From Shmurah to Sesame, ’Tis the Matzo Season

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The photo is classic 1970s, a trapped-in-amber portrait of grade-school field trips.

A group of about nine kids gathers around a table where a man is baking matzo. As the camera snaps their photo, one looks like he’s asleep standing up, another bites the coat of the boy in front of him, a third makes a goofy face and thrusts his arm in the air while still another kid, the hood up on his winter coat, fixes the camera with a mock-tragic expression as he holds out some dough in both hands.

The photo, taken in 1977 for a Jewish Exponent story, shows the kids at a model matzo bakery run by what was then the Philadelphia Lubavitcher Center. That year, some 4,000 students got a chance to participate in the matzo-baking process and learn about the Passover holiday.

Children from two local synagogues enjoy a model matzo demonstration in a 1977 Jewish Exponent photo by Cliff Hence.

These days, Chabad centers across the country continue to run the model matzo bakery program, which provides children with a hands-on experience of making matzo that they remember for years.

Rabbi Eli Strasberg, the Greater Philadelphia area’s roving matzo ambassador, aka “Matzo Man,” travels to schools and synagogues in Pennsylvania and New Jersey on behalf of the Chabad Living Legacy program. He brings his model matzo “show,” as he calls it, to people of all ages and religious affiliations, but he really enjoys the work he does with the younger kids.

To staunch any field-trip-style boredom, he spurs participation by deliberately making errors as he tells the Passover story.

“A couple thousand years ago in the land of China … ” he’ll begin, and the kids will shout, “Nooooo! Egypt!”

After telling the whole tale, with plenty of opportunities for the kids to laugh at his ridiculous mistakes, Strasberg brings out the tools of the shmurah matzo-making trade: a little well to draw water from, an oven, wheat, a stone mill.

“We go through the whole process of making flour,” he said, “then we actually go ahead with the making of the matzo, with a water room and flour room.”

The children put on bakers’ hats.

“It’s really important, especially nowadays, for kids to have that feel-good aspect of Judaism,” said Strasberg, who offers other hands-on shows, too. “Teachers enjoy it, parents come as well. It’s not only educational Jewish-wise but [it promotes] learning farm-to-table, so to speak — how their food gets made, how it gets to the store and how it gets created, so they have a new appreciation of that as well.”

It’s a program that James Barrett would have loved. The co-owner, with Wendy Smith Born, of Metropolitan Bakery, Barrett has spent the last couple of decades perfecting the art of baking matzo for his many Jewish patrons, who buy it in large numbers during Passover.

“I grew up in the Far Northeast,” he said. “I am Catholic, but it was a very Jewish neighborhood with a synagogue right around the corner. So I grew up with all these wonderful foods. I always loved matzo.”

When a Jewish customer suggested that he start baking matzo, he thought it was a great idea. The effort was well received, and now “Metro Matzo” — which is not kosher for Passover, Barrett notes — is available in four flavors: plain, sesame, olive and sun-dried tomato.

“Each year it’s become more and more popular,” Barrett said. “It is labor-intensive, for sure — it’s adding a new product line or business for just this season. But we’re happy to do it, and the customers really appreciate it. We’re doing almost 3,000 sheets this year.”

Even those who aren’t professional chefs of bakery owners can make matzo at home, though not without some tsurris. A thoroughly unscientific Facebook survey asking Jewish Philadelphians for their tips for homemade matzo gleaned comments like, “My No. 1 tip about homemade matzo is don’t make it” and “Go to Acme and purchase double-chocolate-covered matzo. Bring it home. Voilà!” Another person quipped, “My mouth is dry just thinking about this article.”

“People talk a lot of trash on matzo,” said Abe Fisher Executive Chef Yehuda Sichel, laughing. Then he deadpans: “It reminds us of oppression — I’m trying to change that.”

Abe Fisher’s five-course Passover meal on April 11 will include not only the chef’s handmade matzo, but also an apple walnut “strudel” made using matzo instead of phyllo dough — and topped with foie gras.

Another CookNSolo restaurant, the hummusiya Dizengoff, will have za’atar-infused matzo available throughout Pesach for customers who want it.

The process for both restaurants’ matzo, Sichel said, is fairly simple.

“I like to add a little bit of olive oil into mine … and we actually add some everything-bagel spice into the mix,” said Sichel, who also layers an egg wash on at the end, along with some more spices. “You can make matzo taste really good!”

Barrett agrees.

“As long as the matzo is docked or perforated, you’re going to get those wonderful little blisters and they get char, which is so delicious,” he said. He also advised at-home bakers to use a baking steel rather than a pizza stone, and to put the oven at its highest temperature. “Preheat the oven to its max.”

Tova du Plessis, owner of Essen Bakery in South Philly, seconds that advice.

“I would recommend baking it in a very hot oven for a short time to get nice color on it, which will impart better flavor,” she said. “I would also recommend adding a little bit of olive oil to your dough.”

In addition to homemade matzo in plain, whole wheat and garlic and herb varieties, Essen also makes “matzo crack” — store-bought matzo covered in toffee, dark chocolate, toasted almonds and sea salt — to sell for the holidays.

Former Philadelphia resident Pier Hart, who used to lead challah-baking workshops for her Reconstructionist shul, tried making matzo from scratch for the first time in 2013.

“I guess making matzo just seemed like the obvious advanced-level Jew-y baking feat to try next,” she said. “The same year, I also made gefilte fish for the first time from scratch — as in, I had whitefish swimming in my bathtub. Luckily, my roommates at the time were very tolerant gentiles.”

Since starting medical school, Hart, who’s now based in New York, hasn’t had time to cook from scratch. But she offered “a bissel of advice” for novices: “Docking (i.e., poking holes in the dough) is key to keeping the matzot flat while baking,” she said, and the dough-docking tool is “good fun for the whole mishpucha!”

Of course, there’s always the option to buy boxed matzo, whether Streit’s, Manischewitz, Aviv or Yehuda. The online options are endless, even for those who want shmurah matzo.

The website MatzahOnline.com, for instance, offers traditional shmurah matzo baked in Israel and New York, along with organic spelt, whole wheat and even oat (gluten-free) varieties. The company’s biggest seller is the matzo baked in Israel; Metropolitan’s most popular brand is also its plain variety.

For Rabbi Strasberg, the Matzo Man, keeping it simple is fine; even a rudimentary lesson in matzo-making can meaningfully involve children — and adults.

“It engages all their senses,” he said. “They’re using their hands to make it, they smell the matzo baking, they’re eating it … It all sticks with them. I see kids I did it with years ago; they come back and tell me they loved it.”

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