It’s not Passover without matzoh balls!

Most Passover seders involve lots of family and friends. Photo by EKS4003 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Most Passover seders involve lots of family and friends. Photo by EKS4003 via Flickr Creative Commons.

It usually happens in early- to mid-March. I’m in my local supermarket, quietly doing my normal shopping, and there it is—a display of Passover foods. Immediately my heart starts to beat a little faster and I feel an impending sense of doom.

Why should the anticipation of Passover—one of the most joyous celebrations in the Hebrew calendar and a time for family togetherness second only to Thanksgiving—cause me such tzuris (a great Yiddish term meaning troubles or woes)?

I’ll tell you why: For those of us who keep kosher, Passover is a whole other dimension!

An 18th century etching of a Portugese seder

An 18th century etching of a Portugese seder

Eat matzoh for seven days!

It all starts with the Book of Exodus 12:15: Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day.

From this simple command we developed a system of religious practices that include:

  • cleaning your house thoroughly, from top to bottom, to rid it of anything that might contain any trace of anything leavened.
  • making sure any packaged or processed foods are not only kosher but “certified kosher-for-Passover,” with no ingredients that are leavened or that could become leavened.
  • packing away all the dishes, silverware, pots and pans and small appliances you use all year round and replacing them with “Passover” dishes and utensils that you use only during the eight-day festival (it’s still seven days in Israel, eight days everywhere else). Often these are stored in the basement or garage and the changeover involves much schlepping. And when you keep kosher, you need separate sets of everything for milk and meat. Unless you go vegetarian, this means two sets of Passover dishes, utensils and pots.

Those of us who host the festive seder meal on one or both of the first two nights of Passover usually have many guests, requiring a mammoth amount of cooking. But the cooking can’t start until all the “regular” dishes have been put away and the Passover dishes brought out.

Spring cleaning on steroids

And we can’t bring out the Passover dishes until we’ve thoroughly cleaned every room where we’ve had food during the year. In the kitchen, we have to scour every nook and cranny, including the refrigerator, freezer, oven, stovetop, microwave, cabinets and countertops. It’s spring cleaning on steroids! Once the kitchen is “kashered” (made kosher) for Passover, we can no longer eat “regular” food there, so we have to carefully plan our menus for the week leading up to the holiday. Although fruits and vegetables, kosher meat, fish, eggs and many dairy products do not require special Passover certification, it still takes effort to keep the “Passover” separate from the “regular.”

So there’s no cooking and freezing for the big meal weeks in advance like we can do for other holidays. Usually the kitchen isn’t Passover-ready until a day or two before the holiday starts, and then there’s a frenzy of cooking and baking in the few days leading up to the seder.

As I write this, my stomach starts to clench, along with my jaw.

Even in households where the husband is super-supportive, the wife is the chief executive officer of Passover prep, making the to-do lists and issuing orders to anyone else unfortunate enough to live there. Most of us women start the holiday exhausted.

Many years ago I worked for a hospice that served an interfaith population and was encouraging “cultural competency” among the staff. As Passover approached, I wrote a piece for the employee newsletter about what the care staff might expect to see in a Jewish home as Passover approached.

The staff rabbi thought it was funny because it showed such a female perspective. I wrote about cleaning and food, nothing about the wonderful spiritual aspects of the holiday. “Hmph,” I thought, “only the men have the luxury to think about the spiritual aspects of this holiday!” And furthermore, I thought, his wife was probably as overwhelmed as I was!

Matzoh balls cooking; photo by Food Mayhem via Flickr Creative Commons.

Matzoh balls cooking; photo by Food Mayhem via Flickr Creative Commons.

A time to celebrate at last!

But once the food has been cooked and the family and friends gather around the festive table, we are able to relax. Then Passover changes from a dire burden to my favorite holiday of the year. Then I can enjoy the seder, which is a retelling of the reason for the festival: We were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us forth with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and now we are free.

The quintessential Passover food, besides matzoh itself, is matzoh balls, also known as knaydlach (just one is a knaydl)—which is Yiddish so you can spell it any way you want in English: knaidlach, kneydlach, kneidlach. They are so good we eat them year-round, something that can be said about very few kosher-for-Passover foods.

Here is my recipe for matzoh balls, but let me give you a caveat. You need to get a feel for the mixture before you let it rest. It can’t be too loose or your matzoh balls will fall apart. It can’t be too hard, or your matzoh balls will be rubbery instead of fluffy.

