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Honey-soaked matzoh fritters recipe offers the taste of history for Passover

Pizzarelle con Miele (Honey-Soaked Matzoh Fritters)

total time:40 mins

Servings:4 to 6 (makes 25 to 30 fritters)

total time:40 mins

Servings:4 to 6 (makes 25 to 30 fritters)

In the pages of a family cookbook, handwritten by her maternal grandmother, Ghila Ottolenghi Sanders finds a recipe for ciambellette — lightly sweet, ring-shaped cookies that are enriched with olive oil and brightened with citrus zest. Along with dishes such as braised artichokes and peas, garlicky roasted lamb with potatoes and tomatoes stuffed with rice, her grandmother’s cookie recipe has always graced her family’s Passover table in Rome.

“My mother hosted, and we usually had 40 people at the table, so the preparations went on for days,” Sanders told me. “My most vivid memories are at home with my mom and three sisters. Passover was truly a team effort.”

I interviewed Sanders early on in the research for my forthcoming cookbook, “Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen,” which celebrates the people and cuisine behind Rome’s historic Jewish community. And while the pre-holiday kitchen chaos she described feels familiar, it didn’t take long for me to sense just how different her childhood Passovers in Rome were from the Seders I grew up with in the United States.

It makes sense. Rome’s Jewish community dates back to the 2nd century BC when the first Jews arrived from ancient Judea, and their story is interwoven with the story of the city itself.

The community grew over the centuries — most notably with the arrival of Sephardi Jews from Spain and Sicily in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Rome’s Jews faced unimaginable hardships, particularly a 16th-century papal decree that forced them to live in a cramped ghetto on the flood-prone banks of the Tiber river.

During that time, Jews were prohibited from engaging in most professions and faced numerous restrictions on their daily lives.

The ghetto period lasted for more than 300 years, until Italy’s unification in 1871. But despite the centuries of crippling poverty and discrimination, Rome’s Jews survived. They emerged as a tightly knit group with distinctive customs and a Jewish cuisine unlike any other in the world.

Today, the approximately 16,000 Jews living in Rome (and abroad, like Sanders) carry on those traditions with a deep reverence for the past and an eye toward the future.

Like Jews everywhere on Passover, Roman Jews eat unleavened bread, which they call azzima rather than matzoh, and enjoy seders with an abundance of food and wine. But the similarities largely end there.

Roman Jews follow the custom of eating rice and legumes on Passover — a practice that is verboten to observant Ashkenazi Jews, but which they likely picked up from the Sephardi wing of the community. That means ingredients such as fava beans, rice and peas factor heavily into their Passover meals.

Another difference is the presence of roasted lamb at Roman Jewish seders.

Ashkenazi and many Sephardi families eschew roasted lamb in deference to the destruction of the Second Temple in ancient Jerusalem, where lambs were traditionally sacrificed on the eve of Passover. The avoidance of lamb symbolizes the collective trauma brought to the Jewish people by losing the Temple. But Jews’ existence in Rome predates the Temple’s destruction in AD 70. So their inclusion of roasted lamb at Passover attests to the community’s remarkable longevity in the Eternal City.

And as for the ciambellette, Sanders surprised me when she said they are made from wheat flour (which is typically off limits during Passover) rather than matzoh meal. The flour is carefully checked to ensure it does not come into contact with water. And just like with matzoh, the cookies are prepared and baked within an 18-minute window to ensure no leavening can occur. Today, many of Rome’s home cooks gather in communal kitchens to bake their ciambellettes together under kosher supervision.

My own family follows Ashkenazi Passover customs, which means many of Rome’s most iconic Passover treats are off limits during the week-long holiday. Instead, we enjoy ciambellette (a recipe inspired by Sanders’ grandmother’s version appears in “Portico”) and roasted lamb at other times of the year. And we save rice-stuffed tomatoes, which are also featured in the cookbook, for midsummer, when the juicy nightshades come into peak season.

But I can — and enthusiastically do — serve Roman Jews’ honey-soaked matzoh fritters, called pizzarelle con miele, every Passover. The fritters are made from softened matzoh that’s crumbled, mixed with eggs, pine nuts and raisins, and then fried until golden. The matzoh quenelles end up light and crispy on the outside and custard-rich within. Drizzled generously with honey, they are reminiscent of matzoh brei — an Ashkenazi Passover treat that’s also made with softened matzoh and eggs. But the addition of dried fruit and nuts, plus the quick bath in sizzling oil, makes them decidedly — and deliciously — their own thing.

Pizzarelle con miele is so ubiquitously eaten by Roman Jews on Passover, that the recipe has developed its own controversy.

Some cooks insist that you must add a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder to the batter, which gives the fritters a darker hue and subtly chocolate flavor. Others, like me, like them without the chocolate, preferring to let the mix of buttery pine nuts, jammy raisins and a citrus zest shine. Feel free to experiment and see where you land.

Either way you make them, the honey-soaked matzoh fritters bring a Roman Passover to your home kitchen.

Pizzarelle con Miele (Honey-Soaked Matzoh Fritters)

Storage: The fritters are best fresh, but left overs can be well wrapped and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until warmed through and crisped, or in a microwave until warmed through.

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  • 5 matzohs
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup (40 grams) raw unsalted pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup (40 grams) raisins, preferably dark, soaked in warm water for 5 minutes and drained
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 packed teaspoons finely grated lemon or orange zest (from 1 to 2 lemons or 1 medium orange)
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine salt
  • Neutral oil, such as sunflower or grapeseed, for frying
  • 1/4 cup (85 grams) honey, for drizzling

In a wide, shallow dish, cover the matzoh with cold water and soak until very soft, 5 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir together the eggs, pine nuts, raisins, sugar, zest and salt until combined. Remove the softened matzoh from the water, squeeze firmly to remove as much liquid as possible and crumble into the egg mixture. Stir to thoroughly combine.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add enough oil to come 1/2 inch up the sides of the pan and heat until shimmering. Line a large plate with towels.

Working in batches of five to six fritters, scoop out rounded tablespoons of the batter, carefully slip them into the oil and nudge them with the spoon into an oval shape. Fry, flipping once, until the fritters are golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to the towel-lined plate to drain, and repeat with the remaining batter.

Place the honey in a small, microwave-safe measuring cup or bowl and heat on HIGH for 30 seconds, or until easily pourable.

Transfer the fritters to a serving platter and drizzle generously with the warmed honey. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving (3 fritters), based on 10

Calories: 202; Total Fats: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 82 mg; Sodium: 81 mg; Carbohydrates: 25 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 15 g; Proteins: 5 g

This analysis is an estimate based on the available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From “Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen” by Leah Koenig (Norton, August 2023).

Tested by Anna Rodriguez; e-mail questions to [email protected].

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