Each year on the first night of Passover, Jews around the world gather at the seder table to tell the story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt. While it’s an evening imbued with both religious and cultural significance, in my house it’s also unapologetically about the food. There are a few predictable crowd favorites—the crisp and sweet blend of apples and walnuts called charoset; moist and tender brisket; and tzimmes, a slow-cooked vegetable stew—as well as armloads of bland, cracker-like matzo, and the perennial outcast, gefilte fish.
The meal ends in spirited singing and, frequently, a big disappointment: Passover dessert, two words that are never spoken in one breath with any kind of thrill. Because observant Jews forgo chametz, or grains combined with leavening agents, for the eight days of Passover, and Jews who keep kosher must also wait a period of at least one hour to ingest dairy after eating meat, both dairy and grains are often proscribed for the dessert course, with results I’ve always found to be lackluster at best. More often than not, a matzo-meal cake graces the holiday table; honestly, I’ve never had a good one.
So, when a friend gave me her Persian auntie’s recipe for tishpishti more than 20 years ago, I was eager to shake up my Passover table with a dessert that would have everyone asking for seconds. Tishpishti is a gluten- and chametz-free Sephardic cake, described by authors Lori Stein and Ronald H. Isaacs in Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith as a Turkish version of the traditional lekach (honey cake) served for the Jewish High Holidays. Joan Nathan, in The Foods of Israel Today, translates the name to "quick quickly" (tish, "quick," plus pishti, "quickly"), and, sure enough, it’s a very quick cake to make. The word itself is so festive and fun to say, I wanted nothing more than to announce "I’ve brought tishpishti!" at that year’s Passover seder.
The recipe itself is what sealed the deal, though—I knew as soon as I read it that it would hit all my buttons. In the same spirit of North African and Middle Eastern nut-based pastries doused in scented sugar syrup (think baklava), the traditional recipe produced a satisfying cake with an eggy, sturdy almond-meal batter studded with chopped walnuts. An extended three-hour soak in rosewater-scented syrup added moisture and gave the dish an aromatic, spongy, rich bite. It was damp and sticky, sweet and nutty.
I have to come clean, though: The cake was good, but a little too heavy and sweet for me, so I fiddled with the recipe. To balance the cake’s nutty density, I added apple to the batter, hoping to introduce some tart flavor and a more tender texture. In the original recipe, the chopped walnuts tended to separate into a layer at the top of the cake; with help from Serious Eats’ own Sohla El-Waylly, I made some adjustments to the ingredient list that resulted in a lighter, more homogeneous texture. Finally, finding the rosewater in the syrup to be overwhelmingly floral and sweet for a dessert that already had plenty of sugar in the batter, I decided to swap in a Passover-appropriate component with a bit more complexity—apple brandy. Taken together, these modifications yielded a cake that isn’t exactly traditional, but is balanced and delicious nonetheless.
Here’s how I make my version of tishpishti, step by step.
Making the Syrup
Through trial and error, I’ve learned to always start this recipe by making the syrup, in order to give it time to cool. If it’s the least bit warm when poured over the cake, it doesn’t so much seep into the crumb as run right through and puddle, leaving the base of the cake irredeemably soggy.
In a small saucepan over high heat, I combine sugar and apple juice, boiling until the mixture hits 234°F (112°C) on an instant-read thermometer. This is the soft-ball stage—the mixture should be as thick and sweet as maple syrup.
Once it’s cooled slightly, I add a slug of that apple brandy. I found Calvados too fiery (and spendy) for my taste, but Applejack, an American apple brandy, has warm notes of cider and freshly raked leaves that turned out to be just right. Though Laird’s Applejack is the original, you may want to seek out a kosher-for-Passover rendition. Republic Restoratives’ Chapman’s Apple Brandy, named for Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman, is sensational here. The brandy’s boozy, tart, cider-y notes make for a more nuanced flavor—less sweet, more acidic—and, because it’s not grain-based, it’s also appropriate for Passover.
Along with the brandy, I add a big squeeze of lemon juice, then stir the mixture well before setting it aside to cool. The syrup can be made up to three days in advance or, if you prefer, shortly before you begin the rest of your prep. Regardless, it should be cool to the touch by the time you remove the cake from the oven.
Preparing the Pan
My next step is to prepare the cake pan. I line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with parchment to cover the bottom and long sides of the pan. You’ll want to allow for overhang, or a parchment handle, on each of the long sides. This is an essential step, given that the hot cake needs to be lifted out of the pan for slicing, then returned to the pan before it’s doused in syrup.
Making the Cake
I start by beating the eggs, sugar, and salt together using a stand mixer until the mixture is thick and glossy and forms a ribbon when the beater is lifted. Then I add a neutral-flavored oil, like grapeseed or safflower—an improvement introduced by Sohla to help keep the batter springy, tender, and homogeneous—in a slow stream until it completely emulsifies. Stirring in a couple tablespoons of freshly grated ginger at the end adds a warm and spicy undercurrent to the cake.
While tishpishti is known as a walnut cake, almond flour is what adds the necessary structure to it. Almond meal (made from ground whole almonds, including the outer skin) was the preferred flour alternative in the original recipe, but, after testing and retesting, we found that the finer grain of almond flour (made from blanched almonds) produced a lighter, less dense cake. Almond flour is available at many grocery stores, or easy to make at home, using whole, blanched almonds and a food processor for a fine grind that suits the cake well. I gently fold the almond flour into the batter, along with finely chopped walnuts—small pieces add texture without making the finished cake difficult to slice and serve—and cinnamon and nutmeg.
Finally, I grate firm, tart apples (we opted for Fuji here) on the largest holes of a box grater and add it to the bowl with the batter. In earlier versions, I tried mincing, dicing, and slicing the apples, but I found that once I poured on the sweet syrup, the apple pieces would float out of the cake, unmoored by the batter. Grating the apples helps the fruit take hold, allowing it to lighten the crumb without separating into the syrup. There’s no need to peel first; just grate them right to the core.
Then I scrape the batter into the prepared pan, knock it on the counter a couple of times to dislodge any air bubbles, and slide the cake onto the lower-middle rack of a 350°F (180°C) oven, letting it bake until the surface is golden brown and bounces back to the touch, about 50 minutes.
The Syrup Infusion
Once it’s baked, you’ll be able to use your handy parchment handles to lift the cake and place it, still on the parchment, on a cutting board. Making two series of crisscrossing diagonal slices will form elegant diamond-shaped servings. Lift the sliced cake, again using the parchment handles, and return it to the pan.
Pour the cooled syrup over the still-hot cake, and let it seep in over the course of the next hour. If you wish, decorate the top of each piece with one perfect blanched almond, or a fan of sliced or slivered almonds.
Though my version departs from the original recipe, the essence of traditional tishpishti resonates in this airy cake—light, apple-filled, rich with buttery walnuts, and completely gluten-free. After the tishpishti has soaked up the syrup, you can serve it right away, with a topping of whipped cream, ice cream, or yogurt if your diet allows. Or you can make it a day in advance, giving you less to worry about if you’re preparing it for a seder or another large get-together. Give this recipe a shot, and you just might say good-bye to sad matzo-meal cakes for good.