Have yourself a ball with matzo makeover

  • Article by: DANIEL NEMAN , St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • Updated: April 9, 2014 - 2:09 PM

If you’ve always made matzo balls like Mom or Grandma used to make, expand your repertoire with a modern variation on the Passover staple.

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Passover is a time of joyous celebration and somber remembrance, but mostly it’s all about the matzo balls.

Photo: Stephanie S. Cordle/St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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Passover is a time of joyous celebration and somber remembrance, but mostly it’s all about the matzo balls.

The eight-day Jewish holiday begins at sundown Monday with a combination religious ceremony and feast called a Seder. The ceremonial part of the evening is a description of the purpose of the holiday, a recitation of the biblical story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, where they had been kept as slaves.

Then comes the dinner. And with the dinner, in most cases, comes the matzo balls.

To remember their ancestors’ hurried flight to freedom, Jews during Passover traditionally refrain from eating bread that has risen. In its place, they eat matzo, a crackerlike food made from flour and water that has been cooked so quickly it has not had a chance to rise. To ensure that it has not, matzo must be fully cooked within 18 minutes of the time the flour is mixed with water.

Matzo balls are one of the unofficial joys of the Passover Seder. There are (almost) as many ways to make them as there are people who eat them, but all of the possibilities boil down to one essential question: How did your mother or grandmother make them?

By and large, matzo ball fans are divided into two camps. One prefers the balls to be light and airy, floating on top of the chicken soup in which they are served; they are colloquially known as “floaters.” The other group likes the balls to be chewy but dense, lying gracelessly on the bottom of the bowl; these matzo balls are known as “sinkers.”

I am in the floater camp. Why would you want to eat anything that can be described as “leaden”?

My theory is that people who prefer sinkers had mothers or grandmothers who did not know how to make them light and airy. Or perhaps their mothers and grandmothers had mothers and grandmothers who did not.

There are a couple of tricks to making matzo balls that are light. You can mix a bit of soda water into the matzo meal, egg and fat. I was initially dubious that this method would work — it sounded like a culinary folk tale that would not make any difference — but I tried it, and the balls that resulted were the biggest and fluffiest that I made.

The other trick comes from Ina Garten, the television cook who calls herself the Barefoot Contessa. She separates her eggs, mixing the yolks in with the other ingredients, and then beating the whites until they are stiff, as with a soufflé or meringue. These she folds into the batter before forming the balls, which retain all the airiness created by the whipped egg whites.

Variations on a theme

Standard matzo balls are good enough and have satisfied for generations, either with or without a little bit of dill in them.

But I wanted to think outside the matzo meal box. I wanted to try a few modern variations.

I first tried a recipe envisioned by Joan Nathan, the maven of Jewish cooking. She takes a standard matzo ball recipe and then packs it full of such good things as ginger, nutmeg, and chopped parsley or dill (she also suggests cilantro, but that would be weird).

I made a batch, and they were intriguing in a good way. The flavor of ginger came through most, with an undercurrent of nutmeg; both tastes added a welcome note of complexity to the relatively simple chicken soup.

Next up was a matzo ball stuffed with ingredients that would not be out of place on any Eastern European Jewish table: cooked chicken that has been mixed with onion, celery, parsley, garlic, egg, sage and nutmeg. This mixture is placed in the middle of matzo balls; you fold the ball around it and the whole thing is gently boiled.

Here is how you know it is good: The flavor of the filling seamlessly blends into the balls; the filling tastes as if it had always been a part of matzo balls. And that sensation makes sense, when you consider that most of the ingredients in the filling are also found in the soup.

A serious twist on tradition

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