Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
Jews had to wait about 2,500 years, until the Middle Ages, to be introduced to the gastronomic delight of biting into a matzah ball immersed in chicken broth. What seems to be the most quintessential of Jewish foods today, was really quite a late arrival. It has gone from being a dense, filling specialty Passover food to being a light, airy, year round comfort food.
The Jews went through a long odyssey from Egypt to the shores of the Rhine River to discover matzah balls. Matzah balls were first concocted in Germany.Knaidl, the Yiddish name for matzah ball, comes from the German name for Knödel, or dumpling. In the Middle Ages, people in Eastern Europe made dumplings by mixing stale breadcrumbs with eggs, milk, butter, and spices. Jews replaced the breadcrumbs with matzah meal. Rendered chicken fat, or shmaltz, was used instead of butter, and water instead of milk. In the shtetl, each housewife baked matzah for her own family. She would use wheat, rye, oat, spelt, or barley flour, which had been ground with the shtetl’s gristmill. This flour would have a coarser texture than the flour that is commercially produced today. She would crush this matzah with a mortar and pestle to make matzah meal.
At that time, matzah balls were a special food that was prepared only for Passover. The Jewish homemaker mixed the flour with water and baked the matzah in an open-hearth fireplace. Her matzah would have been round, about an inch thick, and with an uneven texture. From the moment the flour and the water were mixed the matzah had to be ready in eighteen minutes. This rule comes from the Talmud, which says that it should not take longer to bake matzah than it would to walk a Roman mile (a thousand paces). This has been calculated by Talmudic scholars to mean eighteen minutes.
Following is a recipe from the Shtetls of the Middle Ages. It produces a heavy, dense matzah ball.
Shtetl Matzah Ball Recipe From The Middle Ages
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York
Today, matzah balls are served year round. Modern cooks prefer to make light and airy matzah balls. How is fluffiness achieved? The density of a matzah ball is the result of the proportion of matzah meal to eggs and fat, air pockets in the matzah meal dough, and the amount of cooking time. The more eggs and fat in proportion to matzah meal, the lighter the matzah balls. The dough should not be kneaded for a long time. This allows tiny air pockets to form in the batter. When the matzah balls are first placed in the boiling water, they sink to the bottom of the pot. As they cook, the air pockets expand in the hot water. These air pockets fill with vaporized liquid as the inside of the matzah ball nears the boiling point. In this state the matzah balls are less dense than the boiling water around them and, as a result, the matzah balls rise to the top as the air pockets swell. The matzah balls need to be simmered for 30 minutes or longer for the air pockets to fully enlarge. Joan Nathan, noted Jewish cookbook author and television chef, has experimented extensively with matzah ball recipes. Her matzah balls are among the lightest.
Adapted from Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan
As the Jewish world has become more multicultural, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews enjoy trying and experimenting with each other’s foods. Following is a Sephardic adaptation of matzah balls.
Adapted from Home Cooking
The availability in the United States of vegetables and spices from all over the world has inspired some new flavors in matzah balls. Fennel was present in Jewish Mediterranean cooking in ancient times and is a mainstay of Sephardic cooking. Here its flavors are married to the matzah ball mixture.
Roasted Fennel Matzah Balls
Adapted from Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen
Regional American specialties have also had an influence on Jewish cooking. The following recipe is from Louisiana. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews living in New Orleans were influenced by French cuisine and African spices. Creole spices such as cayenne pepper, parsley, green onions, garlic, and ginger gave their matzah balls a unique local flavor.
Creole Matzah Balls Contributed by Anne Zoller Kiefer
It has been a remarkable journey from the tabun-baked unleavened Israelite flatbreads of ancient Egypt, to the creation of the first matzah balls in medieval Germany, to the widespread availability of matzah ball soup year round in the present. No matter where people live nowadays, it is a more diverse, international world. Inspiration comes from the most far-flung cuisines. The basic matzah ball dough is a blank palette, to which all sorts of additions may be made. Chile peppers, chives, shiitake mushrooms, leeks, or anything else that someone can imagine may be added to the basic matzah ball batter.
Of course, during Passover the special kashrut laws for the holidayare still being followed, with some flavor innovations. It is important to hold on to our traditions. They are what connect us to the generations before us. For the Passover Seder, therefore, I would suggest serving your grandmother’s recipe or a matzah ball like Joan Nathan’s. Since Passover lasts for eight days, have fun with your recipes on the remaining days of the holiday! Surprise your guests this Passover with an unexpected twist. When they bite into that matzah ball, let it bite back! Trying new and exciting flavors from other cultures is also a tradition.