I started this blog four years ago, as a way to celebrate the life and legacy of my mother’s mother. I’ve neglected it for the past nine-ish months because I was busy focusing on another life: that of my daughter, who was born on an unseasonably warm September morning 17 days ago. (Although: in These Troubled Times, can we really claim weather to be “unseasonably” anything anymore?)
She’s tiny; she’s adorable; she’s the love of our lives, even when she’s blissfully smiling while shooting a projectile poop clear across the room. Perhaps best of all, she’s already proven herself to be a robust and enthusiastic eater—key if she hopes to fit in on either side of her family.
Annie should be on track to start eating solid foods not long before Passover 2020, at which point I might be able to introduce her to a nontraditional but appropriately soft and gum-able baby food: the humble matzo ball. And when she’s old enough to understand it, I’m going to take great pleasure in telling her the story I’m about to tell you—a tale of rivalry, legacy, and matzo meal.
Most of the posts I’ve written here have focused on recipes written (or at least adapted) by my grandmother Sally, whom we called Nonnie. But if you go through Nonnie’s cookbook, you’ll find that it has not one, but two distinct recipes for matzo balls… and five more stuffed into the folder pocket on the inside of its front cover.
Why? Because my paternal grandmother, Sylvia, made better matzo balls than Nonnie did. So Nonnie spent years doing what any sane person would do: trying out every matzo ball she came across in a newspaper or cookbook or on the back of a matzo meal box, all in a quixotic quest to beat Grandma Syl at her own game.
As far as I know, she never quite managed to achieve her goal—which must have tortured Nonnie. She was a woman who prided herself on her cooking prowess; Sylvia also cooked, sure, but she didn’t have nearly the same interest in or flare for food as Nonnie did. It must’ve been especially galling to come in second place on this quintessential dish, probably the most iconic Jewish-American concoction this side of brisket.
I, too, am an ardent and slightly obsessive home cook; I, too, have whiled away more time than I probably should’ve wondering what makes the perfect matzo ball. So this past Passover season, I did a little experiment—cooking my way through the recipes in Nonnie’s cookbook in an attempt to summit Mount Matzo myself. I made a spreadsheet. It was a whole thing.
There was, unsurprisingly, a lot of overlap among the seven options Nonnie had collected, so I wound up paring the list down to the four recipes that seemed most different from one another. Because each of them had basically the same matzo-meal-to-egg ratio, I was mostly testing out how the balls fared when made with different types of fat, in different sizes, and with different types of leavening. (A lot of recipes swear by seltzer; one of the ones I tried also includes baking soda.)
It’s possible that none of these recipes is truly the Jewish holy grail, as it were—that somewhere out there, there’s another, better matzo ball method. But over the course of my experimentation, I do think I wound up stumbling across the ultimate recipe—and making a discovery that would have shaken Nonnie to her very core. (In case you don’t feel like reading through to the very end, the best recipe is… the one on the back of the Manischewitz box. Which also happens to be the “secret recipe” Grandma used for her own superior matzo balls. Oy!)
Recipe No. 1 (a.k.a. Cookbook 1)
2 tablespoons margarine
2 eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons club soda.
Mix fat and eggs. Add remaining ingredients and blend well. Cover and chill for 1 hour. Form balls with ice cream scoop. Cover pot and cook 40 min.
Recipe no. 2 (a.k.a. Newspaper 1)
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
3 tablespoons seltzer
2 tablespoons rendered chicken fat, melted
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup matzoh meal
In a bowl mix the eggs, seltzer, chicken fat, salt and pepper. Gradually stir in the matzo meal until everything is well combined. Chill, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours. [Well, that’s just ridiculous, and obviously I didn’t do it—I left the mixture in the fridge for 30 minutes instead.]
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and using cool, wet hands, shape the matzoh mixture into eight balls about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Reduce the heat to simmering and gently add the matzoh balls. Cover the pot and poach the matzoh balls in the water.
Recipe no. 3 (a.k.a. Newspaper 2)
½ cup water
6 tablespoons melted chicken fat
Ground black pepper
1 cup matzo meal
Beat eggs until just combined. Add water, chicken fat and salt and pepper to taste. Slowly add matzo meal, stirring until it is well mixed. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour.
Bring large pot of water to boil. Mold heaping tablespoon of batter into ball in your moistened hands. Drop ball into boiling water. Repeat procedure until batter is used up. You should have enough to make about 24 matzo balls. Boil matzo balls about 30 minutes.
Serve matzo balls in chicken soup, 2 to 3 per bowl.
Recipe No. 4 (a.k.a. Cookbook 2, which is also identical to Sylvia’s recipe… and the one on the back of the matzo meal box)
1 cup matzoh meal
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup fat [type unspecified, but I doubt either Nonnie or Grandma would have gone to the trouble to use schmaltz]
4 tablespoons club soda
Cover mixture and chill for 1 hour. In salted water, brisk boil—reduce heat. Drop in small balls. Cover pot; cook 25-30 minutes.
The verdict: Well, I already spoiled it above. But in case you want the long version: All four mixes were basically the same in terms of texture and volume. The main difference was that I used vegetable oil and margarine to make the balls from Nonnie’s cookbook, while the balls from the newspaper clippings used chicken fat. All four methods recommended boiling the balls in salted water, not soup, probably to prevent them from drinking up too much chicken stock.
Recipe no. 1 made balls that were huge—they puffed up enormously while cooking—and almost watery tasting, probably because they were so big. They definitely had less flavor than the balls made with chicken fat, even though they also contained more salt. Recipe no. 2 made salty, nicely textured balls; they were fluffy, light, and chicken-forward, puffing up to be about the size of golf balls. Recipe no. 3’s were more like tennis balls; they seemed denser and richer.
It’s Recipe no. 4, though, that really hit the spot—balls that were both toothsome and somehow light, big enough to satisfy without getting giant and watery, with just about the right amount of seasoning.
This is a recipe that Nonnie hand-wrote into her cookbook—and, as I discovered when going over a few recipes from my dad’s side of the family this spring, it’s the same method Grandma used to make her own matzo balls. And, yes, it also happens to be the recipe printed on the back of the Manischewitz box—indicating that there really wasn’t any great secret to Grandma’s balls.
Yet even after she tried this recipe for herself, Nonnie apparently wasn’t satisfied. She kept collecting alternatives; she kept trying to improve upon the simplest, most obvious matzo balls, perhaps having convinced herself that there had to be something else that set Grandma’s apart.
Maybe there’s a lesson here somewhere, a “the matzo balls are always better on the other side of the kitchen” sort of deal. But if anything, the Grandma/Manischewitz matzo balls were only missing the richness of freshly-rendered schmaltz—an issue easily remedied when I combined my matzo learnings into one ultimate franken-recipe, the one I’ll use when I introduce Annie to the only good Passover food this spring.
The final recipe:
1/4 cup matzoh meal
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons schmaltz (or vegetable oil, if you haven’t made chicken soup lately and don’t have chicken fat lying around—they’re better with schmaltz, but not so wildly better that I’d suggest you going out of your way for two tablespoons)
2 tablespoons seltzer (or water, or chicken stock—honestly, the whole “seltzer lightens matzo balls” thing seems like bunk to me, especially considering how little of it all of these recipes call for)
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon white pepper (an innovation imported from one of Nonnie’s recipes—I know white pepper isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I love it in homey stuff like this)
Combine ingredients well and refrigerate for one hour. Form heaping tablespoons into balls with wet hands and add balls to a big pot of salted water. Cook about 30 minutes. Makes 8—so you’ll need to double or triple if feeding a crowd, as at a baby’s first Passover seder.