Matzo meal (+ an interview with Leah Koenig).
How this simple bag of ground crackers is so firmly rooted in my identity both as a cook, but as a person too.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on matzo meal: the kosher kitchen staple and key matzo ball soup ingredient that can be used for everything from breadcrumbing fried fish to binding meatballs, and which becomes essential to everyday cooking when leavened bread is rejected during Passover, which starts this year on April 15th.
For paid subscribers click here for my recipes for my Asian-style Tuna & Kimchee Cakes with Cucumber Salad, Matzo Balls in Herby Lemon & Ginger Broth, and my Fried Fish with Homemade Tartare Sauce.
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Jewish food is the only part of my identity I’ve never struggled with.
I don’t believe in god, for one thing, organised religion as a concept makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable, and growing up, with a mother who married an atheist from a Christian family, and attending a Cathedral school, I’ve genuinely spent more of my life in churches than synagogues: I can recite whole prayers, psalms and hymns by rote, but I have zero Hebrew, and just a minor lexicon of Yiddish slang.
I never really identified as ‘Jewish’ until I became an adult, even though I always knew according to the Jewish way of life I can’t avoid being Jewish by virtue of the fact my mother is a Jewish woman. It’s a story for another day, but it was when I properly realised that I was experiencing antisemitism for the first time (I had in fact been experiencing it all my life but it is so ingrained in the British Jewish experience that we ourselves often don’t even realise it at first - David Baddiel’s brilliant book Jews Don’t Count explains this brilliantly and is the most accurate explainer of my lived experience I’ve ever come across) that I realised that my Jewishness is part of my identity, and something I can’t simply ignore.
I know I’m never going to ‘find God’ as some versions of Christianity describe it, but over the past few years I have made a bit more of an effort to find out more about where my people have come from and what they have been through through the only research medium I feel comfortable with in my utter ignorance of more than just the bare bones of how being Jewish is supposed to work: cooking.
People expect me to have all these Jewish food memories, and I sort of do, but only for really specific things. My Ma-ma’s Lockshen Pudding (written about in 2014 for Food52), the challah, wursht1 (delicious dipped in beaten egg and fried), viennas2 and gefilte fish balls (which sparked a lifelong love, it’s disturbing how many of those things I can put away in one sitting) she and my Pa-pa used to bring from the Jewish deli’s in Whetstone on their drive down to visit us, the stunning lox bagel from the bakery around the corner when us bridesmaids were getting our hair done for my cousins wedding, the salt beef sandwich at the Brass Rail in Selfridges. But my love for latkes, matzo brei, and rugelach? Those all came to me as I explored Jewish cooking in cookbooks as an adult, not from childhood memories. Matzo meal became a store cupboard staple for me because I’d had, just once, my grandmothers delicious fried fish coated in it so when I saw it in the kosher section of the big Sainsbury’s on the Whitechapel Road (a kosher section! In a regular British supermarket!) during my first student kitchen supply run I grabbed a bag.
A few cookbooks have been essential to me gradually working my way through a typical Jewish kitchen: in my student apartment in Los Angeles one of the four cookbooks I owned was The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook where through it Deb Perelman - another Jew who believes that a life without bacon is not a life worth living - held my hand through some of the classics, but ‘exploring my identity through cooking’ only really became something I wanted to do when I was gifted a copy of Leah Koenig The Jewish Cookbook by her publishers. I know Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food is supposed to be the definitive book on Jewish eating around the world, and it is such a brilliant essential, (and of course there are the Jewish food writers like Evelyn Rose who fill my families shelves but who don’t get much love outside of the Jewish community) but so is Leah’s book, for a new generation.
It seems only natural, therefore, that I bring you ingredient’s first ever interview with Leah Koenig, Jewish food writer extraordinaire, the brains behind that Jewish food bible and author of The Jewish Table newsletter here on Substack. But before I turn things over to Leah, what exactly *is* matzo meal, and why it is so essential to Jewish cooking?
Well, to explain matzo meal first I need to explain matzo, those big, flat, almost square crackers you’ll find in every Jewish home. Matzo are a staple, but during the festival of Passover, which starts next Friday, they take on a new, deeper meaning which touches at the heart of what even I understand as what it means to be fundamentally Jewish.
