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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Matzo

Synonymous with Passover, the unleavened bread is both a symbol and a food

One of the seder’s great earworms, the Four Questions, kicks off by asking, “Why is this night different from other nights?” Then comes the first of those questions: “On other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but only unleavened tonight — why?”

You might also wonder why some Jewish people adopt an entirely new dietary regime over the seven or eight days of Passover. And what unleavened bread means — it’s matzo, of course, but what even is matzo? The seder does, technically, answer these questions, but its main text, the Haggadah, is both maddeningly specific (God struck the Egyptians with, like, what, 10 plagues? Oh, I see, by 10 you meant 250) and broadly conceptual. It gives an answer, but in a kind of roundabout, at some points literally biblical way.

Matzo carries the burden of being both a symbol and a food. Its effectiveness as the former has arguably damned its success as the latter. Unlike other Jewish holiday foods that are typically available in some form year-round, such as latkes and Hamantaschen, matzo is a dietary necessity, and its association with Passover seems strong enough to kill any urge to make it good enough to eat when there’s no religious obligation. While matzo’s bad rap comes partly from the boredom of having to eat it for more than a week, it also stems from a lack of understanding that, actually, it’s pretty versatile. Whether it’s “good” or not is subjective — but as any Jew can tell you, there’s still much to be said about it.

First, why is matzo eaten during Passover?

Matzo is eaten at the seder and throughout Passover because, early-ish in the Torah’s narrative, the Jews settled in Egypt and became slaves to the Egyptian state until God, through his agent Moses, secured their freedom. Their very brief window of departure meant there was no time to properly bake bread, which needs hours to rise, so the Israelites could only bring an unleavened version with them. As all Jewish people must annually remember the Exodus as if they had personally been there, eating matzo helps fulfill this commandment.

Although this backstory is pretty well-circulated — the Exodus from Egypt is, for example, poignantly entangled with the African American experience, Jewish and not — what “unleavened bread,” or matzo, actually is remains both misunderstood and, in some circumstances, debatable.

Okay, so what is unleavened bread, and what does that mean in the context of Passover?

Leavening is the process of getting a baked good to rise, and the things responsible for this process are called leaveners, or leavening agents. Baking soda, baking powder, and yeast are the most commonly used leaveners in most home kitchens, but in some senses, the most significant leavener is time. When a baked good rises, it’s because a chemical reaction is causing a gas like carbon dioxide to develop, and that creates pockets of air in the dough.

Foods that have undergone the leavening process are proscribed during the eight days of Passover. Easy enough, you might think, just skip bread and other foods with baking powder. Yet much of what we eat these days is store-bought, or made outside of our own supervision, so it’s nearly impossible to know what happened to it, unless a rabbinical certification board has given it a seal of approval.

Additionally, kashrut — keeping kosher — is concerned not just with the ingredients and processes that went into the food one eats, but the equipment and spaces in which it was processed. Thus a food that is kosher, or kosher for Passover, in spirit may not be kosher in letter. Now, Jewish laws and traditions are notoriously open to interpretation, and there are likely as many views of what kosher, or kosher for Passover, means as there are Jewish families, or people. The result is that “leavening” can mean wildly divergent things to different Jews. Kosher-for-Passover baking powder might sound like an oxymoron, but some rabbis have argued that it’s not, and it’s not impossible to find in stores. The argument runs that the prohibition against chametz, or leavened foods, only applies to the natural proofing that would have occurred as the Jews were fleeing Egypt, not modern commercial versions.

It’s sometimes erroneously reported that those keeping kosher for Passover must avoid grains, including wheat — again, the proscription is against the rising process, not specific ingredients. Matzo is itself typically made of wheat flour mixed with some water, and salt and sometimes olive oil for flavor. It’s rolled very thinly and baked quickly at a high temperature. Talmudic tradition dictates that matzo should be completed in under 18 minutes, from mixing the dough to fully baked. The familiar holes in matzo keep it from rising, similar to the way pricking a pie crust will prevent it from bubbling up while it parbakes.

