Lifestyle & Culture

Seder Made Simple

The author’s Seder table. / Photo above and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

This story first appeared in Prime Women.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

OURS IS a mixed family. My husband is 100% Irish and was raised Catholic. I’m 100% Eastern European, raised Jewish. As a result, we celebrate the major holidays of both religions, albeit agnostic style: a Christmas tree, the menorah for Chanukah, jelly bean hunts for Easter, and a traditional dinner for Rosh Hashana. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I reserve for myself—as I’m the only one who cares to fast.

Then there’s Passover, a holiday that lasts for seven days and marks the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. In recent years the Seder dinner, which marks the beginning of the holiday, has been adopted by many faiths as a symbolic repudiation of oppression and a celebration of freedom. This year Passover starts tonight, with many people having a second Seder tomorrow night.

For a service that dates back thousands of years, this one is always topical, hence its increased cross-cultural popularity. Sadly, there are always tyrants, from Pharaoh to Putin. And yet, there is much in our lives to celebrate. The Seder service calls on us to remember, to discuss, and to feast.

As is said about most Jewish holidays, but particularly Passover: We suffered, we talked about the suffering, let’s eat.


Planning a Seder can feel overwhelming, particularly if you’re doing it alone or for the first time. Decades ago, as is tradition, I tried to do it in a day. I’d take the day off from work, the house would be (theoretically) immaculately clean, then I’d cook the multi-course meal from scratch for 10 or 12, set the table, lead the service, serve the food . . . and plotz. I don’t do the cleanup; that’s my husband’s territory, thank heaven.

Now I make lists and spread the work out over a week, so when the day rolls around, I’m relaxed. Well, it doesn’t hurt that our daughter can handle the silver polishing, ironing, table setting, and centerpiece production while also serving as sous-chef and waitress. Tip: Have a daughter if you can.

Passover Traditions

I’ve been doing this for so many years that it’s tough to remember when it was hard. But I most certainly know what everything is supposed to taste like. And while I still do it all from scratch to honor my mother and father and the generations before them who handed down the recipes, there are ways to cheat and take shortcuts. I promise that even your grandmother would scarcely taste the difference!

What I give you here is a variation of my Seder dinner, one that is fairly typical of most American Jews that share my Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, roots. One that can be served at a second Seder, if you can’t get it together in time for tonight, when Passover officially begins. A couple of recipes and many handy substitutions and cheats are included.

Do note! This is a kosher-style meal, meaning I don’t serve or use dairy products in the preparations. For reason, lost in the midst of time, more Orthodox Jews (and Muslims) never combine meat and dairy at a meal. Possibly for digestive reasons. As our traditional cooking is always heavy, this may account for the longevity of the race.

And, during Passover, we are confined to matzoh-based products—no flour. As you can imagine, this makes for some less-than-wonderful desserts. But hey, they’re still sweet.

The multi-course feast that follows starts with matzoh ball soup, then gefilte fish, and then the main course of a brisket of beef, roasted asparagus, mushrooms and onions, and apple sauce. (I also serve latkes (potato pancakes), which may be unorthodox, as they’re usually served at Chanukah. If unorthodoxy appeals to you, find my recipe for latkes here.) And dessert is usually a sponge cake and macaroons, sometimes strawberries dipped in chocolate.

Don’t forget the wine, a lot of wine—also sparkling water for the designated drivers and non-drinkers.

If you’re serving cocktails, serve them alongside chopped liver (buy at a Jewish deli) or kosher hummus and matzoh crackers, maybe some olives, celery, and carrot sticks. This should lead to candle lighting and the time to gather round the table. Keep it light, there’s a lot of food to come.

First Course

Matzoh Ball Soup: I make great chicken soup. I also make lighter-than-air matzoh balls. But you know what? You can also just buy a couple of cans or containers of good-quality chicken broth. After all, what is this soup but a vehicle for matzoh balls? For the balls, I am shocked to say that Streit’s makes a delicious dupe for homemade matzoh balls. I didn’t believe it until my daughter introduced me to the mix last year. If you have a little chicken fat, which I’ll explain in a bit, use it instead of the oil they call for. The flavor will be greatly enhanced.

Cook matzoh balls in a separate pot from the soup. The balls absorb the liquid, tripling in size, leaving you with little or no liquid to serve. Add bouillon cubes or Better Than Bouillon to the water to enhance the flavor.

NOTE: Chicken fat, also known as schmaltz, gives a particularly delicious flavor to matzoh balls. Streit’s, as I’ve said, is excellent, but they call for oil. Chicken fat will take it to the next level. If you don’t have a butcher who will give you a quarter pound or so, buy a whole chicken or chicken parts, remove whatever fat is visible, pull off the skin and cut it up, add a thinly sliced small onion, and melt over a low flame. Strain and put in the fridge. Use as you would oil.

Second Course

Gefilte Fish With Horseradish: Buy a jar of Mother’s Gefilte Fish. The whitefish and pike version in jellied broth is my preference. My mother made this from scratch once—the house stank for a week. I’m also not going to give a doctoring-it-up recipe because you probably won’t like it anyway; it’s such an acquired taste. So just chill it, take it out of the bottle, slice it, and put it in a serving dish, pouring the jellied liquid over the top. Garnish with bits of parsley. Pass it around the table with horseradish—buy a jar of Kelchner’s if you can. It will knock your socks off as fast as the stuff you grate yourself.

