Wednesday, April 01, 2015

From Floaters to Sinkers -- Matzah Ball Making 101

This is probably the trickiest and most detailed cooking post I’ve ever written, mostly because matzah balls are the most divisive Ashkenazi food I know.  Everyone has an opinion and most think their way is the best way.  Positions are taken young and kept for life.  I suspect marriages have failed because of sinkers and floaters.

With all that pressure, some home cooks are concerned about their matzah ball making ability and opt to use a mix (which still needs added ingredients and requires shaping and cooking) or ask others to make and bring the dumplings to their Seders.

Basically the debates center around ingredients, technique and whether the matzah ball itself is fluffy (a floater) or dense (a sinker).   Which is pretty much every aspect of matzah ball making. Oy.

One friend tells me she really prefers denser matzah balls, but she eats what she gets since she feels she “has no control” over how they turn out.

I can’t promise perfection, but I can give you some tips and recipes that should help anxious matzah ball makers.  Read on for my matzah ball recipes and my suggestions for gaining some control over the process and learn how to make the dumpling of your dreams, or at least close to it.

There are a variety of issues that affect your kneidlach success – the matzah meal itself, seasoning, leavening, liquid, and fat, as well as the shaping and cooking.

For some, the only good matzah meal is homemade, made of pulverized whole matzahs.  I’ve never done this myself, but it seems pretty straight forward and will yield the freshest matzah meal.  To make your own, break sheets of matzah into 1-2” sections and either grind in a food processor or put into double plastic bags and crush with a rolling pin, meat mallet or other heavy device.  You are aiming for pieces the size of commercial matzah meal (about 1/8”or less, be careful not to grind the matzahs too fine, then you’ll have made matzah cake meal).

If you are like me and use commercially prepared matzah meal, taste it before using.  If it tastes stale or rancid your matzah balls will, too. 
The freshness of your matzah meal will also affect how it absorbs your liquid ingredients, so homemade might need a bit less liquid. Add a bit more liquid if the mix seems too dry, although a drier batter is preferred if you want dense matzah balls.

Seasonings are another point of controversy – some recipes use a lot of salt, others just a trace.  Some salt the boiling water, others do not.  My preference is to add about ¼ to½ teaspoon of salt per cup of matzah meal and use very slightly salted boiling water (maybe a ¼ teaspoon for a big pot of water). Pepper is a deal breaker for some, mandatory for others and then there is the question of white or black pepper.  My choice is freshly ground black and I specify the amounts I like to use in the recipes below.

Adding garlic powder and onion powder are options.  If you are used to matzah balls from a mix you may want to include those, since the mixes have them listed as ingredients.  How much to add?  I’d say that depends on your preference.  Start with a ¼ to ½ teaspoon each per cup of matzah meal.

Other variations include adding 1-2 tablespoons of finely minced fresh dill or parsley for each cup of matzah meal.   I prefer to sprinkle the herbs on top of my soup instead of putting them in the matzah ball.

My basic rule is to add the minimal amount of any seasoning and cook up a small test matzah ball and then taste.  If the seasoning is too light, add more to the rest of the batter to compensate.  Keep in mind the kneidlach will be served in a seasoned chicken soup.

For leavening I use eggs and only eggs.  Different size eggs will yield different amounts of liquid.  I usually use large or extra-large eggs.

Some recipes, particularly those promising fluffy results, include baking powder (which is available kosher for Passover).  It is also an ingredient in commercial matzah ball mixes.  The basic amount to add seems to be 1 teaspoon per ¾ cup of matzah meal in addition to the eggs.  Adding baking powder might be good insurance if a lighter matzah ball is imperative for your family and you do not want to risk a cannon ball.

For denser matzah balls, I beat the whole egg.  For lighter, fluffier ones, I separate the yolk from the white.  I beat the yolk until combined, but whisk the whites for about a minute until foamy and add separately.  See recipes for specific directions.

I prefer seltzer as my liquid. Some recipes use just a little liquid (mostly denser ones), others use more.  For years I’ve used seltzer thinking it helps lighten the texture but I’ve never done a scientific testing.  You can also use water or strained chicken soup instead.

If you use seltzer, be sure it is plain, unflavored seltzer.  Do not use club soda, which has salt added or sparkling mineral water which may also contain salt as well as natural mineral flavors.

Fat is another variable.  I think a neutral-tasting vegetable oil helps give fluffier results, but melted (and slightly cooled) chicken fat (schmaltz) makes for the tastiest matzah balls.

I think the shaping is crucial in determining the density of your matzah ball.  The less handling, the fluffier your dumpling.
For ethereal, cloud-like kneidlach, use one spoon to pick up a portion of the batter and another spoon to slide the portion into the boiling water.  This results in free-form dumplings that are incredibly fluffy with no chewiness. Warning, even some floater enthusiasts find these too light.
For fluffy kneidlach floaters that actually look like matzah balls, wet your hands with cold water and handle the dough as little as possible to form rough rounds.  Don’t compress and don’t roll the balls in your hands any more than necessary.  I’ve seen batter destined for fluffy balls made dense by over handling by cooks who are determined to have perfectly round, evenly shaped matzah balls.

For dense, heavier matzah balls (I can’t actually guarantee they will sink, but they will have the slightly chewy texture those who like sinkers prefer), shape with wet hands, rolling and compressing the dough until if forms smooth, even rounds.

How your kneidlach are cooked can also help determine their fate as sinkers or floaters. Put your matzah balls in a pot of simmering water with plenty of room and they will expand more and have a lighter texture.  Crowd them and they will not expand as much and remain denser.

If you are multiplying the recipes or do not have a big enough pot to simmer the matzah balls in, either use several pots at once or cook them in batches. 
Many recipes tell you not to peek once your matzah balls are simmering.  For the fluffy matzah balls, I like to check after about 30 minutes to turn the dumplings over or spoon simmering liquid on them if it appears their tops are drying out.
Sometimes I find the matzah balls take more than the stated time in the recipe, so be sure to check for doneness and not just go by the clock.  I test by cutting one in half.  There should be no raw spots.  A fluffy dumpling should be uniformly creamy white inside.  A denser matzah ball will be more compact and darker, but still uniform.  Both types should taste cooked through.

Once the matzah balls are added to the water, make sure the water stays at a simmer.   The more intense boiling can break apart the dumplings.

I prefer to reheat the matzah balls in simmering chicken soup.  For a recipe and techniques for chicken soup, please check out my Chicken Soup 101 post.

I drain the cooked matzah balls on wire racks set inside baking trays.  For storing in the refrigerator, I place in sealed containers, separating layers with oiled waxed paper.  For longer storage, I freeze on a baking tray and then put the frozen individual dumplings in an airtight container or plastic bag.

Bring the refrigerated matzah balls to room temperature before using.  Defrost the frozen ones by placing them on wire racks until they are room temperature and then reheat in the soup.

Below are two recipes.  One is for fluffy matzah balls and it is based on a recipe from my husband’s Aunt Betty, who was the matzah ball making maven of her generation.  Another recipe is for dense matzah balls.  For a gluten-free option using chicken and almonds, click here. I can’t make iron-clad promises about texture and density in matzah ball making but I can promise that with time and an understanding of the variables, you will get a feel for what makes a good matzah ball for you and your soup.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Skip Cookies this Purim, Go For the Hammered Taschen: Specialty Holiday Cocktails Help Adults Drown out Haman

Shushan Sunset and Sunrise.  I can't tell the difference, so be careful.

While dressing up, acting out Purimshpiels (Purim plays), making noise and listening to the story of how Queen Esther and Mordecai defeated Haman are for all ages, one holiday tradition is strictly for adults – drinking alcohol. Various sources advise us to imbibe until we cannot distinguish the difference between a curse on the evil vizier Haman’s name and a blessing on the Jewish hero Mordecai’s.

Some do suggest drinking only a little bit more than you usually do or indulging only enough to fall asleep since when you are asleep you can’t hear the difference between the two names.

These days moderation and designated drivers are advised, but many of us still take a sip or several to celebrate the Jewish victory, perhaps from a bottle of schnapps or whiskey after the Megillah reading. These cocktails are a little fancier. Think of them as your tipples in Purim costumes.

Two of the drinks are named after the ancient Persian city of Shushan to mark the extra day of fighting that walled city endured. The Shushan Sunrise is non-alcoholic and uses grenadine syrup, a pomegranate flavored sugar syrup available in liquor stores and other markets. The Shushan Sunset features pomegranate liqueur. Both were made with fresh lemonade from the supermarket’s refrigerator section.

Pomegranate liqueur is also featured in the Queen Esther champagne cocktail. Crown Queen Esther by dipping the rim of a champagne flute in lemon juice and then in sugar or powdered sugar before mixing the cocktail.

Vashti’s Venom has a bit of a bite from the bourbon, a bit of sweetness from the cherry cola and a bit of sharpness from the vermouth, giving the drink qualities I imagine Vashti must have had to attract and anger a king. Substitute cola for cherry cola if desired.

