The current crisis has caused all of us to improvise in ways both great and small.
I’m not sure where my first foray into manufacturing matzo balls falls on that spectrum. Suffice it to say that until Wednesday afternoon I’d never made a matzo ball in my life.
Some might consider that proof of a charmed existence since my matzo balls had always been made by others – friends, family, and caterers such as Fine & Schapiro, a beloved Upper West Side Jewish deli that shuttered weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit and whose demise I’m still mourning, especially its sour pickles.
Perhaps I should have attempted my matzo balls from scratch. I certainly have the time these days. But I was lacking in self-confidence. It’s not that I was under the impression that matzo balls are complicated to make – they’re matzo meal, beaten eggs, water and oil molded into dumplings boiled and then served in chicken soup – only that I felt the weight of history on my shoulders.
If not dating back to the ancient Hebrews than at least to the mid-1960’s when I started attending elegant family Seders at my Uncle Simon and Aunt Mary’s apartment. I can still feel the pressure of being asked to recite the Four Questions from memory as the youngest guest: Why is this night different from all other nights, etc?
Perhaps it’s because of that recollected stress that I requested my wife pick up a box of matzo meal on her weekly face-masked foray to the supermarket. I was reasonably confident that there wouldn’t be a run on it the way there has been on toilet paper. Nonetheless, I was relieved when she returned with the blue box of Streit’s matzo, her rubber-gloved mission a success.
How hard came it be to make matzo balls? Especially if you’re working from a mix? Harder than you think. I followed the directions on the box but when it came time to mold the meal into balls, after letting it sit an hour, the stuff refused to cohere, sending me into a modest panic.
There are various culinary elements to a traditional Seder – among them bitter herbs, symbolizing the bitterness of the slavery the Jews endured in Egypt; and Charoset, an uplifting mixture of apple, nuts and sweet wine or honey – all of the tastes from bitter to sweet magnified on your taste buds because you’re typically famished by the time the prayers are done and it’s time to eat real food.
That often includes gefilte fish. I have nothing against gefilte fish. But it’s an acquired taste. Chicken with matzo balls, on the other hand, feels deeply familiar, nourishing, restorative, even medicinal. It’s not called Jewish penicillin for nothing.
So there was a lot riding on getting my matzo balls right.
My first attempts were distressing, the supposed balls as parched as the flight from Egypt and crumbling in my hand. Improvising, I started to add water, the lumpen mess at least molding itself into the suggestion of a sphere.
I dropped them into the boiling water and prayed -- several hours ahead of schedule since I was working in advance.
The thing about matzo balls is that there’s not a huge amount of variation in taste. However, there is in consistency. Some are as hard as rocks, others as light and fluffy as clouds. I prefer the latter. But I feared mine would more closely resemble the former.
I had a deep and abiding faith in the broth, however. My wife had made it a couple of weeks earlier from an excellent Murray’s chicken and frozen it. My hope was that, whatever flaws the matzo balls exhibited they’d be disguised and hopefully saturated by the broth.
Like many other families this year our Seder was conducted virtually. My wife and I, as well as my older daughter Lucy and son-in-law Malcolm were in Columbia County; my younger daughter Gracie and her boyfriend Henry in the Pacific Northwest of Canada; my brother Jamie in New York City; and my niece Emma and her husband Daniel in Kentucky.
I suppose that was a good thing in some ways. Because if my matzo balls proved a disaster only the four of us attending the Seder in person would be aware of my disgrace.
The Seder went well. I can’t speak for other families but for ours it’s as much a reunion as a religious occasion. And in this plague year such gatherings, even if only across the ether, seem more essential than ever.
The meal, after we’d signed off with our far-flung relatives, kicked off with the matzo ball soup. The broth was as rich and flavorful as I’d anticipated. And while it didn’t permeate the matzo balls it did lend them a certain authenticity. My matzo balls proved a reasonable enough facsimile of the real thing. They were certainly edible, if on the dense chewy side.
Hopefully by this time next year things will have returned to normal and other more credible hands will mold the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt into something more appetizing.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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