Matzo can be made gluten-free like anything typically baked from wheat flour, but in and of itself, leavening has nothing to do with gluten content.

What role does matzo play in the seder?

Matzo is already on the table when everyone sits down at sunset; the person leading the seder has access to a stack of three, the middle of which is broken near the start of the proceedings in a ritual known as yachatz. The bigger of the resulting halves is known as the afikomen, and is typically hidden away until the end of the meal, when, in many Jewish households, the children at the seder are sent to find it.

Matzo plays a much larger role in the seder, however. The core of the Haggadah is a section called “maggid,” a retelling of the Passover story from the Torah, plus or minus some critical commentary and wild theorizing. This retelling is the conceptual justification for commemorating the exodus from Egypt at all. Per the Haggadah, explaining the meaning of matzo to the story — along with that of pesach, a sacrificial offering, and maror, a bitter vegetable (most Americans use horseradish) — is one of the seder’s core objectives. Maggid contains the four questions, which are asked in response to the seder’s leader holding up the broken matzo and stating, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” As the questions are answered, the matzo on the table remains uncovered, illustrating the story as it unfolds over the night.

Later on in the seder, after maggid has concluded but before the meal, the matzo is blessed and eaten. It’s subsequently eaten again in what’s known as a Hillel sandwich, after the first-century BCE scholar who dipped matzo in maror to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to eat them together. Some people take this literally, spreading horseradish or chrain (often colored and sweetened by beets, making a neon-magenta paste) on two pieces of matzo. Charoset, a chopped salad representing the mortar Israelites supposedly used to construct Egyptian monuments, is sometimes added to the sandwich. Typically a mix of fruit and nuts (apples and walnuts in Ashkenazi traditions) with wine, the addition of charoset to the sandwich makes matzo into a container for all of Jewish history.

When the Haggadah explains during maggid that the fleeing Israelites “baked the dough they had brought out of Egypt into unleavened bread, for it had not fermented,” it suggests a fuller historical context, that of daily life in ancient Near East. When Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in the 1920s, it was found stocked with bread. Without modern yeast, it took a very long time for these loaves to rise. There’s neither archaeological proof that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, nor that a mass exodus happened. Yet the symbolic function of matzo stands up to the logic that a flight from the land of Goshen, whatever that is, wouldn’t have provided enough time to result in a puffy loaf of bread.

As documented by Rabbi Zev Farber, however, the most probable reason why matzo became so crucial to Passover is because the holiday falls in the spring, amid the barley and wheat harvests. Farber asserts a “loose connection,” textually, between Biblical commandments to eat matzo and commandments to commemorate the Exodus. A spring harvest evolved into a Festival of Matzot, which ultimately evolved into what we now know as Pesach, or Passover. Or, as Yael Avrahami writes, “The dual celebrations of Pesach and Matzot were a way for Israelite shepherds and farmers to each mark the new beginning that spring offered and do what they could to ensure that the coming year would be a bountiful one.” Perhaps that’s why, when making the Hillel sandwich, the amount of matzo and maror is meant to achieve the volume of an egg, a concrete representation of the potential for new life and a metaphor for spring. And although matzo isn’t typically on the seder plate, there is always a hard-boiled egg.

How easy is it to buy matzo, and how much choice is there?

Matzo is widely accessible in most parts of the U.S., although not all, and the pesadic version is prone to occasional shortages. (Unopened, this stuff lasts forever.) In some supermarket seasonal aisles, the range of matzot can be vast. There are the major brands, Manischewitz and Streit’s, and smaller players like Yehuda, Rakusen’s, and Aviv.

It’s easy to find boxes of plain, square matzot, which kind of resemble a big water cracker in their brittleness and plainness. A good all-arounder for those who aren’t vegan is egg matzo, which has a slightly richer color and flavor.

Want a thinner option? Try tea matzo. A dietary variety like gluten-free or egg sans yolks? Covered. Matzo with a faint health halo? Whole wheat and spelt varieties are out there. And if egg matzo isn’t exciting enough, it now comes in egg and onion, everything, garlic and rosemary, salted, salt and pepper, onion and poppy seed “Moonstrips,” Mediterranean (that’s tomato, garlic, and basil), and, naturally, covered in chocolate.

