Ode to Matzohballs

photo taken by FoodMayhem.com, on April 12, 2009, CC licensing

This article first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Jewish Woman Magazine, Spring 2012

            We’ve heard all their adjectives: ethereal, gossamer, featherweight. Lovers of the lightest matzoh balls are a smug lot.

            But if you don’t favor swallowing clouds along with your chicken soup, they smile and patronizingly say “it’s because you grew up eating the other kind--sinkers.” 

            And secretly they’ll think you are a culinary illiterate, the kind who puts ketchup on cottage cheese or even spaghetti.

            I’ve happily devoured all kinds of matzoh balls and for this article led several groups of family and friends in taste tests. The consensus? A matzoh ball shouldn’t fall apart like wet white bread. Nor should it require heavy wrist action to cut. Biting into it, you don’t taste air, but something delicately creamy, savory, and soft. Neither cloudlike nor dense, floaters nor sinkers. Just tender, silky, and delicious.

            To many Ashkenazi Jews, matzoh balls are the apotheosis of their cuisine. In Middle America, it may be a cherry pie for charming Billy, as the song goes; for Syrians and Lebanese, it’s perfectly formed stuffed kibbeh. But in the Jewish kitchen, the ability to make a great matzoh ball is the litmus test of a cook’s skill.

            Some cooks swear by the “recipe on the box”—the standard one printed on the matzoh meal package. Others rely on the mix put out by the big matzoh manufacturers. Some follow family recipes passed down through generations; others experiment with a new variation every Passover.

            So is there some magic to making a matzoh ball?

            One thing is certain: transcendent matzoh balls provide the stuff of poetry.

            You are raising your eyebrows.

            All right, consider this: knaidlach mit neshamas. It translates as “matzoh balls with souls.” The souls here are tasty little surprises tucked into the dumplings. Sometimes these bits are fragrant and sweet with cinnamon. Leah Leonard, in her 1949 classic, Jewish Cookery, suggests souls of chopped liver or grebenes (the cracklings formed when making schmaltz, also known as Jewish soul food).

            And then there is the matzoh ball called a gonif, or thief—or more precisely, a Shabbos gonif. This dumpling, placed on top of all the savory ingredients in a cholent, or Sabbath stew, steals their flavors and becomes enriched by them.

In the Beginning

            “I saw once more…the soup with dreamily swimming dumplings—and my soul melted like the notes of an enamoured nightingale,” wrote Heinrich Heine in The Rabbi of Bacherach.

            To make Heinrich Heine’s “dreamily swimming dumpling,” boards of matzoh were soaked in water, squeezed dry, and then combined with other ingredients. Matzoh meal—at that time, laboriously ground by hand—was used only to thicken the batter. And sometimes ground almonds were used instead.

            Jewish cooks developed this recipe—the bubbe of today’s more familiar matzoh meal-based one—so they would be able to enjoy their beloved dumplings even during Passover. Homey dumplings have been a hallmark of Central European cuisine ever since the Middle Ages; the Yiddish words, knaidl (a variant of knoedl) and kleis (which began as klosse) reveal their German ancestry. Originally made from leftover bread—and later, rolls, various flours, potatoes, cheese, and more—they were easy to convert to a kosher-for-Passover specialty using moistened matzoh. Even today, these matzoh balls, often called matza kleis, are popular among many Central European and Alsatian Jews.

            An early recipe for matzoh balls made from “matza flour” appeared in The Jewish Manual, a cookbook published in London in 1846. But while matzoh meal was commercially available—an 1871 New York Times article on the bakeries of New York’s Lower East Side noted “To accommodate housekeepers who wish to make pastry, puddings, etc., during Passover, matzoth are ground into meal, which answers the purposes of ordinary flour”—it was relatively expensive.

            At the turn of the 20th century, as the entire matzoh-making process—including grinding matzoh into meal—became more mechanized and packaged matzoh meal more accessible, recipes for matzoh balls based on matzoh meal began to appear in Jewish-American cookbooks. But even in 1906, a charity-fundraising cookbook sponsored by Goodman and Sons’ Matzoh Company that includes several recipes for matzoh meal gives a single recipe for matzoh balls, based on whole matzoh. Eventually, though, matzoh meal dumplings supplanted the earlier matza kleis recipes.

            With inexpensive matzoh meal readily available, the dumplings moved beyond their place on Passover menus to become a year-round favorite. For many Jews who sit down to a traditional Sabbath dinner every Friday night, a bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls is de rigueur. Very Orthodox Jews who observe a Passover policy of no gebrochts (that is, avoiding any dish made of moistened matzoh lest leavening or fermentation take place), eat matzoh balls only on the last day of Passover or after the holiday is over, to use up leftover matzoh products, as well as at the Sabbath meal.

