What food eaten during Pesach causes the most debates? If you guessed matzah balls, you’re right. Should they be hard or light? Big or small? What secret ingredient should be added to them?
From where did matzah balls, or kneidlach, originate? German Jews had a dumpling that they put into their soup called knodel. From this came the Yiddish term kneydl, singular, or kneydlach, in the plural. In Czech, it is known as knedliky. Dumplings have been in Central European cookery since the Middle Ages and then they came to Germany and Eastern Europe later.
So, just how many ways are there to make matzah balls?
Joan Nathan, a friend of mine, who has written a number of cookbooks and is considered a maven of American Jewish cooking, proposes adding chicken fat or vegetable oil plus seltzer, club soda or chicken broth, to make them light and airy. In Jewish Cooking in America, she also relates that some matzah balls, originating in Lithuania, use chicken fat or vegetable shortening and contain a filling made of onion, oil or chicken fat, matzah meal, egg yolk, salt, pepper and cinnamon. The filling is then placed in the middle of the matzah ball before they are cooked in salt water. After cooking in salt water, they are baked 30 minutes then placed in the soup for serving. Joan also has a recipe for matzah balls made in the southern United States, using pecans. In my research, I discovered that some Louisiana Jews add green onions and cayenne pepper.
In her cookbook Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, Joan explains that, in France, matzah balls are called boulettes de paque, krepfle or kneipflich. They are the size of walnuts and not fluffy. They are made from stale bread or matzah soaked in water and dried, and they contain rendered goose fat, vegetable oil or beef marrow, eggs, water or chicken broth, matzah meal, salt, pepper, ginger and nutmeg.
In The New York Times Passover Cookbook, edited by Linda Amster, among the recipes for matzah balls is one by Mimi Sheraton, Times food critic at the time, who used chicken fat and cold water. Another is from Joan’s cookbook Jewish Holiday Kitchen, and she uses ginger and nutmeg. The winning recipe for the first Matzah Bowl contest in New York at the time the Times cookbook was published used vodka and club soda. A low-fat, low-salt version is made with egg whites and vegetable oil. Another style, which is airy, is made with beef marrow, instead of chicken fat, plus nutmeg.
Refrigeration and the temperature of the liquid seem to be key common denominators in many recipes.
Nina Rousso, an Israeli, in her book The Passover Gourmet, uses beaten egg yolks, lukewarm water, melted margarine, salt, parsley, matzah meal and stiffly beaten egg whites folded in. The mixture is refrigerated two hours before making.
In Passover Lite, Gail Ashkenazi-Hankin, an American, combines egg yolks, onion powder, salt, pepper, matzah meal, water and beaten egg whites and chills the mixture 30 minutes.
Zell Schulman, the American author of Let My People Eat, says the key to making light, melt-in-your-mouth, floating matzah balls is to beat egg whites until stiff then fold into the yolks with salt, pepper, cinnamon, matzah meal and optional parsley and refrigerate 15 minutes. A second version combines matzah meal with only the beaten egg whites until they hold peaks, plus parsley, cinnamon, grated carrot and oil, but no egg yolks.
Susan Friedland, the American author of The Passover Table, combines whole eggs with seltzer, salt, pepper, matzah meal and schmaltz, which she refrigerates for one hour. The schmaltz adds the flavour.
Marlene Sorosky, American author of Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays, provides a recipe using ground almonds, ginger and chopped parsley. She chills the matzah balls for one hour.
Edda Servi Machlin, whose family has 2,000-year-old roots in Italy, says her family serves a mix between Italian Passover soup and Ashkenazi chicken soup. Her matzah balls are made of chopped chicken, egg, broth, olive oil, salt, pepper, nutmeg and matzah meal. The batter is refrigerated one hour before making.
Other Italian Jews, who call the matzah balls gnocchi di azzaima, add onions or mashed potatoes to the dough or grated lemon rind.
An aside: In 2001, Ariel Toaff, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, who is the son of Rome’s chief rabbi, came out with a book called Mangiare alla Giudia (Eating the Jewish Way). He devotes a chapter to Passover traditions, and writes that matzah was so popular that the Catholic authorities banned Jews from selling matzah to non-Jews and banned Christians from eating it.
Italian bakers also baked different kinds of matzah: plain for intermediate days, shmurah matzah for the sederim, and matzah made with white wine, eggs, sugar, anise and goose fat for those with more rich tastes.
Jews of Italy even developed sfoglietti or foglietti, a kosher-for-Passover pasta made with flour and eggs, which was then quickly dried and baked in a hot oven and served in soup or with a sauce.
Joyce Goldstein, an American fascinated by Italian Jewish cuisine, describes, in Cucina Ebraica, a combination of ground chicken, egg, matzah meal, salt, pepper and cinnamon, which she refrigerates before cooking in soup, but she does not say for how long.
Sonia Levy, a native of Zimbabwe, wrote a cookbook of her community, called Traditions. She describes luft kneidlach, light matzah balls, made with matzah meal, water, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger, eggs and oil. These must be refrigerated at least half a day. She adds that you can also make a pit with a finger and insert chopped meat that has been mixed with fried onions and spices. Another Zimbabwe version uses egg, cold water, chicken fat, salt, pepper, ginger and matzah meal.
Ruth Sirkis, an Israeli, in A Taste of Tradition, says “air” matzah balls have eggs, matzah meal, salt, chicken soup and chicken fat and are refrigerated two hours.
Another version, by Anya von Bemzen and John Welchman in Please to the Table: A Russian Cookbook, has walnut balls for soup, which are made by the Georgian Jews using ground walnuts, onion, egg, matzah meal, oregano, salt, pepper and a froth egg white.
A couple of last pieces of matzah ball trivia. In 2008, a New York kosher delicatessen held its annual matzah ball-eating competition to raise money for a shelter for the homeless. The winner ate 78 matzah balls in eight minutes. Although not in the Guinness Book of World Records, a few years ago, the largest matzah ball was measured at 17.75 inches across and weighed more than 33 pounds.
And, lastly, among some ultra-Orthodox Jews, matzah balls are not eaten because they expand when they cook, and they consider this reaction a form of leavening.
Regardless of the style of matzah balls you prefer, just make plenty for your guests!
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.