Passover cooking for any – and every – allergy

Jennie Robinson Faber FLICKR

Rivka Leah Schwartz faces year-round challenges in the kitchen. Her kids are sensitive to wheat, eggs and dairy. Her parents have to keep their cholesterol down (no eggs) and her relatives aren’t allowed mushrooms and dried fruit (sulfites). What does she do as Passover approaches? Plenty of planning. Cooking for Passover is a challenge at the best of the times. If, like Rivka Schwartz, you have family members who must stay away from holiday staples like nuts, eggs, or most matzahs, you could use some advice.

Like these from Ms. Schwartz:

  • Invest in a kosher-for-Pesach steamer and steam lots of vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery and peppers.
  • Be careful not to fall back on chemical-laden foods in your search for convenience. Look out for sulfites in grape juice, wine, raisins, and dried fruit.
  • What’s for Passover breakfast? Baked apples, baked pears, meringue cookies, cakes made with nuts, matzo and jelly, baked potato or sweet potato. “You may just find you eat better during the eight days of Pesach than you do the rest of the year!”

Like Rivka Schwartz, Leslie Anivum faces more challenges than most mothers when she plans her family Seder. Her son, David, suffers from anaphylactic egg, nut, peanut and fish allergies. “My Seder doesn’t look all that different from anyone else’s,” says Ms. Anivum. “I’ve just learned to adapt the ingredients.” She uses apricot butter or applesauce as a substitute for eggs in desserts and cookies, leaves nuts out of the charoset, uses regular rather than egg matzo and skips fish dishes altogether.

Even the centrepiece of the holiday table, the seder plate, may require these creative alternatives thanks to

  • The Hard Boiled Egg can be replaced with a plastic egg containing seeds that are safe to eat or seeds that your family can plant together. (Seeds will represent birth and spring just as the egg does. )
  • The Charoset, which represents the mortar the slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh, is often made with nuts. Use an alternative recipe found on the site. For those able to eat only sugar, make a sugar and water syrup and dip a salt stick into it. Although the salt isn’t bitter, it can represent the bitter tears shed.
  • The Roasted Shankbone an be replaced with a red beet. The beet is the only vegetable known to “bleed.”

And then there is the “nut” problem. As Michael Kesztenbaum points out, “ground nuts are used in many Pesach cakes to replace the flour and work with the matzah meal to give the pudding flavour and texture.” People with nut allergies only use olive oil because they are concerned that vegetable oils include nut oils. And of course, charoset with nuts is out. On the other hand, many manufacturers are becoming more sensitive and are beginning to offer more nut-free Passover products.

And what about the matzah? For many years, wheat was virtually the only flour used in commercial matzahs. Standard wheat matzah and other staples like matzah meal and matzah farfel can be a minefield for people allergic to wheat. However, the Torah also allows matzahs to be made from barley, rye, oats and spelt. Gluten-free oat matzahs can be a relief for people with celiac disease who are not able to digest wheat gluten but find oats much easier to deal with.

Rabbi Avi Juravel says that “it is important to be aware if the problem is gluten intolerance, celiac, or a true allergy.” While gluten intolerance is a nuisance, the long-term cumulative effects of consuming gluten can be devastating for a celiac person allergies can be life threatening. His advice? “There is no substitute for reading labels. Wheat can be listed as matzo, matzo meal, cake meal, farfel, egg matzo or matzo balls.”

Joe Regenstein adds this warning. “Consumers should not assume that kosher markings ensure the absence of trace amounts of the ingredient to which they are allergic.” The professor of food science also recommends, “that the very allergic consumer consider purchasing cases of product – testing each product in small amounts first before allowing unrestricted access.”

But as Lisa Mandl points out, Passover-time can actually be a “Gluten-Free Goldmine” for people sensitive to wheat. Foods that are “non-gebrokts” are certified to be completely free of wheat (as well as spelt, barley, oats or rye.) That means that now is the perfect time to stock up on specially formulated cakes, desserts, pancake mixes, even gluten-free kneidel mixes that can be enjoyed year-round. 

And one last piece of advice from Tamar Warga, a mother of four food-allergic children and the author of a blog and two books on the subject: “Relax. Though dealing with allergies can feel especially daunting at this time of year—as if there’s nothing else to stress about—we’re never given more than we can handle. So take a deep breath and say, ‘I can do this.’

“I’m not just spouting platitudes; I speak from experience. Mothering multiples with food allergies (including nuts and eggs) has certainly been challenging, but it has also been inspiring. Rising to the challenge is empowering. Keep your eyes and mind on that light of the end of the tunnel: making a beautiful and safe chag (holiday) for yourself and your family.”