You Eat What With Your Matzo?!?


The recipe for matzo hasn't changed for thousands of years. But these days, the foods that surround it are being experimented with, adapted, savored; and recipes are being traded faster than you can say the four questions.

This sophisticated spin on Passover food sounds quite modern, but there is actually a long tradition of Jews adapting their foods to what's around them. To many secular Jews who like to cook on Passover, Jewish culinary traditions—note the plural—offer a multitude of options when it comes to seder recipes.

The Sephardim incorporated rice and legumes (off limits for the Ashkenazim) into their Passover menus, along with staples of North Africa and the Middle East, including dates, pomegranates, and rose water. Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils (Harvard Common Press, 2008), writes about Syrian-Jewish feasts with rice accompanying the main dish of roasted lamb shanks with garlic and lemon, or chicken with prunes and honey.

Esther Muhlfelder, a native of Melilla, Spain, who now lives in Newton, Massachusetts, always used bananas, dates, and finely ground nuts in the charoset she prepared while growing up. Her family also shaped the charoset into balls instead of serving it loose in a bowl.

"I didn't know any other kind of charoses," says Muhlfelder, who was introduced to the Ashkenazi recipe of chopped apples and walnuts by her American husband, Lewis. She now makes both kinds for her seder table, and instructs guests to cut the balls in half to spread on matzo or to make Hillel sandwiches.

Jews in the American South, who often lived in small communities, also adapted their Passover recipes according to what was available—and what they learned from their non-Jewish neighbors. "People tend to add the flavors of the place they live in," says Marcie Cohen Ferris, who collected food traditions and recipes from the Dixie diaspora in Matzoh Ball Gumbo (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

In Tennessee, Jewish women made gefilte fish from the freshwater buffalo fish found in Southern waterways because they couldn't find carp and pike. In New Orleans, they added Creole seasonings to their matzo balls and served them as a side dish, not in a bowl of soup, or in a beef-based "red" soup instead of chicken soup. The matzo-ball soup adaptations made the recipe seem "less ethnic," something desirable for the Jews, who were eager to fit in with the larger society, says Cohen Ferris.

In another interesting Southern twist, many Jewish recipes were adapted by African-American housekeepers, who did most of the home cooking. This led to cross-cultural oddities such as green tomatoes fried in matzo-meal batter, and "dirty" matzo dressing—a variation on Cajun "dirty" rice made with sautéed chicken livers.

To this day, many Southern Jews make their own matzo toffee for Passover, a variation on a popular Christmas cookie that uses saltines. In the typical saltine toffee recipe, a single layer of crackers is topped with a melted butter-sugar mixture, and sometimes chopped chocolate or nuts (or both), then left to harden as it cools. The finished treats can then be broken into chunks for eating. Matzo toffee uses the same technique with a layer of matzo, instead of saltines, as the base.

In the Midwest, matzo lasagna is popular, reports lifelong Cleveland resident Patricia Averbach. "Everyone around here makes something like this," she says. "You basically take a recipe for lasagna and replace the noodles with whole matzos."

Averbach's biggest challenge for the past 20 years has been adapting her traditional menu for her sister, and her two daughters, who are all vegetarians. This menu is quite a change from her family's traditional feasts. "I remember when we all sat down, and everyone's eyes got big as we took the lid off the pot roast or the ribs, and then everyone dug in."

She has created a vegetarian matzo-ball soup with the vegetables typically used in chicken soup (onions, celery, and carrots, perhaps with a parsnip and a clove of garlic or two), water, and olive oil. "It's surprising how good this tastes—it satisfies the yen for traditional matzo-ball soup," she says. She also makes meatless tsimmes with pineapple, and an egg entrée with spinach, onions, and feta cheese.

Though Averbach still makes meat-based dishes for the carnivores at the table, she says most of the extended family has learned to enjoy some of the vegetarian dishes, too. "Our way of eating has changed," she says.

Even if we're not trying to make vegetarian adaptations, we can still find more choices for lighter, healthier, and more sophisticated fare, whether the source is a celebrity chef such as Wolfgang Puck or a free-for-all website for recipe exchanges.
We may still have matzo at our seders but, in a sort of ongoing culinary midrash the other Passover foods are, like the best Passover traditions, always changing.


Esther Muhlfelder's Sephardic Charoset
Makes about 30 charoset balls


1/2 cup toasted walnuts, finely ground (use a food processor but do not grind into a paste)
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, finely ground
1/2 cup toasted almonds, finely ground
1/2 inch piece banana
1/4 apple, peeled and cut into pieces
1/4 cup date spread (available in specialty stores) or pitted dates, ground into a paste
1 teaspoon sweet Kosher wine
Cinnamon, for dusting the charoset balls


Place the ground nuts into a mixing bowl.

In a food processor, mix the banana, apple, dates, and wine into a paste. Add this mixture to the nuts and mix until well incorporated. Add more wine if the mixture seems dry.

Place the cinnamon in a shallow bowl. Scoop out the nut mixture by the teaspoonful, using your hands to form it into individual balls. Roll each ball in the cinnamon and place on waxed paper. Pack into an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: You may need to roll the balls once more in cinnamon before serving if the first coat was absorbed by the dough.

Patricia Averbach's Matzo Lasagna
Serves 4-6


3 whole sheets matzo
3 eggs
2 cups ricotta cheese
24 ounces of your favorite spaghetti sauce
1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese


Place very hot tap water in a large bowl. Immerse the unbroken sheets of matzo for 5-10 seconds. Drain and lay flat on paper towels.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and ricotta cheese together. Spread 1/3 of the spaghetti sauce over the bottom of an 8-by-8-inch pan. Lay one sheet of matzo over the sauce. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta-egg mixture over the matzo, then sprinkle with 1/2 cup of mozzarella. Alternate layers of sauce, matzo, the ricotta-egg mixture, and mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the final layer.

Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.