Tonight, April 15 at sundown, marks the beginning of Passover, the week long holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery under Egyptian rule, over three thousand years ago. According to the Book of Exodus, the Egyptian Pharaoh freed the Israelites after God tormented the Egyptians by visiting ten plagues upon them, culminating in the death of the first born in all Egyptian households. Jewish families, instructed by God to mark their homes with the blood of a spring lamb were spared, “passed over” by this lethal power. It is said that the Israelites had so little time to leave that that they didn’t even have time to wait for their bread to rise, so they took with them flat, unleavened bread, or matzo, and thus was born the tradition of eating only unleavened bread for the duration of the holiday.
As is the case with most holidays, food plays a significant part in carrying on the traditions of Passover, beginning with the Passover Seder, the feast that begins at sunset. Meaning “order” or “arrangement”, Seder is conducted by the leaders of the family, preferably two or more generations, and involves the retelling of the story of the Israelites’ liberation, centering on themes of slavery and freedom.
Three pieces of Matzo are served with the traditional dinner; two are consumed, and the third is hidden as a prize to be discovered later. The Seder feast includes the following six items:
Maror: bitter herbs, usually horseradish or romaine lettuce, used to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
Charoses: a mixture of apples nuts wine and cinnamon as a reminder of the mortar used by the Jews in the construction of buildings as slaves
Beitzah: a roasted egg, as a symbol of life and the perpetuation of existence.
•Karpas: a vegetable, preferably parsley or celery, representing hope and redemption; served with a bowl of salted water to represent the tears shed.
• Zeroah: traditionally a piece of roasted lamb shank symbolizing the paschal sacrificial offering
• Wine: four glasses are consumed during the service to represent the four-fold promise of redemption, with a special glass left for Elijah the prophet.
Whether or not you celebrate Passover, matzo is a delicious, light and airy bread that can be enjoyed at any time, especially with a spread like hummus or a white bean and escarole dip. They are easy to prepare…especially if you’re in a hurry. And no talk of Jewish cuisine would be complete without at least a passing reference to Matzoball soup, in which matzo dough is “balled up” in to bite sized balls and plopped into a pot of simmering chicken soup.
Here is one of our favourite recipes for Matzo, quick, simple and delicious, from Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen from Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland, California.
And if you are celebrating Passover this week, Chag Sameach!
About 2 3/4 cups flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil
About 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1. Set a pizza stone on an oven rack and heat oven to 500° for about 45 minutes (if you don’t have a pizza stone, set a large baking sheet on a rack and heat until oven is hot).
2. Put 2 1/4 cups flour, kosher salt, and oil in a food processor. With motor running, slowly add 1/2 cup water. Dough will come together into a ball and should feel soft and supple; if it is sticky at all, add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time.
3. Divide dough into 12 portions. Using a floured rolling pin, roll 1 portion at a time on a well-floured work surface into a round about 8 in. wide and just thin enough to see through. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt and press it in with your hands. Prick dough all over with a fork (this will prevent the dough from puffing up too much).
4. Flour a wooden peel or back of a baking sheet generously and transfer dough to it. Gently slide dough onto hot pizza stone. Bake until matzo is light golden and crisp on each side and a bit darker at the edges, turning once with a wide spatula, 2 to 3 minutes total. Transfer matzo to a cooling rack and make remaining matzos the same way.
5. Rebake any matzo that isn’t crisp in the center, which may be the case if they baked on a baking sheet; put matzos on a rimmed baking sheet, reduce oven heat to 250°, and bake 15 to 25 minutes more.