The year was 1999, a week before Passover, and I was pushing my cart through the aisles of Bruno’s in Bessemer, Alabama. At the time, Bruno’s was THE grocery store chain in the state. It was, in fact, a highly innovative company for its time, the first to offer gourmet prepared foods like chicken breasts encrusted with toasted pine nuts or fresh tabouli. You sure didn’t see that fare in the Piggly Wigglies around the South. So, naturally, I assumed that Bruno’s would sell matzoh for the Passover table.
But I was wrong, as the assistant manager – a man in offensive plaid pants – informed me. He had never heard of matzoh. He pronounced it motzer. I tried, and failed, to keep a petulant tone out of my voice.
I tried, and likewise failed, to explain exactly what this seasonal ethnic product was.
“Sounds like Rye-Krisp. The crackers are on aisle five,” he pointed.
Back home, I phoned a synagogue in nearby Birmingham to request the location of matzoh-selling stores.
In no time I was loaded up with fresh, crisp sheets of unleavened bread and ready to start my annual ritual: the making of matzoh brei, an undertaking fraught with childhood memories and sentimentality.
Matzoh brei (rhymes with rye) is a dish of utter indulgence. It requires many eggs, much butter, and untold thousands of carbs. And yet, it is so simple that Jewish children everywhere learn to make it – often at their fathers’ knees – as a rite of passage. “Know ye how to make the matzoh brei, and thou shalt not go hungry whilst thy parents are sleeping off the Manishewitz wine from the night before.”
My father, who cooked few things in this world other than a steak on a grill, made killer matzoh brei. But it is at this point I must digress and explain to you the Great Matzoh Brei Schism. For, as with so many things Jewish, there are factions who disagree about the Right Way and Wrong Way to get things done.
In one camp are those who take the sheets of dry matzoh and soak them thoroughly in an egg-and-milk mixture before frying, much as one would soak bread for French toast.
Still others run water over the matzoh to merely dampen it, then into the skillet with sizzling butter it goes, later to be scrambled with eggs.
Finally (I know this is exhausting, but hey, we’re Jewish) there is a Great Divide over how to flavor the matzoh brei. The sweet camp (to which my father belonged) pours maple syrup over the brei, treating it like pancakes, while the savory camp seasons with salt and pepper. In the South, according to an informal telephone survey by yours truly, savory outpolls sweet two-to-one.
Lest you think these distinctions are trivial, I should note that great men ponder these matters. No less a cooking maven than New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman has stirred the waters of Matzoh brei factionalism. While in Spain, he interviewed the noted architect, Frank Gehry, designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. Gehry is of the savory brei school, and he dampens his matzoh under a tap before frying. The two, in fact, discussed a matzoh brei contest, won by a Harvard biologist whose brei was sweetened with cinnamon and syrup. You can watch the video here: http://www.spainontheroadagain.com/
But now to the recipe itself, a delicate balance – a dance if you will – among three participants: matzoh, eggs and butter. The well-known food writer, Ruth Reichl, offers a simple savory recipe, using one egg per sheet of matzoh. I will follow hers with my family’s recipe for the sweet version. You, gentle readers, may judge for yourselves.
RUTH REICHL’S MATZOH BREI
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Crumble matzos into a large sieve placed over a bowl to catch crumbs, then hold sieve under running cold water until matzos are moist and softened but not completely disintegrated, about 15 seconds. Transfer to bowl with crumbs, then add eggs and salt and mix gently with a fork.
Heat butter in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides. Add matzo mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until eggs are scrambled and matzo has begun to crisp, about 3 minutes.
JACK MARITZER’S MATZOH BREI
In a large bowl, crack five eggs with a third cup of whole milk and beat until foamy.
Break four sheets of matzoh into pieces and soak in the egg mixture for 10 minutes, or until most of the mixture is absorbed.
Melt ¾ stick of unsalted butter in a very hot skillet until butter starts to brown. Add the eggy matzoh to butter and press down to make a solid pancake-shape.
Reduce heat to medium and fry each side for four minutes (a large spatula makes flipping easy).
Plate the matzoh brei pancake on platter, drizzle generously with maple syrup. Let diners serve their own portions from the platter. Best with ice cold milk.