When it comes to matzo, Chicago chef Laura Frankel says hers is a love-hate relationship.
"Matzo and I are frenemies," she says of the unleavened crackerlike bread traditionally eaten during Jewish Passover celebrations. "On one hand, matzo is a food you want to be proud of -- it's part of who we are as Jews. But frankly, it usually tastes like cardboard."
During Passover, leavened breads and most grains are prohibited. The tradition is intended to recall the flight of the Jews from Egypt after being freed by the pharaoh. As the story goes, they had no time to let their bread rise before baking it. So today, matzo -- the production of which is a highly regulated process -- is central to Passover meals.
It can be eaten as is, or ground into coarse crumbs or even a fine cake meal and used like traditional flours.
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"Every year, people will tell me they made brownies with matzo cake flour and they were even better than the real thing," says Frankel, author of the cookbook Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes. When she hears this, she usually thinks, "No, they're not," but keeps that to herself.
Leah Schapira, an Israeli-born kosher cook, has a more comfortable relationship with matzo. Schapira -- who co-authored the recent cookbook Passover Made Easy -- is happy to munch matzo plain, but when cooking with it tends to treat it as a blank canvas upon which to build dishes. She also notes that these days matzo is available in many varieties -- including whole wheat -- many of which taste quite good.
The matzo toffee bar crunch from her book is a great example of using matzo creatively. It's reminiscent of the popular confection that's usually coated with chopped nuts, but her version melds similar flavors together with the toasty, crunchy qualities of the matzo. Schapira, who has four kids, also uses it as a "crust" for pizza (though she cautions that a very hot oven is key to ensuring the matzo doesn't get soggy).
She and writing partner Victoria Dwek also developed a recipe for tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole because they know how much families like having a taco night and wanted a Passover-suitable option.
Still, both Frankel and Schapira say it's essential not to be fooled into thinking that using matzo crumbs and meal is the same as using flour or breadcrumbs, and they recommend not going out of your way to try to use matzo products to recreate dishes you might make at other times of the year.
Frankel points out that matzo, unlike leavened breads, doesn't have developed glutens (a protein that helps bread rise), so baked goods using matzo meal won't have the same textures as ones made with traditional flour.
And despite Frankel's love-hate relationship with matzo, she embraces it with culinary flair.
"The key thing," she says, "is you've got to strive to not have your cake and eat it too."
Matzo toffee bar crunch
6 sheets matzo (or enough to cover a baking sheet)
1 cup (2 sticks) margarine
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
Sea salt (optional)
Slivered almonds, toasted (optional)
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Arrange the matzo in a single layer over the baking sheet. Set aside.
2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the margarine and brown sugar. Stirring constantly, melt just until incorporated. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
3. Pour the mixture over the matzo, then bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until deep golden brown and bubbling all over. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and immediately sprinkle with the chocolate chips. Wait 2 minutes for the chocolate to melt.
4. Using a spatula, spread the chocolate in an even layer. Sprinkle with salt and almonds, if using. Transfer the baking sheet to the freezer until set. Break into pieces, then store in an airtight container.
Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories, 14 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 36 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 27 grams sugar, 2 grams protein, 125 milligrams sodium, 48 percent of calories from fat.
Tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole
For the tortillas:
1 cup matzo cake meal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups water
For the filling:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 pound lean ground beef
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
For the tomato-mint salsa:
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1/4 small red onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
For the guacamole:
1 ripe avocado
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar
Garlic powder, to taste
Salt, to taste
1/2 cup prepared coleslaw, to serve
1. To prepare the tortillas, in a small bowl, whisk together the matzo meal, salt, egg, olive oil and water. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes.
2. Coat a nonstick skillet with cooking spray, then heat over medium. Scoop 1/2 cup of the batter and drop it into the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, then flip and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the tortilla from the pan and set aside. Repeat with remaining batter.
3. To prepare the meat filling, in a large saute pan over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the meat and cook, stirring constantly, until completely browned. Season with chili powder, garlic powder and salt. Set aside.
4. To prepare the tomato-mint salsa, in a small bowl, stir together the tomatoes, mint, jalapeño, onion, vinegar, salt and pepper. Set aside.
5. To prepare the guacamole, in a small bowl, combine the avocado, lime juice, red onion, olive oil, vinegar, garlic powder and salt. Mash until the guacamole reaches the desired texture.
To serve, spread guacamole in the center of each tortilla. Top with meat and tomato-mint salsa. Top each tortilla with 2 tablespoons coleslaw and fold up.
Nutrition information per serving: 620 calories, 37 grams fat, 125 milligrams cholesterol, 45 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 6 grams sugar, 30 grams protein, 1,080 milligrams sodium, 53 percent of calories from fat.