One Passover spent in Paris, I ate thick matzoh, soft and crumbly as a cookie. In shops and restaurants in both the old ghetto area in the Marais and the newer North African–Jewish neighborhood surrounding the rue des Richers in the ninth arrondissement, I came across sweet varieties as well, prepared with wine, orange flower water, and sugar, tasting like exotic tea biscuits. They were, the boxes revealed, made from a secret family recipe from Oran, Algeria.
A sweltering August morning, strolling through Venice’s Gheto Novo (New Ghetto, actually older than the Gheto Vecchio, Old Ghetto, but that’s another story), my husband, daughter, and I snacked on what looked like quilted pillows of intricate ivory Venetian lace. They were pane azimo, pale matzoh, soft like the ones we’d had in Paris, baked at Panificio Giovanni Volpe, which also offers, even in summer, sugar cookies, delicate macaroons, and other pane dolci, sweets made with matzoh meal.
Eating these thick, puffy matzohs, I recalled the many Italian and French Passover recipes that specified thick or thin matzoh, and understood how Italian Jews who could not bear to go without their pasta might attempt to re-create lasagne with Venetian-style matzoh.
For Eastern European Jews, though, the best matzoh is the thinnest. In Abraham Reisen’s story “Matza for the Rich,” the bakery workers expect a generous tip from the town’s wealthy dowager for matzoh that is thin, crackly, and “comes out as if baked in the sun.” Notwithstanding their plainness, when served hot and crisp, these familiar Ashkenazi matzohs can be quite tasty.
Hot is the operative word here, for hot matzoh—like hot bread—is an amalgam of wonderful toasty flavors and aromas. Watching schmura matzoh (the special matzoh handmade from wheat that is carefully watched over from the time it is harvested) being prepared by the Hasidic Lubavitcher community in Brooklyn, I was captivated by the tantalizing smells of the freshly baked matzoh. And straight from the scorching wood-fired ovens, they were a marvel: gloriously toasty and crisp.
But when I brought the box home, the matzoh had dulled to a lackluster taste—they had more flavor than the packaged variety, but not much. I’ve learned to reheat matzohs to recrisp them as well as to recapture that fresh-from-the-oven flavor.
“When the matza came out well, she held it up on the rolling pin to show the rich lady how nice it looked.”
—Abraham Reisen, “Matza for the Rich”
“I devoured pounds of the crisp crumbling matzohs with hunks of fresh butter and streams of honey, leaving a trail of crumbs all over the house.”
A Peculiar Treasure
Matzoh, so central to Passover that it is often called Hag ha-Matzot (Festival of Matzohs), is served in place of bread or crackers during the full eight days of the holiday. The plain variety contains just flour and water—no fats, salt, sugars, additives, or preservatives—so you can use them to custom-design your own crackers, seasoning them with whatever you would try on flatbreads or crackers, and enjoy them not only on Passover but also throughout the year.
Use these suggestions as a guide. I’m sure you’ll have many ideas of your own.
For more on matzoh and matzoh meal.
© 2008 Jayne Cohen. All rights reserved.