Kosher chefs offer tips for learning to love matza

‘You’ve got to strive to not have your cake and eat it, too’

Matzah, eat with care. (photo credit: Sophie Gordon / Flash 90)
Matzah, eat with care. (photo credit: Sophie Gordon / Flash 90)

When it comes to matzo, Chicago chef Laura Frankel says hers is a love-hate relationship.

“Matza and I are frenemies,” she says of the unleavened bread. “On one hand, matza is a food you want to be proud of — it’s part of who we are as Jews. But frankly, it usually tastes like cardboard.”

During Passover, leavened breads and most grains are prohibited. The tradition is intended to recall the flight of the Jews from Egypt after they were freed by the pharaoh. As the story goes, they had no time to let their bread rise before baking it. So today, matza — the production of which is a highly regulated process — is central to Passover meals.

It can be eaten as is, or ground into coarse crumbs or even a fine cake meal and used in the same manner as traditional flours.

‘Matza is a food you want to be proud of  . . . But frankly, it usually tastes like cardboard’

“Every year, people will tell me they made brownies with matza cake flour and they were even better than the real thing,” says Frankel, author of the cookbook “Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes.” When she hears this, she usually thinks, “No, they’re not,” but keeps that to herself.

Leah Schapira, an Israeli-born kosher cook, has a more comfortable relationship with matza. Schapira — who co-authored the recent cookbook “Passover Made Easy” — is happy to munch matza plain, but when cooking with it tends to treat it as a blank canvas upon which to build dishes. She notes that these days, matza is available in many varieties — including whole wheat — many of which taste quite good.

The matza toffee bar crunch from her book is a great example of using matzo creatively. It’s reminiscent of the popular confection usually coated with chopped nuts, but her version melds similar flavors with the toasty, crunchy qualities of the matzo. Schapira, who has four kids, also uses it as a “crust” for pizza (though she cautions that a very hot oven is key to ensuring the matza doesn’t get soggy).

She and writing partner Victoria Dwek say it’s essential not to be fooled into thinking that using matzo crumbs and meal is the same as using flour or breadcrumbs, and they recommend not going out of your way to try to use matza products to re-create dishes you might make at other times of the year.

Don’t go out of your way to try to re-create dishes made at other times of the year

Frankel points out that matza, unlike leavened breads, doesn’t have developed glutens (a protein that helps bread rise), so baked goods using matzo meal and cake meal won’t have the same textures as ones made with traditional flour.

One of Frankel’s tricks for baking and cooking with matza meal and cake meal is to start out by emulsifying it by whipping it together with olive oil and egg, almost like making a mayonnaise. She uses this technique when making a matza cake meal-based coffee cake, and achieves very light and fluffy results.

Another favorite during Passover is fried green tomatoes made with a seasoned matzo crumb coating. But she also regularly makes stews and soups thickened with a roux made by browning matza meal and either olive oil or chicken fat. And as much as Frankel has her love-hate relationship with matza, she ends up embracing it with plenty of culinary flair.

“The key thing,” she says, “is you’ve got to strive to not have your cake and eat it, too.”

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