The story of Passover (or Pesaḥ) is one of the only Jewish festivals I don’t have to Google. Celebrating the exodus of the enslaved Jews of Egypt, the concept of ‘Passover’ relates to how the biblical plague of Egypt that took the first born son of every household ‘passed over’ the homes of the Israelites. Matzo represents the flat, unleavened bread the Israelites fled with, with not enough time to allow their bread to rise as Moses led them out into the desert. You only need to take a look at the later history of the Jewish people - and at the world today - to see the symbolism in this simple Passover eat. We are a people who have had to flee, over and over again.
As part of the festival it is forbidden to eat any leavened or yeasted products, such as bread or pasta to commemorate the exodus and in remembrance and celebration that we are now free. So, you can imagine as a carb that is allowed, matzo not just takes on symbolism as part of the Passover meal, but it becomes a staple and appears everywhere and for every meal; think matzo avocado toast, matzo lasagna, type ‘Passover Matzo Recipes’ into Google and you’ll find the creativity and ingenuity relating to this symbolic cracker is endless.
Matzo meal, simply ground up matzo that tends to come in both regular (which is about the texture of dried processed breadcrumbs) and fine, is an extension of this, stepping out of its traditional use as the base of matzo balls and as a coating for fried fish and into a fine role as breadcrumb substitute during Passover. Which is mostly how I use it, because ‘Jewish food’ is just one of a myriad of cuisines I might be exploring on any given week.
So, for a more ‘Jewish’ perspective (I know, I am Jewish, I identify as Jewish, but the imposter syndrome is real, do let me know if it gets any easier?) over to Leah (who is in my mind a ‘real’ Jewish cook). I found her answers to my questions interesting - especially that she does not use matzo meal as much as I do in her kosher home - because not growing up in one, and the only one I remember being in the South of France where Jewish products were rarely available - I don’t actually have my own point of reference as to what is usual and what is normal.
First off, how would you describe your ‘Jewish’; cooking style? Would you even describe the way you cook everyday, I mean when you’re cooking just for you or your family rather than for work, as ‘Jewish’ cooking?
My weekday cooking style skews mostly "American," in that one night I might make grilled chicken with chimichurri, roasted soy-maple salmon with fried rice, or spaghetti and meatballs. We have a ritual with the kids where Saturday is homemade pizza night and Sunday nights are dedicated to chocolate chip pancakes. In other words, I pull a little bit of everything from everywhere. We do keep a kosher home, so everything we cook is Jewish in that sense. But the culinary inspiration is global and cross-cultural in that uniquely American way.
On Friday nights for Shabbat dinner is when I break out the more overtly Jewish cuisine - both the Ashkenazi Jewish dishes I grew up with and the Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewish dishes I have come to love as an adult. There's always freshly-baked challah - I make a big batch and freeze them so we have it at the ready. And I usually have homemade hummus or tahini dip to serve it with. I might make chicken soup with egg noodles, roasted chicken or a vegetable tagine, and kasha varnishkes (toasted buckwheat with egg noodles and caramelized onions - so good!). On the holidays, I also make traditional dishes like potato latkes or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) for Hanukkah or brisket and apple cake on Rosh Hashanah.
It’s Passover, you’ve got a bag of matzo meal on the counter, you’ve just got back from the farmers market with a bag full of produce, and you need to get dinner on the table. What are you going to make?
I honestly don't use a lot of matzo meal on Passover. I prefer to focus on other starches like quinoa and potatoes that are naturally kosher for Passover. But I do use it in the place of breadcrumbs for breaded and pan-fried dishes. I would probably get that bunch of the veggies chopped up and roasting in the oven, and then fry up matzo meal-coated chicken schnitzel. I might also use it as a binder for something like fried salmon patties. And of course, you can't make a good matzo ball without matzo meal, so it makes an appearance at our seder meals as well.
You’ve written extensively on both contemporary Jewish cooking and on Jewish food history, is matzo meal something we pretty much only use in the West, or it something you’ve found is enjoyed and valued across the diaspora?
Many Jewish cultures use crumbled up matzo in some form for their Passover cooking - sometimes the pieces are bigger, as with matzo brei, and sometimes they are more finely ground. Greek and Turkish Jews use crumbled matzo in keftes de prasa, fried leek and ground beef croquettes. They also make a matzo pie called a mina, which is usually filled with either vegetables and cheese or meat and tomato sauce, that uses crumbled matzo that gets softened in water as a base. And Roman Jews make pizzarelle con miele, which are these custardy, fried matzo croquettes studded with raisins and pine nuts and drizzled with honey.
And finally, your favourite recipe (kosher for Passover3 or not) you’ve published using matzo meal?
