The art and architecture of matzoh balls

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Each year at Passover, after someone's child asks the Four Questions that begin with "Why is this night different from all other nights?," one more pops in my head: Why are tonight's matzoh balls better than mine?

This is a momentary lapse I am not proud of. Retelling the Jews' exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt is the first order of business at the Seder! Food rituals rate a close second, though. Sinus-clearing fresh horseradish, a carrot pudding, the prettiest green vegetables from the farmers market, a brisket that smacks of sweetness and some form of flourless chocolate dessert are always on the table we share with family members and friends.

Some guests pass on the first offering -- gefilte fish -- but everyone accepts the warm bowls of matzoh ball soup. Is it because special Passover flour is used to make Passover matzoh, which is ground into Passover matzoh meal, combined with a short list of ingredients and cooked in gently boiling water? (The flour is rabbinically supervised in every step of its processing, starting with the wheat's harvest; the flour and water for matzohs cannot be mixed for longer than 18 minutes, commemorating the haste with which Jews made their flat breads as they fled the Pharoah's reach.) Or is it because we eat the rounded dumplings just once a year at this, my favorite holiday?

More questions. Whatever the case, at our Seders, the dish never disappoints. Carrot coins and tiny prongs of dill mingle in a golden broth, with the noble profile of a single matzoh ball breaking the surface.

The cook is my friend Phil Esocoff, an architect by trade, so it is fitting that he constructs a fine matzoh ball, large and tender. In my 18 years of sharing and trading off duties with him and his wife, Amy, it has become clear that the stewardship of the meal's second course is his.

I am not bitter. Just puzzled about my own failings. Last spring, I even stood at his side, aping moves in the kitchen of his family's Kalorama apartment. We used the same ingredients. We plopped the balls into bubbling pots on the same stove. But when done, his were bigger, rounder and ready for their closeup. Mine were two-thirds the size and regrettably firmer. "Sinkers" were not what I was after.

Research revealed small surprises. Just about all the tweaks modern chefs have come up with have precedent, such as stuffed matzoh balls and matzoh balls minus the added fat. Jewish cooks began using seltzer water to aerate the mixture more than six decades ago. Common wisdom calls for resting the mixture before forming it into spheres, to keep them from losing their shape or falling apart as they cook. Yet a few intrepid recipes from the late 1950s and early '60s eliminated that step, and those recipes work. Only restaurants try to glorify matzoh balls of regrettably gargantuan proportions. Anything homemade that is no larger than baseball size, but still fluffy, is worthy of praise.

Cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger: Each has been added to mixtures of yore, individually and in minuscule amounts. But testing proves that the first two confuse the palate and are easy to overdo. The third adds a welcome complexity. If chicken schmaltz (rendered fat) is added instead of vegetable oil or a butter substitute, it must be done with a knowing hand; otherwise, diminished dumplings with heavy hearts will barely rise.

I turned to experts for insights. Some find matzoh balls bland. "They don't taste like anything," says Potomac cookbook author Sheilah Kaufman. That's why she endorses an earthy matzoh ball soup transformed by jalapeƱo peppers, cilantro and mushroomy goodness. Montreal author-baker Marcy Goldman calls the traditional matzoh balls she serves "memory food." She makes them small because people like digging into two or three for a Seder, she says. For her, the broth made from a whole chicken, celery and carrots defines the dish.

Dean Gold, chef and co-owner of Dino in Cleveland Park, is particular about fat and formation. For the matzoh balls his customers order during Passover's eight days (which begin at sundown Monday), he relies on schmaltz, olive oil and duck fat to yield fluffy orbs. "The best fat comes from the drip pans beneath our rotisserie chickens," he says. "It has a different lipid profile. I call it extra-virgin schmaltz."

As he described his near-obsession about how to shape the balls, I thought of Phil's handiwork vs. my own. He and Gold do not compress. They do not cup their hands around the mixture. They coax roundness with the lightest touch. The chef barely rolls from curved palm to palm, invoking the "soft hands" needed in sports; three back-and-forths before the ball is gently dunked.

Steven Weintraub makes matzoh balls that rise 33,000 feet. As executive chef for Borenstein Caterers of Moonachie, N.J., which supplies El Al and other airlines with kosher meals, he developed a forgiving recipe with sauteed leeks, parsley and chives. The green triad helps maintain a level of moistness that survives a thorough chilling down and subsequent reheating in a jet's galley kitchen. "Airy is the key," he says. Weintraub likes a matzoh ball put together with club soda.

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