We're into rapid melt mode. Snow melts, revealing brown grass mud. Robins return, poking around in the sod searching for worms and bugs. Geese honk overhead, announcing the arrival of spring.
This is the time of year for spring festivals. Passover, the oldest festival of the Hebrew liturgical calendar, has been observed for more than 3,000 years. Today, even many non-observant Jews commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery by observing Passover traditions.
During this week-long holiday, bread of any type is forbidden. So is yeast or flour. This commemorates the fact that in the Israelites rush to flee Egypt, there was no time to let bread rise.
In preparation, the house is thoroughly cleaned before the big day, making sure there is no leaven of any sort in it. The ceremonial Seder meal that begins the holiday includes a plate of 3 unbroken matzos, stacked and separated by napkins.
Instead of bread or flour, matzos are used during this special week. These are large, thin, roasted crackers made without any leavening like yeast or baking powder, and baked. They resemble saltine crackers, although they're a bit darker and usually about 6 inches square. Plain matzos are not salty; the ingredients are simply wheat flour and water.
According to Menachem Lubinsky, editor of KosherToday.com, American matzo sales topped $90 million in 2013. American commercial matzos are made by Manischewitz in Newark, NJ and Streit's in New York. There are also several companies in Israel that ship matzo to the USA. And small, artisanal matzo makers like Vermatzah (made in Middletown Springs, Vt.) are springing up around the country.
In addition to the traditional plain unsalted variety, today's matzos come in many flavors, like egg, salt, poppy, garlic or onion. There are Mediterranean style matzos flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil and chocolate covered matzos. You can find a whole wheat version and gluten-free matzos. Even among the plain, traditional matzos, there are numerous brands, some baked in the United States, others imported from Israel. Many varieties of "plain" egg matzos are made with eggs and apple juice in place of water to give the crackers a hint of sweetness. They come almost any way you might imagine them.
Most matzos you buy in the supermarket are machine made, though you can buy hand-made matzos in specialty stores; these are quite expensive. There is also matzo meal - matzo crackers that have been pulverized into crumbs, resembling bread crumbs. These are often used in cooking and baking during Passover week. So is matzo farfel, which is matzo broken into small pellet-shaped pieces and used in place of noodles. You can even buy toasted matzo crumbles to top salads in lieu of croutons, and matzolah is a commercial matzo granola that dubs itself "The Trail Mix of the Exodus."
During the 3,000 or more years that matzos have been used, Jewish cooks have found numerous interesting dishes that incorporate them. Breakfast during this special week is often fried matzo (aka matzo brie), a dish that can be sweet, resembling French toast, or savory, like scrambled eggs. Matzo balls are dumplings made from crushed up matzos and eggs that are usually cooked in chicken soup. I have seen matzos moistened and used to make lasagna, in place of tortillas for enchiladas, or in place of phylo to make spinakopita. There are matzo houses (like gingerbread houses) decorated with a Passover theme use chocolate as mortar. What other interesting matzo creations can you imagine?
Basic matzo brei
1 cup milk
salt and pepper
4 matzo crackers
1 Tablespoon butter
Grated sharp cheese (like Cheddar) optional
Finely minced chives, scallions (green parts) or parsley, for garnish (optional)
In a large bowl, beat eggs with milk, salt and pepper to taste. Crumble matzo into this mixture and let soak about 20 minutes.
While matzo soaks, peel and dice the onion. Heat butter in a large skillet, add onion, and cook 5 to 10 minutes, until translucent. Add soaked matzo and eggs to the skillet. Stir occasionally with a spatula until eggs set. When it is mostly set, divide in thirds or fourths with a spatula and flip over, sprinkle with grated cheese if desired, and cook another 3 to 5 minutes until completely set. Garnish with fresh greens, if desired. Serve right away for breakfast or brunch. Serves 2.
Fruity matzo kugel
3 matzo sheets
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tart apples (about 1 1/2 cups, grated)
1 small carrot (about 1 cup, grated)
2/3 cup red currants, or dried cranberries
1/3 cup chopped walnuts, optional
3 Tablespoons butter, divided
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350. Butter 9-inch-by9-inch baking dish.
In large enough bowl, cover matzos with water. Wait 2 minutes, and drain. Do not squeeze out water.
In another bowl, beat the eggs with sugar and syrup. Stir in the matzos with a wooden spoon.
Melt butter and set aside.
Grate the apples and carrot. Combine with lemon juice and salt, and fold into the matzo mixture. Stir in currants, walnuts, and 2 Tablespoons of the melted butter. Transfer to prepared pan.
In small bowl, combine sugar, cinnamon, and melted butter. Stir well with a fork. Sprinkle this topping over the kugel. Bake about 40-45 minutes, until nicely browned and knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Serve with whipped cream as a dessert.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing.
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