Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Turning Matzo Into a Meal

Jews around the world will begin celebrating the eight days of Passover tonight at sundown. Traditionally, the first two nights are organized around the Seder, but you knew that.

And, you probably know that for these eight days Jews are forbidden from eating hametz, or leavened food. That's why we eat matzo. It's all wrapped up in the symbolism of the holiday, which commemorates the sudden liberation of the ancient Jews from Egyptian slavery. As children, we're told of the story of the Jews fleeing Egypt with such haste that there was no time to bake bread that needed time to rise. So the flour and water cracker that is matzo became the staple then and ever since has been eaten every Passover. And, trust me, even though we're talking two, maybe three ingredients (salt), every family has their favorite brand of matzo. Of course, if you're feeling ambitious, you can make it yourself.

Matze, traditional kosher jewish Passover food...Image via Wikipedia

Even with this dietary restriction, it's amazing the dishes you can turn out. Matzo offers tremendous versatility.

Soak sheets of it in hot water, drain the water, break it up and add some beaten eggs, then put in a frying pan with oil or butter and you have matzo brei. Now some people use a 1:1 ratio of matzo sheet to egg and enjoy something more akin to a matzo omelet. My family does a 2:1 matzo to egg ratio. I prefer this style which gives you beautiful crispy puffed out pieces of matzo that, depending on your particular style, can be served with applesauce, sugar or salt. I'm a salt girl myself but our family was split with Mom's side also going for salt and Dad's for the sweet stuff. (If you're Jewish, no doubt you have the same sweet versus savory divide in your family at Hanukah over potato latkes.)

Matzo can also be the basis of a sweet, crunchy "brittle," as in covering it with chocolate or butterscotch or caramel and nuts, baking briefly and then, when cool, breaking it into bite-size pieces. Google "matzo brittle" and you'll find scads of recipes with any number of variations. In this case, the matzo essentially is just a delivery system for the sugar, chocolate and nuts. And not a bad one, actually.

And, for those who simply cannot live for a week without their favorite dishes, there are recipes for matzo lasagna, matzo spanikopita and matzo quesadillas. And, yes, even matzo pizza. Thanks, but I can do without for awhile. Of course, if you're desperately seeking ideas for other things you can do with matzo, you have to watch this wonderful video.

Then there's farfel, which is basically matzo that's been broken up. Farfel can be used as a cereal substitute or to make sweets (it takes some imagination, but yes, there are recipes for desserts with farfel like this chocolate nut cluster), kugel (pudding) or stuffing. I know someone on Twitter who is using it to make granola with dried blueberries, apricots, sliced almond and pecans. She's changing it up from this LA Times recipe.

And, finally, if you grind matzo you get matzo meal. And matzo meal itself is endlessly versatile. Use it as a bread crumb substitute or pretty much anything for which you'd use flour. You can buy it in a box or, if you're feeling industrious, grind it yourself using a blender or food processor.

Of course, if matzo meal is known for anything, it's for being the basis of matzo balls, but during the week of Passover, once the Seder is history and I have to come up with ways to live without my daily bread, I often turn to matzo meal for cooking. Look on the panel of most boxes and you'll find a recipe for pancakes, in which beaten egg whites play a prominent role to fluff them up. I also use matzo meal to bread and saute fish fillets or skinless, boneless chicken pieces for oven frying. I mix some with grated Parmesan cheese to top a baked tomato or roasted vegetables. And, even when it's not Passover, I like to use it as the binder for zucchini pancakes (grate the zucchini and onion, wring out to get rid of the liquid, add a beaten egg, minced garlic, salt & pepper and matzo meal to bind it together, then fry in a little olive oil in a skillet).

But, probably my favorite use for matzo meal is a family recipe for popovers. They're easy to make and delicious. When I was a kid, my Nana made dozens of them throughout the week. I remember them being huge and puffy with an irresistible crunch that yielded a soft inner membrane-like dough I loved to chew. They were so large that she even made bologna sandwiches for us with them, which sounds disgusting now (and certainly not kosher) but was a real treat when I was seven or eight and my parents were out of town.

With Tillie and my mom in the early 90s: the food chain

Now, of course, I make them for the family Seder and then make more for the week. I don't make them nearly as large as she did but that smell coming from the oven is straight out of my childhood, as is the taste and texture. Since they tend to soften, I refresh them in the toaster oven. They're a great breakfast treat, but I also enjoy them with the matzoh ball soup my mother invariably sends home with me after our Seder, with a salad for lunch and, okay, I have a bad habit of snacking on them during the day.

I've been challenged by indignant Israelis at Seders I've attended who refused believe that these popovers were kosher for Passover, but they are. They get their rise from eggs, not yeast. And, when they do a good rise, they are lovely, crispy on the outside and soft and hollow inside. But they collect moisture so, when they come out of the oven, use the tip of a skewer to poke a little hole on the bottom to let the moist air inside escape and let them cool on wire racks. Store them in paper bags, not plastic. And one more important note. Don't double the recipe. If you need more than the recipe yields, make separate batches.

Nana Tillie’s Matzo Meal Popovers

2 cups water

2 tbl. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 stick butter cut into 8 pieces

2 cups matzo meal

6 eggs

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Add the first four ingredients to a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and stir in the matzo meal. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and let it cool.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time. (If the eggs are small, add two extra egg whites.)

Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes.

Use an ice cream scoop to drop popovers onto greased cookie sheets or into muffin tins. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes or until the popovers are brown and sound hollow inside.

Yield: 15 - 20

Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy Passover!

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  1. What a great recipe! I've never seen these before... and I've been around loads of Jewish food having worked in a J. school for years. Happy Passover!

  2. Oh my god. Matzoh brei. It was about all my father could cook, and I haven't had any in about 4o years. Must try some soon. Thanks.