If the mixture seems a little too soupy after you’ve added the matzoh meal, sprinkle in a few teaspoons more, but realize that the mixture will thicken quite a bit as it rests. When you first make up the mixture, it should not be stiff enough to form balls.

I recommend starting with the stated amounts for the ingredients. When you’ve made matzoh balls a few times, you’ll be able to tell if the consistency feels right or needs adjustment.

One more note: rendered chicken fat makes the best matzoh balls, but I realize that few of us have chicken fat on hand these days. You can use solid vegetable shortening or margarine instead.

You can make the matzoh balls any size you like. I like them large, one per person, and this recipe will make about eight large balls. If you want to serve two per person, just make them smaller.

This recipe can easily be halved if there are just a few of you, or doubled to serve a crowd.

Enjoy the matzoh balls in a steaming bowl of chicken soup. (The photo with the recipe is by Hot Hungarian Chef via Flickr Creative Commons.)

 

Challah tops our list of holy breads

WELCOME to FeedTheSpirit with host Bobbie Lewis. 

Bobbie and Joe Lewis with our first challah!

Bobbie and Joe Lewis with our first challah!

BREAD is a cornerstone of faith and ritual, Lynne Meredith Golodner writes in her book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, the first in a series of books about the many ways food carries rich associations with religious traditions. In Judaism, Lynne points out, the bread known as challah is the hallmark of the weekly Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

What most people don’t know is that “challah” actually refers not to a loaf made with eggs and oil but to the separation of a small portion of the dough before the bread is baked. In Numbers (15:17-21) the Israelites were commanded to take some of the dough and give it to the Temple priests as a “contribution for the Lord.” Since the Temple no longer exists, we fulfill this commandment by taking a piece of dough at least the size of an olive and burning it. This small sacrifice also reminds us of the destruction of our holiest site. Separating and burning a piece of the dough is called “taking challah.”

How do you pronounce and spell challah?

One word; many spellings. I spell this type of bread with a “ch” because the first sound is guttural, like in the German “ach.” But below you’ll see it spelled with just an “h” because that’s the way the recipe creator spells it. It’s a Hebrew word – there’s no “correct” English spelling!)

How do you make challah?

Jewish Catalog

Our oft-used copy of The Jewish Catalog

For us, challah is a life-long tradition. Soon after my husband and I were married we bought The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit. It became our guide as we created new traditions of our own from ancient customs. The book had a whole chapter on challah, including recipes and diagrams showing how to make braids with three, four or even six ropes of dough.

That photo of Joe and me with our very first challah was taken in 1973. We’re smiling—but the truth is: That loaf was hard as a rock! Completely inedible! We literally used it as a doorstop. I’m guessing we didn’t let the dough rise properly.

Needless to say, we’ve gotten a lot better at bread baking! Since he retired a year and a half ago, Joe has been baking all our bread. He tried a bunch of different challah recipes, but has stuck with this one, adapted from The Hallah Book: Recipes, History, and Traditions by Freda Reider. We eat it every Friday night to welcome the Sabbath!

HOW DO YOU WEAVE OR BRAID A CHALLAH LOAF?

Don’t worry! It’s easier than it looks!

Many cookbooks have step-by-step photos and sketches, but millions of cooks go online these days. Joe and I just added to the YouTube collection of challah videos with this little gem we produced in under 2 minutes! Most braided challah instructions show three strands. Joe likes to use four! So, if you really want to impress friends and family with an elaborately woven loaf—check out this 2-minute video featuring Joe at work.

Tah Dah! A four-strand challah!

today's challah

We’ve gotten better at this!

And here we are with the finished product! I put myself in the picture for symmetry’s sake—I can’t take any credit for this one!

Another good challah recipe comes from one of my children’s favorite grade school teachers. Riva Thatch taught Hebrew at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Mich. for many years, and gave this recipe to all her students. My daughter, Miriam Gardin, says she was impressed by Mrs. Thatch not only because she was an excellent teacher but because of her efforts to survive the Holocaust.

“It wasn’t just luck; it was a lot of her own initiative, strength and creativity that got her through,” Miriam says, looking back more than 20 years. “I also remember her teaching us that they made soap in the ghetto from ashes and I thought that was almost unbelievable. Soap from ashes? No way! But Mrs. Thatch was totally believable!”

You can find Mrs. Thatch’s wonderful recipe, along with many more, in Lynne Meredith Golodner’s new The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

Now it’s your turn!

Have you ever made bread “from scratch”?

What did you learn from the experience?

What bread traditions reflect your faith or your family’s culture?

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