Category Archives: Jewish Foods

Writings on Jewish Food and identity

Potato Matzo Balls? Chabad matzo balls explained…

More of my matzo ball research has yielded the following (not so tasty) information…

According to most Jewish authorities, matzo may be ground into flour and then cooked in a soup.  This follows the general principle of ein bishul acher bishul (there is not cooking after cooking).  In the case of matzo, once the cooking process is completed, it cannot be cooked a second time and retains its status as non-leavened (even if it puffs up in soup).  Two foundation law codes, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch permit the eating of matzo that has been mixed with water.

The Chassidim however, took a more stringent approach to these matters.  Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Lubovitch (Chabad) dynasty, wrote a new version of the Shulchan Aruch, the Shulchan Aruch Ha’Rav.  In other words, he came up with a separate, modified set of Jewish laws just for his subgroup.  In it he mandated various additional stringencies and customs for Chassidim, including a ban on eating gebrochts, matzo that has been crushed (and mixed with liquid).  The concern was that after the implementation of machine-made matzo, matzo was baked in far fewer than the 18 minute limit.  In theory, according to Shneur Zalman’s calculations, matzo might have the capacity to leaven, even though it is technically cooked.  It is possible, according to his logic, that some of the flour was not adequately mixed during the time of preparation, and is susceptible to leavening should it come in contact with water.

As a result, Chabad-Lubovitch (those who follow the rulings of Shneur Zalman) do not eat matzo that has come into contact with water.  They will sometimes keep matzo in plastic bags during meals, lest moisture alight on it accidentally. Oddly however, on the 8th day of Passover many Lubovitcher Jews will eat gebrokts.  According to their reasoning, the 8th day is an entirely Rabbinic institution.  Thus, many Lubovitch Jews, and some non-Lubovitch Chassidim will specially eat a meal of matzo balls on the 8th day of Passover.

Meanwhile, the difficulty of abstaining from matzo balls is great.  Many Lubovitch Jews will eat matzo balls made of potato flour, labeled non-gebrochts in stores.  Potato flour and potato starch are both heavily used during Passover to create legally permissible dishes.  The substance has a rather dubious history, and is mentioned as an unhealthy filler in the famous novel The Jungle about the origin of the industrial food industry.

They had always been accustomed to eat a great deal of smoked sausage, and how could they know that what they bought in America was not the same–that its color was made by chemicals, and its smoky flavor by more chemicals, and that it was full of “potato flour” besides? Potato flour is the waste of potato after the starch and alcohol have been extracted; it has no more food value than so much wood, and as its use as a food adulterant is a penal offense in Europe, thousands of tons of it are shipped to America every year.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Cambridge, Mass.: R. Bentley, 1971.  Ch. 11

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On the Matzo Ball

I have been doing some research and writing on the early history of the Matzo ball and thought I’d share a particularly interesting excerpt…

Until the late middle ages, matzo was made in the home.  As restrictions on the amount of water tightened, the dough became harder to knead.  Mixing of matzo dough thus required more forearm power and was, like so many Jewish functions, removed from the home and industrialized.  As Jews moved into larger cities in Europe in the 1700s, matzo began to be produced commercially.  Matzo bakeries provided seasonal labor to poor members of the community leading up to Passover.

The industrial revolution brought on yet another change, a shift from hand matzo assembly lines to machine made matzo.  The first machine made matzo was produced in Alsace in 1838, and quickly spread throughout the world.  The first matzo made by machine in Jerusalem dates as early as 1863.

In 1886, one Rabbi Abramson of Salant arrived in the United States with a black market passport.  The passport was listed in the name of Dov Manischewitz.  He started his eponymous company in Cincinnati, OH, and eventually came to expand from matzo to many kosher products.

Matzo dumplings (Yiddish Kneidel) probably appeared during the late middle ages.  Prior to the introduction of the potato from the New World, Jewish families suffered from a severely limited diet during Passover.  Poorer families could not afford a great deal of meat and some ingenious person realized they could make a version of dumplings using ground matzo, eggs, and animal fat.  Prior to the introduction of matzo meal (machine ground matzo first introduced by the Manischewitz company in the 19th century), the balls were made of crushed matzo wafers.  It was with the introduction of matzo meal that the balls began to achieve a fluffy character and spread from a Passover only food to a year around delicacy.  Making fluffy matzo balls requires finely ground matzo, which is difficult to create by hand.

