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A Passover Celebration That Survived the Soviet Union

A savory and sweet matzah babka
A savory and sweet matzah babka | Photo by David Stuck

Celebrated at home, Passover, perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, provides space for families to create their own customs and rituals.

Polina Mirskiy’s early Passover memories are of smuggling matzah.

In communist Moldova, a country that had been part of the Soviet Union when Mirskiy was a child, Jewish people weren’t allowed to practice their religion. She and her family quietly celebrated a version of the holiday. They didn’t have elaborate seders complete with rituals, but they would have a special dinner with her grandparents, and they would have matzah.

Mirskiy’s father would bring flour to a synagogue in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, where they would bake matzah. They would then pile boxes of it into the car and drive six hours to Ukraine, where Mirskiy’s paternal grandparents lived.

“Everything was hidden,” said Mirskiy, the owner of Amber Room Day Spa in Pikesville. “It was everything quietly, but overall, that matzah, we all remember crunching it and having it there.”

From left: Michael, Polina, Jessica, Alex and Denis Mirskiy put toppings on matzah babka (David Stuck)

Her grandmother would do a lot of cooking with the matzah. One of her recipes was matzah babka, a versatile Eastern European dish similar to matzah brei.

It’s a dish that Mirskiy still makes for Passover, which she now celebrates with her family in Owings Mills. She lives with her husband, Denis, whose family is from Belarus, and their three children, Michael, Jessica and Alex, who are students at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. Her children lead the seder for the family and teach her and her husband the Passover traditions, and she brings her family’s recipes.

“It brings the generations together,” Mirskiy said.

Polina Mirskiy’s Savory Matzah Babka

8 pieces of matzah, broken into quarter-size pieces
4 extra-large eggs, cracked separately one by one to check for blood spots
2 cups hot water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ cup neutral oil
Optional: 1 medium onion, chopped and sauteed until golden brown

Break the matzah into a large bowl, and pour the hot water on it. Let soak for 2 minutes.

While the matzah is soaking, break and whisk the eggs in a separate bowl.

Add the salt, pepper and sauteed onions to the egg mixture. Mix and add to the matzah and water bowl. Mix everything with a spatula.

Preheat a medium-size skillet (10 inches), add the oil and gradually add the matzah/egg mixture to the heated skillet. Flatten the mixture with the spatula so it is even. Let it brown on one side on medium heat for about 5-7 minutes.

Oil a large plate or flat skillet lid that is a little larger than the skillet you are using and cover the skillet with it. Quickly flip the babka on the platter and slide it back carefully onto the skillet again. You should have a nice crust on top.

Lower the heat and cover with a lid for an additional 5-7 minutes, until the eggs cook through.

Slide the cooked babka on a serving platter. Let cool for a few minutes, slice into triangles and serve warm or cold.

Serve with a fresh cucumber, radish, green onion and chopped dill salad; works with dairy, pareve or meat dishes.

Polina Mirskiy’s Sweet Sour Cherry Matzah Babka

8 pieces of matzah, broken into quarter-size pieces
2 cups hot water
4 extra-large eggs, cracked separately one by one to check for blood spots
¼ cup oil
½ teaspoon vanilla
Optional: ½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup sour cherry preserves (can be substituted for any fruit preserves or honey)
Optional: ½ cup pine nuts or chopped nuts of choice (for best flavor, heat up the nuts on a small skillet without oil, constantly mixing for a few minutes and being careful
not to burn them)
2-3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar and more of the preserves for topping

Break the matzah into a large bowl and pour the hot water on it. Let soak for two minutes.

While the matzah is soaking, break and whisk the eggs in a separate bowl.

Add the sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, preserves, pine nuts and salt into the egg mixture. Mix everything with a spatula.

Preheat medium-size skillet (10 inches), add the oil and gradually add the matzah/egg mixture to the heated skillet. Flatten the mixture with the spatula to be even. Let it brown on one side on medium heat for about 5-7 minutes.

Oil a large plate or flat skillet lid that is a little larger than the skillet that you are using and cover the skillet with it. Quickly flip the babka on the platter and slide back carefully onto the skillet again. You should have a nice crust on top.

Lower the heat and cover with a lid for an additional 5-7 minutes, until the eggs cook through.

Slide the cooked babka on a serving platter. Let cool for a few minutes, slice into triangles, drizzle with some more of the cherry preserves, sprinkle some powdered sugar and more of the nuts and enjoy.

Serve warm or cold with a side of fresh berries. It tastes delicious with honey as well.

This story originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Timesa sister publication of Baltimore Style.

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