The Hebrew word matza, or matzo, (both pronounced MAHT-suh)—the same name that appears in the Bible’s Book of Exodus (12:39)—describes the most ancient and humble of all breads. Flat, cracker-like, unleavened, it is substituted for yeast bread at the Jewish Passover Seder, the annual spring meal and service that recalls redemption from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. The leader of the service, reading from a prayer book called the Haggadah, begins by holding aloft a piece of matzo, and proclaims, “This is the bread of poverty which our forbears ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry enter and eat; let all who are needy come to our Passover feast.”
One would think that on such an occasion, something more substantial than matzo would be offered to the celebrants (not to mention to the hungry and needy). But not only is matzo eaten at the Seder, it is the only bread consumed throughout the entire Passover week. Ordinary leavened bread—indeed, any product containing leavening—is forbidden as long as the holiday lasts.
What’s so special about matzo? More importantly, what relevance does this thin, flat bread have as food in the twenty-first century? For starters, a huge reservoir of Passover cookery centers on the use of matzo. In the form of matzo meal (coarse) and matzo cake meal (fine), it forms the backbone of a tremendous variety of baked goods and dishes from the distinctive Jewish cuisines of Europe, North Africa, the Arabic Middle East, Israel, and America. Passover cookery demands a light hand and a mastery of the subject that is passed on from generation to generation. It offers the rewards of all traditional cooking: a link with one’s ancestry and the joy of feeding body and spirit simultaneously.
“Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.”
(New International Version)
Matzo grips my own imagination because it is bread, the staff of life, stripped of any pretensions whatsoever. An uncompromising mixture of only flour and water, it is kneaded, rolled out thin, and briefly baked at a very high temperature to assure that fermentation, or yeasty action, does not occur. In ancient times, matzos were often made in the shapes of flowers, animals, and doves, but the custom ended when the rabbis concluded that the time needed to make these fancy shapes might delay baking long enough to initiate the fermentation process. The recipes below are made in a regular oven set at 500°F. Matzo made under these circumstances isn’t considered kosher for Passover, but it’s fun to make anyway. To be certified as kosher, matzo must be baked at 600 to 800°F for no longer than three minutes.
In its ancient form, matzo was an unevenly round, thin cake, usually made with barley flour, the flour of the poor. It was very different in appearance from machine-made matzos—the 7- by 7-inch thin, perforated sheets that we find today on supermarket shelves in an assortment of flavors.
The reason for the prohibition of leavening appears in the Haggadah: “This matzo we eat, what is the reason for it? Because the dough of our fathers had not yet leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry . . .” The Jews had no time to leaven the bread, so they made the quick, more primitive form, just flour and water. If the purpose of Passover is to remind Jews of their former slavery and their redemption by God, then it makes sense to try to feel what it was like to eat the same type of bread that the Children of Israel did when they fled Egypt.
The act of remembering the “bread of affliction,” matzo is at the heart of the Passover Seder. The arrangement of matzos at the Seder is very important: three wafers, each separated by a cloth and set on a plate, contrast in appearance to the traditional, braided loaves used to celebrate the weekly Sabbath. Participants are reminded that this is a special occasion. The middle matzo is broken and one half of it remains between the two whole matzos. The other half, the Afikomen (a Greek word associated with dessert), is wrapped and placed underneath the bottom cloth on the matzo plate. At the end of the Seder service, everyone partakes of a piece of the Afikomen the size of an olive. This ritual signals the end of the Seder—but not the end of matzo! For it will be eaten in various forms for the next eight days of Passover.
Jo Ann Gardner is an avid gardener, writer, and cook who resettled in the Adirondacks. She and her husband have written a book to be released in April called Gardens of Use & Delight (Fulcrum Publishing).