I did not grow up eating matzo ball soup; it was completely unknown to me and my family. In fact it was so foreign that the first several times I heard mention of it I assumed it was “mozza ball soup”, which I guess would be some kind of Italian-American soup containing mozzarella cheese. This is emphatically not the case.
Matzo balls are a kind of dumpling. Matzo ball soup is usually a chicken soup with matzo balls in it.
It turns out this classic Jewish preparation is much more familiar to me than I ever would have suspected. While the most common term in North America is matzo ball, the true Yiddish word for the dumpling is knaidl, taken from the German Knödel. Now, Knödel I am very familiar with and have written about a few times on Button Soup (here, here). Matzo balls are basically Austrian Semmelknödel or Broselknödel with the following important differences:
- the bread crumb is actually matzo meal. Matzo is a type of unleavened bread served at Passover. It’s crispy like a cracker. Matzo meal is available in coarse and fine varieties. It’s surprisingly rarely in Edmonton grocery stores. The only place I’ve seen it on a shelf in Edmonton is Andy’s Valleyview IGA. Of course it can also be purchase online, on Amazon for instance.
- matzo balls usually contain poultry fat (schmaltz) instead of the butter typically used in Austria. This also has to do with Jewish dietary law, which forbids the consumption of dairy and meat together. Since matzo balls are traditionally served in a meat soup, they are made dairy-free.
One cute bit of American Jewish culture is that matzo balls are categorized as either floaters or sinkers. Floaters tend to contain leaveners like baking powder, so the balls bob on the surface of the broth. Sinkers contain no leaveners and, well, sink.
When I was doing development for June’s Delicatessen I tried many matzo ball recipes and for my money the best is the one published in Maps, Markets, and Matzo Ball Soup – The Inspiring Life of Chef Gail Hall. We basically use this recipe at June’s, just increasing the salt a tad.
Corned Beef Schmaltz. When building the June’s menu I was thinking of how to use the byproducts of our corned beef production. Cooking our corned beef and smoked meat produced a lot of pan drippings. When these were chilled I could remove a solid layer of fat, “corned beef schmaltz”, an amazing cooking fat infused with the spices and garlic of the cured beef. The remaining liquid component of the drippings was similarly intense and spicy. I did some tests using the corned beef schmaltz in matzo balls, and serving them in a beef broth that was fortified with the spiced beef jus. The results were delicious but when it came time to write the menu I opted for the more traditional chicken fat and stock.
adapted from Maps, Markets, and Matzo Ball Soup – All I did was increase the salt from 1 tsp to 1.5 tsp
- 4 large eggs
- 1/4 cup melted schmaltz
- 140 g (~1 cup) matzo meal (I’ve used Manischewitz and Horowitz brands. The only place I’ve ever seen them in Edmonton is at Andy’s Valleyview IGA. Also available online.)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1.5 tsp kosher salt
- Whisk together the eggs and melted schmaltz.
- Combine the remaining ingredients and mix to combine.
- Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix very thoroughly. Ensure there are absolutely no pockets of unhydrated dry ingredients!
- Cover the mixture and let stand one hour.
- Use a #30 scoop to portion the mixture. Roll into perfectly round balls. Ensure there are no cracks on the surface of the balls! If there are cracks the balls will likely exploded in the poaching liquid.
- Bring a large pot of seasoned water to a boil. Add the balls and simmer until they puff up and the internal temperature is above 80°C, about 10 minutes.
Yield: about 10 matzo balls
- 45 g schmaltz
- 125 g yellow onion, sliced
- 15 g garlic, finely minced
- 85 g carrot, julienne
- 60 g celery, 1/2″ cubes
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 60 mL dry white wine
- 1.3 L chicken stock
- 130 g shredded cooked chicken breast
- 30 mL parsley, chopped
- 240 mL peas
- kosher salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- Heat the schmaltz in a heavy pot and add the onions, garlic, carrot, celery, oregano, and thyme. Cook until onions are starting to turn translucent.
- Add wine and bring to a rapid boil. Add chicken stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer until carrots are tender.
- Add shredded chicken, parsley, and peas. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.
Yield: ~2 L chicken soup, about 8 x 8 fl oz servings
- Because matzo is served at Passover, matzo ball soup is traditionally associated with that holiday.
- When I first came across a matzo ball recipe with baking powder in it I thought it was super weird: isn’t the whole point of matzo that it’s an unleavened bread for Passover? I looked into this and the reasoning behind all the dietary laws is pretty confusing, but the gist is that chemical leaveners like baking powder don’t really count.