Do you like it crisp or mushy? Sweet or savory? Read my story on Tastebook.com about matzo brei here.
by Laura B. Weiss
April 4, 2015
Matzo brei for Passover. Photo: Elzbieta Sekowska via Shutterstock
When Passover rolls around, I find myself thinking about my Uncle Danny and his matzo brei, a homey holiday classic in which dampened crumbled matzo is combined with beaten eggs and fried matzo.
Though I was a child when I last tucked into my uncle’s version of this earthy concoction, the memory of its pleasing buttery taste is one I still cherish.
Even now, all these years later, I can picture my uncle, a short sturdy man, standing in front of the stove in his suburban Long Island kitchen. There, he would whip together eggs and matzo, which he’d softened first in water before swirling the bits of the dry wafer into the egg mixture. After a few moments, when the matzo brei had turned a crisp and brown, he’d flip the fried eggs and matzo onto a plate. Then he’d sprinkle it with copious amounts of sugar and serve generous wedges to my cousin Jeffrey and me. I’d gobble up my slice, marveling at this Jewish French toast and its welcoming embrace of fat and sugar.
It turns out that I am not alone when it comes to the intense feelings of nostalgia that matzo brei evokes among many American Jews. Prepared during a time when observant Jews eat only unleavened bread, or matzo, to commemorate the Jews exodus from Egypt, this popular dish is often based on a cherished family recipe handed down through the generations.
But it seems that this humble dish of fried matzo has given rise to a series of good-natured, but also fiercely held beliefs on the proper way to prepare the dish.
Scrambled or pancake style? Large chunks of matzo or small? Sweet or savory?
Fierce debates rage on both sides of these divides. And where you fall along this fault line is often determined by the kind of matzo brei you grew up eating.
For starters, there’s the matter of scrambled or pancake style.
Noted Jewish cookbook author, Joan Nathan, prefers her scrambled. “I like to scramble the matzo and the eggs and break the matzo up into little pieces,” she says. But in her household her husband remains faithful to his family traditions when cooking matzo brei. He “carefully dips the matzo in one piece into water, then whips the eggs and make sure it is in one piece,” she explains.
Food writer Marlena Spieler’s childhood memories of the under-done “gushy” pancake-style matzo brei her aunt prepared nearly turned her against the dish. These days she favors scrambled…“moist inside and crisp browned outside,” a variety similar to the one her grandmother once served her.
Then there is the matter of how much water to add to the matzo before it’s broken into pieces and combined with the eggs. Proponents of leaving the wafer with some of its original crunch intact advise holding the boards under very hot or boiling water for just a minute or two. Others insist that the matzo needs to soak for a while before it’s ready to be added to the beaten eggs.
The ratio of egg to matzo is also a matter of some dispute. One-to-one is common. Others—and I count myself among them—prefer their matzo brei egg-laden.
Then there’s perhaps the most contentious issue of all: whether you align yourself with the sweet or the savory matzo brei camp.
Sweet matzo brei is typically made with sugar or a sugar-cinnamon mixture and is often accompanied by applesauce, maple syrup, sour cream or preserves. Those who champion the savory version prefer instead to embellish their preparations with items like onions, cheese, mushrooms and salami.
The origins of matzo brei are hazy, though some say the dish dates back centuries. In her recently released cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes and Customs For Today’s Kitchen, author Leah Koenig writes that matzo brei was in fact invented in America at the turn of the 20th century. Decades later, delicatessens and diners nationwide began featuring the dish on their menus.
Left unadorned, matzo brei has a somewhat bland taste. For me, that’s part of its appeal—its eggy, buttery flavor which, when topped with lots and lots of sugar, is just the kind of mild, sweet comfort food I like to treat myself to once in awhile.
But perhaps not surprisingly, recipes for amping up—and modernizing—matzo brei abound. The dish, which many people eat for breakfast, is also consumed at lunch and dinner. For some it’s also a favorite not just during Passover, but throughout the year.
Baking maven Rose Levy Beranbaum suggests adding jalapenos, onions, and garlic to the egg and matzo amalgam to give the dish a Southwestern zip. Meanwhile, Adam Feinberg, a Denver chef who remembers as a child preparing matzo brei with his great-grandmother and grandmother, has come up with a version chock-full of ingredients. His recipe features red and green cabbage, green, yellow and red peppers, kosher salami, a dash of one of his seasoning rubs, and onions.
Even tofu has found its way into this traditional Passover food. Cookbook author Dana Jacobi incorporates tofu to add moisture and protein to her version, then tops it with a dark cherry sauce.
Then, there is the matter of bacon. Yes, bacon. Bits of it crumbled into or sprinkled atop the matzo brei. For observant Jews, pork is a forbidden food. But for others, the addition of bacon adds a much-needed boost of flavor to the otherwise plain dish.
Food writer Amy Sherman likes to incorporate caramelized onions and bacon into her matzo brei, basing it on a recipe handed down from her Uncle Milton. How did Uncle Milton come up with this unconventional addition? Says Sherman, “He tried salami but he felt bacon was even better.”
Of course, you don’t have to be Jewish to like matzo brei—but it probably helps.
New York banker Marlene Lieberman remembers that matzo brei drove a wedge between her and her then-non-Jewish boyfriend.
“When I was 26,” she recalls, “I was dating a guy” who wasn’t Jewish. “I made him matzo brei around Passover and he ate it all.” Six months later, they were talking and she asked him whether she had ever let him down.
“‘Yes,’” he said, “‘once when you made me matzo brei.’”
Laura B. Weiss has written for The New York Times, NPR, Saveur, Publishers Weekly,Travel + Leisure, and Food Network. She is the author of Ice Cream: A Global History(Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press, 2011).