Note: Horseradish is also on the Seder plate that sits in front of the host and includes a number of symbolic foods found listed in the Haggadah, your prayer book. It’s also delicious with brisket of beef, the main course.

Main Course

Brisket of Beef

  • *A 6-to-7-pound brisket
  • Salt and pepper
  • Paprika
  • 2 large onions sliced very thin
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • A few sprigs of parsley
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 small bay leaf, crumbled
  • Dry red wine or beer
  • Beef stock

Preheat oven to 450.

  1. Rinse meat, and wipe with a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and paprika. Put in oven. Brown on one side, flip and brown on the other. Takes about 40 minutes. (You can also do this part on top of the stove if you have a frying pan big enough. It won’t take quite so long).
  2. While meat is browning, finely chop onions, celery, garlic, and parsley. I know many people, including some excellent cooks, who swear by Lipton’s Onion Soup. Please no! Try it this way, and you won’t go back.
  3. When meat is browned, put the vegetables on top and brown in the oven for another 10 minutes (if you browned the meat on the stovetop, move it to the roasting pan and then heap the vegetables on top).
  4. Add parsley, bay leaf, and thyme, and add a mixture of wine and stock or a couple of bottles of beer (which tenderizes) to completely cover the meat and veggies.
  5. Cover the roasting pan with a lid (or tightly sealed tinfoil) and reduce temperature to 325 degrees. (NOTE: Don’t worry if your roasting pan is too small to lay pieces side by side; it’s okay to double them up as long as they’re covered with liquid)
  6. Roast for approximately 3½ hours, until tender, when you stick it with a fork. Taste the broth, you may want to add a little more salt and pepper if it seems bland. Let cool on the stovetop for an hour before putting it in the fridge to rest overnight (if you’re doing the second-night Seder, or all day if you’re aiming for tonight.Serving: Sometime in the afternoon, before the Seder, remove meat from the fridge and skim off the fat that has accumulated on the surface. Remove the meat from the pan (don’t throw out the gravy!) and slice against the grain (sorta sideways). Put it back in the pan and return it to the fridge.An hour or so before the meal (or as cocktails are being served), return the meat to the oven covered at 325 degrees.Slicing cold meat is a snap! This took me 30 years to discover.*If the slab of brisket you get (6 to 7 pounds should serve 10, considering the rest of the meal) is in one piece with a layer of fat between top and bottom, you will need to separate the two and trim off most of the fat (or talk to the butcher about doing this for you—they usually will). Some people prefer the pieces connected, but I think it’s too fatty).


    Garlic Roasted Asparagus: Depending on the thickness of the asparagus, three to five stalks person should do it. has a fine recipe. It’s delicious chilled, so there’s no last-minute fuss.

    Mushrooms and Onions: An optional but delicious extra. Thinly slice a large onion, sauté in olive oil until light brown, add sliced mushrooms, and cook over low heat until soft. Add salt and pepper to taste. This is another dish that can be done in advance and reheated. You might also mix it with the pan juices from the brisket for a divine gravy.

    Dessert: Go to the bakery and buy a sponge cake and macaroons. If you want to get fancy, get ripe strawberries and dip them in melted semi-sweet chocolate. Set on parchment or waxed paper to cool. Do it yourself? There’s also a sponge cake recipe that’s always on the back of the Manischewitz Potato Starch container (or maybe it’s the cake-meal container, I forget).

    Tea: Coffee is not served after this meal because most people drink it with milk or cream. Besides! Tea is an old-world tradition.

    End note: While I use my mother’s recipes, for many, Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook is considered the bible. She covers the basics of every feast, and while I might quibble here and there, the guidance is excellent, and the results are generally delicious.

6 thoughts on “Seder Made Simple

  1. Stephanie S Cavanaugh says:

    Nancy G — Joan Nathan includes Sephardic recipes in her book.

  2. Nancy G says:

    The Seder is a celebration of family, and continuity, which is why we cherish the recipes. Our family tradition now includes the Sephardic recipes of my mother-in-law’s family, which I suggest people search out. But my abiding memory of Seders past is my maternal grandfather reading the Haggadah. It is his voice I hear every year.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Sweet memory. Mine is of my dad singing Chad Gladya.

  3. cynthia tilson says:

    I grew up in a Catholic household that loved to share customs with neighbors. We had an orthodox Jewish family on one side and a Greek Orthodox family on the other. The best holiday ever was one in which the Greeks roasted a lamb, my mother made a brisket, and we all celebrated a Passover seder with the Jews.
    In fact, we all had so much fun that at Chrismukkah we all celebrated together again.
    ***Your brisket recipe is just how mom made ours . . .delicious!
    Thank you.

  4. Stephanie Cavanaugh says:

    Thank you! Off to make latkes:)

  5. Your Seder table looks beautiful, thank you! Hag Sameach

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