with recipe for gourmet hand matzo brei
MATZO brei1, in essence, is nothing but Yiddish for matzo, the unleavened bread, aka the Jewish cracker eaten during Passover2, fried with eggs. Those not familiar with the dish might find it a little off-putting based on looks alone. But it’s actually very good, not an acquired taste at all. And there’s a lot more to this minimalist dish than there seems.
If you grew up eating matzo brei, no recipe will ever be as good as your father’s, bubbeleh’s or uncle Morty’s. So here’s the second best recipe for classic matzo brei ever. I propose to reclaim matzo brei with the ultimate gourmet hand matzo version. Well, maybe just ultimate to my children, but wait and taste for yourself.
In the past, matzo brei was the one dish every average American Jewish male knew how to make. It’s a moment of breakfast glory for many Jewish fathers. It could also be a lonely Paul Auster3 hero’s late night snack.
It’s to every man his own recipe. Star architect Frank Gehry’s recipe was revealed to us by New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman — both take a strong stance against the crime of oversoaking the matzo. Hollywood’s Steven Spielberg has Uncle Morty’s Gourmet Recipe, which calls for milk and butter. And so on. Matzo brei is the Jewish version of the Proustian madeleine, connecting the eater to his childhood memories.
Most North American recipes are based on machine matzos4, the square ones, and use water to soak. Conservative religious customs prevent a lot of Hassidim from eating those modern machine matzos — they only eat old world, handmade matzos5 — let alone exposing matzo to water. Many communities, Hasidic ones in particular, have the custom of refraining from eating matzo that came in contact with water. Here’s Tablet magazine on that last point: “In case you don’t think that religious instruction is insane, please read that last line again. It is against Jewish law to eat a piece of dry, unleavened bread if it touches water. If need be, read the line aloud. At some point, it’ll sink in.6” They call that gebrokt7 in Yiddish. Instead, they use milk or the eggs themselves as soaking liquid. Come to think of it, tradition aside, water might not be the tastiest ingredient there is. More on that later.
Made with modern machine matzos from Manischewitz or Streit’s, this dish has become so popular in North America that it is prepared year-round, was a specialty at Ratner’s on the Lower East Side8, and even figures in popular cookbooks like Joy Of Cooking. For food writer Joan Nathan’s husband Allan, this matzo brei is one of those Jewish holiday recipes that has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, just gastronomy9. Its popularity has spread all over the Jewish world and beyond, though nobody really knows who first made scrambled eggs with matzos, as the association is obvious during Passover.
Now, the most significant difference between a Hassidic, or Galician Jew’s, old world matzo brei and an average matzo brei prepared in the US, resides in its main ingredient, the matzo itself. Only hand matzo here, aka the round one. It’s the matzo that was baked in the village, whether in Edda Servi Machlin’s Pitigliano in Italy or in András Koerner’s great-grandparents’ Moson in Hungary. The hand matzo makes for a much nuttier taste and richer flavor. Also, it restricts the recipe to Passover, as hand matzos are available only around the holiday in good Jewish grocery shops, especially around Hassidic neighborhoods, unless of course you bake them yourself10.
This matzo brei is a purist Central European Jewish dish. The savory version is an embodiment of Yiddish cuisine. It starts like any of bubbe’s recipes, with caramelizing onions in schmaltz — Hungarian Jewish goose schmaltz at that. Add to it the old world’s umami classic, mushrooms, especially porcini.
A few shavings of truffles or even quality truffle oil is obviously the ideal choice, as for anything involving fried eggs. Besides, if you choose to drizzle your matzo brei with honey, which you should — even though sugar and cinnamon are also a widespread tradition — the pungent truffle aroma is an ideal match for honey too. Smell it and try to guess why in antic Rome truffles were brought as an offering to Venus, why in the middle ages, Muhammed thought that truffles were like manna from heaven11, while Christian Italians considered truffles to be a sin due to their alleged aphrodisiac and demonic powers12. Together with the bold nutty flavors of old school hand matzo, it can’t get any more traditional tasting than this contemporary recreation.
In the past, Italian, French and Jewish cuisine could only meet exceptionally in a melting-pot like interwar Vienna at the table of someone like Sigmund Freud, a more or less assimilated son of Galician Jews. Another such place could have been the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl, daughter of another Galician, a Jewish liberal newspaper publisher.