The first official publication of matzo balls appears in The Jewish Manual in London, 1846.  It makes its debut in an American cookbook in 1873 (Jewish Cookery, published in Philadelphia).

By the 1930’s, Matzo Ball Soup had broken the bounds of Passover completely and was available as a daily food.  Like Cholent, Matzo ball soup has served as an inspiration for songs and poetry.

The earliest popular song on the subject was written by Slim Gaillard, an African American jazz musician, in around 1945.

Oh well, ah, matzo balls, gefilte fish,

bestest fish I ever ever had

Matzo balls and gefilte fish,

makes you order up an extra dish

Matzo balls and gefilte fish

really very very very fine

now you put a little horseradish on it and it knocks you right out…

Matzo Ball Soup’s status as a comfort food (as Gaillard implies) has made it a staple for cold days, or days when one has a cold, for Sabbath fare, and the rest of the week.  Many American cities have comparative ratings of which delis make the best Matzo Ball Soup, and in Los Angeles, one may order Matzo Ball Soup for home delivery.  As it has become synonymous with Jewish cuisine, it is also linked to Jewish identity.

On Tu B’shvat

Have you ever tried eating a ripe, sweet strawberry, then taking a bite of chocolate cake, and then eating another bite of strawberry?  If you do, and you are paying close attention, you may notice the strawberry no longer tastes as sweet.  This is because our tongues are overloaded with sweetness from the processed sugar in the cake and can no longer taste the fructose sweetness of the strawberry as distinctly.  The strawberry has not become less sweet because of the existence of the chocolate cake, we are simply desensitized to its sweetness.

We are all beneficiaries of many sweet and excellent types of fruit that occur in nature.  Some of these things were planted by us ourselves, if we are gardeners or farmers, some are planted or raised by others, but today it is especially important for us to enjoy delicious fruits.  You see, in addition to being Shabbat, we are also marking Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of the month of Shvat, and it is the New Year for the Trees.

During most of the year, we may eat fruits, nuts, and other tree products as a side dish or ingredient in our favorite dishes.  Today we are encouraged to eat new and exotic fruits and let their sweet juices run down our chins (or into our beards, as the case may be).  We are encouraged to stop and enjoy the produce that we have.

Why is that?  Well of course, because its the Jewish equivalent of tax day!  Alas, the Jewish IRS that collected this fruit tax is defunct, so our way of paying this tax is to eat the fruit ourselves.  Before you get upset that I’ve made some kind of political statement, let me explain what I mean.

In the Mishnah, a corpus of laws compiled in the year 220, there is a list of the Jewish New Years.  There are four of them, even though we only think of Rosh Hashanah as New Years.  In fact, we have multiple New Years in America too, we just don’t think of them that way.  We have regular New Years, the Fiscal New Years, the first day of School, that is, the academic New Year, and of course, the first day of baseball season, the baseball New Years.

The Mishnah listed out four New Years, they correspond to the agricultural cycle of ancient Israel.  The first one is the 1st of Nissan, the time around Pesach.  This was the New Year for government officials and calculating the holidays, since Pesach is the first holiday our people ever celebrated.  Then there was the 1st of Elul, tax day for animals.  Then the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the agricultural year because of the grain harvest.  Finally there is Tu B’shvat, the tax day for tree produce.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbun said: In the next world, a person will be judged for all the fine fruit that he saw but did not eat.

Tu B’Shvat’s custom of eating ripe, rare fruits by themselves allows our tongues to taste the sweetness of the fruit without it being drowned out by processed sugar.  It is a beautiful metaphor for how we live our lives.

The Kabbalah, that is, Jewish mysticism, says that Tu B’shvat is not simply a New Year for regular trees, the first day when sap starts to rise after winter’s chill, it is also the New Year for the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.

The tree of knowledge is the famous plant from which Adam and Eve ate, giving them the ability to determine good from bad.  Tu B’shvat is New Years for this tree as well.

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they gained the ability to discern good from bad and sweet from bitter.

Lets think about the strawberry from earlier in terms of our own lives.

