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Side Dishes

Matza Ball Soup

Medieval To Modern Matza Balls
-- Ronit Treatman

matza ball soupWhen the Ancient Israelites fled Egypt, they had unleavened flatbreads which had been baked in tabuns, or outdoor wood fired mud ovens. They did not have Matza balls. Jews had to wait about 2,500 years, until the Middle Ages, to be introduced to the gastronomic delight of biting into a Matza ball immersed in chicken broth. What seems to be the most quintessential of Jewish foods today, was really quite a late arrival. It has gone from being a dense, filling specialty Passover food to being a light, airy, year round comfort food.

The Jews went through a long odyssey from Egypt to the shores of the Rhine River to discover Matza balls. Matza balls were first concocted in Germany. Knaidl, the Yiddish name for Matza ball, comes from the German name for Knödel, or dumpling. In the Middle Ages, people in Eastern Europe made dumplings by mixing stale breadcrumbs with eggs, milk, butter, and spices. Jews replaced the breadcrumbs with Matza meal. Rendered chicken fat, or shmaltz, was used instead of butter, and water instead of milk. In the shtetl, each housewife baked Matza for her own family. She would use wheat, rye, oat, spelt, or barley flour, which had been ground with the shtetl’s gristmill. This flour would have a coarser texture than the flour that is commercially produced today. She would crush this Matza with a mortar and pestle to make Matza meal.

At that time, Matza balls were a special food that was prepared only for Passover. The Jewish homemaker mixed the flour with water and baked the Matza in an open-hearth fireplace. Her Matza would have been round, about an inch thick, and with an uneven texture. From the moment the flour and the water were mixed the Matza had to be ready in eighteen minutes. This rule comes from the Talmud, which says that it should not take longer to bake Matza than it would to walk a Roman mile (a thousand paces). This has been calculated by Talmudic scholars to mean eighteen minutes.

Following is a recipe from the Shtetls of the Middle Ages. It produces a heavy, dense Matza ball.

Shtetl Matza Ball Recipe From The Middle Ages
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York

  1. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes.
  2. Measure 8 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt into a large pot. Bring to a boil.
  3. Wet your hands with cold water, and then make walnut size balls from the Matza meal mixture. Drop them into the boiling water. Cover the pot and simmer the Matza balls for 20 minutes. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon.

Today, Matza balls are served year round. Modern cooks prefer to make light and airy Matza balls. How is fluffiness achieved? The density of a Matza ball is the result of the proportion of Matza meal to eggs and fat, air pockets in the Matza meal dough, and the amount of cooking time. The more eggs and fat in proportion to Matza meal, the lighter the Matza balls. The dough should not be kneaded for a long time. This allows tiny air pockets to form in the batter. When the Matza balls are first placed in the boiling water, they sink to the bottom of the pot. As they cook, the air pockets expand in the hot water. These air pockets fill with vaporized liquid as the inside of the Matza ball nears the boiling point. In this state the Matza balls are less dense than the boiling water around them and, as a result, the Matza balls rise to the top as the air pockets swell. The Matza balls need to be simmered for 30 minutes or longer for the air pockets to fully enlarge. Joan Nathan, noted Jewish cookbook author and television chef, has experimented extensively with Matza ball recipes. Her Matza balls are among the lightest.

Joan Nathan’s Fluffy Matza Balls

  1. Mix the eggs well with a fork. Add the chicken fat or oil, soda water or chicken broth, Matza meal, and salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.
  2. Dip your hands in cold water and make about 12 balls slightly smaller than Ping-Pong balls.
  3. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add salt and place the Matza balls in the water. Cover and simmer about 30 minutes until soft.

As the Jewish world has become more multicultural, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews enjoy trying and experimenting with each other’s foods. Following is a Sephardic adaptation of Matza balls.

