Sink or Swim With Matzoh Ball Soup

What’s more calming than a bowl of matzoh ball soup? Is there any other elixir that can defeat the blues, kill a cold, warm up the body, or just so nourish the soul? Your mind won’t be pleased when a large soup plate stands in front of you: a rich golden chicken broth with a touch of fresh herbs, lemon and pepper, carrots swaying up and down, all swirling around the main event – bigger than a golf ball, but smaller than a baseball – the matzoh ball?

Today the matzoh ball steps into its annual headlining role as the heart of the Passover seder. This weeklong Jewish holiday commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and their deliverance from the last and most devastating of the ten plagues of Egypt when the Lord “passed over” their homes while slaughtering every firstborn in the land.

Eating the Passover seder is very symbolic: eggs symbolize spring and renewal; Haroset – a paste made from wine, nuts, and apples – is a symbol of the mortar that the Jews used to build the pyramids of Egypt. bitter herbs represent the pain of slavery; and matzoh represents the unleavened bread that the Hebrews took with them on their flight from Egypt, led by Moses to the promised land. While Passover may vary depending on family traditions, the matzoh ball soup is one of the most popular dishes in the Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) tradition.

								 				Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

For the duration of the Passover, to honor the trials of their ancestors, and commanded by God in Exodus 12:14: “You shall not eat leaven; You shall eat unleavened bread in all the places where you live. “Jews don’t eat anything made with yeast or something that resembles bread, such as cakes and cookies, and instead eat flat, cracker-like matzoh.

When the Jews emigrated to Eastern Europe, they discovered and adopted the region’s popular dumplings, known as dumplings or klyotska in Russian, and these words gave the word for dumplings in German-Yiddish, knaidel (or kneydl), its vowels and consonants. During Passover, Jews made their knaidel dumplings out of matzoh to meet the holiday dietary requirements, and when they were forced to flee from another authoritarian regime in the nineteenth century, they took matzoh and knaidel with them, where they are still enjoyed today Delis across North America.

Matzoh became mainstream in the nineteenth century thanks to a Lithuanian rabbi named Abramson who assumed the identity of a dead man to avoid conscription in the Russian Empire. The rabbi became Dov Behr Manischewitz and began making matzoh in Cincinnati after he emigrated to the USA. Thanks to clever marketing, Matzoh was soon no longer just for Passover.

I consider myself a connoisseur of matzoh ball soup, one of my main sources of food as a student in New York City. I spent many beautiful Sundays scouring the five boroughs in search of the ultimate matzoh ball experience: from Katz to Barney Greengrass; 2nd Avenue to the Brooklyn Diner; The Carnegie Deli to Sarge’s – I’ve never settled on a winner, but I do make quality control visits whenever possible to consider the relative merits of each deli. I also had really innovative matzoh ball soups in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Each place has its own stamp on the dish, like a shot of paprika in Budapest or a touch of mint in Jerusalem.

								 				Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Like its German and Russian cousins, matzoh balls are soft, pliable dumplings, but while dumplings and klyotska are often stuffed with meat, smothered in sauce, or used to stretch a hearty stew, matzoh balls mostly float in broth. They are just as easy to make as their Eastern European counterparts – by combining matzoh flour, eggs and … then opinions will split and there will be fights over the remaining ingredients. There are two challenges here: First, compliance with kosher Jewish laws, which prohibit the joint serving of meat and dairy products and make it impossible to use butter, cheese or cream to tie the dumplings. Passover prohibits the use of yeast or the like, including baking soda, which could make the dumplings a desired light, pillow-like airiness.

And so the debate rages in the Jewish world: How can you make the best matzoh balls while complying with religious and dietary laws and preferences? Would you like a “sinker” or a “float”, a denser ball of matzoh that absorbs the broth and sinks to the bottom of the pot after boiling, or a “float” that rocks on the surface?

								 				Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

To answer these questions, I spent several lovely afternoons in the kitchen testing various authorities, from Claudia Roden to Aunt Shirley of my friend Avi. I agree with the notion that fried chicken, or rendered chicken fat, is key to both taste and texture. Beat a few egg whites makes a much lighter ball, and the longer remainder of the batter adds significantly to the consistency and texture. I agree with the increasingly popular notion that you need some flavor in a matzoh ball – although this should be complementary to what is in the broth. In the recipe below, I’ve gone with white pepper and turmeric and lots of fresh herbs. One trick often whispered in the ears of matzoh ball soup makers is to use seltzer instead of water, but I’ve always used ginger ale because someone who whispered that in my ear would claim all sorts of magical properties make my matzoh balls so light that they could even fly like a balloon. And who am I to argue with magic?

