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.
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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.