Matzo for Passover

The unleavened "bread of freedom"

click to enlarge Matzo toffee - ASHLEY MEYER
Ashley Meyer
Matzo toffee

Signs of spring are everywhere. In addition to spring flowers and chocolate, large displays of matzo have appeared in grocery stores just in time for the Passover holiday, which begins April 15 at sundown. Passover commemorates the Israelites' exodus from slavery and lasts for eight days in the diaspora. The Seder meal is a culinary retelling of that sudden flight and marks the beginning of the eight-day Passover holiday. Matzo is an intrinsic part of that deeply symbolic 15-part feast. Eating the crispy flatbread serves as a reminder that the Israelites' flight was so hasty that there wasn't even time for bread to rise.

I was mostly familiar with matzo in soup form, where the matzo is ground into meal before being delicately mixed with eggs and other ingredients to form a delicate yet hearty dumpling, served in richly flavored chicken broth. I had spoken with chef David Radwine several years back about his mother Leila's recipe for Matzo Ball soup (see "For Passover, taste a culture" https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/for-passover-taste-a-culture/Content?oid=11442276). When I talked with him again recently I asked if his mother had any other ways she used matzo in the kitchen when he was growing up.

"I can remember Mom making matzo brei when we were younger...basically scrambled eggs with matzo," he explained. "She used schmaltz – rendered chicken fat. It's not something that everyone has around these days, but back in the day you didn't throw anything away. So we used every part of the animal, the bones, the skin and the fat too. Mom would crumble it up in a colander and run some water over it, just to soften it up a little bit. She'd beat up the eggs with a little salt and pepper and mix in the crumbled matzo and then fry it in the schmaltz. There's a softness to it, but there can be a crisp edge to it as well. Everyone makes it a little different."

The following morning was bright with spring sunshine cold and breezy, and I came in from walking the dog wind-whipped and hungry. The box of matzo I'd picked up the day before was sitting on the counter and my stomach growled at the idea of a plate of warm, carb-laced eggs. I opened the box and removed a sheet of matzo – basically a large square cracker that's been perforated to keep it from puffing up. It has a flavor similar to a water cracker.

I rinsed the crumbled cracker under the tap just as Radwine said his mother used to do, and I was amazed at the intense, toasty aroma that filled the kitchen. Next came the unmistakable savory aroma of onion-laced schmaltz. (It should surprise no one who knows me that I have a jar of reserved chicken fat in the freezer. It is culinary gold. You can also buy rendered duck fat at Robert's Seafood Market in Springfield.) It all came together just like any other plate of eggs, but the chewy-soft texture of the matzo, layered with the savory schmaltz and fresh spring chives, was a supremely comforting and delicious breakfast.

Matzo can also be used to crumb chicken or fish, or used as a crumb crust for a pie or quiche. Their large size makes them an ideal base for quick individual pizzas, a new favorite amongst my kids. Another delicious preparation is this recipe for matzo toffee, adapted from a recipe that originally used saltines.

Matzo toffee

4 sheets matzo

1 cup of unsalted butter

1 ½ cups dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon salt

8 ounces chocolate chips (a mixture of light and dark works well)

Toppings such as dried fruit, nuts or toasted coconut, optional

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, taking care to cover all the edges, then line the bottom of the pan with parchment. Arrange the matzo on the baking sheet, breaking it as needed to fit it on the tray.

Bring the butter and sugar to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook until smooth, about two minutes. Add vanilla and salt then quickly pour over the matzo and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake until bubbly, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top. Once melted, use a spatula to smooth the top and sprinkle with toppings as desired.

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