Kosher chefs offer tips for learning to love matzo

  • Food-Passover-2

    Tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole.


  • Tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole.
    Tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole.

    When it comes to matzo, Chicago chef Laura Frankel says hers is a love-hate relationship.

    “Matzo and I are frenemies,” she says of the unleavened cracker-like bread traditionally eaten during Jewish Passover celebrations. “On one hand, matzo is a food you want to be proud of — it's part of who we are as Jews. But frankly, it usually tastes like cardboard.”

    During Passover, leavened breads and most grains are prohibited. The tradition is intended to recall the flight of the Jews from Egypt after being freed by the pharaoh. As the story goes, they had no time to let their bread rise before baking it. So today, matzo — the production of which is a highly regulated process — is central to Passover meals.

    It can be eaten as is, or ground into coarse crumbs or even a fine cake meal and used similar to traditional flours.

    “Every year, people will tell me they made brownies with matzo cake flour and they were even better than the real thing,” says Frankel, author of the cookbook Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes. When she hears this, she usually thinks, “No, they're not,” but she keeps that to herself.

    Leah Schapira, an Israeli-born kosher cook, has a more comfortable relationship with matzo. Schapira — who co-authored the recent cookbook, Passover Made Easy — is happy to munch matzo plain, but when cooking with it tends to treat it as a blank canvas upon which to build dishes. She also notes that these days matzo is available in many varieties — including whole wheat — many of which taste quite good.

    The matzo toffee bar crunch from her book is a great example of using matzo creatively. It's reminiscent of the popular confection usually coated with chopped nuts, but her version melds similar flavors together with the toasty, crunchy qualities of the matzo. Schapira, who has four kids, also uses it as a “crust” for pizza (though she cautions that a very hot oven is key to ensuring the matzo doesn't get soggy).

    In this image taken on March 4, 2013, matzo toffee bar crunch served in a basket is shown in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
    In this image taken on March 4, 2013, matzo toffee bar crunch served in a basket is shown in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    She and writing partner Victoria Dwek also developed a recipe for tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole because they know how much families like having a taco night and wanted a Passover-suitable option.

    Still, both Frankel and Schapira say it's essential not to be fooled into thinking that using matzo crumbs and meal is the same as using flour or breadcrumbs, and they recommend not going out of your way to try to use matzo products to recreate dishes you might make at other times of the year.

    Frankel points out that matzo, unlike leavened breads, doesn't have developed glutens (a protein that helps bread rise), so baked goods using matzo meal and cake meal won't have the same textures as ones made with traditional flour.

    One of Frankel's tricks for baking and cooking with matzo meal and cake meal is to start out by emulsifying it by whipping it together with olive oil and egg, almost like making a mayonnaise. She uses this technique when making a matzo cake meal-based coffee cake and achieves very light and fluffy results.

    Another favorite of hers during Passover is fried green tomatoes made with a seasoned matzo crumb coating. But she also regularly makes stews and soups thickened with a roux made by browning matzo meal and either olive oil or chicken fat. And as much as Frankel has her love-hate relationship with matzo, she ends up embracing it with plenty of culinary flair.

    “The key thing,” she says, “is you've got to strive to not have your cake and eat it too.”


    Matzo Toffee Bar Crunch

    6 sheets matzo (or enough to cover a baking sheet)

    1 cup (2 sticks) margarine

    1½ cups packed brown sugar

    1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    1¼ cups chocolate chips

    Sea salt (optional)

    Slivered almonds, toasted (optional)

    Heat the oven to 375°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

    Arrange the matzo in a single layer over the baking sheet. Set aside.

    In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the margarine and brown sugar. Stirring constantly, melt just until incorporated. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour the mixture over the matzo, then bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until deep golden brown and bubbling all over.

    Remove the baking sheet from the oven and immediately sprinkle with the chocolate chips. Wait 2 minutes for the chocolate to melt. Using a spatula, spread the chocolate in an even layer. Sprinkle with salt and almonds, if using. Transfer the baking sheet to the freezer until set. Break into pieces, then store in an airtight container.

    Yield: 18 servings

    Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories; 130 calories from fat (48 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (4.5 g saturated; 2 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 36 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 27 g sugar; 2 g protein; 125 mg sodium.

    Source: Adapted from Passover Made Easy, by Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek.

    Tortillas with Tomato-Mint Salsa and Guacamole

    For the tortillas:

    1 cup matzo cake meal

    ½ teaspoon salt

    1 egg

    1 tablespoon olive oil

    2 cups water

    For the filling:

    2 tablespoons olive oil

    1 medium yellow onion, finely diced

    1 pound lean ground beef

    2 teaspoons chili powder

    1 teaspoon garlic powder

    1 teaspoon salt

    For the tomato-mint salsa:

    2 cups grape tomatoes, halved

    1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

    1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

    ¼ small red onion, finely chopped

    1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

    ¼ teaspoon salt

    ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

    For the guacamole:

    1 ripe avocado

    Juice of 1 lime

    ½ small red onion, finely diced

    ½ tablespoon olive oil

    ½ tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar

    Garlic powder, to taste

    Salt, to taste

    ½ cup prepared coleslaw, to serve

    To prepare the tortillas, in a small bowl, whisk together the matzo meal, salt, egg, olive oil, and water. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes.

    Coat a nonstick skillet with cooking spray, then heat over medium. Scoop ½ cup of the batter and drop it into the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, then flip and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the tortilla from the pan and set aside. Repeat with remaining batter.

    To prepare the meat filling, in a large sauté pan over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the meat and cook, stirring constantly, until completely browned. Season with chili powder, garlic powder and salt. Set aside.

    To prepare the tomato-mint salsa, in a small bowl, stir together the tomatoes, mint, jalapeño, onion, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

    To prepare the guacamole, in a small bowl, combine the avocado, lime juice, red onion, olive oil, vinegar, garlic powder, and salt. Mash until the guacamole reaches the desired texture.

    To serve, spread guacamole in the center of each tortilla. Top with meat and tomato-mint salsa. Top each tortilla with 2 tablespoons coleslaw and fold up.

    Yield: 4 servings

    Nutrition information per serving: 620 calories; 330 calories from fat (53 percent of total calories); 37 g fat (14 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 125 mg cholesterol; 45 g carbohydrate; 7 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 30 g protein; 1080 mg sodium.

    Source: Adapted from Passover Made Easy, by Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek