Sunday, December 5, 2010

Me vs. Matzo Ball

“Chicken Soup: An ancient miracle drug containing equal parts of aureomycin, cocaine, interferon, and TLC. The only ailment chicken soup can't cure is neurotic dependence on one's mother.”
    - Arthur Naiman, author

            As the resident shiksa for years (we’re back to the ex-boyfriend), I never got a proper explanation as to why matzo ball soup should be specifically a Passover specialty.  Passover is in the spring.   Not really soup season. I always thought it should be for Hanukkah. Soup seems far more appropriate for frigid weather, not jelly-doughnuts. I say matzo ball soup should be right up there with dreidls and Hanukkah gelt.
            Unfortunately, I don’t really have any religious authority to nominate matzo ball soup as the official foodstuff of Hanukkah.  And up until a couple of days ago, I really didn’t have the culinary authority either.  I make really crappy matzo ball soup.  The soup part is fairly easy for me, but damn those matzo balls!  I can never get them to turn out right. They have the consistency of school paste and the density of doorstops.  They were basically rubber balls in kosher clothing.
            It’s not for lack of trying.  I dated this guy for 5 years and received all sorts of advice regarding the matzo ball. Trust me, I asked around.  Grandmas, moms, aunts, cousins, rabbanim, the Korean deli on 76th and 3rd – they all had their own methods: club soda, fine ground matzo meal, lard (Kosher food rules were clearly not part of the licensing exam for Korean deli owners in NYC), whipped schmaltz, the Jewish Book of Why.    None of them worked.  I suspected that until I converted to Judaism and married the guy, Moses (or Aunt Harriet) wouldn’t divulge the secret to light and fluffy matzo balls. 
            I realized after the latke post that it was time.  Time for the showdown with the matzo ball. And I was determined to be the last cook standing.  At 12:30 A.M., it dawned on me. Whipped egg whites were going to be my weapon of choice.  Whipped egg whites are what make angel food cake is so poufy. They help a soufflé rise.  Quenelles would just pellets without them.  If I whipped egg whites and folded them into the matzo meal, wouldn’t I have a fluffier dumpling?
            By 2 A.M., I was a hot sticky mess.  And it wasn’t of the fun kind.  But I knew I was on to something.  The problem was that the egg white mixture would immediately separate from the matzo meal as soon as it hit a pot of hot liquid.  I needed to find a way to solidify the dumplings without compromising on texture.  In other words, adding more matzo meal wasn’t going to help.  When you make a quenelle, you chill the mixture before you simmer them.  The cold not only helps the flavors blend, but it also keeps the quenelle from falling apart when it hits boiling liquid.  If it worked for the Frogs, wouldn’t it work for the Jews? (I didn’t think that god had anything against Jews.  But he probably had something against me.)             
           After chilling the mixture about 3 hours, I tried again.  Screw the Ten Commandments - this was the true revelation at Mount Sinai.  I finally had an airy melt in your mouth, but substantial, matzo ball that was not going to be politely abandoned in soup bowls.  I looked the matzo ball in the eye, and this time, I didn't flinch.  Soup’s on!
Matzo Balls
            Once again, schmaltz (chicken fat) is the way to go here.  You can also use duck or goose fat (it’s delicious).  I suppose you could use butter, but the taste and texture might be off.  And please, don’t go the margarine route.  It was made for dairy shortages during WWII.  Let’s leave it there.  Also, I tried cooking the dumplings both in chicken stock and in water.  Chicken stock was pretty tasty, but it gave the balls a slight yellow color.  If you can’t deal with nothing less than milky-colored matzo balls, then boil in water.  Either method will not destroy the texture of your matzo ball. 

4 large eggs, separated
1/4 c. schmaltz (chicken fat), room temperature
2 tbs. Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, minced
1/2 tsp. salt (kosher or sea salt)
freshly ground pepper
2/3 c. unsalted matzo meal (see note)

1.     In a medium bowl, thoroughly blend egg yolks, schmaltz, parsley and salt.  In another medium bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until it holds stiff peaks.  Gently fold egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, alternating with matzo meal, in 3 additions, respectively.  Cover and chill until firm, about 2 hours (overnight is OK too).
2.     Bring a large pot of salted water or stock to a boil.  Using moistened hands (the mixture WILL stick), form mixture into balls, about 11/4 inch in diameter.  When all the balls have been formed, drop matzo balls into boiling water.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes, turning balls over once.
3.     Drain and serve immediately with chicken soup (see note) of your choice.
Note:  Matzo meal can be found in the Kosher foods section of the grocery store.  Chicken soup/stock is something everyone should make from scratch.  I will post my stock recipe sometime soon (probably tomorrow).  The little cubes?  Do they look like a chicken to you?  If you must, I find that Swanson’s low-sodium broth is the best – and fairly cheap.  Organic broths are OK – but pricey.  Choose what works best for you.

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