Passover's just a couple of weeks away. In anticipation of its arrival, today we give you one of Earth's mighty delights: the matzo ball.
Why you need to learn this
Full disclosure: This Irish Catholic writer is as goyish as they come, so, why matzo balls? Why not something more suited to my heritage, like potatoes? Or beer?
Regardless of your heritage, it never hurts to have some traditional dishes under your belt from a variety of traditions. And quite frankly, a bowl of matzo ball soup, at any time of year, makes me happy.
There are probably as many matzo ball recipes as there are grandmothers, and true aficionados tend to divide them into two camps: floaters and sinkers. Matzo balls are commonly found in a bowl of beautifully seasoned chicken broth, and depending on how they're made, they may contain enough air bubbles to cause them to float in that broth. Conversely, they may be so dense that they sink to the bottom of the bowl.
Let's talk about what goes into matzo balls, then, and what ingredients are likely to make them float or sink.
The main ingredient in matzo balls is matzo meal, which is simply ground matzo bread, itself made from flour and water. Available in most supermarkets, matzo meal comes in fine to coarse grinds, not unlike bread crumbs. To make matzo balls, you also need fat. Rendered chicken fat, called schmaltz, is traditional, but you could substitute oil or butter (though butter conflicts with kosher dietary restrictions prohibiting combining meat with dairy). Fat gives matzo balls a smooth texture, a silky mouthfeel and also adds tenderness and flavor, especially schmaltz.
There are a couple ways to get schmaltz: If you're making your own chicken broth (which we heartily recommend), chill it after it's done, and the fat will rise to the top and solidify. Scoop it off and melt it over low heat. Alternately, any time you work with chicken, trim away the extra fat before cooking and render it in a small skillet over low heat. Or, cut chicken skin into small pieces and render the fat. The browned bits, called "gribenes," can be used to garnish other dishes or flavor the matzo balls.
Eggs bind everything together because of the albumen in the whites. Some floater fans whip the whites separately before folding them into the dough to make a lighter product.
Liquid is also needed. This is most often water or chicken stock. For an airier product, substitute soda water or seltzer, and the gas bubbles will lighten the dough. Another way to get bubbles into the dough is with a chemical leavener, such as baking powder.
Generally, you'll need 3 to 4 eggs per cup of matzo meal, along with a 1 to 2 ounces of fat and, if needed, a couple ounces of liquid. One teaspoon of salt should be enough.
The steps you take
1. If you're using whole eggs, beat them in a metal bowl with liquid and melted fat. If you're whipping whites separately, start with only the yolks, liquid and fat.
2. Gently fold in the dry ingredients. If you've whipped the whites to soft peaks, fold them in carefully to avoid losing air.
3. Rest dough in the refrigerator overnight to fully hydrate the matzo meal.
4. Wet your hands and roll pieces of dough into the desired size.
5. Simmer the balls in salted water or stock until cooked through, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on their size.
6. Serve matzo balls in flavorful chicken stock, and freeze any leftovers in the stock.
Jim DeWan is co-author with Jeffrey Elliot of "The Zwilling J. A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills: The Essential Guide to Use, Techniques and Care."
Matzo ball soup
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 2 hours
Makes: 8 servings
A friend, Jennifer Diamond, shared her grandmother Muriel Diamond's soup recipe with me. This version is adapted from that recipe. For best flavor and matzo ball texture, make this the day before serving.
3 pounds chicken thighs or 1 whole cut up chicken
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 large sweet onions, cut into large dice
6 each, cut into bite sized pieces: carrots, celery ribs
3 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup matzo meal
2 tablespoons chicken fat skimmed from soup
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/3 pound thin egg noodles, cooked in water
1. Place chicken in a stock pot with salted water to cover. Heat to a boil; reduce to a simmer. Cook until chicken is tender, 45-60 minutes. Remove chicken from stock; reserve. Add vegetables, bay leaves and parsley to stock; simmer until vegetables are almost soft, 30 minutes. Cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, make matzo balls. Combine eggs, matzo meal, chicken fat and salt in a bowl. Work into a dough. Refrigerate dough and soup, covered, overnight.
3. Remove dough from refrigerator; roll into walnut-size balls. Heat soup to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer. Drop matzo balls into soup; simmer, covered, 30 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Season soup to taste. Place 1 or 2 matzo balls, some of the chicken, vegetables and cooked noodles in a bowl; ladle hot soup over.
Per serving: 280 calories, 25% of calories from fat, 8 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 23 g protein, 297 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Prep School: Simple steps for matzo balls that float
Adding matzoh to broth (Styling by Lisa Schumacher, Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)