Sinkers or floaters? That is the question this Passover — at least when it comes to matzo balls. The classic holiday soup dumplings can be light as air or dense as a potato, depending on ingredients, the cook’s preference and a little family history thrown into the mix. Staff writers Gail Rosenblum and Sharyn Jackson faced off with their beloved matzo ball recipes, and then dished on their favorite childhood memories around the Seder table.
GR: Passover, which celebrates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom, begins March 30 at sundown, but we were lucky. We got to start Passover in early March by making matzo ball soup for our colleagues. They enjoyed it a lot, don’t you think?
SJ: I know I enjoyed it! I was sick at the time, and you know they say matzo ball soup is “Jewish penicillin.” It really works. Anyway, as the two resident Jews in the features department, I’m glad we could give our colleagues a little taste of our holiday. Especially two very different tastes! I like to make mine big and fluffy, and yours were totally different. How do you do it?
GR: Sinkers, baby! Although, this year mine might have starred in a remake of “Miracle on Ice” as hockey pucks. Maybe a wee bit too dense? But, yes, I do like to sink my teeth into them and I think it’s genetic. Decades ago, my mom gifted us with Frances AvRutick’s “The Complete Passover Cookbook.” It wasn’t until this year that I noticed my mom’s funny inscription, in which she noted how thrilled she was to find a cookbook that included a recipe for very firm matzo balls. “I always thought that was a culinary failure!” she wrote. Making matzo balls feather-light, medium-firm or very firm depends largely on different amounts of fat, salt and matzo meal used.
SJ: And a few other ingredients. I make mine with baking powder and seltzer, which help them puff up and float. I got the recipe from a cooking class I took in New York City at the Institute of Culinary Education. It was all about Jewish food and took place right before Passover, the first year I hosted my own Seder for my family at my apartment. I was going through a whole-foods awakening at the time, so I was all about making everything from scratch, as opposed to using Manischewitz box mix, which is how my mother made hers.
Look, I don’t blame her for taking a shortcut. Her mother was a notoriously bad cook, and no one really knows how she made her matzo balls. But you think yours were hockey pucks? Grandma Gertie’s were barbells. On the bright side, Grandpa Sam came up with the ingenious idea to slice up those dense, chewy matzo balls and fry them in a pan of hot chicken fat, like little latkes. Delicious!
GR: Oh, my gosh, latkes. Speaking of fat! But I guess we’ll have to table that tasty discussion until December. Thanks for letting me know about your mom’s secret matzo ball recipe, aka the box. For years, that’s how I made them and those tasted fine. But there is something, isn’t there, about opening a can of matzo meal and going for it?
SJ: Yes. Opening that can of matzo meal takes me immediately back to my childhood in Kearny, New Jersey. As soon as I smell that ground-up matzo, I am always transported to the first days of Passover, when I haven’t gotten sick of those cardboard slices of matzo yet (the end of the week is a different story). The other smell that gets me is schmaltz (chicken fat), which is one of the key ingredients in matzo balls for both of us. I’ve made matzo balls with other fats before, namely duck fat, which comes out great. But that little tub of Empire chicken fat, rendered with the onions, just reminds me of my family’s holiday meals. What other foods do that for you?
GR: Weirdly? Parsley. The minute I smell that fresh parsley, which often is added to the matzo ball soup, and plays a key role in the retelling of the Passover story when it is dipped in saltwater, I am back in my childhood den (remember dens?) in Albuquerque for our annual Passover Seder. We had huge Seders back then with many other Jewish families, all of us being raised in the desert. They were joyous, noisy food- and song-fests, filled with laughter. And, the kids’ table? Best place to be! Parents were boring. I still wish I could sit at the kids’ table.
What are some of your fondest memories of Passover Seders as a child?
SJ: Being that I was always the youngest (as an only child), I had to do the Four Questions (Why is this night different from all other nights? etc). We called them the “four kashas” — I guess that’s the Yiddish word. I would practice and practice along with my cassette recorder before the big night. I always got a little stage fright when it was time to perform, but I think I felt a great sense of accomplishment every time. By the time I was a teenager, though, I think I was over it.
GR: That’s funny. My youngest daughter, Carly Bess, is always startled to be reminded that she still needs to step up and sing the Four Questions. She’ll be 20 in July. Of course, she can do it in her sleep. But it reminds me of how fast time goes, and to cherish these family-rich holidays.
SJ: Do you think matzo ball soup is the quintessential Passover food, or is it something else? I’m partial to gefilte fish, but I could eat that any time of the year. (Call me crazy.)
GR: I love gefilte fish, too, which is a good thing. Most years, our Minnesota Seders welcome many non-Jewish friends who respond to the stuff like I’d respond to lutefisk. Lots of leftovers for me. I typically buy gefilte fish in a jar, but last year I bought a frozen loaf for the first time and boiled it. Man, was it good. No more jars for me.