The Mighty Matzo Ball
After some years in Manila, I returned to the Homeland—New York City—looking forward to my first day in Manhattan and a visit to the deli of my dreams. Worried that my memories would be disappointed by reality, my mission was to again revel in a matzo ball soup experience. My hopes were high as I entered, momentarily overwhelmed by the fragrances of pastrami and corned beef mingling with that of kosher pickles and knishes. After a wait that would portend either great things or just typical New York deli surly service, I sensed that I was not forgotten. A steaming bowl was approaching my table. The waiter, who looked well past his productive years, had a gait that reminded me of The Walking Dead. He placed the bowl on my table with a gentle porcelain-like clang that caused me to flinch. I stopped and stared in shock at what was the largest matzo ball I had ever seen. At first I thought it was a baseball. I had expected to see just a few smaller balls floating peacefully, accompanied perhaps by some sliced carrots in a gentle juxtaposition.
I was in shock as I proceeded with the holy matzo ball test. Would my soup spoon be greeted by a subtle but firm texture as I tried to taste a piece of one ball? I feared it might have a mushy texture which would then be a crushing experience, or would it be so rubbery that I’d have to resort to a knife? Fortunately, its texture was true to my memories: subtle and firm but slightly fluffy, gentle but giving, exciting in its arousal.
The next 15 minutes was a time of sensory gratification as childhood memories of my mother’s chicken soup, graced by handmade matzo balls, came back to me. She didn’t use a mix and sometimes would even crush sheets of matzo to make the necessary matzo meal, as she believed the best cooking must be done from scratch, from base ingredients. I still have visions of the kitchen table covered with scores of matzo balls resting on a time-worn cloth she said her mother used. Since I never came down with food poisoning, I’m assuming that cloth was clean, but I always had concerns.
A matzo ball, of course, is made from matzo. This is said to be the original unleavened bread, the manna from heaven. The official spin relates that Moses rushed the Hebrews out of Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time to prepare their dough so that it would rise. The result, when spread out to bake on the hot desert rocks, was a crispy cracker-like thing hungry refugees called matzo. This was the beginning of a Jewish tradition to eat this during Passover. And yet, many delight in the pleasures of matzo year-round. It has an honored place at many breakfast tables in an egg-coated fried dish called matzo brei. It’s also delicious when smeared with butter or Fauchon strawberry preserves, but I wouldn’t recommend eating unadorned matzo, as that would be akin to munching on plaster. While it has an exciting crumbly crunch, there’s little glory to be had with plain matzo. More hearty souls might breakfast on raw egg-drenched pieces of broken matzo in a bowl. I must admit I used to stare at my brother in disbelief as he devoured this strange concoction.
Yet, matzo had previously not been such an easy treat to obtain. Until the invention of the matzo-making machine in 1838, the task had been left to mothers and grandmothers who produced a somewhat inconsistent product that often looked like it came off boulders in a desert. In 1888 the Manischewitz Company developed the first truly automated matzo production that produced matzo for the masses and made a more consistent matzo ball possible. It was truly a great year for the matzo ball.
So what’s the big deal about matzo ball soup? In New York City many consider it to be Jewish soul food, perhaps akin to how Filipinos look at bulalo or sinigang. Basically it’s a rich chicken soup made possible by sacrificing a real chicken and cooking it for hours in a pot. My mother used to simmer the chicken soup all night, saying that’s what her mother did to make a richer broth. Using chicken bouillon cubes would be sacrilege. Some call it Jewish penicillin for its supposed mystical healing properties, but I digress. Let’s go back to the true jewels of chicken soup—its balls.
Whether you spell it matzo, matzah, or matzoh, the matzo ball does have a mystique. In recent years it’s even been involved in competitions. TIME magazine reported the existence of matzo ball champion Joe Chestnut, who ate 78 matzo balls in eight minutes. A year later, Joe also ate 47 Burritos in 10 minutes, so I cannot say for sure if he’s a true matzo ball maven. Not to be outdone, and to establish a place in history, Chef Jon Wirtis produced a 426-pound matzo ball in New York (of course). But let’s not quantify on ball size alone. A real matzo ball experience should be savored, not rushed, not gobbled. Pieces of soup spoon-cut balls must be gently sheared off, placed slowly on the tongue, and then undergo a slight but definitive chew. Purists see the matzo ball center as its true essence. It should be soft yet firm, gently giving, with a slightly al dente feeling. Some consider that the well-made matzo ball, slightly golden in color, can be a gourmet experience, but there’s much contention regarding the qualities necessary to declare one ball superior to the other. Some feel that “floaters” represent the quintessence and will employ all possible techniques to achieve it, including club soda (seltzer in NYC) to give supposed angelic qualities to their mix. Others, the more macho enthusiasts, are into heavier balls that sink to the bottom of bowls so that only their domed shapes peer out rather than bob in chickened waves. They want to feel the weight of the ball in their spoons.
The competition for just the right matzo ball has been going on for decades. The holy essence ingredient is “schmaltz,” more commonly known as rendered chicken fat. Jewish cooking has definitely had a long romance with schmaltz. It’s the secret ingredient that makes chopped liver delicious, but too much schmaltz will make matzo balls heavy, creating “sinkers.” Health revisionists, in recent years, have turned away from schmaltz for canola, olive oil, or even butter, God forbid. These latter ingredients would make the spirits of old Jewish grandmothers moan and gasp in shock.
If you attempt to make your own matzo balls—it’s not so difficult and should be a stress-free experience—remember that matzo balls represent a true signature dish that has personality, spirit, and history. You’re not just making matzo balls—you’re paying homage to a soothing comfort food, knowing that a long line of wrinkled grandmothers are watching over tradition. After all, what’s more important than tradition? One’s matzo balls, of course.
Written by Irwin Belofsky
Illustration By Bettina Muñoz