both inside and outside the Beltway (including three years of work with legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek), a popular multiple author with a cult-like following, and perhaps most impressively, Tablet Magazine’s food columnist.
For the running mate, imagine someone with these credentials: Bill Yosses. 30 years of experience including work within both the Bush and Obama White Houses, successful author, entrepreneur, and activist, the White House executive pastry chef since 2007 and someone whose work has earned the highest plaudits of everyone from Bibi Netanyahu to Pope Benedict XVI.
Their candidacy may still be in its infancy but the Nathan/Yosses ticket is something that should not be underestimated, especially after their successful first joint event together at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The event was a Passover cooking demonstration hosted by the White House, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of an election year charm offensive by the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Yosses spoke at length of the importance of the Passover Seder in the Obama administration. Despite this and a number of other speeches, the Nathan/Yosses hype superseded much of the talk of 2012.
“Those two should take over the world,” said a member of the White House staff, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Nathan and Yosses demoed two Passover dishes designed to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate. First up was an Arkansas Pear Haroset, clearly an attempt to garner support in a crucial region that has produced such political powerhouses as William Fulbright, Bill Clinton, Dale Bumper, Eldridge Cleaver, and Mike Huckabee.
As they started to prepare it Nathan asked Yosses if he knew what haroset is?
“I do now!” he said to laughter.
They discussed the history of haroset, first testing the crowd to see if they knew the origin of the dish.
“Babylonia!” a man in the back responded. “I’m old enough to remember.”
At this point, the room turned to note as Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) entered the room to give the pair his endorsement. Greg Rosenbaum, the CEO of Empire Kosher, also stood in the back kibitzing. Samples were shrewdly handed out.
“Samples are important,” an attendee noted. “We’re Jews after all.”
Following the haroset, the pair moved on to the dessert portion of the event. The chosen dish was the exotic chremsel with matzo, almonds, and currants (written about here in Tablet by Nathan last year).
While Yosses whipped together a meringue for the dish, Nathan and Yosses talked about the history of Mongolian Jews, one of the groups that cherish the chremsel. It was during the preparation of the chremsel though that Nathan let slip one potentially damning revelation, worthy of the buzz of an October surprise: her mother has been freezing the same shankbone for Passover for the past 40 years. The crowd gasped.
The pair moved on and all seemed forgotten by the time the chremsel arrived and the crowd noshed. Following the event, I approached Yosses to do a little vetting. I dropped the only gotcha question could muster.
“Since you’re the executive pastry chef, I have to ask,” I said menacingly. “What is your favorite Passover dish?”
“Brisket.” he replied.
The guy’s a pro.
ARKANSAS PEAR HAROSET
adapted from Michael Selig, Little Rock, AR
Total time: 20 minutes
1 cup toasted pecans
1 cup dried figs
1 ½ just-ripe finely chopped pears, about 2 cups
1/2 medium Arkansas Black apple or other crisp, slightly tart variety, peeled and finely chopped, about ½ cup
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons Passover sweet wine
The grated zest and juice from 1/2 lemon
1. Finely chop the pecans and the figs with a hand chopper or knife in a wooden bowl.
2. Stir them in with the pears and apple. Add the cinnamon, honey, sweet wine, and the grated lemon zest and juice. Toss together and store in a glass or ceramic bowl. Refrigerate at least 1 hour to mesh flavors.
Yield: 4 cups haroset
MY MATZO CHREMSEL
adapted from Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan
Total Time: 30 minutes
3 matzos, broken in bite size pieces, soaked in cold water very briefly, and gently squeezed dry
2 tablespoons currants
2 tablespoons almonds, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons dried apricots or prunes, coarsely chopped
3 large eggs, separated
¼ teaspoon of salt
1/4 cup matzo meal
1/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Kosher-for-Passover vegetable oil, for frying
Sugar or Kosher for Passover confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling
1. Lightly mix the matzos, currants, almonds, dried apricots or prunes, the egg yolks, the matzo meal, salt, sugar, cinnamon, and the grated zest and juice of a lemon in a medium bowl.
2. Mix the egg whites until stiff in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Fold the beaten egg whites into the matzo mixture. Refrigerate for about a half hour.
3. Line a plate with paper towels and heat 2 inches of kosher for Passover vegetable oil to 375 degrees in a wok or other low-sided medium stockpot. Carefully spoon the batter, 1 heaping tablespoon at a time, into the hot oil without crowding the pan. Fry until golden and crisp, about 1 minute on each side. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to the paper towels to drain. Serve warm, if possible, sprinkled with the sugar or confectioners’ sugar. Leftovers you can reheat in a 350 degree oven just before serving.
Yield: 12 to 15 chremsel