Food is central to any Passover celebration, but it also comes with a number of restrictions that can pose a challenge for the home baker. I'll give a brief overview of Passover and its baking rules, along with common ingredient substitutions and some kosher-for-Passover recipes to try.
Passover Brownies
Passover (Pesach) Brownies | Photo by Linda T

What is Passover?

Passover is an important Jewish holiday that typically falls in April and commemorates when Moses helped the Jews escape from slavery in ancient Egypt some 3,000 years ago. There were plagues, there was the parting of the Red Sea, and there was a quick escape. So quick that the Jews didn't have time to let their bread rise before baking it for the journey ahead.

Food plays an integral role in the celebration of Passover. Traditionally, Jewish families start by removing all leavened food products (chametz) from their homes — down to the crumbs. Throughout the entire seven or eight days of Passover (depending on beliefs and location), those observing the holiday are supposed to refrain from eating any leavened bread; instead, matzo — a thin, cracker-like bread — is substituted. The first two nights of Passover are also celebrated with a Seder — a long (and very fun), multicourse kosher-for-Passover meal with lots of food symbolism on a Seder plate, no chametz, and a retelling of the exodus story.

What are the Rules of Passover Baking?

So, what does all that have to do with baking? Lots. Passover celebrates the exodus of the Jews while also commemorating — through food — the struggles that it took to get to freedom. Any fermented grain product is forbidden for the entire week, especially wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. Since fermentation is said to begin within 18 minutes from the time the grain (like wheat flour) comes in contact with water, in order for matzo to be deemed kosher for Passover it can't take more than 18 minutes to make from start to finish.

These rules present a creative challenge for the home baker on Passover since it rules out many cakes, cookies, and other baked desserts. To add another layer to the challenge, many Jewish families keep kosher, which means no mixing of meat and milk — so if you're planning to serve brisket for the main course then the desserts should contain no dairy whatsoever (eggs are fine, however). Of course, different families choose to interpret these rules in different ways, so if you're going to be a guest at a Passover Seder and want to bring something, it's best to ask about specific restrictions.

Common Passover Substitutions

Although baking on Passover requires some extra thought, it's far from impossible — after all, what's a holiday meal without dessert? There are many recipes out there — like flourless chocolate cake and French macarons—that isn't Passover specific but typically fit the specs.

Here are some ingredients you can use in place of flour; many are common in gluten-free baking (note that if you substitute these for all-purpose flour the results will be different and may not be as good, so it's best to seek out recipes that specifically call for these).

  • Matzo meal. This is the old standby of Passover baking. It's simply matzo that has been finely ground (you can make your own or purchase a box at the store). Matzo cake meal, if you can find it, is ground even finer. It can be used to make cake, cookies, and brownies, though the results can be quite dense (which isn't always a bad thing).
  • Potato starch. You might not typically think of baking with potato starch, but it's a traditional flour substitute for Passover. Some people combine it with matzo meal (typically ¾ cup potato starch mixed with ¼ cup matzo cake meal can be substituted for 1 cup of all-purpose flour), while some recipes rely solely on potato starch.
  • Almond flour. Made from very finely ground blanched almonds, almond flour has become an increasingly popular ingredient in recent years (in part because it's gluten-free and Keto-friendly). Almond meal, which is more coarsely ground, can work as well in recipes where you don't need a superfine texture (like brownies or muffins). You can make your own if you have a good quality food processor.
  • Coconut flour. Made from dried and ground coconut meat, coconut flour is an excellent gluten-free option that is also a good source of fiber and healthy fats with a slight coconut flavor. The only issue is that it's still difficult to find certified kosher-for-Passover coconut flour for those who adhere strictly to the regulations.
  • Margarine. Although not Passover-specific, finding a dessert recipe that is dairy-free (so it can be served with a meat meal and still be kosher) can be tricky. Using margarine in place of butter is an easy substitute that can quickly transform a dessert from dairy to pareve (neither meat nor dairy).

Passover Baking Recipes to Try

Passover Chocolate Torte
Passover Chocolate Torte
| Credit: Katherine Martinelli