I love the Passover Pear Cake from my cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking. It's a lovely, tender cake with layers of juicy pears and a pecan, brown sugar, and cinnamon topping. The matzo meal adds nice structure to the cake, without overpower its flavor. You can find it on page 287 of my book, or online here.
So as we’ve already established, while I’ve never kept kosher for anything, let alone Passover, I do increasingly write kosher recipes, so as long as your matzo meal is labelled ‘kosher for Passover’, this months recipes should be too.
Also, I had the pleasure last year of writing a small collection of kosher for Passover recipes for BBC Food a few years ago, using matzo meal if you’re not a paid subscriber (with access to this months matzo meal recipes) but you’d like to get to know this ingredient better, which included traditional Matzo Ball Soup and Flourless Chocolate Matzo Crinkle Cookies, as well as my non-matzo meal containing but still great for Passover Hot Honey Chicken & Sweet Potato Traybake, classic Matzo Brei, and a great recipe for Chocolate Matzo Bark. Also on my blog, back on the matzo meal, I’ve also in the past shared Matzo Meal Pancakes adapted from The Jewish Cookbook to celebrate Pancake Day as would any self respecting non-religious previously church going British Jew.
Turning to this months recipes, shall we start with the matzo balls? All I can say is I’m actually quite thankful J does not like them because I could eat these all the time. Traditionally served in ‘Jewish Penicillin’ (chicken soup!) while I love it, I’ve always honestly thought that there is a lot going on there: why not just make the matzo ball the star instead? Why do we even need the chicken? (Blasphemy, I know.) Well, that is exactly what I’ve done here in this nourishing bowl of Matzo Balls in a Herby Lemon & Ginger Broth. So much of the Jewish food tradition - especially from the Ashkenazi jews of Eastern Europe who make up my DNA - has been plagued by scarcity; it is from my Ashkenazi roots comes my obsession with food waste, and the idea that a good meal can come from the scantest of ingredients. It’s why my matzo balls are made with margarine instead of schmaltz4, and why I’ve designed this recipe to turn fridge scraps (the ends of packets of soft herbs, scraggly halves of half-juiced lemons and those spring onions that are turning woody somewhere at the bottom of the salad drawer), the humble onion, some seasoning and a splash of water, not stock, into an enlivening spring time broth for you to enjoy this lunchtime with a couple of plump matzo balls adding the comforting depth we still need while the weather settles into something warmer.
Next, reminicent of those salmon patties Leah mentioned I’ve made some Asian-style Tuna & Kimchee Cakes - bound with matzo meal instead of breadcrumbs - flavoured with just a little spring onion and lots of my favourite chopped fermented cabbage. The result is a light, surprisingly quick luncheon, delicious served with a chopped cucumber salad.
And finally, I just had to include something that tasted like it came from my families kitchen, but which does not come with the immense pressure (and of course yet another dose of imposter syndrome) I felt when being asked to write the BBC’s only recipe for Challah or Matzo Ball Soup. So, I’ve included simple method for Jewish fried fish, typical served cold on Friday nights when the cooking needs to be done in advance but in my home served hot from the pan (I’ve long since learnt that cold fried fish, like gefilte fish balls is a very Jewish taste not everyone can come around to) with a homemade British-style tartare sauce - made, I’m afraid, with regular Hellman’s mayo, because the one time I tried to make a potato salad with the jar of kosher mayonnaise in my grandparents fridge I was flabbergasted why someone would whip plastic into a sandwich spread, especially when eggs and oil are considered neutral foods, with no impact at all on the rule that meat and dairy should never share the same plate.
Pronounced vorsht, a preserved, neon pink beef sausage with a delicious lunchmeat flavour in spite of the slight (but not wholly unpleasant) metallic aftertaste and one of the few processed foods I was allowed as a child.
Another beef sausage, again bright pink, served in hot dog form. They will also dye the cooking water bright pink, and if they’re sliced and tossed with plain boiled pasta like my Ma-ma used to do for me when I was small, they will turn the pasta bright pink too!
‘Kosher for Passover’ refers to recipes and foods that not only conform with regular Jewish dietary laws, but the Passover rules about avoiding leavened products as well - it is a common term you’ll find in the headnote of many Jewish recipes, and matzo products are labelled accordingly too, for example the matzo we buy in the UK comes in a red box for Passover rather than the regular blue, making sure it is entirely proper for the festival in how it was produced.
Rendered chicken fat.