The popular apricot jam-filled hamantaschen cookies were the inspiration for the Hammered Taschen. Cookie crumbs on the glass rim and apricot nectar help recreate the flavor of the three-cornered pastry, an Ashkenazi favorite for the holiday.

Shushan Sunrise (Non-Alcoholic)
Serves 1

1 Tbs. plus 2 tsp. grenadine syrup
1 cup lemonade, chilled
Mint leaf, optional

Fill 12 oz. glass with ice. Pour 1 Tbs. grenadine syrup over ice. Add lemonade. Stir. Drizzle remaining syrup over top. (Do not stir.) Garnish with mint leaf if desired.

Shushan Sunset
Serves 1

1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. pomegranate liqueur
1 cup lemonade, chilled
Mint leaf, optional

Fill 12 oz. class with ice. Pour 1 Tbs. of the liqueur over ice. Add lemonade. Stir. Drizzle remaining liqueur over top. (Do not stir.) Garnish with mint leaf if desired.

The Hammered Taschen
The Hammered Taschen

Serves 1

2 vanilla wafers
1 Tbs. lime juice plus extra for rim
1 Tbs. triple sec
1 Tbs. peach schnapps
2 Tbs. vodka
3 Tbs. apricot nectar

Crush cookies into a very fine powder. Dip rim of chilled martini or other cocktail glass in lime juice and then in cookie powder. Set aside. Combine 1 Tbs. lime juice with the triple sec, peach schnapps, vodka and apricot nectar in cocktail shaker. Fill with ice. Shake well and strain into prepared glass.

Queen Esther
Serves 1

1 tsp. pomegranate liqueur
Brut champagne or sparkling wine, chilled
3-4 pomegranate seeds, optional

Pour liquor in bottom of chilled champagne flute. Fill glass with champagne. Float seeds on top as garnish if desired.

Vashti’s Venom
Serves 1

1 Tbs. bourbon
1 tsp. sweet (red) vermouth
1 cup cherry cola, chilled
Maraschino cherry, optional

Fill 12 oz. class with ice. Pour bourbon and vermouth in glass. Stir. Add cherry cola. Stir gently. Garnish with maraschino cherry if desired.

This originally appeared in the j weekly.  Plus the cocktails were field-tested at a very fun adults only cocktail party.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I'm Baaack!

I've been home about a week and I've caught up on my sleep but not my mail/email.
Once I dig out I'll post a few more photos, work on some Southeast Asia recipes and post some other recipes as well.

More soon. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Call It a Pizza, Taco or Crepe, It is Still Vietnamese and Delicious

This street vendor was one of many we saw in Dalat, Vietnam, cooking this snack  over a charcoal grill.

First she heated a rice paper wrapper, then broke some quail eggs on top, scrambling them with some chopped chives or scallion tops. 

Next came dried shrimp, sausage slices and other seasonings including chili sauce. After everything was cooked, she folded it over, wrapped the end in scrap paper and presented it to the waiting customer. 

It was fast, inexpensive ($1) and delicious. 

It's too hard working on my iPhone with this so I'll update with more info and links later. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Strawberries in Dalat

Dalat, Vietnam, is famous for its strawberries, presenting Gary and me with a dilemna.

Strawberries are one of those foods I won't eat overseas because of the water that goes into the production and cleaning the fruit.  Just too much alien bacteria for my body to handle (heck, even French strawberries got me sick once.). This from a person who eats lots and lots of street food, too.

Anyway, we ended up buying a box of delightful smelling berries.  We picked out one.  I submerged it in a class of purified water and agitated that poor berry until all its little pips had fallen off the outside of the fruit and the water turned cloudy. We dried it off and had a taste.  A bit sweet, a bit tart, but not as compelling as our in season California strawberries or those Parisan wild ones whose siren call ended up with me being sick all those years ago.

The local Dalat strawberries were also featured in a scrumptious local jam, with lots of large pieces of fruit and a nice balance of sweet and acid.  I slathered the jam on my breakfast baguette every morning we were there.  The rest of the fresh strawberries we gave to the helpful young woman who worked the hotel's front desk.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

On a Roll -- Lacy Vietnamese Spring Rolls

In every country I visited I signed up for a cooking class, looking for ones that were hands on, a bit beyond basic and with a mix of dishes familiar and unfamiliar.

In Hanoi, I had a half day class (with market tour) at Hanoi Cooking Centre.  It turns out I was the only student who signed up for the Central Coast Seafood class so I got one-on-one instruction.

