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 ceremony 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.“The Jews had to leave Egypt in such a rush that the bread did not have a chance to rise,” said Meir Zimand, the kosher supervisor at Kol Rinah synagogue in St. Louis.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 and that has been cooked so quickly it has not had a chance to rise. To ensure that it has not, Zimand said matzo must be fully cooked within 18 minutes of the time the flour is mixed with water.Matzo balls were created, he said, when “some really creative person decided to ground matzo into a sort of flour that they then mixed into eggs and spices and formed it into a ball, which they ate.”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 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. The other group likes the balls to be chewy but dense, lying gracelessly on the bottom of the bowl.There are a couple of tricks to making matzo balls that are light. Zimand uses one, mixing a little bit of soda water into the matzo meal, egg and fat. I was 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 souffle or meringue. These she folds into the batter before forming the balls, which retain all the airiness created by the whipped egg whites.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.And finally, I made a version that would not be out of place on any Jewish table in … Cuba?A recipe developer named Cara Lyons, who must be something of a mad scientist in the kitchen, came up with an idea so bizarre it had to be great. She decided to stuff matzo balls with picadillo, a meat dish popular in Spain and Latin American countries.Her version of picadillo, which she got from Eating Well, is closest to the type served typically in Cuba. It begins with ground turkey (the traditional version uses beef) and adds raisins, chopped green olives, onion, scallions, garlic, chili powder, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and tomato paste.The picadillo itself is delicious, but wrapping it in a matzo ball is sheer genius. She first boils it and then — more genius — bakes it. But before she puts it in the oven, she lightly dusts it with cinnamon, which brings out all the flavors of the picadillo. Genius squared. It isn’t what most people think of when they think of matzo balls, and you wouldn’t want to put it in soup. But it’s a great example of just how delicious a nontraditional take on a traditional dish can be.
Stuffed matzo balls
Makes 12 matzo balls
4 large eggs
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup matzo meal
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1/3 cup club soda
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 large clove garlic, minced
3/4 cup finely diced cooked chicken, about 3 1/2 ounces
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon sage
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
1. To make matzo balls, whisk together the eggs and oil in a medium bowl until blended. Mix in matzo meal and salt. Add club soda and blend well. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour. Can be prepared 1 day ahead.
2. To make stuffing: Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add onion and celery and saute until vegetables soften, about 3 minutes. Add parsley and garlic and saute 1 minute. Transfer vegetable mixture to a food processor. Add chicken, egg, sage, salt, nutmeg and pepper; grind to a coarse paste. Transfer stuffing to a small bowl. Stuffing can be prepared up to 2 hours ahead if covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated.
3. Cover baking sheet with plastic wrap; lightly coat plastic wrap with oil or nonstick spray. Using moistened hands, roll matzo ball mixture into 12 (1 1/2-inch) balls and place on prepared sheet. Make a deep hole in each ball and place 1 teaspoon filling (or whatever fits) into each hole. Re-form matzo balls, enclosing stuffing.
4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Drop matzo balls into pot. Cover and cook until matzo balls are tender and cooked through, about 35 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer matzo balls to bowl. Can be prepared 1 day ahead, if covered and refrigerated.
Nutritional analysis per ball: 125 calories, 7 grams fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 330 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram fiber, 50 percent of calories from fat.
— Recipe from “Bon Appetit,” via OUkosher.org
Picadillo stuffed matzo balls
Makes 12 matzo balls
For the picadillo:
1/2 pound lean ground turkey breast
1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped scallions, divided
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Scant 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons chopped pitted green olives
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper
For the matzo balls:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons chicken broth
3/4 cup matzo meal
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Cinnamon, for dusting
1. To make filling: Spray a nonstick skillet with nonstick spray (or add 1/2 tablespoon oil) and heat over medium-high heat. Cook the ground turkey, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
2. Reduce heat to medium and add the olive oil. Cook onion, scallions and garlic for about 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Add chili powder, oregano, cumin, cinnamon and cayenne pepper; cook for 1 minute more, until fragrant.
3. Return turkey to the pan along with the raisins, olives, tomato paste and water. Add salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until thickened. Season to taste, if needed, with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool. This filling can be made a day or two in advance, if kept covered and refrigerated.
4. To make matzo balls: Whisk together the eggs, oil and broth. Stir in the matzo meal, salt and pepper. Chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
5. To assemble: Line a plate or baking sheet with a piece of plastic wrap and spray with nonstick spray (or lightly brush with oil). Scoop the matzo mixture into 12 equal portions. Wet your hands and take 1 portion. Flatten it slightly and press a small indentation into the top. Place 1 teaspoon of the picadillo into the indentation, then carefully roll the matzo ball mixture around the filling. Set aside on the plastic-lined sheet. Repeat with remaining matzo balls, wetting hands between each one. The stuffed matzo balls may be covered and refrigerated overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add matzo balls to the boiling water. Cover pot and cook 20 to 25 minutes. The matzo balls will increase in size.
7. Spray a baking dish or sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Remove matzo balls from the water with a slotted spoon and place on the dish or tray. Spray matzo balls with a little more cooking spray, and sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. These may be made 1 day ahead of time and reheated before serving.
Nutritional analysis per ball: 115 calories, 5.5 grams fat, 9 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 365 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram fiber, 43 percent of calories from fat.
— Recipe from Cara’s Cravings; picadillo recipe from “Eating Well”
Fluffy matzo balls
Makes about 12 matzo balls
4 extra-large eggs, separated
4 1/2 cups good chicken stock, divided
1/4 cup rendered chicken fat, melted, or 1/4 cup vegetable oil, see note
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for egg whites
1 cup matzo meal
Chicken soup, for serving
1. Whisk together egg yolks, 1/2 cup stock, chicken fat or oil, parsley and salt. Stir in the matzo meal. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff (it is faster to use a mixer with a whisk attachment). Whisk the whites, a cup at a time, into the matzo mixture until it is smooth. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes, or until mixture is stiff.
2. Form balls the size of golf balls by shaping them with 2 spoons, rolling them with your hands (rinse your hands in cold water after every couple of balls to prevent sticking) or scooping them with a small ice cream scoop.
3. Bring remaining 4 cups stock to a simmer. Drop balls into stock and simmer 30 minutes or until fully cooked and puffed, turning once. Remove and serve hot in chicken soup.
Nutritional analysis per ball: 135 calories, 7 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 75 milligrams cholesterol, 320 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.
Note: Rendered chicken fat, also called “schmaltz,” is available in the frozen kosher foods section of some larger grocery stores.
— Recipe adapted from Ina Garten, via Food Network