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April 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, April 02, 2004

The real matzo ball The real matzo ball (April 02, 2004)

Embellishing the family recipe for a perfect Passover dish

By Justin Scheck

Understand that while the matzo ball is a simple food, there is ample room for error in the process of making one. Minor variations in ingredients and technique mean the difference between a light and fluffy soup-borne sphere and a rock-hard shipwreck of a dumpling that hugs the bottom of the bowl, resists the spoon and makes your stomach regret coming home for the holidays.

Passover starts April 6, and as a child, my favorite thing about the holiday was the matzo ball soup. In fact, it was my favorite thing about all of the Jewish holidays, which, in my family, entailed more or less identical gatherings of the same 10-12 people (allowing for death/divorce/dating/remarriage-related substitution), sitting in the same seats and eating the same food.

I only make it back to New York once or twice a year now, so when I developed a craving for matzo balls a few months ago, it was up to me to make them. I began a search for the best recipe that led me away from the one my grandmother uses (even hers have flopped on more than one occasion, usually precipitated by a reduced-fat recipe), and to a recipe that seems to be consistently better than the others I've tried.

I found that it's not terribly hard to make good matzo ball soup; it just requires unwavering adherence to three key rules: 1) Use chicken fat (not oil); 2) Chill the batter; 3) Don't press too hard when forming the matzo balls.

What is a matzo ball?

A matzo ball is basically a dumpling made with crushed matzo (matzo meal). Matzo balls also include some type of fat (preferably chicken fat) for richness and flavor, water, and eggs to bind all the ingredients into a loose batter that thickens when chilled and produces light, fluffy balls that retain their shape when boiled.

Unfortunately, many recipes create a less alluring product; I've found that cutting corners (not chilling the dough long enough, trying to eliminate fat, using pre-made mixes, etc...) often results in heavy and unappealing matzo balls barely worth eating.

Finding the recipe

Last fall, I began seeking a good matzo ball recipe by calling a couple of family members; everyone directed me to the back of the matzo meal box. This recipe called for vegetable oil (rather than the traditional chicken fat, or schmaltz). I wanted something more traditional, so I branched out on my own.

After searching the Internet and consulting with numerous other Jews, I came up with a recipe that, while labor-intensive and not as healthy as one would want in an ideal world, makes a pretty darn good matzo ball. And since I'll only be eating these once or twice a year, I felt I could deal with them being high-calorie and time-consuming to make. The only problem was that, unlike in New York, I couldn't find frozen chicken fat here in the Bay Area.

Rather than panic, I headed to the local butcher shop. The only chicken fat they had was still attached to a bird, but the butcher pulled some off and threw it into a bag for me. This was a good start, but, unlike the frozen stuff that comes in a box, it needed rendering, which involved heating it slowly in a skillet until the fat melted, the water inside it evaporated, and the small pieces of skin browned.

The soup

Matzo ball soup is generally made with chicken broth, but I personally prefer a vegetable stock. It's definitely not traditional, but I think the vegetable broth allows the schmaltz's chicken flavor to shine and makes the whole mixture a bit lighter.

I like to make vegetable stock with a fairly loose recipe based on whatever's available and cheap. I coarsely chop five or six onions, a bunch or two of scallions, two parsnips, seven or eight carrots, a head of celery, a half-pound or so of mushrooms, three or four potatoes, a head of garlic, half an apple, some leeks if I so desire, dill and whatever else sounds like it would be good (it probably will be).

I put the ingredients in a two-gallon pot, fill it with water, and boil for a few (3-5) hours, until the vegetables turn to mush. I strain it and put the stock away; it will keep in the freezer indefinitely.

For matzo ball soup, I'll heat some of the stock in a pot and salt it to taste. I like to add some saffron, as well, but that's really not necessary. Then I ladle it into bowls, give everyone two matzo balls to start with, and hope that there are leftovers.


Matzo ball soup

1 cup matzo meal (available at the supermarket, although you can grind up matzos on your own if you wish)
5 tablespoons schmaltz (melted then cooled)
4 eggs
1/2 cup carbonated water
1 pinch salt

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Stir in the carbonated water, salt and melted chicken fat. While stirring, add the matzo meal a small amount at a time. The finished product should be a loose batter, similar in consistency to pancake batter.

Cover bowl and refrigerate for one hour or up to overnight.

Boil a large pot of water, put salt in the water and, using your hands, form small, loose balls out of the batter and drop them into the boiling water. Remember not to press too hard (this will result in a leaden and virtually inedible end product); the matzo balls should be light but should also retain their shape. Simmer for about 30 minutes.

While matzo balls are simmering, heat a pot of broth. Add a pinch of crushed saffron and salt. Serve matzo balls in soup. Enjoy.

Justin Scheck is the former editor of the Voice.

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