Chances are Sigmund Freud ate matzo brei during Passover too. The founder of psychoanalysis himself was a staunch atheist, thought kosher food is unhealthy, and loved Viennese cuisine. But his wife, Martha, never gave up on him and maintained at least some kosher principals in the household, in all likelihood without his knowledge13. Even though machine matzos were the new thing in turn-of-the-century Vienna, they were banished by leading Hassidic rabbis not the least because, unlike in America, there was a local tradition of handmade matzo and jobs that depended on the craft14. It is therefore very likely that only traditional hand matzo was served at the Freuds’ table.
Sigmund Freud and his wife loved mushrooms, as well as foraging for them in the Vienna Woods15, and would surely have liked the addition of truffle. Also, white truffles would have reminded Freud of his beloved Italy. And black truffles in fried eggs must have tasted of his time as a student in Paris at the table of Charcot. Yes, I’m positive: Freud would have liked this addition to a sweet hand matzo brei, a real Galitzianer‘s delight.
RECIPE: Gourmet Hand Matzo Brei – Sweet & Savory
Sweet & Savory
By adding honey over the finished plate, you’ll have a Galitzianer-style treat. But if you did already have too much sweet this week, or if the memory of your ancestors forbids you such indulgence, omit the honey.
Schmaltz or Butter
Steven Spielberg’s uncle Morty and many others use butter. Eastern Europeans had only rendered goose fat, though chicken schmaltz is fine too. You can use either or even vegetable oil, but goose schmaltz is the way to go for maximum taste! If you use schmaltz, caramelized onions are almost mandatory. But schmaltz and butter both call for truffles.
White Alba: Sadly the king of truffles, the white Tuber magnatum from Alba, Piedmont is not in season during Passover. If you plan ahead and exercise due diligence, you can deep freeze White Alba truffles and they will still have a very pleasant appearance come Passover.
Black Périgord: Depending on when in spring Passover falls, the Périgord black truffle might very well still be around, as its season reaches through the end of March. Properly refrigerated at 37.5-41°F (+3-5°C) they keep up to 20 days. This is the best way to store truffles!
White Bianchetto: In season around Passover, the lowly Tartufo Bianchetto, the white spring truffle, is not easy to come by. (Similar looking to a white Alba’s truffle, it is often used to fool the inexperienced customer).
Truffles in jars, etc.: Unfortunately, most of them are a waste of money, though there are exceptions…
Truffle Oil: High quality truffle oil is your friend here, though even the best will only be a substitute. I’m never without it.
Caramelized Onions (optional):
2 tablespoons goose schmaltz (in a pinch, chicken schmaltz or oil)
1/3 cup diced onion, approx. 1/8″ (3 mm) dice
pinch of salt
1 hand matzo broken into small bite-size pieces
7 medium organic eggs, lightly beaten
A generous drizzle of white (or black) truffle oil
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
pinch Hungarian sweet paprika (mandatory only for Hungarians)
1 tablespoons unsalted butter or schmaltz if you use onions
Acacia honey to taste
shavings of Perigord black truffle or
Bianchetto white spring truffle (optional)
- Caramelize Onions (optional): In a skillet over low to medium-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of schmaltz. Add onions, a pinch of salt, and cook very gently, stirring, until the onions’ sugars lightly caramelize, 10-15 minutes. Be careful not to let them get too dark, or they turn bitter, in which case you must start all over.
- Mix matzo and eggs: In a bowl mix together lightly beaten eggs, truffle oil, salt, pepper, paprika (optional). Add matzo pieces and mix well.
- Fry matzo-egg mixture: To the same skillet over low heat, add 1 1/2 tablespoon butter or schmaltz if using onions. Let it melt and wait till it stops foaming. Add matzo-egg mixture and cook, scrambling the mixture, until eggs are set but still moist, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Serve immediately on warm plates: Liberally drizzle honey. Season with freshly ground black pepper and finishing salt. Add truffle shavings if possible, or more truffle oil.
Accompany with a festive, light, edible flower salad. (The traditional approach calls for apple sauce or a dollop of sour cream on the side.)
Drinking a glass of champagne with this dish would be perfect. A bit more budget-friendly but also very good is premium Sekt, German for sparkling wine, made according to the méthode traditionnelle (the champagne codex) by winery Madl, Steininger or Bründlmayer from the Lower-Austria region.
Instead of truffle shavings and honey, you could go the savory route and opt for braised or grilled artichoke hearts, asparagus, salmon or lox. Or, as a sweet version, also omit truffle shavings, and serve with a nice fresh fruit salad. Here are 14 more ideas.
