Bread of joy

As I’ve mentioned, we are Omni-ligious around here. This year, I was searching for a Passover kitchen activity that would complement the Easter egg-dyeing we were doing. Matzo making crossed my mind after reading about an artisan matzo recipe in the March 2012 Sunset issue, and it felt right. Jacob was excited about a project that involved the food processor and the rolling pin – not to mention sea salt! This was shaping up to be a great kitchen week for him.

Growing up, I have no recollection of attending any seders until the year I was nine, when my dad and stepmom helped organize and produce the first Jewish Black Interfaith Freedom Seder with Kehilla Community Synagogue and Allen Temple Baptist Church. I have hazy memories of singing Follow the Drinking Gourd, going on a massive afikomen hunt with all the children present, and being hungry enough to find parsley dipped in salt water surprisingly tasty. From then on, it seemed that there were seders most years, using that same photo-copied haggadah that had been originally cut-and-paste produced for the interfaith seder. It was a haggadah that many rabbis would have frowned on – Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes and Native American parables sat alongside, and sometimes in place of, ancient Hebrew prayers. We sang about Dayenu, yes, but we also sang spirituals, and there was an interfaith gospel choir that performed on a stage, though they didn’t wear robes.

Matzo is probably the single symbolic food item (in a holiday filled with them) that people most associate with Passover. It has history dating back to the original event; Passover commemorates the exodus from Egypt, and the Israelites were leaving in such a hurry that they couldn’t let their bread dough rise, or so the story goes.  Matzo is also called “The Bread of Affliction” – the Jewish people were escaping slavery when it was ‘invented’ and so it serves as a reminder to appreciate freedom, to remember what life was like for ancestors without it. So matzo is a history lesson and an appreciation of freedom all in one.

It is also, generally speaking, disgusting.

Tasteless, with the average consistency of cardboard-meets-old-paste, the commercial variety is really not even marginally improved by things like adding eggs to the dough or dipping it in chocolate. It tastes terrible enough that you never think to question the Bread of Affliction moniker.

Our homemade matzo was a game changer. My brother Dan teasingly called it Matzo Fresca, but once he tasted it he stopped teasing and kept eating. It is denser, chewier, much less square-shaped, and approaching delicious. I can tell you one thing for sure: olive oil and sea salt do a lot more for flour than just adding water. The cardboard squares, normally tasting solely of paste and obligation, had morphed into a round cracker bread that you actually want to eat, can even find joy in eating. At the seder table this year, we were no longer commemorating affliction; this matzo was about celebrating the thrill of freedom, about pleasure, about a meal not just shared with loved ones, but enjoyed with them. This was food to nourish our souls, and also our palates.

One warning here: once you have tasted ‘real’ matzo, there will be no going back. So make sure you are ready to commit to a lifetime of annual kitchen-flouring, finger-tip-burning, and painstaking cracker flipping. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. It is a miracle, a blessing, an act of faith; you have the power in your hands to turn affliction into joy.

In lieu of the traditional matzo blessing, I offer you this, from Julia Child: “How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”


Matzo Fresca
We fairly closely followed the matzo recipe that Sunset magazine printed, which is from Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland. We opted to use our hands rather than a floured baking sheet to get the matzos in to our oven, and we cooked them for more like four minutes, flipping not once but twice for each piece. We didn’t re-bake any of them, and people loved the softer bite and chew of the crackers. 

2 3/4 cups flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/3 cup olive oil
About 1 tablespoon flaky sea salt

Put a pizza stone on an oven rack and heat your oven to 500 F. Let it preheat for a long time – it took 55 minutes for my oven thermometer to actually reach 500 F.

Once your oven is hot, put 2 1/4 cups of the flour, the table salt, and the oil in your food processor. Mix for about ten seconds. With motor running, slowly add 1/2 cup water. Mix until it comes together. Pinch the dough with your fingers: it should hold together and feel soft and supple. If it is too sticky to work with, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Divide the dough into quarters, and each quarter into three pieces (twelve total pieces). Roll the pieces in to balls, and then use a rolling pin and roll one piece into a (relatively) round,  approximately 8 inch wide circle. Try to get it thin enough to see through. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt flakes, then roll lightly with the rolling pin to press them in to the dough. Poke the circle all over with a fork to prevent the dough from puffing up while it bakes.

Gently pick up the circle using a wide spatula or your hand. Drop it *carefully!* onto your hot pizza stone. Bake until top starts to bubble, about one minute. Flip with your spatula. Bake another minute or two, until the top of the matzo is light golden and crisp; flip again. Bake one minute more, until the bubbles are golden and the matzo is a bit darker at the edges. Transfer the matzo to a cooling rack. Make the eleven remaining matzos the same way. (Note: this part of things would be much easier if you lived in ancient Egypt and could just toss your dough balls out on some super hot desert rocks to cook while you packed to flee across the Red Sea). 

(Another note: cooking all those individual matzos will take a while, and you need to be present at the oven the entire time, so make sure that you have additional activities planned for any helpers who might be hanging out in the kitchen and feeling bored while you do ‘the mommy part’ of things. Otherwise you might end up with, I don’t know, laundry soap poured all over your house. Something like that.)

Make your matzos up to two days ahead of time. Store airtight (we wrapped it in double plastic wrap, then foil, and it stayed perfect).

2 thoughts on “Bread of joy

  1. I love this post, especially the Julia Child blessing (seems in keeping with the spirit of your family’s Haggadah, which sounds very similar to the one that I grew up with–except that we also sang ‘Blowing in the Wind’). We made a similar matzo recipe this year & loved it. I think we’ll be making them as ‘olive oil flatbreads’ the rest of the year!

    • thanks emmy! (and wait – isn’t ‘blowing in the wind’ the traditional passover call to prayer? hmmm … ) We are going to be trying your challah recipe later this week to fill our ‘real bread’ cravings … four loaves, yes! :)

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