Matza Balls With A Sephardic Twist

  1. Whisk the eggs until blended. Now add the club soda, vegetable oil or schmaltz, salt and pepper. Blend in the parsley, almonds or walnuts, almonds or walnut oil, nutmeg, and Matza meal. Cover and refrigerate this mixture for about 1 hour.
  2. Bring about 5 quarts of water to boil. Rub vegetable oil on hands and form Matza balls with about two tablespoons of mixture. Drop in boiling water and simmer covered for about 25 to 35 minutes.

The availability in the United States of vegetables and spices from all over the world has inspired some new flavors in Matza balls. Fennel was present in Jewish Mediterranean cooking in ancient times and is a mainstay of Sephardic cooking. Here its flavors are married to the Matza ball mixture.

matzah balls with fennelRoasted Fennel Matza Balls
Adapted from Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Cut off the fennel stalks. Quarter the bulbs and trim away the stems, the bottom hard core, and any tough parts.
  3. Choose a shallow baking pan just large enough to fit the fennel in one layer and put in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the fennel and toss until well coated.
  4. Roast the fennel until pale gold, about 20 minutes, then turn the fennel over and roast for 10 minutes longer. Stir in the broth, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and 1 /2 teaspoon of the thyme. Cover the pan with foil and cook for 35 to 45 minutes longer or until the fennel is very soft. Remove the foil, stir and roast for a few more minutes to evaporate most of the liquid.
  5. Transfer the fennel and garlic to a food processor and chop coarsely.
  6. Add the remaining 1 /4 teaspoon of thyme, salt (it will need about 1 teaspoon), pepper to taste and the fennel seeds, if using. With the machine on, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil through the feed tube.
  7. Scrape 1 cup of puree into a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs, and add the Matza meal. Stir well.
  8. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  9. Bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a rapid boil in a large, wide, lidded pot. Dipping your hands into cold water, roll the batter into walnut-size balls. When all the balls are rolled and the water is boiling furiously, turn the heat down to a gentle boil. Carefully slide in the balls one at a time and cover the pot tightly.
  10. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes without removing the cover. Remove the Matza balls gently with a skimmer or large slotted spoon; they will be too fragile to pour into a colander.

Regional American specialties have also had an influence on Jewish cooking. The following recipe is from Louisiana. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews living in New Orleans were influenced by French cuisine and African spices. Creole spices such as cayenne pepper, parsley, green onions, garlic, and ginger gave their Matza balls a unique local flavor.

Creole Matza Balls Contributed by Anne Zoller Kiefer

  1. In a small nonstick skillet, heat 1 tbsp of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the parsley and Creole seasoning and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.
  2. Scrape the onion mixture into a medium bowl and let cool slightly. Add the eggs and remaining 1 tbsp oil. Mix with a fork until the eggs are well broken up. Add the Matza ball mix and stir until blended. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan with water. Cover and bring to a boil. Moisten your hands and form the Matza ball mixture into 12 balls, using a heaping tbsp of mixture for each one.
  4. Add a big pinch of salt to the boiling water and drop the Matza balls in. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes or until cooked through. Serve soon or, with a slotted spoon, transfer to a container. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Reheat Matza balls in soup.

It has been a remarkable journey from the tabun-baked unleavened Israelite flatbreads of ancient Egypt, to the creation of the first Matza balls in medieval Germany, to the widespread availability of Matza ball soup year round in the present. No matter where people live nowadays, it is a more diverse, international world. Inspiration comes from the most far-flung cuisines. The basic Matza ball dough is a blank palette, to which all sorts of additions may be made. Chile peppers, chives, shiitake mushrooms, leeks, or anything else that someone can imagine may be added to the basic Matza ball batter.

Of course, during Passover the special kashrut laws for the holidayare still being followed, with some flavor innovations. It is important to hold on to our traditions. They are what connect us to the generations before us. For the Passover Seder, therefore, I would suggest serving your grandmother’s recipe or a Matza ball like Joan Nathan’s. Since Passover lasts for eight days, have fun with your recipes on the remaining days of the holiday! Surprise your guests this Passover with an unexpected twist. When they bite into that Matza ball, let it bite back! Trying new and exciting flavors from other cultures is also a tradition.

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