Matzo ball soup is a touchy subject. The fluffy, cream-colored dumplings bathed in golden chicken broth are not all created equal, and those who love them have their own stories and secrets on the matter. Conversations (and sometimes arguments) are commonly based on two things: childhood memories, and what makes a perfect matzo ball. Growing up in a Jewish home in the San Fernando Valley, I remember my mother peeling carrots and parsnips, then plunging them into a boiling pot of kosher chicken stock. She’d refrigerate it overnight so the fat would “rise to the surface.” The next day, we’d make from-the-box matzo balls (Manischewitz matzo ball mix, eggs and oil) and hoped they wouldn’t sink.
Before boxed matzo hit the scene in the 19th century, people bought matzo from Jewish bakeries and created their matzo balls, also known as knoedela, out of the crumbs. Today, big delis like Jerry’s, Langer’s and Brent’s serve grapefruit-sized knoedela with noodles, broth and rye bread for roughly $10 a bowl.
Because it’s almost Passover, and on Passover you tell the truth (about matzo balls), we asked several chefs their thoughts on the old Ashkenazi dish. Turns out, it’s all about the schmaltz.
"To make the perfect matzo balls, you need to have schmaltz,” says Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli. “It makes them bouncy and soft as well as imparting great flavor. If you make your own schmaltz, chop up the gribenes or crispy chicken skin and sprinkle some in the bowl before serving.
"Some of my earliest memories go back to my mom’s chicken soup. I remember the smells of it slowly simmering in preparation for the holidays, wafting from the kitchen to my bedroom. There's nothing more comforting, which is why I put it on the menu in honor of my mom. Dana's matzo ball soup."
(If your matzo balls tend to sink, as my mother’s sometimes did, Wexler’s is offering a premade Passover spread that includes the soup along with other staples such as braised brisket, homemade gefilte fish and kugel.)
Fleishik’s chef Eric Greenspan also stresses the importance of schmaltz, but thinks matzo balls play second fiddle to their wonton-like cousins, kreplach. This is the same chef who left rye bread off of his deli offerings.
"A perfect matzo ball is tough. Some like it hard, some soft. For me, I love making them soft and then searing them in schmaltz to crisp up the outside," Greenspan says. "Best of both worlds.
“To me the two saddest things about matzo ball soup are: The floating vegetables in the broth seem to get lost. At Fleishik’s we puree the soup to maximize that flavor. And matzo balls, to me, should only be a one-week-out-of-the-year [Passover] guest for the forgotten star of Jewish chicken soup, the kreplach,” he says.
Joan Nathan, author of cookbook King Solomon's Table, is on the a-little-soft, a-little-hard team with Greenspan, which she sums up as al dente, and offers a bit of technical advice.
“My first thought is comfort, if it is made al dente, with a little fresh ginger and nutmeg in it. I am not of the light nor the lead persuasion but somewhere in between. I love matzo ball soup with a few chunks of chicken, some carrots and dill floating in the well-seasoned broth.
“The secret to a perfect matzo ball? A little chicken fat, chicken broth, spice, a few herbs like parsley or dill, and matzo meal mixed together well and simmered in salted water covered for 20 minutes,” Nathan says. “Then when they are al dente, lift from the water with a slotted spoon and place in the soup.”
Clifton’s Republic chef Andrew Pastore associates matzo ball soup with friendship. One of his first clients when he was a private chef requested a lesson in matzo ball soup with schmaltz from scratch. "It was really nice to see how making a simple soup could bring joy to so many people.”
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Joy comes in many forms and JeffThe420Chef, author of The 420 Gourmet: The Art of Elevated Cannabis Cuisine, has quite a different idea of the perfect bowl of matzo ball soup, which he calls “potzo ball soup.”
“Great matzo balls need to be firm yet fluffy and full of flavor. The trick is to use a flavorful oil like extra virgin olive or canna-olive oil and seltzer instead of water,” he says.
“This year I’ll be heading to D.C. to make a pot Passover seder with all the fixings, including potzo ball soup and ‘crazy hazy farfel.’ For the potzo balls, I’ll be adding a pinch of minced cannabis leaves, coupled with coarsely ground black pepper and chives to liven things up and get everyone talking at the seder,” he continues. “Matzo balls have been my all-time favorite Passover food since childhood. My mom makes amazing ones but as a cannabis chef, I have to, in Emeril’s words, kick them up a notch.”
Passover is a holiday that encourages drinking (four cups of wine, to be exact), reclining and freedom, and matzo ball soup is often the appetizer that kicks it all off. I like mine with parsnips (like my mom’s recipe), but I’m not too finicky about the fat. And I do prefer a lighter ball that floats. Matzo ball soup is a very personal thing, and whether you grew up with it or are thinking of accepting it into your heart, the collective takeaway from these chefs is, don’t forget the schmaltz.