Here we are making lacy fried spring rolls with taro, pork and shrimp.  I'll post with a recipe when I test it out with American ingredients when I get back to my kitchen.

This style of spring roll uses two types of rice wrappers -- a lacy outer and a rectangular inner.
Here the instructor is rolling one up.  His hands were quicker than my camera. 

These are fresh wrappers rather than dried so they needed no soaking. The rolls are fried twice but were still not greasy.

Since there were no other students and we made a lot of food, the centre invited Gary to come join me for a dinner featuring the foods I made.  It was the first time he had been able to eat my cooking in weeks

Friday, February 13, 2015

Nuts for Cashews

Piles of ripe, unprocessed cashews in the market in Nam Cat Dien, Vietnam.

These nuts (technically seeds) grow beneath a dupe or false fruit.  The false fruit falls off and the cashews are harvested, the skins and shells mechanically removed due to toxins and then the seed itself undergoes some heat treatment to get rid of the poison ivy-like chemicals (yes, even the ones sold as raw.)

In some countries the cashew apple is used as a fruit (it is astringent and can irritate some folks).  In others it is fermented into a wine or made into a liquor.  I saw it as a fruit in Vietnam and tasted some vile liquor made from it when I was in southern India.

Vietnam was the world's largest grower of cashews in 2012. I also show plantations of the plants with their colorful cashew apples in northern Cambodia, where they (and rubber trees) were being planted to reforest the deforested jungle and forest areas.

A note: due to Google Blogger mobile inadequacies photos aren't laid out exactly how I'd like them and you, the raeader, are used to, but once I return home I'll clean everything up.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Restaurant Kitchen in Phongsaly

The north of Laos has a different look and feel than the rest of the country, you definitely feel the presence of its giant neighbor, China.  Its presence is felt in the look of some of the people, the food, and in the ever present signs and symbols of SinoPower, the Chinese power agency that is building hydroelectric dams throughout the area.

It was the food that concerns me here.  Phongsaly had a style of restaurant I really enjoyed.  Pick your protein and key vegetables from a refrigerator case and the chef, usually a woman, cooks them up for you as she desires.

We found pointing at what others were eating was a good technique for ordering and we did find that chicken, for example, was always prepared the same way.

Above is a kitchen from one of these restaurants.  Once again I was amazed to see who well food can be prepared without all the conveniences of our Western modern kitchens.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Iced Coffee by Dong Nai River

I'm in a beautiful lodge within Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, about four hours from Ho Chi Minh City.  (Forest Floor Lodge.)

Here's what they brought me for my iced coffee. I'll write more about Southeast Asian filtered coffee and iced coffee later, but I just wanted to share this lovely moment.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Say It with Roses -- Valentine's Day Chocolate Rose Berry Cake

Roses are the traditional symbol of love. This Valentine's Day continue the theme with this rich, dense (and gluten-free) chocolate cake featuring rose water. Brands vary in strength so you'll need to taste as you go. Rose water adds a subtle floral taste, but If it is not available the recipe works fine without it. 

Chocolate Rose Berry Cake
Serves 8-12

1/2 cup butter plus extra for pan
10 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
6 eggs, divided
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup ground almond flour
1 cup raspberry jam
1/2 to 1 tsp. rose water 
3 tbs. confectioners sugar
Whipped cream topping, optional (see below)
Raspberries for garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 9" springform pan with butter. Line bottom with parchment and grease. Cut 1/2 cup butter and chocolate into pieces and melt, stirring occasionally until smooth. Separate four of the eggs and whip whites until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl beat yolks and remaining eggs with sugar, vanilla, cocoa and almond flour until smooth. Working in batches fold in chocolate. Gently fold in egg whites in batches. Pour into pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes until top is firm and springs back to the touch. (Cake will be wet inside). Let cool in pan, remove sides, invert on plate and remove bottom of pan and paper.

Stir jam with 1/2 tsp. of rose water. Taste. Add additional as needed. Once cake is completely cool, use a serrated knife to horizontally cut in half. Spread top of bottom layer with jam, place second layer on top cut side down. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Spread with whipped cream topping and decorate with raspberries.

Whipped Cream Topping: Whip 1/2 pint heavy cream with 2 Tbs. sugar and 1/2 tsp. (or to taste) rose water until soft peaks form.

This recipe first appeared in the j weekly.  

Note: Because it contains no flour the cake may be suitable for Passover if you leave out the confectioners sugar and use products verified for Passover use.