The appeal of unleavened bread might be limited. At least that’s how the food would sound to anyone unfamiliar with the thin, cracker-like matzo, a Jewish dietary staple that makes a resurgence with the arrival of Passover this time of year.
The common explanation for matzo’s origins is that Israelites had little time to flee Egypt during their Biblical exodus, resulting in bread that had to be flattened and quickly baked. Matzo is thereby eaten as a form of symbolic remembrance at Passover.
But for those of you not observing the holiday, or who choose not to keep kosher, the question becomes this: If you don’t have to eat matzo, why eat it?
Answer? The crunch. The wide surface that takes well to spreads. The random bits of baked flavor. These are reasons to embrace matzo.
Another vital reason is its versatility.
Bon Appétit, The New York Times and Martha Stewart Living have all recommended ways to diversify the Seder, the traditional Passover meal. And all have provided funky new recipes introducing flavors like rosemary and olive oil to toasted matzo.
Then there are matzo balls. I’ve written previously about The Gorbals’ bacon-wrapped matzo balls and Lukshon’s silky, Asian-inflected matzo ball soup. The writer-historian Marcie Cohen Ferris even wrote the definitive book on Jewish Southern food, Matzoh Ball Gumbo. The title recipe incorporates a spicy Creole seasoning into the matzo balls — just another example of how easy it is to improvise, personalize and regionalize a recipe.
But for the traditionalist, the standby matzo recipes still hold strong. However, you must keep in mind that the best matzo — crumbly and buttery with dark, popped bubbles throughout — is prepackaged.
There are plenty of ways to try matzo, both new and old: An open-faced matzo sandwich is like having a bread’s crust without the doughy center. And for those that prefer this crunch, matzo becomes a worthy substitute.
Spreading some grainy mustard on a piece and topping it with some slices of pastrami and a pickled tomato is the stuff of deli dreams.
Keep in mind that Langer’s Delicatessen has the best pastrami, a widely acknowledged fact cemented by a prestigious James Beard award. Langer’s is only three miles from campus, a distance justified as walkable if you’ve ever tasted its “Number 19” sandwich, which flaunts hot slices of pastrami piled high with slaw, cheese and Russian dressing.
Another favorite is Hershey’s-dipped matzo, in which pieces of the unleavened bread are dipped in melted chocolate and left in the freezer until ready for consumption.
The combination of the two flavors, along with the once-a-year joy of matzo and the childhood memories of a melted Hershey’s bar, provides the teary-eyed, first-bite delight only the most special foods inspire.
Matzo often serves as a substitute for other ingredients, too.
Oats fall into a kosher gray area, so if you have the matzo, you might as well do good with it. Matzo granola is a cinch to make, and it tastes better toasted in a skillet than baked in an oven, as granola typically is. Here’s how to make it:
1. Lather a square of matzo with canola oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and generously with sugar and cinnamon.
2. Break over a hot skillet and let cook at medium heat until the sugar has glazed the matzo, and the edges of many pieces turn black, roughly four to six minutes.
3. To finish, add some chopped cinnamon almonds, like those available at Fresh & Easy and some golden raisins.
Finally, there’s matzo brei. Matzo brei gives texture to eggs and a pleasant dampness to matzo, creating a sort of free-form French toast. The recipe — my family’s — is as follows:
1. Break three squares of matzo into uneven, bite-size pieces and soak in warm water for about one minute until wet but not saturated.
2. Take matzo out of water and drain in colander to get the excess moisture out.
3. Mix four eggs in a bowl with a splash of milk until frothy.
4. Add matzo to egg mixture — mix well but carefully, as to not break up the matzo.
5. Heat skillet on medium heat with a dab of butter, enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
6. Add egg/matzo mixture and cook until tender, about four and a half to five minutes, or until desired doneness. You can treat the mixture much like scrambled eggs.
7. Season with salt and sugar or a cinnamon-sugar combination. A side of applesauce is also recommended.
Though using just egg whites is a healthier alternative than including the yolk, the matzo brei will lack significantly in flavor. Texture is important too — the dish is about the doneness of the matzo and wetness of the eggs. You should be appreciating chewiness in one bite, and savoring crisp, burnt pieces the next.
There’s always Langer’s, Nate ‘n Al’s, Canter’s or Barney Greengrass to get your matzo-dish fix too. But when it comes to this kind of comforting Jewish soul food, your own efforts in the kitchen should suffice.
Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” runs Wednesdays.