When the Israelites rushed out of Egypt, Pharaoh’s men on their heels, they hurriedly bundled their belongings, food included, to carry as much as they could on their backs and donkeys. Seeking to nourish themselves throughout their desert journey to the Promised Land, they rolled together unleavened bread crumbs, eggs and oil to create a round, nutritious finger food. They heated these in water jugs, along with chicken bone scraps, to preserve them and give them flavor. And that’s how matzah ball soup was born.
At least that’s how the matzah ball legend should read. The round dumpling traditionally made of matzah meal, eggs, and some kind of fat is so entrenched in Jewish tradition that its history seems to date back to the Torah itself. The icon of Jewish pop culture, the staple of deli menus, the culinary gem of bubbies worldwide, matzah ball soup is the unofficial symbol of Jewish cuisine, the soup of the one God.
But like many dishes generally regarded as “Jewish foods,” like gefilte fish and cholent, matzah ball soup originated in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish word for matzah balls, “knaidelach,” comes from the German word for dumpling, “knödel.” The matzah ball may very well have been the vanguard Jewish food of its time, an adaptation of the gentile dumpling suited to Passover restrictions and pantries, invented by the Martha Stewart of the shtetl, her (or his?) name now lost in obscurity.
Since then few Jewish chefs, professional and amateur, have dared to tamper with the matzah ball. In that sense, the matzah ball is the “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish food. The most popular recipe for many home cooks today may very well be the one on the matzah meal box. But with the growing sophistication and cross-fertilization of many types of cuisines, that’s changing.
“I think traditional cooks are breaking out; they’re more sophisticated,” said Adeena Sussman, a recipe developer, food writer and cooking instructor based in New York. “Everyone is traveling more and interested in ethnic cuisine. There are a lot of kosher Web sites where you can get kosher gourmet products. Actually, I think Jews who keep Passover strictly are those who are seeking the most innovative ideas because they are those who follow the laws for eight days and are trying to keep their families well-fed and interested for eight days.”
One of the most popular maverick matzah ball soup recipes has been Susie Fishbein’s tri-color matzah ball soup, as featured years ago in her popular “Kosher by Design Entertains” cookbook (Mesorah Publications, 2005) and on “The Today Show” with Katie Couric. The recipe calls for a green maztah ball made with pureed spinach, a yellow matzah ball made with turmeric and a red matzah ball made with tomato paste.
“It was a funky spin on something traditional, and that’s what I do,” said Fishbein from her home in New Jersey. She sought a matzah ball soup that wasn’t only flavorful, but visually appealing and healthful, especially for the children. “I’ve had mothers come up to me in shul and say ‘I only make the green ones, and they’re called ‘Shrek matzah balls,’ and my boys love them.’”
Matzah balls are like a “blank canvas,” ripe with possibilities for adding flavor and color. Last year Sussman developed a “dill-infused chicken soup with herbed matzah ball gnocchi” recipe featuring matzah balls shaped like the Italian potato dumpling and rolled with spinach, parsley and dill. Green herbs are intuitive additives, because they often compliment the flavor of the chicken soup and also reflect the spirit of spring. Sussman recommends ground chicken, ground beef and horseradish as other nontraditional additives.
But not every ingredient works. “There were definitely things that were not winners,” said Fishbein, recalling her own experimentation. “Blueberry matzah balls are hideous. Carrot matzah balls covered with carrot juice were hideous.”
Like the Torah, matzah balls are open to a variety of interpretations and subject to intense debate. Surprisingly, some of Southern California’s top chefs believe the matzah ball is sacred.
“I don’t want to recreate the matzah ball; I think it tastes fine how it is, as long as it has a light texture,” said Suzanne Tracht, executive chef at LA’s Jar chophouse on Beverly Boulevard. “They shouldn’t be too hard. You shouldn’t use them for weapons….The most important part of the matzah ball, since it’s basically a dumpling, is the broth — that’s where it comes out.”
Every year, Tracht holds a Passover seder at her restaurant, and this year she’s making a consommé with lemongrass, galangal and ginger. “We make it so intense that we clarify the broth, as well, so that it has a more rich and intense flavor.”
Todd Aarons, executive chef at the gourmet kosher restaurant Tierra Sur at the Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard puts his “stock” in the broth, as well. “I’m a purist. I would play around with the broth first, and I’d probably keep the matzah ball intact.” For his own matzah ball soup, Aarons likes to use duck and chicken bones for a deeper flavor. “When I eat it, though, it doesn’t remind me of my mom’s, which is okay.”
He became convinced of the powerful absorption properties of the matzah ball after his Yemenite wife served regular matzah balls with her Yemenite soup, traditionally made with chicken, beef and exotic herbs, including hawaij, a Yemenite spice mix consisting of cumin, coriander, pepper, cardamom, cloves and turmeric. He likens matzah balls to bread used for dipping. “Every culture has a chicken soup. You can explore all different kinds of chicken soup and throw a matzah ball in, and it would work.”
In fact, the matzah ball is the only Ashkenazi food that has been warmly embraced by Sephardic traditions, especially in Israel. “Sephardic cooking is much more popular in Israel now than Ashkenazi cooking — Israel is a warm country, the ingredients are more suitable for Middle Eastern food,” said Janna Gur, editor-in-chief of Israel’s leading gastronomic magazine, Al HaShulchan, and author of “The Book of New Israeli Food” (Schocken, 2008). “Many recipes make the crossover to Ashkenazi households, but not vice versa, except for matzah ball soup.”
Another (chicken or beef?) bone of contention among chefs and cooks relates to texture: dense or light and fluffy?
Cookbook author and food writer Judy Zeidler, also a bubbe of seven, prefers fluffy matzah balls, hands down. “When I got married, my mother-in-law always made sinkers — matzah balls so hard they sink to the bottom of the pot. I grew up with my mother’s matzah balls. Like clouds, they floated to the top of the soup. My husband thought they were ridiculous, but he thought they were so much easier to eat and so much more flavorful.”
To make matzah balls as fluffy as her mother’s, she recommends separating the yolk and whites and then folding the yolk and matzah meal into egg whites beaten into soft peaks. Seltzer is recommended instead of water to increase fluffiness, and chilling matzah balls plays an important part in determining texture.
“Chilling will make it much easier to roll so you can manipulate them,” said Fishbein. “If you can roll them right at the outset you have a lot of matzah meal in them, and they probably won’t be very fluffy.”
Sussman is the only one interviewed for this article who prefers dense matzah balls, or, as she likes to call them, “matzah balls al dente”, an Italian term to describe pasta that is firm but not overcooked.
But home cooks shouldn’t feel discouraged if they can’t think out of the matzah meal box. “My mother used to make matzah balls from scratch,” said Sussman, “but one year we actually tried the mix and found that it worked quite well and started making them from the mix, not because we couldn’t make it from scratch, but because we liked them.”