            And of course, there is the restorative nostrum throughout the year. A comfort food par excellence, pillowy matzoh balls in a bowl of steaming chicken soup is the ultimate over-the-counter medication. A quick search of the Web reveals scores of Jews and non-Jews—some whose knowledge of Jewish food is limited to little more than bagels—who prepare matzoh balls from scratch at the slightest tickle in the throat or attack of the Serious Blues.

            Today you can find matzoh ball soup in Greek diners and local coffee shops across America. Harrod’s in London serves steaming bowls of it in its Food Hall. And in the elegant restaurants and cafes of Budapest, the broth is made from goose and the matzoh balls spiked with ginger.

Not Just For Soup

            As a child, I’d make my way past the Passover table of desserts—the fudgy chocolate cake, buttery nut tortes, macaroons—and head to the refrigerator. My grandmother followed me with her eyes, laughing. She knew I was after her leftover matzoh balls: salty, rich, and utterly irresistible.

            Not all matzoh ball aficionados will go that far. But all of us know that matzoh balls shouldn’t be confined to chicken soup. Traditionally they have also been cooked on top of tsimmes and Sabbath stews, baked with tart-sweet prunes as a side dish to meat, or stuffed with fruit for dessert. You can also add cooked matzoh balls to other stews or drop them uncooked, like drop dumplings, into saucy casseroles. One friend mentioned that while her mother prepared her own matzoh balls for soup, she sometimes added jarred matzoh balls to a chuck roast or a brisket, simmering them until every trace of jarred flavor disappeared in the rich beefy gravy. To assuage Passover pasta privations, serve matzoh balls like gnocchi, with a tomato sauce. (More on this later.)

            And as Mimi Sheraton points out in From My Mother’s Kitchen, leftover matzoh balls make a terrific breakfast. Chilled overnight, “then sliced and fried in butter the next morning…The result is not unlike semolina gnocchi.”

Building Flavor

            Like pasta and other starches, a matzoh ball is essentially a blank canvas to which a good cook applies layers of flavor.

            For Meryl Rose, an excellent home cook in Massachusetts, that means relying on a superlative broth in which to poach the matzoh balls. Her basic batter uses the ratio of ingredients “on the box, but I tweak it a little, adding chopped parley and cracked pepper. But I really fuss over my soup.” She begins by “roasting the hell out of the chickens,” to give it a rich, complex foundation, and “then I simmer the soup overnight.” No need to add grated onions, spices, and such to the matzoh ball batter: “The matzoh balls drink up all the deliciousness of the soup,” she explains.

            This method does, however, have its pitfalls. For one thing, because each matzoh ball gobbles up so much of the soup, you’ll need quite a bit extra—and if it’s labor-intensive homemade “liquid gold,” we’re talking about a very precious commodity.

            Then too, poaching uncooked matzoh balls will cloud the broth somewhat, making for a less attractive soup. And every once in a while, there are mishaps: little frills of a delicate matzoh ball may break off into the soup, and occasionally matzoh balls have been known to burst apart, trailing fragments throughout the broth.

            So, many cooks prefer to poach the dumplings in salted water, and afterwards, slowly simmer them in the soup. That will build more flavor than introducing the matzoh balls and broth for the first time in the soup bowl just before serving.

            I had switched to the salted water method years ago (letting the cooked matzoh balls loll around in the broth for a few hours before the Seder), but after testing myriad batches for this article, I’ve changed my mind. Even dumplings made with oil instead of schmaltz had incredibly rich flavor when they were poached in broth.

            But I’m unwilling to take a chance on either ruining or using up the homemade broth I’ve spent so many hours on. So I make a big batch of Cheater’s Chicken Soup by simmering good-quality low-sodium packaged broth with the usual suspects (onion, carrots, celery, parsnips), a few pieces of skinless chicken thighs, and fresh dill. Low-sodium broth is especially important because it cooks down so much, becoming intensely concentrated; you may need to dilute it with water if it is still too salty. When you’re finished poaching the dumplings, you can freeze the broth to use next time you make matzoh balls.

            There’s no denying that schmaltz—fat derived from chicken, geese, or ducks—contributes scrumptious flavor: uniquely meaty, buttery, and oniony all at once. But if you don’t want to use it, can’t find it and don’t want to make your own, there are flavorful alternatives.

