Two Jewish grandmothers are the inspiration for these lightened holiday desserts that you can enjoy all year long.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

The laughter at the other end of the line was my brother's. "You can't be serious," he said, catching his breath. "Low-fat Jewish treats? Isn't that an oxymoron?" Of course, I knew where he was coming from. While growing up, my two Jewish grandmothers fed me delicious and irresistible cookies, cakes, and desserts year-round. Jewish holidays, besides being religious celebrations, are centered around food. And sweet treats are the hallmark of many of these occasions.

There are so many Jewish holidays, I often wonder how it was possible for my grandmothers to keep up. Even though we were living in wartime Shanghai, where food was not always plentiful, nothing prevented them from going all-out.

When it came to desserts, the rule was sweet, eggy, nutty, fruity, and buttery. That's why my brother was laughing so hard. At Passover, for example, when flour and leavenings such as yeast, baking powder, or baking soda are forbidden, it's quite a challenge to make a cake that will not only rise but maintain its shape after cooling. Ground nuts often replace flour in Passover cakes, and beaten eggs substitute for leavening agents. But the large quantities needed are out of the question when one is cooking light.

Jewish dietary laws can be daunting to the uninitiated, but if you grow up with them, they're what you know, and you follow them naturally. When I lived with Granny, she was scrupulous about observing all the holidays, and she did everything by the book. For Passover, she scoured our one-room apartment the week before. She packed away all traces of flour and leavening products and stored them elsewhere. She cleaned the two sets of Passover china―one for dairy products and one for meats. Although Granny baked during the holiday, she always bought matzo, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover, from a kosher bakery. All during the year, Granny kept a kosher kitchen, so we always ate the correct foods.

"Kosher" means "fit to eat," and the Jewish dietary laws, or kashruth, stretch back thousands of years. Even though the prescriptions are specific, there is room for interpretation in many cases. For this reason, I don't make any claims for the kosherness of these dessert recipes in any religious sense. What I do claim, however, is that they satisfy the general guidelines for the holidays in question, and they can be eaten all year.

To carry on tradition and make these recipes accessible to more people, I decided to lighten them. Lately there's been a resurgence of interest in Jewish desserts, and several new cookbooks are on the market; you can certainly get authentic recipes from them, but they're really heavy. I don't think our bodies should pay the price. Basically, what I did with these desserts was cut back on the fat by reducing the solid shortenings.

These recipes are in honor of my grandmothers, who each instilled in me my love of food. Light Jewish desserts that taste just as good as the originals? Granny and Baba wouldn't believe it, but they would both be proud.