You dream of the perfect Seder just as Bing Crosby once dreamed of a peaceful White Christmas. Everyone will sit at your beautifully set table and appreciate the effort that went into it. The leader of the Seder will commence a thoughtful, inclusive and yet not-too-long reading of the Haggadah -- ideally without any digressions that will interfere with the timing of the roast. The children will listen transfixed and speak only during their assigned parts (with your youngest child adorably and flawlessly singing the four questions). When the meal is served, no one will refer to superior recipes for lighter matzah balls. It will end with joyous singing and relatives leaving arm-in-arm.
Ok so in fact you have 30 people coming to dinner, your house is a wreck, you're worrying that you're going to get something wrong, and in short you're completely stressing out.
Here are seven hacks I hope will help.
1. Plan a prep schedule that allows you to make most of the meal and Seder plate elements days in advance.
If you follow Fig Tree & Vine's stress-free menu, you'll start cooking two to three days in advance, and have very little to do on the day itself. There are few dishes that don't last, let alone improve, with some time to rest: brisket tastes better two and three days later. Ditto chicken soup. Charoset, if it needs refrigeration at all, need only be brought to room temperature.
2. Roast the boiled egg and lamb shank together for the Seder plate.
Instead of trying to scorch a hard boiled egg over a gas flame, as some suggest, put it in the same small roasting pan as the shank, with a little bit of olive oil. You can even do this in a toaster over set at 325-degrees (don't go much higher or the egg can explode, as I ruefully discovered). Turn it over once or twice. Remove both when nicely browned.
3. With the right small vases, you don't need elaborate and expensive floral centerpieces.
Read my guide to making simple stunning floral arrangements here. Bottom line: A "garden" of small arrangements running through the table, each utilizing just a few spring flowers, will look fresh and original and much less stuffy than the stiff arrival from the florist. (Modern Rustic Seder plate, shown, available here.)
4. Make individual Seder plates.
Fig Tree & Vines's farm-to-table themed individual Seder plate. Any small bowl will do, including inexpensive Pyrex mini-glass bowls.
This hack comes from Paula Shoyer, author of The New Passover Menu: "Most families have one large Seder plate on the table. I learned from my husband's family to create individual plates with all the items that will be eaten and dipped during the Seder. It saves time when passing them around to 30 people or more." I like to keep a ceremonial plate on the table with the roasted egg and shank bone -- two elements not necessary on the individual plates if you are trying to save work.
5. Download an edited Seder reading rather than fumble through a Haggadah.
It may seem heretical to some -- and liberating to others -- to dispose with the family Haggadahs for an edited online version. There's no rule, however, that the readings and ceremonies that accompany them must be rote and tedious. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein has come up with what he is calling the world's "shortest Haggadah" that can be done in 10 minutes for those with young children or restless guests. He says everything that "must be done or said" is included, as well as some traditional favorites such as "Dayeinu." It can also be used in conjunction with a more personalized and participatory Seder. A family I knows asks each person what he or she has struggled to overcome in the past year, in keeping with the Passover theme. You can download Bookstein's version here. Print out on nice paper, make copies, and tie with a ribbon for each place setting.
6. Include plague kits for children.
A sure way to keep children's attention during the telling of the Exodus story is to include novelty plague kits at each child's place setting. These kits have plastic frogs and farm animals, and other toys representing each of the plagues brought down upon the Egyptians -- and can be held up and waved around at the right moments. I've known grandparents to enjoy them too...
7. Skip the elaborate dessert and serve this instead.
I realize I'm risking more heresy here, but does anyone truly like dry matzah meal cake? I know Kosher-for-Passover desserts have come a long way, and there are many gourmet options -- but if I've just consumed (let alone made) an elaborate, multi-course meal, I'm basically ready for the little tray of orange slices you get at the end of a Chinese meal.
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[All photos by Danielle Frum except for plague kit by Rite Lite; matzah photo courtesy of onesharpcookie.com; scroll photo from Etsy's scroll program]