I’m turning this post over to my brother while I start planning Easter dinner. Its a crazy religious whirl we live in on Forest Street. The pictures (aside from the one that is pretty clearly a pot of matzoh ball soup) have nothing to do with the narrative, and I have not shifted to the frame-by-frame instructional style favored by some bloggers. They are just pictures from last night’s Seder preparations, and I hope that they give you a window into what this celebration means to my family.
I am the younger brother of your Forest Street culinary maven. I am by no means a foodie, so my contribution is strictly to bring a little color commentary to the Pesach table. Think of me as a half-Jewish Dick Vitale; often inane, occasionally embarrassing, and bald. But like Vitale, I hope with a rare ripple of wit and insight into the game.
For some years, I have become the designated maker of the vat (schissle, in the argot) of matzo balls for our family Seder. I am not a particularly talented cook, but I took the time to learn the art of making knedlach (Yiddish name) from my maternal grandmother. Since Annie is putting on the Seder this year, I am again taking my place as the soup maker.
For those who’s life hasn’t touched the matzo ball, imagine essentially a dumpling soup. Since the Seder meal has to be devoid of any leavened meal, the knedlach are made of Matzo meal. Served in chicken broth, very simple, and quite filling.
I do not use any exotic recipe. I wish I had a great story about Tante sneaking the recipe out of Minsk intact; instead Bernice (my beloved late grandmother) just made them extemporaneously. I learned early from her never to ask exact quantities; her invariable answer was “just use enough.” The basic recipe is matzo meal, eggs, shortening, salt, and chicken stock. The true art is in proportions, and desired texture, and ease.
The ratio of meal to eggs to shortening, at least according to Manischewitz (Hoyle to the Old Testament set) is 2 eggs, 2 tbsp shortening to 1/2 cup of Matzo meal. This makes pretty standard, fluffy balls. This brings up controversy number one – floaters versus sinkers. My grandmother’s family was distinctly in the sinker camp; firm balls that often needed a knife to cut. To get a firmer ball, it’s a simple matter of lowering the egg part of the egg-to-meal ratio to the desired firmness. Bernice made them closer to one egg to a half-cup of meal. Sinker people and floater people are like Yankee versus Red Sox fans; same sport, different words. I have lightened them up over the years in deference to my father; he is fully convinced that sinkers are the secret weapon that has given the Irgun (Israeli Army) the upper hand for so long.
Shortening is also a question. Bernice rendered chicken fat, and always had some around her kitchen. She also often had the byproduct known as grieven, which is truly one of life’s artery-clogging but mouth watering delights, and the subject of an entire chapter of it’s own. I have done this a few times – simply put chicken skin, onion, and salt and pepper in a skillet and cook until the skin is crispy. Drain off the fat to cool, and enjoy the skin. The taste of matzo balls made with chicken fat is heavenly – nice gloss, and very filling. However, the rendering is a major pain, and unless you are cooking with chicken fat all the time, hardly worth it. Melted and cooled butter works quite well, and is a great time saver.
Start with the eggs, add shortening and blend well, then mix in the meal in your desired proportion. I add a splash of chicken stock (“enough”, in honor of Bernice.) I don’t add any salt – between the chicken stock and the butter, there is plenty. Cover the dough and refrigerate for about 20 minutes. Heat chicken stock to just below a rolling boil; when the dough is firm, take and roll golf-ball sized balls, and ease into the stock. Add a rough chopped carrot, celery greens, and a scored yellow onion. Simmer just below boil for 40 minutes.
To be honest, most of the enjoyment for me is nostalgic. I love making these with my kids, and given my pretty poor retention of the religion it is one of my few nods to the culture. Some might find them insufferably bland, or overly rich; no offense taken. My brother in law correctly identified the amazing transformation of something with the taste and texture of drywall into something quite tasty.
Good Pesach to you all!