Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ode to the Matzo Ball

Last week I was at a training for work.  During one evening out for dinner with the group the conversation turned to, of all things, matzo balls.  I cannot tell you what a surreal conversation it was, in the middle of the UK, in between bites of cheesecake and tiramisu,  with a bunch of project managers and business analysts how strange it was to be talking about matzo balls.  But, so it is.  A few people asked me for recipes and of course we launched into preferences of whether you like your matzo balls light and fluffy or if you like them denser and more chewy, also known to any Jew as the Great Sinker vs Floater debate.   I am not going to go into that here as it is what you prefer and probably directly related to what your grandmother made.  Here is a nice article about that if you are interested. My family (both grandmothers) definitely made sinkers although my mother used to make both.  When I was younger I preferred sinkers but now floaters.  I find the majority of Jews prefer sinkers, although I am convinced that is because sometimes when you make floaters they can be sinkers for no apparent reason, no one knows why.  There is a lot of debate around what the proper way to make floaters is.  Some insist that using club soda or seltzer is cheating while others insist this is the only (nearly) foolproof way to guarantee a light, fluffly matzo ball (or if you really want to sound Yiddush call it kneidelach (with the guttaral ch).  As much as I like to fancy myself a "real" cook that makes things from scratch, I use club soda. I like my floaters too much to risk it by not using it.  My mom did not use club soda and added an extra egg to her recipe and while most of the time her floaters were magically light and fluffy, even she had the occasional mishap.  I just use the soda, my floaters are too important to me.

So here is my recipe for matzo balls (adapted for sinkers and floater people alike).

The recipe makes between 12 and 18 matzo balls depending on the size you make them.

Here is what you need:

  • 1 cup matzo meal (buy in Jewish supermarket or kosher section of the grocery store.  The brand I like the most is Streits but any will do).  If you don't have matzo meal where you are don't worry you can make it.  Just take 4-5 pieces of plain unsalted Matzo (preferably the Kosher for Passover variety, it will say on the box) and put it in a food processor and pulse it until it is the consistency of sawdust.  Really,  you want it like sawdust or you won't get smooth kneidelach.  So even if you think you are done, give it a few extra pulses.  
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons schmaltz (rendered chicken fat).  If you live in NY you can probably buy it in a Jewish grocery, otherwise you can make it.  If you don't have a recipe handed down by your grandma which is dog-eared, there is a simple way to make it which is not quite as authentic but does the trick nicely for matzo balls.  When you make your chicken soup to go with your matzo balls, make it a day ahead and put the soup in the fridge.  The next day take it out and the fat will rise to the top.  scrape off the fat and that is your schmaltz.  If the idea of chicken fat turns you off (likely if you are not a Jew as even typing it, it sounds disgusting but it is soooooooo good), don't worry you can substitute vegetable or sunflower oil for the schmaltz and actually you don't need to use any fat at all.  You can still get delicious matzo balls without it, but the schmaltz really adds a lot of flavor.  Warning:  Use your schmaltz or oil sparingly, especially if you are using oil, otherwise your matzo balls turn out greasy.  I add just 1 tablespoon at first and see how my dough feels (it should feel sticky not leave an oily impression in your hands).  So my advice if you have added it and your dough is sticky. Stop, it's enough.  If you are nervous about it, just skip the fat.  
  • 1-2 tablespoons water or chicken broth (for sinkers) or club soda or seltzer for floaters.  
  • Pot of boiling salted water to cook them.  Don't cook them in your chicken soup, trust me on this!  If you cook them in the soup your soup will get starchy, plus matzo balls can fall apart a litle which means your soup will have small little particles of matzomeal floating around.  Also cooking it in the soup will upset the flavor of your soup.  Better to cook them in water and then place them in your soup.  
There is a tendency nowadays to try and "dress up your matzo balls" by using things like garlic powder, onion powder, dill, parsley.  Do what you like but I am not in favor of that.  Matzo balls are a traditional food, they are not haute cuisine and attempts to dress them to me are attempts to make them more than what they are and destroy the beauty and delicate flavor of the things.  People want to eat matzo balls because they want to enjoy this Jewish traditional dish.  Plus the flavor is so subtle and mild, using any of the above will overpower your matzo ball and then you will just be eating a garlic, dill infused ball of dough which is not traditional.  Again, I cannot stress this enough.  If you want a garlic, dill, rosemary infused thing, roast some potatoes, but leave them out of your matzo balls.  I even saw a recipe once that called for adding basil.  Please.  

  • Mix the matzo meal, eggs and salt with a fork until combined.  Add your fat of choice (I just thought that was funny to say it that way).
  • Add your water, broth or club soda, 1 teaspoon at a time and mix with your fork until combined).  The dough should be yellow, sticky to the touch but not well formed dough like playdoh.  Don't overmix your dough, especially if you want floaters.  The less handling the better.  Less is definitely more here.
  • Let your dough sit in the bowl, cover it with a dishtowel and go drink a cup of coffee and check your facebook for 15 minutes.  
  • Make your matzo balls.  Remember they will expand quite a bit in the pan.  I like mine to be about the size of the ones in the photo above, which means when you roll them they should be the size a small racquetball or even a little smaller.  People who like larger matzo balls where 1 big one dominates your bowl of soup should roll them to be about the size of a small tennis ball.  
  • Put a bowl of boiling salted water on the stove.  Drop the matzo balls in carefully.  I lower them with a spoon personally .  
  • Boil the matzo balls for 10-12 minutes.  Pot should be definitely boiling (and not simmering) but it should not be a hard boil.  I boil the water on high, put them in, wait for the water to boil again and then lower the heat to medium high.  
  • When matzo balls are done cooking take them out of the water (I use the spoon method as I like floaters and floaters are delicate and should not be tossed around), so don't dump them in a collander.  
  • Whatever you do make sure your matzo balls are completely covered until it is time to serve them, otherwise those that are not completely submerged in liquid (like soup) will get kind of a brown, semi crusty thing going on.  This will not affect the taste at all but does not make for a pretty matzo ball.
  • When you serve them, put them in your soup (again by lowering them with a spoon) and heat your soup as normal being careful that your soup doesn't boil.  
And that is it.  If you have matzo meal they shouldn't take more than a half hour or so, if you have to make your own matzo meal, it will take about 45 minutes.  If you are making a seder, I make them the day before and keep them covered and refrigerated.  They will keep for about a week.

Happy Passover!  

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