Making the most of matzo

Every Jewish family has a favorite recipe for enlivening the traditional, yet tasteless, Passover food

Imagine cooking for an eight-day-long holiday without using corn, rice, barley, peanuts, or peas. Those are the rules on Passover, when Jews give up most grains in exchange for matzo, a flat crackerlike bread made solely of flour and water.

Matzo, which means unleavened bread in Hebrew, commemorates the ancient Jewish Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites fled so quickly that their bread didn't have time to rise. Unfortunately for succeeding generations, the resulting product has the thickness of – and about as much taste as – cardboard.

Hence, it requires a lot of creativity in the kitchen. There's matzo stuffing and matzo cereal and even matzo cakes. But its most popular use is Matzo Brei, a simple breakfast food that's a cross between a pancake and an omelet.

"Since matzo is the only thing you can eat on Passover, it became the breakfast dish par excellence," writes Jayne Cohen in her kosher cookbook, "The Gefilte Variations" (Scribner, $35).

There are endless variations of Matzo Brei, but each contains just two basic ingredients: matzo and eggs. From there, every family has its own approach, varying the consistency, the ratio of eggs to matzo, and other ingredients to throw in.

Matzo Brei eaters tend to separate into one of two camps: savory and sweet.

My family has always enjoyed the basic unsweetened recipe: just matzo, eggs, and some grated onion, sautéed with butter into a pancake. Add vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms, or, Ms. Cohen's favorite – artichoke hearts – and an omelet results. More adventurous cooks might top it with smoked salmon.

Others prefer a sweeter variety with vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon mixed into the batter or sprinkled on top afterward. Raisins, dried cherries, and toasted pecans could also liven up the batter. Think of it as French toast without the toast.

Whichever version you choose, wetting the dry matzo is the vital first step, ensuring that it is moistened before cooking. Ms. Cohen recommends using cold water, since hot water will leach out what little flavor matzo naturally has. For variety, apple or grape juice could be used to dampen the matzo. Then squeeze out the liquid before adding the egg batter.

In the frying pan, matzo can be broken into a jumble of smaller pieces or kept whole to take the shape of a big pancake or frittata.

Both versions can be eaten plain or with toppings. Maple syrup, jam, or applesauce works well on the sweet version, while sour cream or even salsa can top the savory varieties.

When Passover ends, says Cohen, Matzo Brei can still be enjoyed year-round. In my family's house, however, it appeared only during the week of Passover, making it even more of a special treat.

Matzo Brei

This recipe includes garlic, mushrooms, and bell peppers – all additions to the basic savory recipe, traditionally made with only matzo, eggs, onion, and salt and pepper.

4 pieces matzo

3 tablespoons butter

1 clove of garlic, chopped

5 white button mushrooms, lightly washed and chopped

1/2 green or red bell pepper, chopped

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 small onion, minced

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Break up matzo into small pieces, place in fine-mesh strainer, and run under a light stream of cold water for 2 minutes.

Press matzo by hand to remove water.

In a frying pan, sauté 1 tablespoon of the butter with the garlic, mushrooms, and bell pepper for about 5 minutes. Transfer vegetable mixture into a bowl and set aside.

In a separate large bowl, combine broken matzo, eggs, and onion. Add salt and pepper. Mix, add vegetables that have been set aside, and mix again.

Heat frying pan with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and add the matzo batter to the pan. Fry until it turns golden brown on each side. To achieve the look of a large "pancake," keep batter intact and flip whole. Or for a "scrambled" texture, break up into pieces as it cooks.

Serve with your choice of maple syrup, sour cream, or salsa.

Serves 2.

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