            Ratner’s, the dairy restaurant of blessed memory on New York’s Lower East Side, used clarified butter. Some cooks, preparing vegetarian or fish Seders, or those unconcerned with separating meat and dairy, turn to melted butter. When my grandmother had to give up her chicken fat, she mimicked its savoriness by browning onions in oil, then straining them out, to yield a cholesterol-free, flavorful fat.  I sometimes prepare an olive oil schmaltz, building on her method: simmer lightly salted onions very slowly until they’re meltingly soft and considerably shrunken in size, then emulsify the mixture in a blender. This vegetarian schmaltz is not only savory, its viscous texture also resembles that of poultry schmaltz.

            In fact, savory schmaltz-like bases are an excellent way to build flavor in matzoh balls, especially when you will not be serving them in soup, but as a side dish.  For example, you can use purees of sautéed mushrooms or roasted fennel combined with oil and herbs to make a delicious gnocchi-like matzoh ball, wonderful as an accompaniment to chicken or brisket. Matzoh balls made with roasted garlic or jarred artichoke puree enriched with a mild olive oil are delicious topped with an herby tomato sauce.

            Adding a suggestion of sweetness with cinnamon, nutmeg, or ground ginger sounds like Nouvelle Yiddish, but Central European cooks have been making matzoh balls that way for years. The Manishewitz matzoh ball mix contains celery seed.

            You can fold in alliums of every kind, from grated raw onion and minced chives to lightly sautéed leeks, scallions, and shallots. Snipped dill, minced parsley or celery leaves add flavor and color.

            Speaking of color, homemade matzoh balls are an appealing off-white. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the preternaturally golden orbs from the deli or caterer, you can sprinkle a little turmeric in the batter, as they do. I’ve added a bit of beet cooking liquid to butter-based matzoh balls for a dairy borscht: they were a glorious shade of pink and faintest sweet.

            Ethnic cuisines also put their own spins on the homey dumpling. In Mexico City, Jewish cooks spice up their matzoh balls with cilantro and chiles. In the United States, restaurants like the Rosa Mexicano chain feature matzoh balls Mexican-style during Passover.

            Indian Jews do not make matzoh balls, but at least one non-Jewish Indian restaurant in the U.S. has offered them: at the now defunct Tabla in Manhattan, chef Floyd Cardoz served matzoh balls fragrant with the spices of the subcontinent on the holiday.

            Esther Silvana Israel of Verona, Italy, who collected recipes from that city’s elderly Jews, told me that Italians sometimes include shreds of cooked chicken or beef in their matzoh balls. In a nod to these dumplings, which Esther calls Dayenu, I sometimes fold ground raw chicken into mine. Because they are so protein-rich, these matzoh balls react like meatballs when they hit the heat of the simmering liquid, firming up beautifully. There is virtually no chance of disintegration, yet they’re tender and full of flavor.

            Alsatians sometimes insert blanched almonds or substitute almond flour for some of the matzoh meal in their dumplings, called matza knepfle.

 Matzoh Ball Basics

            Traditional recipes for matzoh meal-based dumplings all contain eggs and seasoning, in addition to the matzoh meal. Most also contain some form of fat, though a few recipes rely entirely on eggs for richness. Here’s what I’ve learned from our taste tests about the basic and optional ingredients in most standard recipes. Using these details, you can play with recipe proportions and come up with the matzoh ball you prefer.

            Fat contributes flavor and richness. Schmaltz makes a superior matzoh ball, not only because it’s so savory, but its thick texture also combines particularly well with matzoh meal—as does butter.

            Fat does make a matzoh ball heavier, so the trick is adding just enough to make the dumpling silky—with all the buttery flavor fat adds—but neither dense nor greasy. Figure about two to four tablespoons, according to your taste, for every one cup of matzoh meal. Less fat makes for a lighter matzoh ball that lets the wheaty flavor shine through; more fat gives you a richer, creamier dumpling. Both have their fans. If you use the greater amount of fat, you may want to lighten the matzoh meal by separating the eggs or adding sparkling water.

            Eggs hold the batter together and make the dumplings lighter. Start with room temperature eggs and beat whole eggs until thick—the additional air bubbles you create add lightness. In our tests, beating the yolks and whites separately produced the lightest matzoh balls with the best flavor. Figure about four or five large eggs for every cup of matzoh meal. Shirley Corriher, well-known culinary sleuth and author of CookWise¸ suggests adding one extra egg white for even lighter matzoh balls.

            Baking powder/soda (optional): If there is one secret to picture-perfect, airy matzoh balls, it is baking powder. It’s in the packaged mix too. Kosher-for-Passover baking powder is available, approved by most Orthodox rabbis. But to me, leavening powder just doesn’t taste like Passover, and besides, I find it adds a slightly metallic taste to delicate matzoh balls. I did not use it in our tests.

