Preparing for an ordinary Pesach is daunting enough with all of the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and preparation, but add food allergies to the mix and you could literally “go nuts.” Don’t go nuts, go nut-free and egg-free too. While Pesach poses dietary challenges, they are not insurmountable.
What is it about Pesach that makes people with egg and nut allergies get nutty? Let’s start with the Seder. You’ve got charoses which is full of nuts, hard boiled eggs-well…full of egg, and the traditional meal filled with matzoh balls-eggs, kugels-more eggs, and cakes and chocolates-lots of eggs and nuts. And that’s just the first night of the holiday! The reason for the preponderance of nuts and eggs in Pesach recipes and prepared foods is that they make good substitutes for traditional leavening and binding ingredients.
Now that you’ve been forewarned about the abundance of allergens Pesach time, become forearmed. While many Pesach recipes call for nuts and eggs, there are alternative ingredients. Instead of ground nuts use ground coconut, tapioca flour, or potato starch. Applesauce, oil, fruit nectar, and honey can be substituted for eggs in some recipes. With a little creativity, much is possible.
You can choose to make dishes with allergen substitutes, like the nut-free charoses below. The pureed nature of charoses and deep flavors of cinnamon and wine make you not miss the subtle walnut crunch at all. Alternatively, you can make different dishes that don’t at all call for the allergens as ingredients. Instead of making an egg-free potato kugel, serve sweet potatoes or roasted potatoes. Instead of a cake that calls for eggs and nuts, serve fresh fruit or sorbet. Fresh fruit is much healthier than typical dessert fare anyway.
While we’re on the subject of health, did you notice how nutrient-deficient many Pesach products are? You may be paying a premium, but you’re not getting “bang for your buck” nutritionally. Ever wonder about those awful-tasting Pesach kids’ cereals? You know, the ones that are devoid of vitamins and minerals but cost as much as precious gems? If you can tolerate dairy, yogurt and cottage cheese topped with fresh fruit are nutritionally superior breakfast selections. The silver lining of having food allergies on Pesach may be that being more deliberate about food choices provides the opportunity to put healthier fuel into our bodies.
An additional positive note about Pesach and food allergies is the reprieve it provides for wheat-, corn-, peanut-, and soy-allergic individuals. Peanuts, corn and soy are avoided by Ashkenazic Jews, so many Pesach products are corn- and soy-free. (Please note that Sephardic Jews have different minhagim and, depending on your locale, Pesach products should not be assumed to be legume free. Be extra careful to check for kitniyos in imported products from Israel.)
People living with corn and soy allergies have a hard time year round because of the ubiquitous nature of these foods as additives (oils, fillers, syrups, and starches). Some Ashkenazim also avoid gebrokts (matzoh that’s come into contact with water) on Pesach. The result is that there is an abundance of non-gebrokts (gluten free by default) products on the market this time of year.
Stock up on those specialty products while you can. Pesach products worth stockpiling if you have corn and soy allergies are: margarine (corn and soy-free); chocolate chips (soy-free); frozen whipped topping (corn and soyfree); ketchup (corn-free); soda (corn-free); corn-free deli meat products; and frozen whipped topping (corn and soy-free). If you have celiac or wheat allergy, stock up on gluten-free cake mixes, “breadings,” non-gebrokts matzoh balls, cakes, cookies, blintzes, pizza, and knishes.
Having food allergies means being scrupulous about what goes into our bodies year round. Reading labels is a must. Check out the ingredients, pareve designation, the kosher certification, and any allergen statements. Made on shared equipment, or may contain traces of nuts are examples of allergen statements. If you are cooking for someone with food allergies, be careful about cross contamination. Does that food processor have nuts in the crevices? If so, you might unknowingly be adding nuts to a recipe (a potentially fatal mistake).
As you purge your house of chametz, remember to hang on to the Benadryl. Having it around (and epinephrine, of course) is always a good idea. This Pesach, remain vigilant. Guard your body and let your soul celebrate this Festival of Freedom.