Passover is a time of joyous celebration and somber remembrance, but mostly it's all about the matzo balls.
The eight-day Jewish holiday began at sundown on April 14 with a combination religious ceremony and feast called a Seder. The ceremony part of the evening is a description of the purpose of the holiday, a recitation of the biblical story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt, where they had been kept as slaves.
Then comes the dinner. And with the dinner, in most cases, comes the matzo balls.
"The Jews had to leave Egypt in such a rush that the bread did not have a chance to rise," said Meir Zimand, the kosher supervisor at the newly formed Kol Rinah synagogue.
To remember their ancestors' hurried flight to freedom, Jews during Passover traditionally refrain from eating bread that has risen. In its place, they eat matzo, a cracker-like food made from flour and water and that has been cooked so quickly it has not had a chance to rise. To ensure that it has not, Zimand said matzo must be fully cooked within 18 minutes of the time the flour is mixed with water.
Matzo balls were created, he said, when "some really creative person decided to ground matzo into a sort of flour that they then mixed into eggs and spices and formed it into a ball, which they ate."
Matzo balls are one of the unofficial joys of the Passover Seder. There are (almost) as many ways to make them as there are people who eat them, but all the possibilities boil down to one essential question: How did your mother or grandmother make them?
By and large, matzo ball fans are divided into two camps. One prefers the balls to be light and airy, floating on top of the chicken soup in which they are served; they are colloquially known as "floaters." The other group likes the balls to be chewy but dense, lying gracelessly on the bottom of the bowl; these matzo balls are known as "sinkers."
Zimand is in the floater camp, and so am I. Why would you want to eat anything that can be described as "leaden"?
My theory is that people who prefer sinkers had mothers or grandmothers who did not know how to make them light and airy.
Or perhaps their mothers and grandmothers had mothers and grandmothers who did not.
There are a couple of tricks to making matzo balls that are light. Zimand uses one, mixing a little bit of soda water into the matzo meal, egg and fat. I was dubious that this method would work -- it sounded like a culinary folk tale that would not make any difference -- but I tried it and balls that resulted were the biggest and fluffiest that I made.
The other trick comes from Ina Garten, the television cook who calls herself the Barefoot Contessa.
She separates her eggs, mixing the yolks in with the other ingredients, and then beating the whites until they are stiff, as with a souffle or meringue. These she folds into the batter before forming the balls, which retain all the airiness created by the whipped egg whites.
FLUFFY MATZO BALLS
4 extra-large eggs, separated
4 1/2 cups good chicken stock, divided
1/4 cup rendered chicken fat, melted, or1/4 cup vegetable oil, see note
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for egg whites
1 cup matzo meal
Chicken soup, for serving
Note: Rendered chicken fat, also called "schmaltz," is available in the frozen kosher foods section of some of the larger grocery stores.
1. Whisk together egg yolks, 1/2 cup stock, chicken fat or oil, parsley and salt. Stir in the matzo meal. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff (it is faster to use a mixer with a whisk attachment). Whisk the whites, a cup at a time, into the matzo mixture until it is smooth. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes, or until mixture is stiff.
2. Form balls the size of golf balls by shaping them with 2 spoons, rolling them with your hands (rinse your hands in cold water after every couple of balls to prevent sticking) or scooping them with a small ice cream scoop.
3. Bring remaining 4 cups stock to a simmer. Drop balls into stock and simmer 30 minutes or until fully cooked and puffed, turning once. Remove and serve hot in chicken soup.
Per ball: 135 calories; 7g fat; 2g saturated fat; 75mg cholesterol; 6g protein; 12g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 0.5g fiber; 320mg sodium; 15mg calcium.
Yield: About 12 matzo balls.
-- Recipe adapted from Ina Garten, via Food Network