Cooking for Passover at Obama's House

Vered Guttman joined a pre-Passover discussion and demonstration with White House chef, Bill Yosses, and learns a few secret recipes, including a pear haroset brought to the table by the queen of American Jewish cooking, Joan Nathan.

Rows of plates with matzah topped with freshly chopped haroset, the traditional Passover sweet condiment, welcomed guests to the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a special holiday cooking demonstration and discussion.

The event was organized by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The latter recently funded an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland titled Chosen Food, exploring the history and cultural significance of food in the American Jewish Community.

As my friend Joan Nathan, the queen of American Jewish cooking, looked around the room she said: “If only my grandfather could see this. He would just... die!”

Together with White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, Joan demonstrated how to prepare an apple and pear haroset she learned in Arkansas this year, and her own matzo chremsel.

I spoke to Bill before the demonstration started and asked him about the Obamas’ plans for their much talked about, yet still private, Passover seder.

Bill, who started working as the White House pastry chef in 2007, recounted for me the famous story of the Obama’s first Seder, back in 2008:

On Passover eve during a presidential campaign stop, then-candidate Barack Obama noticed members of his staff were sitting down to a special dinner. He asked to join them at what has since become an annual tradition: a small and private Passover seder hosted by the first family every year at the White House


Joan Nathan and Bill Yosses preparing haroset together at the White House. Photo by Vered Guttman

Before the seder each year, guests are asked to send Bill and White House executive chef Cris Comerford their own family’s Passover recipes. The chefs then design a menu for the seder and prepare the dishes according to the guests‘ recipes.

In previous years they served the classics: haroset and brisket. When we met Wednesday. Bill said they were still working on this year’s menu. He did know, however, which desserts would be served: A flourless chocolate cake (which he promises will be on the White House website before the holiday) and a delicious sounding apricot roll cake, that he was kind enough to share the recipe with me. Bill gets extra points for a dessert that is not only fabulous, but also inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine. Does the president eat Jewish or Israeli food during the year? I asked.

“The president LOVES Israeli couscous!” Bill didn’t have to think much before he answered. Since Israeli couscous is one of the most popular foods imported from Israel, it is often the target of boycott threats by anti-Israeli groups.

Bill did not describe how Obama likes his Israeli couscous prepared, but here is a nice healthy recipe that even first lady Michelle Obama would approve of.

Obama keeps a very open mind about food and likes to try new dishes, Bill told me. He added that the Israeli produce imported to the U.S. is known at the White House kitchen to be of highest quality and the chefs like to use Israeli vegetables and fruit. He could not tell me where they get their produce, as the White House chefs are instructed not to reveal their suppliers for security reasons.

As Joan began her demonstration, she told us that the Passover seder is the holiday most-observed by American Jews. Joan herself will host 44 guests at her house in Washington next week. “Nowhere in the world, except for Israel and the U.S., do Jews feel that comfortable,” Joan said as she started her cooking demonstration.

“Do you know what this is?” she asked Bill, pointing at the haroset.

Arkansas pear haroset. Photo by Vered Guttman

“I do now!” he replied, and added that this administration has opened the door to bringing more people and cultures to the White House. “And I’m proud to be part of this.”

The tradition of serving haroset in Passover, explained Joan, started in Babylon, where haroset was made from pureed dates or date molasses (known in Israel as silan). Maybe it had apples in it, as those were available from Armenia. Maybe it had some chopped nuts as well.

Sephardim always used to make haroset balls, Joan added, and did so in America until the end of the 19th century.

Bill started chopping the pecans and dried figs in the wooden chopping bowl as Joan added  the pears and apples. She asked for Bill’s permission before telling the crowd how he called her a few weeks ago to ask about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dessert preferences before his visit to the White House. They agreed on chocolate dipped macaroons, and that’s what was served.

The haroset was ready in no time and both chefs, after dipping their spoons in the mixture, agreed it was delicious.

“Although food is the marker of identity, Joan also makes it taste good,” said Bill and took another taste.

“In a world where everything is the same, food is the one thing that’s unique for each family. Some people want to try new dishes every holiday, but I believe you want the good old recipes you can hold on to,” Joan concluded.

Just before leaving, Joan pointed at her Passover seder plate, with all the ingredients arranged nicely on it. She paused for a second before adding in her typical amused tone: “My mother’s shank bone [that she puts on the seder plate] is very different than mine. I believe she’s been freezing the same bone for the last 40 years...”


The White House apricot sponge roll cake for Passover

Arkansas pear haroset

Joan Nathan's seder plate
Vered Guttman