My kids are excited for Passover. Unbelievably, they’re specifically excited for matzah. This is either due to the fact that they are extremely easy to impress, or that they have youthful digestive systems (or both). Bread of affliction indeed.
Personally, my Passover strategy can be summed up as follows: Eat as little matzah as possible. The seasonal appearance of the pink tubs of whipped cream cheese can cause me to temporarily abandon this strategy. I could probably eat a cardboard box spread with Temp-Tee cream cheese. Every year, I think it should become a year-round staple, but after eight days, the idea is forgotten. That is the power of matzah.
But the Jewish people are nothing if not resourceful, and there are a number of real delicacies that have been built around this humble foodstuff.
When I would visit my grandparents during Passover, my grandfather would wake up at four or five in the morning, shave, shower and dress, and then promptly fall asleep in his favorite armchair. I always thought this was strange, but then, he was also known to sip on a glass of pickle juice, so it all balanced out.
But when everyone was awake, he would whip out his impressively seasoned cast iron pan (his father was a foundryman) and get to work. We weren’t one of those fancy families, with their “pancake”-style matzah brei. We ate ours “scrambled” — with as many crispy edges as possible, a healthy amount of salt and jam (optional).
With apologies to my grandfather, however, perhaps the best matzah brei I’ve ever eaten was prepared by Ofer Shlomo, our friend and the contractor who built Zahav. In fact, the first meal ever eaten at Zahav was a Passover seder with Ofer and friends while the restaurant was under construction.
In the week that followed, as his crew worked feverishly to keep us on schedule, Ofer would prepare his version of matzah brie on an old stove left in the restaurant by the previous tenant. His method involves soaking whole sheets of Matzah in water until it‘s pliable enough to fold into quarters without breaking. He then dips it in an egg batter and pan-fries it in an irresponsible amount of oil.
There are other worthy culinary uses for matzah. At Zahav during Passover, we often serve a version of mina, a Sephardic pie that layers matzah and meat in a casserole that is baked in the oven.
Sometimes we used smoked brisket from Percy Street Barbecue, or coffee-braised brisket, or ground lamb seasoned with cinnamon, allspice and caramelized onions. It doesn’t really matter. The matzah soaks in the meaty juices and the whole dish is transformed into something better than the sum of its parts.
As a day school student, I remember making a chocolate-matzah icebox pie. We briefly soaked whole matzot in Manischewitz wine and then layered it with some sort of chocolate situation. It occurred to me that this would be delicious filled with the chocolate mousse that we serve at Citron and Rose with hazelnut praline and sour cherry compote folded in. We’ve adapted that idea in the recipe below.
1 cup roasted and salted hazelnuts
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 cup dried cherries
2 cups Manischewitz concord grape wine
1 vanilla bean
1 cinnamon stick
1 piece star anise
4 pieces of matzah
16 oz. dark chocolate
16 oz. heavy cream (or one 15 oz. can coconut milk for pareve)
Place the hazelnuts and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat until the sugar melts and coats the nuts. Spread on a baking sheet to cool and then coarsely chop or pulse in a food processor.
Place the dried cherries in a small saucepan with one cup of the wine, one cup of water, the vanilla bean (split and scraped), cinnamon stick, star anise and a pinch of salt. Simmer over low heat, stirring often, until the cherries are hydrated and most of the liquid is absorbed.
Remove the vanilla bean, cinnamon and star anise and pulse in a food processor until partially smooth and spreadable. Adjust the consistency with a little water if necessary.
Pour the remaining wine in a baking pan large enough to hold the matzah. Soak the matzah pieces one at a time until hydrated and soft but not falling apart, approximately 5 minutes, and set aside.
Break the chocolate into pieces in the work bowl of a standing mixer. Heat the cream until it comes to a boil and pour over the chocolate. Incorporate the chocolate and cream together using a rubber spatula until smooth.
Allow the ganache to cool at room temperature until it begins to thicken, stirring occasionally, approximately 15 minutes.
Place the bowl in the stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment and whip at medium-high speed until the mixture lightens and becomes the consistency of frosting. Be careful not to overwhip.
Place one piece of matzah in the bottom of a 9-inch square baking dish. Spread a quarter of the cherry compote on the matzah and top with a quarter of the whipped ganache. Sprinkle with some of the hazelnuts and top with another piece of matzah, pressing down lightly to spread the ganache evenly below.
Repeat with the remaining matzah and filling. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before serving.
Steve Cook, co-creator of Cirton and Rose, Zahav and other local restaurants, writes a monthly column for the Exponent.