Discovering the Deli: Chapter 6 - How to Make Matzo Balls

by Jim Berman

There is mysticism that surrounds that cute, bulbous ball of nearly flavorless matzo in a chickeny swap of carrots, celery and onions. What makes some matzo balls so airy and flavorful while others are rocks of blandness? Okay, mysticism is an overstatement. How about an air of familial superiority? Call it matzo ball envy. Whomever’s home housed the bubbe with the best matzo ball chops, reigned supreme. And more importantly, wasn’t the object of ridicule on the way back home after Passover dinner.

Matzo balls are the dumplings from which legends are made; around which the talk in the car ride home revolves; the bane of existence for the matzo ball-challenged. My gummie made them float and sing. My aunt, well, not so much as that they sank like rocks in the bowl of insipid broth. And, upon reflection, they sank in my gullet as well. They can range in size from golf balls to the deli-sized bowling balls. Matzo Balls are the holy grail of traditional Jewish food. Leave it to the chosen people to make a celebratory dish out of an ingredient embedded in a story of tears, heart-ache and desperation. Matzo, after all, is the ‘bread’ made of haste as the Jewish were cast out of Egypt, over 3000 years ago. The cardboard-like characteristic flavor profile of matzo is, well, bland. Four and water. Water and flour. Brittle. The story goes, if you have seen Charlton Heston tell it as Moses in The Ten Commandments or read Exodus in the old testament, that the Jewish people were ordered out of Egypt with such short notice to escape Pharaoh’s wrath, their bread was not given adequate time to rise. The resulting matzo were born. Fast forward to Deli Land. Take those forlorn crackers, tuck them into an amalgam of eggs and shmatlz and plunge them into a bath of chicken broth studded with vegetables, in a pool shimmering with rendered fat.

            My family adopted matzo ball soup for Hannukah celebrations. It was not enough to subject an unwilling cook to making this concoction once a year, we had to get second helpings a few months’ later. As we get close to the Festival of Lights…

The Matzo Balls:

24 lightly beaten eggs

1 cup chicken fat (shmaltz)

6 cups coarse matzo meal, made from crushed matzo

4 Tablespoons salt

1 ½  cups, hot water

Hot water (or broth) for poaching

Combine the eggs and fat. If you are heart-healthy and fearful of using the fat of a chicken, avoid using a healthier alternative, like vegetable oil. Instead, stop here and eat some matzo to offset whatever damage you have done to your circulatory system. After adequate Matzo Therapy, return to the beginning of this recipe and restart using the prescribed fat.

Fat from stock - don't you dare throw this away!

Fold in the matzo and salt. Buy whole matzo and crush the sheets by hand. Your investment of a few moments will pay off. Commercially produced matzo meal is very fine. It is too fine, in this humble cook’s opinion, to produce a delicate enough dumpling. The coarse nature of hand-crushed matzo works better to ensure buoyancy.

Coarse, handmade matzo meal

Stir in the water.

Refrigerate the mixture no less than hour. Feel free to allow the mixture to chill overnight.

Finished mixture

Shape the matzo balls to your liking.

Shaping the dumplings

I prefer three of the dumplings in a bowl; one obese dumpling is too unwieldy, two are too few. Three make for pleasant company swimming in the warm broth. Place the shaped matzo balls in simmering, salted water (or broth), well submerged and cover. Depending on the shape, we are looking at a 10 minute minimum poach time. Resist the urge to remove the lid of the cooking vessel. Rather, go for instinct with cooking time.

Cover and swim

Use the prepared matzo balls in your favorite chicken broth or stock. Sweat some carrots, onions and celery, perhaps leeks, dill and parsley in some shmaltz. Cover with stock and add the matzo balls.

The treatise on making the liquid elixir in which the matzo balls reside is a whole other, well, Exodus from the land of lackluster Campbells’ Land to the Promised Land. Chicken soup with matzo balls is cause for celebration in itself. And, if you fail miserably, your failure is fodder for ridicule in the car ride from your house. We’ll laugh at your matzo balls!