- Article on Matzo in the Encyclopedia Judaica (2nd ed, 2007): Vol 13, LIF-MEK, pages 689–690.
- Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Hoboken, Wiley, 2010).
- Deena Prichep, Wake Up And Smell The Matzo: A Passover Breakfast Tradition, (The Salt, NPR, April 10, 2017)
- Felicity Cloak, How to make the perfect omelette (The Guardian, Thursday 3 June 2010)
- See my page of Good Reads on Jewish and Viennese Cuisine, Sigmund Freud, Vienna and a lot more.
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- Rhymes with fry. Sometimes spelled matzoh, matzah or matza brie or brei. Or, just plain fried matzo. In Yiddish: מצה ברײַ. In Hebrew: מצה בריי, matzah brei, but often מצה מטוגנת, matzah metugenet, which literally means fried matzo.
- On matzo, its history, including the hand matzo/machine matzo divide, one should read Gil Marks’ article in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
- Examples for this can be found in almost any of the famous American writer’s books blending absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction, and the search for identity and personal meaning. His best-known works include The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), The Book of Illusions (2002), or The Brooklyn Follies (2005), as well as his latest 4 3 2 1 (2017).
- I use the Yiddish plural of matzo. Hebrew would be matzot.
- Without going into the details of the dispute and quarrels, Rabbi Haim Halberstam of Sanz ruled that machine-made matzos were hametz, therefore not to be eaten during Passover. On the other hand, Rabbi Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld ruled that machine-made matzo may be preferable to hand made in some cases. As an introduction to hand matzo vs machine matzo refer to Gil Marks’ article in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, and Jonathan D. Sarna’s How Matzah Became Square: Manischewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States (https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/americanjewishcultureandscholarship/Archive/HowMatzahBecameSquare.pdf)
- Peter Gethers, My Mother’s Matzo Brei.
In an excerpt from his new memoir, Peter Gethers tries making an old Passover favorite, (Tablet, April 7, 2017).
- Gebrokts is Yiddish and means matzo that has come in contact with water. Literally, it translates as “broken,” and took the meaning of “wet matzo” because matzo is typically ground or broken up before it is mixed with water.
In this traditional world, Passover classics like matzo balls or gefilte fish, prepared with matzo flour, would be unthinkable. They are on the menu all year round, but not during the matzo holiday (except for the last day, but that’s already another story).
- Ratner’s was a famous Jewish kosher dairy restaurant in New York City. (FYI: It closed shortly after my last meal there, but I still got The World Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook to hold on to.)
- Joan Nathan, Jewish Holiday Cookbook, p.351
- If you do bake your own matzo, you are probably too frum to be reading this. If the idea of baking your own matzo makes you sweat, get the best hand matzos from:
- Komemiyut Matzah Bakery (Israel). There are thick ones, hand ground, and thin ones.
- Pupa, 346-348 Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
- Your nearest Jewish community’s matzo bakery.
- see Wikipedia on truffles https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truffle#Middle_Ages
- “In the upper Middle Ages under the nightmare of sin the truffle was considered very dangerous, so much so that a hypothesis was advanced concerning its demonic nature. So for a certain time it disappeared nearly completely from the kitchens to appear again at the time of the ‘Comuni’ (Councils) and the ‘Signorie’ (Seigniories), when the lords competed to have them on their tables and at the time of the great poet Francesco Petrarch, who, in a sonnet dedicated to the truffle, wrote these verses referring to the earth that «…dentro dove giammai non si aggiorna / gravida fa di sé il terrestre umore; / onde tal frutto e simile si colga…»” These
Italian verses translates to “but within, where daylight never breaks, / is born by itself the earthly mood: / where such a fruit and its like are yielded.”
- For a quick read, check up on Freud’s butcher and Katja Behling-Fischer, Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud: Lebensweise, Gastlichkeit und Essgewohnheiten des Gründers der Psychoanalyse. Mit vielen Rezepten.
For more details have a look at the section “Sigmund Freud and the City of Dreams” of The Very Best Books For Your Viennese, Jewish, and Culinary Therapy.
- Jonathan D. Sarna’s How Matzah Became Square: Manischewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States (https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/americanjewishcultureandscholarship/Archive/HowMatzahBecameSquare.pdf) and Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
- Katja Behling-Fischer, op.cit.
See also my post on the Vienna Woods.