There’s also shmura matzo, a big, hand-formed round variety that’s often imported from Israel. “Shmura” is derived from the Hebrew “to guard,” as this matzo has been closely observed during its manufacture, from wheat cultivation to packaging, to ensure with the strictest standard that it’s kept free of leavening. It’s been called the “caviar of flatbread” by the Times of Israel, and its relative scarcity and artisanal-sounding production process have lent it an “authentic taste of the Exodus” sheen for decades.

If the strictest pesadic standards aren’t your priority, you can also try the Matzo Project, which launched in 5775 — that’s 2014 on the Jewish calendar. It’s kosher, just not for Passover, and promises a “super-snappy, extra-sturdy, crazy-versatile cracker that goes with every single thing,” in contrast to “traditionally flavorless” matzo. Beyond crackers, they sell snack-size bags of matzo chips and bites, and “WonderClusters” of matzo brittle.

In addition to the standard sheets, or boards, there’s also matzo meal, which is ground-up matzo that can be used like flour, or breadcrumbs. All the major brands that sell matzo in grocery stores will sell matzo meal, too. If you can’t find matzo meal specifically, just grind up some matzo in a food processor, or smash it as small as possible in a plastic bag, preferably under a rolling pin.

Should I make my own matzo?

Given that many grocery stores have a decent selection there’s probably no need to, but if you’re curious, or matzo is hard to find, you can try this at-home version that Melissa Clark created during the early days of COVID in 2020, when some couldn’t make it out to stores. There’s also Mark Bittman’s version, which includes olive oil. Most recipes follow the same beats: Mix flour, water, salt, and maybe something else; separate the dough into segments; roll each out very thinly and poke with a fork; bake on 500 or so until done.

What can I do with my leftover matzo, and how do I switch it up if I’m stuck making this the core of my diet for seven or eight days straight?

Because matzo is just a cracker, or a really thin and crunchy piece of bread, the limits of what you can do with it are bound only by your imagination. On its own, it’s a great accompaniment for hummus, peanut butter, French onion dip, guacamole, egg salad, runny cheese, or anything else smeared or spread. You could load it with creme fraiche and smoked salmon, or cucumbers and cream cheese. You can butter and toast it, or fry it, to make it crispier.

Aside from eating it straight, there’s no shortage of ways to consume matzo, both during the holiday and after.

Go back to the classics:

Perhaps most famously, there are matzo balls, although as with many Passover foods, there’s no definitive recipe, or even consensus around what they should look and taste like. Do you prefer your matzo balls small and dense, or airy and softball-sized? (Sinkers or floaters, some call them, or hard or soft.) Their primary component is matzo meal mixed with some rough combination of egg, oil or schmaltz, and liquid; some claim that seltzer is what gives the balls their texture. If you’ve never rolled up matzo balls, batter crusting on your fingers, and thrown them in a pot of soup to cook, you don’t know the banal magic of seeing a hard brown knot soften and grow into a velvety dumpling. It’s such a powerful transformation that matzo balls have managed to carry matzo from Passover onto even non-kosher deli menus everywhere.

Then there’s matzo brei. Sometimes called “fried matzo,” it’s really more of a scramble: Broken pieces are soaked in water and then egg batter like French toast and griddled or cooked in a pan. Strong preferences exist for sweet (sugar, jam, syrup) or savory (onion, salmon, dill). People tend to love or hate matzo brei, but many grew up eating it, with preferences and techniques passing from generation to generation. It’s very specific to Ashkenazi Jews, and although not impossible to find on restaurant menus, vanishingly scarce.

Another Ashkenazi Jewish food is the kugel. Kugel, which is commonly made with noodles or potato, is, strictly speaking, a casserole, and thus presents many opportunities for innovation both sweet and savory. During Passover, the matzo kugel shouldn’t be overlooked. This recipe from Bon Appétit uses an entire box, with porcini, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms and swiss chard making the kugel into something like a meal all on its own. Sweet versions often rely on apple.

