The Road to Perfecting Matzo-Ball Soup

Passover begins Monday. It's the Jewish holiday peppered with matzo-ball soup. Making matzo-ball soup that keeps them coming back for more is a duty worth perfecting.

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Monday evening is the first night of Passover, and for many families that means the four questions. And one of those questions is how do you make a first-class matzo ball for your matzo-ball soup? That can be daunting. NPR's Kim Masters is here to help.

KIM MASTERS: Making matzo balls from scratch may be a dying art. Sales of the mix far outstrip those of the plain matzo meal that is the main ingredient in a homemade matzo ball. People are busy, of course, but making matzo balls from scratch isn't much harder than using the package. Still, many people are scared because matzo balls have developed a reputation for being unpredictable.

But if the Hebrews could overcome their fears and flee from slavery, surely cooks can overcome anxieties that are exaggerated.

Mr. ART GINSBURG(ph) (Owner, Art's Deli): Well, the making of a matzo ball is fairly simple.

MASTERS: Art Ginsburg has been running Art's Deli in the San Fernando Valley since 1957, though these days his daughter, Roberta Middledorf(ph), oversees the matzo ball making. The Passover orders are already coming in.

Mr. GINSBURG: This one has got three quarts of soup, nine matzo balls. This has got 12 quarts of soup, 22 matzo balls.

MASTERS: Art's expects to sell about 2,000 matzo balls in the days before Passover. And it seems that sometimes he and his daughter disagree about how things should be done.

Mr. GINSBURG: I'm going to take the cold water...

Ms. ROBERTA MIDDLEDORF (Daughter): Ice water.

Mr. GINSBURG: Ice water with a little salt.

Ms. MIDDLEDORF: No salt.

Mr. GINSBURG: No salt? You don't put salt into it anymore? All right.

Ms. MIDDLEDORF: Not into that water.

MASTERS: In fact, addressing the question of matzo balls is risky because everyone has an idea about what a matzo ball should be like. For our purposes, we're taking Art's approach.

Mr. GINSBURG: A matzo ball has got to be fluffy. It's got to be light inside. And a lot of people, when they make them, they come out hard.

MASTERS: Some people actually like them firm, but today we're talking fluffy. Art's whips up batches of 40-some balls at a time. You probably don't need that many and neither do I. But I use essentially the same ingredients as Art's, and the truth is, I use the recipe on the Manischewitz box. You can also find it online. You get about eight balls and you can double the recipe if you need to.

All you need is a bowl and a fork. Beat two eggs in the bowl lightly with that fork. Add two tablespoons of canola oil. Stir in half a cup of matzo meal - I've used all kinds - and a teaspoon of salt. Mix the dough, stir in two tablespoons of chicken stock, which I use, or water, which they use at Art's.

Now cover the bowl and stick it in the fridge for about 25 minutes. That's a bit longer than the recipe suggests but I think it makes it easier to handle the dough when you get to the critical ball-formation stage. At Art's they don't chill the dough at all. Go figure.

Now here's the most important moment: when you're ready to make the balls, don't handle the dough too much. Form them with love and lower then into salted boiling water. At Art's they boil vigorously. I cook them a bit more gently. At Art's, they don't cover the pot. I do.

To see if there's any meaningful difference in these approaches, I checked with Harriet Davidson. She handles consumer relations for Manischewitz.

Ms. HARRIET DAVIDSON (Consumer Relations, Manischewitz): It's whatever works for you.

MASTERS: Now, Davidson hasn't made a matzo ball from scratch in years. The mix suits her fine, even though she admits you don't get the same matzo ball. But once people try that mix, she says, they want to stick with something foolproof.

Ms. DAVIDSON: They don't tell anybody that they use a mix.

MASTERS: That doesn't seem quite kosher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVIDSON: It's a family secret.

MASTERS: Most families have enough secrets. It shouldn't be necessary to fib about your matzo balls.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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