Floaters or Sinkers?
In the sad degradation of Passover tradition that happens when parents get older and children move out, in these downbeat latter days when there is no one young enough to sing the Four Questions without embarrassment, and the eating of the Hillel Sandwich is skipped because everyone at the table gets acid reflux; when the traditional four cups of sock-rotting Manischewitz that everyone drinks, (so you don’t know if you are drunk at the end of the Seder or suffering from insulin shock) dwindles to a single glass of Hagafen Chardonnay which is raised four times and demurely sipped at by the host alone, one Passover tradition lives on: Matza balls, or knaidlach. Or, as my neighbor calls them, “those cool things you Jewish people put in soup on Passover.”
On Passover, we have matza balls in our chicken soup. The matza, (or matzah, or matzoh, or matzo) ball is a tradition that is universal among all Ashkenazic families I know, and some Sephardic families, too. The essential characteristics of the matza ball are: approximately round, whitish (except in cases of added chopped parsley or dill), cooked in liquid; and can be cut and eaten with a spoon (in most cases). Every other characteristic is dependent on the matza ball maker and a host of factors such as humidity, recipes, custom, and dietary restrictions such as salt and cholesterol intake. Did you know that Adam Sandler named his second dog Matzoball? A nice Jewish boy, Adam Sandler, but I wonder what his mother’s matza balls looked like, that he named his dog, a British bulldog, after one.
Perhaps Adam’s family went to Spiegel’s restaurant near Yankee Stadium, when he was a child, as mine did. At Spiegel’s, you got ONE giant matza ball, about the size of a softball, when you ordered “chicken soup with matza ball.” That matza ball sat dry in the soup plate nestled next to a metal cup of soup until the waiter poured the soup from the cup into the bowl at your table. This had something to do with the layout of the restaurant—Spiegel’s had levels and steps, not a good thing for carrying a full plate of matza ball soup around. Restaurant matza balls always seem to be on the large side. Maybe they have a special restaurant mix.
Homemade matza balls, however, tend to be about the size of ping-pong or golf balls, sometimes with fingermarks, sometimes rolled to a perfectly symmetrical roundness. My mother’s matza balls were perfectly round and smooth. You could have played bocce with them, or handball. You needed to cut them with a knife, they were so dense. My mother’s matza balls were archetypical “sinkers.” You could tie them to fishing line. I ate them something like starchy jawbreakers, first rolling them around in my mouth to remove the smooth outer coating, then slowly reducing their diameter until they became small enough to chew for a while and swallow. My mother’s matza balls were a fabulous prelude to a family sleepover, because with a couple of those in your stomach, sharing a bed with your cousins who were sleeping over was easy. You lay down and woke up in just the same place on the bed. Nobody changed position during the night. These Russian matza balls had been passed down to my mother from her mother, who developed her recipe as an evolutionary adaptation to the shtetl, where everyone shared a bed. My mother shared a bed, too, as a child in the Depression.
Aunt Laurie, my mother’s youngest sister, was born in 1940, after the Depression, and she got to sleep in her own bed, which may be why HER matza balls were “floaters,” light and fluffy creations you could cut with your spoon. Aunt Laurie made two Seders for the family for 50 years, partly because she was the first one among her siblings to own a home, and because she was married to Uncle Mickey the Rabbi. Anyway, Aunt Laurie made great matza balls. Her secret was to follow the recipe on the box from Horowitz-Margareten except she would use club soda in her recipe instead of regular
water, and let the batter rest in the fridge for a half an hour.
Aunt Laurie also put blanched almonds into the center of her knaidlach. She called these almonds ‘neshumelech,’ or ‘little souls.’ I think she picked up this custom during the year she spent in Israel in 1950. Since I sat at Aunt Laurie’s seder table for 25 years, I knew nothing else. I viewed blanched almonds at the heart of the Passover knaidlach as a special treat and a necessary part of a Seder. They did not go over well with my in-laws, however, who politely ate around their blanched almonds and left them on the side of their plate like so many prune pits when I made MY first seder, in 1987.
Since I went into the matza ball manufacturing business in 1987, I have discovered that the difference between floaters and sinkers is how much air and water the batter contains. You can get extra air into batter by using club soda instead of water, or by separating your eggs and whipping the whites separately. Letting a matza ball batter stay longer in the fridge will generate a softer matza ball, more likely to float, because the matza meal takes up more water. I have made matza balls without chicken fat. I have made low-cholesterol, egg-whites-only matza balls. Low-salt is very easy. One thing you can’t leave out, though, is some form of protein to bind the batter. Leave out the egg, and you will only get gook.
For sanitary fabrication of matza balls, use two teaspoons. For speed, a cookie dough scoop dipped in water works well. For perfectly round matza balls, you have to form them with your own two (wet or oily) hands. I have studied many recipes and here include one recipe for ‘floaters,’ which I made today, and one for ‘sinkers.’ These floaters have been made, cooled, and frozen, then left out on the counter to thaw about 4 hours before they were put into hot soup.
1 box Manishewitz matza ball mix (both envelopes)
1 cup matza meal
4 eggs 1/2 cup egg white (from a carton, don’t be a hero)
4 TB chicken fat
2 TB chicken soup
Put a medium pot for which you have a tight fitting lid filled half full of water on the stove.
Makes about 30 matza balls.
For Dense Matza Balls :
1 Tb melted chicken fat
2 Tb warm water
¼ tsp salt
dash white pepper
½ cup matza meal
Beat 1 egg, then add 1 heaping tablespoon of melted chicken fat, 2 tablespoons of warm water, salt, white pepper, and ½ cup (75 grams) of matzo meal. Immediately form into ¾ inch balls with oily hands and drop into slowly boiling salted water. Cook in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drop into hot soup, boil 15 minutes and serve. Or use as artillery.