While I was testing the recipes, Jenn Louis’ authoritative and addicting The Chicken Soup Manifesto: Recipes From Around The World arrived on my desk, which contained two fantastic matzoh ball soup recipes. Her suggestion to leave the balls in their poaching fluid but keep them out of the heat for some extra time has helped put the sinker-versus-swimmer feud to rest forever: Using Louis’ method, these matzoh balls sink, then swim and sink again after absorbing much of them fluid. Perfection.

Chag Pesach Samech to everyone celebrating Passover this week!

Research into the history of matzoh in America from Gil Marks’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”.

								 				Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Herby Matzoh ball soup


For the matzoh balls

  • 1 ⅓ cup (315 ml) matzoh flour
  • 5 eggs (3 of which separate in egg yolk and white)
  • ⅓ cup (80 ml) of Schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), melted and cooled
  • ⅓ cup (80 ml) ginger ale
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped chives
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) finely chopped parsley and dill

For the soup

  • 1 pound (500 grams) of chicken wings
  • 2 bone and skin chicken breasts
  • A bouquet garni: thyme, rosemary and parsley tied together or wrapped in cheesecloth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ⅓ cup (80 ml) apple cider vinegar
  • 1 piece of fresh ginger cut into coins
  • 2 pieces of fresh turmeric, cut lengthways
  • 1 yellow onion, still quarter with the skin
  • 1 tbsp whole cloves
  • Salt and peppercorns
  • 3 carrots peeled and cut into rounds
  • ½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped herbs like parsley, basil, dill, and thyme

								 				Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Jennifer Eremeeva / MT


Make the soup

  • Rinse the chicken breasts thoroughly, then transfer them to a large heavy-bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven and add enough cold water to cover them with 2 inches. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, the bay leaves and the bouquet garni with a tablespoon of freshly chopped peppercorns and simmer slowly. Use a slotted spoon to remove any accumulated foam from the surface. When the water just comes to a boil, remove the saucepan from the heat, cover it, and poach the breasts for 90 minutes – 2 hours.
  • Use tongs to remove the chicken breast from the liquid and remove the meat from the bones and skin. Don’t worry if the meat seems a little under cooked: it ends up in the soup. Place the meat in an airtight container and refrigerate until you’re ready to assemble the soup.
  • Pour the remaining liquid, skin, bones, bay leaves and bouquet garni into a large bowl. Wipe the soup pot and return to the stove. Heat the olive oil over medium to high heat and sauté the chicken wings for 3-5 minutes until they develop a nice, deep golden brown color. Turn the wings over and sauté them on the other side for 2-3 minutes.
  • Add the wild water, the chicken bones and skin, the bay leaves, the bouquet garni, the apple cider vinegar, the ginger, the turmeric, the onion and the cloves and stir. Slowly bring the saucepan to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer on the lowest possible heat for 2-3 hours. *
  • When the broth has boiled, strain it through a fine-mesh strainer or sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Discard the solids. Try the broth and adjust the seasonings with more salt and pepper if necessary. Then let the broth rest overnight. You can remove the accumulated fat from the surface if you want, or leave it there.

Make the matzoh balls

  • Combine the matzoh meal, chopped herbs, salt, white pepper, and ground turmeric together in a large bowl.
  • Separate three of the eggs and add their yolks to the remaining two eggs. Put the three egg whites aside. Add the ginger ale and melted Schmaltz to the egg mixture and whisk briefly to combine.
  • Beat the three egg whites until they form stiff tips. Fold them in the egg yolk mixture, then fold this mixture into the dry ingredients. Don’t overmix.
  • Press the plastic wrap against the matzoh ball mixture and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours.

Assemble the soup

  • Simmer the carrots in the chicken stock until they are pliable.
  • Bring a large saucepan of cold, well-salted water to a boil.
  • Shape the matzoh mixture into golf ball-sized balls and carefully drop them into the boiling water. Cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and let the balls simmer for 30 minutes without removing the lid. After 30 minutes, take the saucepan off the stove and let the balls sit in the liquid for another 30 minutes.
  • Chop up the poached chicken breast fillets, place the meat in the stockpot and warm through. Just before serving, add the chopped herbs.
  • When the matzoh balls are ready, place one or two in each bowl, then scoop the hot chicken soup around the balls. Serve immediately.

* If you have a slow cooker or instapot, use these to make the broth. Their ability to maintain a consistently low temperature is ideal for this type of “low and slow” broth.

								 				Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

Jennifer Eremeeva / MT

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