            Liquids: I found that adding chicken broth or water contributed nothing; these balls were the densest. Instead, loosening the batter with liquid from an additional egg or from beating the whites separately or even adding more fat all gave better results.

            For years, I’ve read that sparkling water makes matzoh balls tender and light. But I didn’t notice any discernible difference when I added some to the batter, which I then let rest, chilled, for several hours before cooking, as I usually do.

            Not that I expected any change—all the bubbles of trapped gas had turned flat long before I cooked the dumplings. But I decided to try again, allowing the batter to rest for the usual period, but this time, stirring in the sparkling water just before I was ready to poach the balls. The result was dumplings that were fluffier and light. I checked with Shirley Corriher, who confirmed what the experiment suggested: without bubbles, sparkling water will not lighten the matzoh batter. Shirley thought there might be another possible benefit to adding sparkling water, even though it may turn flat in the batter: the mild acid produced by the carbon dioxide (carbonic acid) can have a slight tenderizing effect on the matzoh balls. In the end, I found these balls lightened with sparkling water to be very good, but slightly spongy, and though others may disagree, I personally preferred the extra lightness created by beating yolks and whites separately.

More on Matzoh Balls          

·      Never substitute matzoh cake meal for regular matzoh meal: the extra-fine grind yields an overly dense matzoh ball.

·      Whole wheat matzoh meal will produce a heartier, fuller-flavored matzoh ball. This is fine IF you and your guests enjoy whole wheat pasta and similar whole grain products, but it’s not a good idea if you’re expecting the same airy, delicate dumpling you’re used to. If you’re not sure, try using one-quarter whole wheat matzoh meal to start.

·      For more tender matzoh balls without adding more fat, stir a little mashed potato into the batter.

·      Don’t overmix the batter once you’ve added the matzoh meal. If the gluten in the matzoh meal becomes overdeveloped, the matzoh balls may be tough.

·      Do let the batter rest sufficiently—at least several hours, but overnight is best. That way the batter can fully absorb all the liquids and there will be no stray bits of floury matzoh meal in the cooked dumpling. The batter will also hold together better and cook more evenly when it is chilled long enough. Some cooks re-chill the batter for thirty minutes after forming it into balls to ensure the balls are still cold when they are added to the pot. An exception: if the batter contains separately beaten egg whites, don’t chill it for more than an hour, so the whites don’t deflate too much. And if you are adding sparkling water, mix it in just before poaching to a batter that has been previously chilled.

·      To prevent the batter from sticking to your fingers, either wet them with cold water or lightly coat them with oil. You can also form the balls using two teaspoons for a mini-scoop. Most importantly, handle the batter lightly to avoid dense, tough dumplings. Don’t form perfect, compact spheres unless you’re using a lot of baking powder. Jewish cookbook author Judy Zeidler pipes mini-matzoh balls into simmering liquid. To do this without a pastry bag, spoon batter into a resealable plastic bag, close the bag, and snip off a bottom corner to pipe the batter through.

·      Mediocre soup yields mediocre matzoh balls--whether you’re poaching the dumplings in the soup or letting cooked ones absorb the soup’s flavor for a while.

·      Matzoh balls need lots of room to move around and expand. A very wide pot—not a tall, narrow stockpot—is best for this. Food maven Arthur Schwartz recalls his grandmother cooking her matzoh balls in an aluminum oven roaster. If you don’t have a pot wide enough, cook the dumplings in batches.

·      Bring the broth or water to a boil, then lower the heat to a medium-low boil when you add the matzoh balls. A rolling boil might break them up; a light boil is just enough to set the eggs. When the liquid returns to a boil, give the dumplings a gentle stir with a wooden spoon, lower to a simmer, and cook tightly covered.

·      Make sure to cook the dumplings long enough. As Meryl points out, many standard recipes don’t call for nearly enough time. To test if a matzoh ball is done, cut it in half: it should be completely cooked through, uniform in color, with no dark spots.

·      If you’ve cooked the matzoh balls in water, drain them well, so you don’t dilute the soup.

·      You can freeze matzoh balls two ways: directly in some broth; or frozen individually, on a cookie sheet, then placed in an airtight container. Reheat the frozen matzoh balls slowly in soup. They won’t be quite as good as freshly cooked ones, but they’ll be delicious all the same.

                        But when it comes to matzoh balls, I myself have never been faithful to any one kind.  So here are just a few options to get you going—or better yet, to start a “recipe conversation” with other matzoh ball cooks!