Or try a new classic:

A near cousin to matzo kugel is matzo lasagna. Try a spinach version from Martha Stewart or a classic red-sauce take from Melissa Clark. Similarly, there’s mina de matzo, a Sephardic variation from the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean, which can feature lamb, eggplant, or spinach and cheese, rather than the tomato-based Italian American riff.

If you want another Italian-ish matzo adaptation, try the matzo pizza. According to meticulous testing by avowed thin-crust pizza fan J. Kenji López-Alt, the best way to keep it from disintegrating under its own toppings is to melt a “structural” layer of cheese over the matzo before saucing it very scarcely. As is the case for all pizzas, a pizza stone — or better yet, a baking steel — will help crisp the matzo more quickly so it doesn’t get quite so melted by the toppings.

Or use it as a binder:

Matzo meal isn’t just a key ingredient in homemade or store-bought gefilte fish; it’s also part of its origins. “Gefilte” is Yiddish for “filled,” and originally, the fish was stuffed with matzo meal and eggs. Homemade gefilte fish is inarguably superior. Blended with egg and matzo meal, the ground-up fish is shaped into a dumpling or quenelle and cooked, then served chilled, often on a bed of lettuce and topped with a slice of carrot. Gefilte fish is especially good with chrain, bringing matzo and maror together once again, making it a fitting Passover dish.

Latkes, meanwhile, are customarily eaten around Hanukkah because they’re fried in oil that evokes that holiday’s narrative. But all latke recipes need a binder to hold the egg and potato together, and while some use flour, others call for matzo meal, even outside of Passover, and it easily replaces flour or potato starch.

Or pulverize it:

A testament to the relevance of matzo is that, despite its mythical ancient Egyptian origins, it hasn’t escaped the notice of contemporary food culture. New York’s Blue Ribbon restaurant group served their fried chicken coated in matzo, prompting much praise from the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. The existence of such a recipe suggests that, beyond just working as a binder, matzo can also be subbed in anywhere flour or breadcrumbs are used as a coating.

Matzo has also made its way into party mix, such as this one from Lily Freedman via Bon Appétit; it combines three sheets of matzo with nuts and seasons them with sugar, soy sauce, and garam masala.

For a different vibe, there’s Susan Spungen’s matzo frittata, an inevitable mashup of matzo brei and matzo kugel. Made of six sheets, caramelized onions, mushrooms, and, of course, eggs, it illustrates how the uses of matzo evolve along with trends and social context.

Or, as the Haggadah suggests, save it for dessert:

Aside from basic chocolate-covered matzo (which has innumerable variations), matzo typically shows up in Passover desserts via matzo meal, which is also available in a cake meal form, and in many, many boxed mixes.

The Passover dessert to beat, however, is matzo toffee. Sometimes referred to as matzo bark or matzo brittle, the recipe is a variation on saltine toffee and credited to Marcy Goldman’s 1998 Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking (although she first published the recipe in the 1980s). Where saltines are a little softer and a lot flakier, matzo makes the toffee stiffer, and is arguably more harmonious with the hard caramel and snappy chocolate. The process involves cooking a very basic caramel, pouring it over matzo on a well-wrapped baking sheet, and scattering chocolate (chips or chopped) over the matzo once it’s out of the oven. Matzo toffee is now a staple of the seder dessert spread, so pervasive that many home cooks have no idea where they got it. Although there are now versions with peanut butter and ginger and hazelnuts, the original needs no improvements, and one recipe will produce a ton of it. Broken into jagged pieces, it adds visual interest to the otherwise orderly seder, tucked on a tray between the rainbow of fruit slices and lumpen coconut golf balls. Buy it from Russ & Daughters via Goldbelly or try a fancy one with praline if you’re short on time. While three decades is relatively brief in the lifespan of matzo-based foods, enduring popularity of matzo toffee suggests it may yet be eaten by future generations.

Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

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