A friend of mine just sent me a text message, “chag sameach.” She flew up to San Francisco to be with her family for their Seder dinner tonight to kick off the eight-day celebration of Jewish freedom from slavery, Passover. She got me right in the midst of my second self-lesson in Jewish culture and history through food. First lesson was Thursday, with coconut macaroons, and today, it's matzoh ball soup.
I’m not a stranger to matzoh, though it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten it. Many of my friends in elementary and middle schools were Jewish. Oh yes, I definitely went to my fair share of bar and bat mitzvahs, and was pea green with envy that my friends had such elaborate celebrations. After school snacks at their houses were often sheets of matzoh spread with peanut butter or what I liked, just plain butter. Matzoh just looked like giant saltines to me. Matzoh ball soup is also not totally new to me, as it’s often served in a medicinal role for me on Sunday afternoons when I stumble into the local deli to nurse a wicked hangover. Incidentally, matzoh ball soup is also unofficially known as the Jewish penicillin.
When I asked my friend’s mother about how to make matzoh balls, she told me to just buy the Manischewitz matzoh ball soup mix and follow the instructions on the back of the box. Make matzoh ball soup from a box?!? For some reason, I had a vision in my head. Three generations of Jewish women in a kitchen all day, slowly simmering a whole chicken and vegetables on the stove, grinding matzoh into meal, making the matzoh ball dough, sitting around the table telling stories and shaping matzoh balls by hand for hours. Um, I guess not. I went to the market, and though there are matzoh ball soup mixes that have seasonings already added to the matzoh meal, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. I bought the plain matzoh meal instead.
The recipe for matzoh balls is essentially the same across the board, with only ratios differing slightly of matzoh meal, water, some sort of fat, eggs, and salt. There are variations in additional seasonings, as Joy of Cooking recommends adding herbs like fennel or dill, as well as dried ginger and curry powder. An article about the Battle of the Matzoh Balls at epicurious.com does a good job of comparing several recipes. Instead of the sometimes suggested seltzer water to add fluffiness, I stuck with plain (Brita-filtered, of course) water. However, I did beat the two egg whites separately into stiff peaks before folding into the egg yolks, salt, and parsley. No oil, butter, or schmaltz (chicken fat) for me. After adding the matzoh meal, it didn’t look like it would make very much. *shrugs* It’s my first time so better to be safe with a few than sorry with a whole big mess of what could potentially turn out to be *ick* The hour they chilled in the fridge was just enough time for making the soup part. Most of the pictures I’ve seen of matzoh ball soup are a simple clear broth with a few matzoh balls, but the soups I’ve actually eaten have always had vegetables and chicken, so that’s to what I’m accustomed. Carrots, celery, onion, and I couldn’t resist adding several cloves of garlic. I’m sure that’s not traditional, but *eh* at least I didn’t add hot peppers!
Matzoh balls are no more difficult than meatballs to form, though I did end up with a lovely pair of thin matzoh meal gloves that muted my claps of mini-joy when I stood back and looked proudly at the 10 tiny perfect, parsley-speckled ping pong matzoh balls on my chopping block. I softly slipped them into simmering salted water one by one, of course careful not to splash, but more careful because these were my little babies.
I didn’t know what to do with myself for the 30 minutes of cooking time. I paced, rather took the two and a half steps it takes to get from one end to the other of my tiny little apartment kitchen, trying to find things to do – scraping the matzoh ball dough off my hands, washing the far-too-many dishes and utensils I had overzealously used for only 10 little matzoh balls, seasoning, tasting, the reseasoning the vegetable soup. You see, I had to do anything and everything but lift the lid on the pot, for it is an uninterrupted, covered bath that keeps matzoh balls fluffy and tender, yet without falling apart. Well, the lids to my pots are glass (genius, whoever designed glass lids), so at least I was able to peek in on them every few minutes like a young mother peeps over the side of the crib to gaze upon her sleeping newborn.
As the kitchen timer ticked downward, no joke, I had my hand poised on the lid. 4...3...2...1. It beeped at 0, and I yanked open the lid, practically giving myself a facial with the huge pouf of steam. Amazingly, over the half hour, my little angels, originally ¾ of an inch, had swollen to almost two inches! *sigh* They grow up so fast, don’t they? Admiration lasted all of about 5 seconds before I fished the first one out of the water, and unable to hold back, I took my first steaming-so-careful bite right there from the slotted spoon. My little babies were good.
It was a somewhat cold and gray day (yes, 65 degrees is quite chilly for almost-May in LA), so the steaming hot broth of the vegetable soup was perfect. We were able to slice through the soft, tender, yes, quite fluffy, outside of the matzoh balls with the side of a spoon, yet the centers were denser and chewier, enough to feel like something substantial and
solid enough to be lunch. Added to the vegetable soup, matzoh balls make a meal.
So far so good on my first two lessons in Jewish food and culture. Do I have it in me to try gefilte fish next?!