Medieval To Modern Matzah Balls
-- Ronit Treatman
When the Ancient Israelites fled Egypt, they had unleavened flatbreads which had been baked in tabuns, or outdoor wood fired mud ovens. They did not have matzah balls. 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
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tablespoon melted shmaltz (chicken fat)
- 2 tablespoons warm water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- ½ cup matzah meal
- Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes.
- Measure 8 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt into a large pot. Bring to a boil.
- Wet your hands with cold water, and then make walnut size balls from the matzah meal mixture. Drop them into the boiling water. Cover the pot and simmer the matzah balls for 20 minutes. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon.
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.
Joan Nathan’s Fluffy Matzah Balls
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup seltzer, club soda, or chicken broth
- 1 cup matzah meal
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Mix the eggs well with a fork. Add the chicken fat or oil, soda water or chicken broth, matzah meal, and salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.
- Dip your hands in cold water and make about 12 balls slightly smaller than Ping-Pong balls.
- Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add salt and place the matzah balls in the water. Cover and simmer about 30 minutes until soft.
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.
Matzah Balls With A Sephardic Twist
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup club soda
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil or chicken fat (schmaltz)
- 2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup ground almonds or walnuts
- 1 tsp of almond or walnut oil
- 4 or 5 scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup matzah meal
- Whisk the eggs until blended. Now add the club soda, vegetable oil or schmaltz, salt and pepper. Blend in the parsley, almonds or walnuts, almonds or walnut oil, nutmeg, and matzah meal. Cover and refrigerate this mixture for about 1 hour.
- Bring about 5 quarts of water to boil. Rub vegetable oil on hands and form matzah balls with about two tablespoons of mixture. Drop in boiling water and simmer covered for about 25 to 35 minutes.
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
- 2 small to medium fennel bulbs (about 1 pound, weighed with 2 inches of top stalks)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 /2 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade or good-quality, low-sodium purchased
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 /4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 /4 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground in a spice grinder
- 2 large eggs
- About 1 /2 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzah meal
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cut off the fennel stalks. Quarter the bulbs and trim away the stems, the bottom hard core, and any tough parts.
- Choose a shallow baking pan just large enough to fit the fennel in one layer and put in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the fennel and toss until well coated.
- Roast the fennel until pale gold, about 20 minutes, then turn the fennel over and roast for 10 minutes longer. Stir in the broth, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and 1 /2 teaspoon of the thyme. Cover the pan with foil and cook for 35 to 45 minutes longer or until the fennel is very soft. Remove the foil, stir and roast for a few more minutes to evaporate most of the liquid.
- Transfer the fennel and garlic to a food processor and chop coarsely.
- Add the remaining 1 /4 teaspoon of thyme, salt (it will need about 1 teaspoon), pepper to taste and the fennel seeds, if using. With the machine on, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil through the feed tube.
- Scrape 1 cup of puree into a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs, and add the matzah meal. Stir well.
- Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
- Bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a rapid boil in a large, wide, lidded pot. Dipping your hands into cold water, roll the batter into walnut-size balls. When all the balls are rolled and the water is boiling furiously, turn the heat down to a gentle boil. Carefully slide in the balls one at a time and cover the pot tightly.
- Turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes without removing the cover. Remove the matzah balls gently with a skimmer or large slotted spoon; they will be too fragile to pour into a colander.
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
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 to 2 1/2 tsp any brand of Creole Seasoning (Chef Paul Prudhomme's Kosher for Passover "Magic Seasoning" can be ordered through Kosher Cajun, www.koshercajun.com.)
- 2 large eggsv
- 1 packet (from a 5-oz package) matzah ball mix
- Kosher salt
- In a small nonstick skillet, heat 1 tbsp of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the parsley and Creole seasoning and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.
- Scrape the onion mixture into a medium bowl and let cool slightly. Add the eggs and remaining 1 tbsp oil. Mix with a fork until the eggs are well broken up. Add the matzah ball mix and stir until blended. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan with water. Cover and bring to a boil. Moisten your hands and form the matzah ball mixture into 12 balls, using a heaping tbsp of mixture for each one.
- Add a big pinch of salt to the boiling water and drop the matzah balls in. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes or until cooked through. Serve soon or, with a slotted spoon, transfer to a container. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Reheat matzah balls in soup.
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.
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