Our knowledge and discernment concerning natural pleasures and feelings can become overwhelmed by with synthetic sensory and informational bombardment.  The sweetness of our lives can become overshadowed by numbing amounts of stimulation.

Whatever the strawberry represents for you, be it family time, the warmth of friends, or a walk in nature, Tu B’shvat gives us all, through its metaphors, the ability to cherish natural and intimate joys.  Joys as close to us as the dazzling taste of a fresh strawberry.

The strawberry is no less sweet because of the existence of chocolate cake, its only seems so.  So too, simple and intimate pleasures are still there, when we can allow ourselves time and freedom to savor them.  I encourage you all to eat fruits, unadorned and unsweetened, and let the symbolism penetrate to the depths of your soul.

Concentrate on those natural and often ignored pleasures, drowned out by the noise and hubbub of liff.  Savor those pleasures like fruit and let the juice drip down your chin and onto your shirt.  Even if it stains.

Flavorful and rich (cheesecake)…

I have always loved making (and eating) Cheesecake.  Part of my recent research has been on Jewish holiday food and identity.  Eventually I plan to make a series of hands-on cooking/history/dinner/discussion classes out of it.  Quite aside from the textual stuff, I’ve been pretty surprised by the history of cheesecake, here is an excerpt….

New York Cheesecake, like many of New York’s Jews, is a European import with a new world twist.  It is closely related to the German kaesekuchen but with a flamboyant American twist.  The dessert had already been making the rounds in Ashkenazi circles dating back to about 1,000 CE, around the time that Cholent entered the scene as well.  The dish even has its own Yiddish proverb, Gomolkes ken men nit makhn fun shney, meaning “you can’t make cheesecake from snow.”  It is roughly the equivalent of “you can’t get blood from a stone.”

Why it became the paragon of Shavuot foods is a matter of some debate; however, it has a storied history within American gastronomy.  It has a particular association with Judaism as it play out in popular culture.  Since it has “cheese” right in the name, it is a natural move for Shavuot.

While Cheesecake has a history going back to ancient Greece, the popular “New York” version has a particularly Jewish providence.  Like Cream Cheese, the New York Cheesecake is a product of the late 19th century and spread like wildfire through the United States, eventually being exported to the rest of the world.  Legend has it that the Cream Cheese based Cheesecake was invented by Arnold Reuben (also the inventor of the Reuben Sandwich) for his Manhattan deli.

Due to its association with Jewish gastronomy, Cheesecake has become the food for Shavuot par excellance.  While many Jewish holidays have emphasized meat consumption particularly, Shavuot has a custom of eating dairy dishes such barkas, blintzes, and especially Cheesecake.  The laws of Kashrut do not permit the eating of milk and meat products in the same meal, and the custom of eating dairy for Shavuot therefore excludes meat products.  The reason for this practice may (like Shavuot itself) be agriculturally based.  Spring was the time when young animals were able to graze and so there was a large amount of available dairy around Shavuot time.

In the last century-and-a-half, New York Cheesecake has become a major Jewish contribution to the culinary landscape of the United States.  While various other forms of Cheesecake were already in existence, a custard of Cream Cheese is a Jewish original.  The dish has become so popular that it even birthed a chain of restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory, made famous by its varieties of the dish.

Jewish tradition assigns many legal and mystical reasons for the consumption of dairy products on Shavuot.  This chapter will explore the particular mixture of halachic, cultural, and historical reasons that New York Cheesecake has become a cornerstone of this Spring celebration.

Jason’s Cheesecake recipe:

2 packages (8 oz) Cream Cheese

2 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 tsp grated lemon peel

Topping:

1 cup sour cream

2 tbs brown sugar

2 tbs vanilla extract

Crust:

1 1/2 cups graham cracker

3 tbs sugar

1/3 cup melted butter

CRUST

  1. Place graham crackers into a ziplock bag and crush.
  2. Add remaining crust ingredients and mix well
  3. Pour into 9” pie pan, smooth, and bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees

FILLING

  1. In a large bowl beat cream cheese lightly
  2. Mix in eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, and lemon peel
  3. Spread evenly inside cooled pie crust
  4. Bake 25 minutes or until firm
  5. Cool in refrigerator for at least 4 hours
  6. Spread topping and add fruit if desired, and serve