NEW YORK — For most Jews, the unleavened bread is a once a year food eaten during Passover because “you have to.”
Sure, some people try to dress it up with a dollop of horseradish, a smear of softened butter, maybe a drizzle of chocolate. But by and large matzah isn’t something people serve at an elegant cocktail party or munch on during a movie.
At least that was the case before longtime friends Ashley Albert and Kevin Rodriguez got together and co-founded The Matzo Project, an artisanal matzah cracker. Together they hope to elevate matzah into a snappy snack, the kind where you can’t eat just one.
The friends, both originally from Miami, met 30 years ago at Blue Star Camp, a Jewish summer camp in North Carolina. They stayed in touch, seeing each other a few times a year. And they each spent a year of high school in Israel — albeit different years. Then they went off to college and entered the professional world.
Albert became a small-business owner, voice-over artist, and shuffleboard champion. Rodriguez did product development. And then about two years ago they realized they both wanted to do something different.
That’s when Albert casually mentioned that she had matzah on her mind. In fact, she’d had matzah on her mind for more than two decades. And to her surprise, Rodriguez didn’t think she was crazy. In a way, he was used to her outside-the-box business ideas.
“She always has different business ideas,” Rodriguez said.
“It was just one of these things that lay dormant in my strange little jungle of a brain,” Albert agreed. “Like I remember once telling Kevin, ‘You should make Kevin’s Caskets.’ He has a beautiful aesthetic and I thought he could make them out of a single trunk. I had big ideas for Kevin’s Caskets, but that didn’t pan out. So matzah instead.”
The origin of The Matzo Project goes back to 1997, soon after Albert arrived in New York City.
Her mother had come for a visit. While walking around the Lower East Side they passed Streit’s Matzo Factory, which until 2013, was located on Clinton Street.
“If you peeked inside and they noticed you they would give you a slice of matzah fresh from the oven. It was such a magical thing,” Albert said.
‘If you peeked inside and they noticed you they would give you a slice of matzah fresh from the oven. It was such a magical thing’
Although maybe not quite magical enough for Albert’s taste buds. She remembers going around the corner to a deli, finding a little salt packet, and sprinkling it on the hot matzah. Because even when fresh out of the oven, the factory-produced matzo tasted flavorless and stale.
And so when Albert told Rodriguez the story of Streit’s, it just clicked.
“It just spoke to me. I thought about how [matzah is] my tradition but not my lifestyle. How so much of what is Jewish food in stores are in glass bottles, how the kosher chocolate is really vegetable oil,” said Rodriguez, referring to things such as Kosher for Passover chocolates and jarred gefilte fish.
And so was born the Matzo Project. Now sold in more than 100 stores in 17 states as well as online, the kosher — but not kosher for Passover — matzah crackers come in salted rosemary, salted, cinnamon sugar and everything-plus-two (the plus two being paprika and chili flakes).
When Oprah Magazine, exclaimed: “Holey Moses, this stuff could re-part the Red Sea!” they knew they were on to something.
Back when they were getting started they knew that for it to succeed, it had to be flavorful, but still taste like matzah. Something that could pair with goat cheese or be dipped in frosting — yes, frosting.
“We wanted a nice neutral cracker that is undeniably matzah, but crispy like a flat bread and not as heavy as a pita chip,” Albert said.
True matzah is nothing more than flour and water. But, as Rodriguez said, “it’s a lot more complicated than one would realize.”
‘It’s a lot more complicated than one would realize’
It’s finding the correct ratio of flour and water — making sure it doesn’t burn during the 18-minute baking time, and cutting it when it comes out of the oven so it doesn’t crumble — where it starts to get complicated.
Rodriguez got to work on the dough. He tried all kinds flours, from spelt to amaranth. Albert did the blind taste tests at his kitchen table. And so it went, sometimes they enlisted friends and sometimes they enlisted family.
Just figuring out how to properly salt the matzah was an exercise unto itself.
“I was very precise about the number of grains I wanted per inch. I wanted just enough to make the flavor of the matzah pop,” he said.
Much trial and error ensued. On one occasion Albert stood atop an overturned bucket flinging salt across fresh matzah. On another occasion Rodriguez turned an $18 planter he’d bought at Home Depot into a salter, which “worked beautifully but we would have needed someone to stand there and hit it all day long.”
‘I was very precise about the number of grains I wanted per inch’
Finally they found and purchased an $8,000 antique salter. It was, they said, worth every cent. Now the salt doesn’t end up in little uneven hillocks.
The business duo first started baking in a kosher bakery in Coney Island but have since moved to an undisclosed location in Brooklyn. The location is kept secret not because Albert and Rodriguez want to be coy, but to protect their recipe from competitors.
The Matzo Project isn’t stopping with crackers.
There is now an all-natural, vegan Matzo Ball Soup kit, and come autumn, hand-dipped Chocolate Matzo Buttercrunches will be available.
They are also cross-pollinating with other neighborhood specialty food makers such as Ample Hills Creamery. A cinnamon bun-matzah-butter-crunch ice cream, “The Land of Milk and Honey” is in the works, as is Chocolate Tahini Matzo from halvah artisans Seed & Mill.
“Our goal is to fall in line with rye bread. That it isn’t just for Jewish people. We want to find our way into the hearts of the ham and Swiss on rye crowd,” Albert said. “We want this to live in different parts of the grocery store. The matzah crackers might live near the fancy cheese section and the chocolate butter crunch might be in the candy section.”