Here is my considered judgment: No Jewish dish—not one—is as comforting or iconic as the matzo ball.
With neither the heat of spicy Szechuan dumplings nor the delicacy of Italian gnocchi, there is no ambrosia quite like matzo balls, floating in homemade chicken broth, when you are sick or celebrating a Jewish holiday.
Matzo balls began as the German Knödel, a bready dumpling. Jewish cooks in the Middle Ages first adapted the dumplings to add to Sabbath soups, using broken matzo with some kind of fat like chicken or beef marrow, eggs, onions, ginger, and nutmeg. As Jews moved eastward from Germanic lands to Poland and the Pale of Settlement in Russia, they brought kneidlach (Yiddish for Knödel) with them. In Lithuania, kneidlach were filled with special bonuses like cinnamon or meat for the Sabbath. Though kneidlach arrived in America under different guises, the B. Manischewitz Company started packaging ground matzo meal like bread crumbs and marketed the dumplings in a box as “feather balls Alsatian style” in their Tempting Kosher Dishes cookbook of 1933.
The term matzo ball itself was first used in English in 1902 in the section on Jewish food in Mrs. Rorer’s Cookbook, and the name stuck. Today matzo balls come in all sizes and varieties; there are those the size of tennis balls and even bacon-wrapped matzo balls.
And, of course, there is the age-old discussion of “floaters” versus “sinkers.” You can make floaters with the packaged mix by including baking powder—yes, baking powder—or by adding, as my mother-in-law did, soda water to the prepared mix. Today I make mine using matzo meal, spices like ginger and nutmeg, and fresh herbs like cilantro, dill, or parsley for flavor and color and cook them the way I like them—al dente. Now that is what I call a matzo ball!
Ingredients For the Soup
- 1 (4-pound) Chicken
- 2 large Yellow onions, unpeeled
- 4 Parsnips
- 2 Celery stalks, with leaves
- 6 medium Carrots
- 6 Tbsp Chopped fresh parsley
- 6 Tbsp Dill sprigs
- 1 Tbsp Kosher salt, plus more as needed
- ¼ tsp Coarsely ground black pepper, plus more as needed
INgredients For the Matzo Balls
- 4 large Eggs
- ¼ cup Schmaltz or vegetable oil
- ¼ cup Chicken stock
- 1 cup Matzo meal
- ¼ tsp Ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp Ground ginger
- 2 Tbsp Finely chopped fresh parsley, dill, or cilantro
- 1 tsp Kosher salt, plus more as needed
- Coarsely ground black pepper
Directions for Making the soup:
Put the chicken in a large pot and add enough water to cover by 2 inches (about 4 quarts). Bring the water to a boil, skimming off the gray scum that rises to the top. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the soup is at a gentle but visible simmer.
Add the onions, parsnips, celery, carrots, parsley, 4 tablespoons of the dill, and the salt and pepper. Cover the pot with the lid ajar and simmer for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the soup cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours or up to overnight so the soup solidifies to a gel-like consistency and the schmaltz (fat) rises to the top and solidifies. Skim off the schmaltz and reserve it for the matzo balls.
Directions for Making the matzo balls:
In a large bowl, using a soupspoon, gently mix the eggs, schmaltz, stock, matzo meal, nutmeg, ginger, and parsley, dill, or cilantro. Season with salt and 2 to 3 grinds of the pepper. Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
When ready to cook the matzo balls, bring a wide, deep pot of lightly salted water to a boil. With wet hands, take some of the mix and mold it into the size and shape of a golf ball. Gently drop it into the boiling water, repeating until all the mixture is used.
Cover the pan, reduce the heat to a lively simmer, and cook for about 20 minutes for al dente matzo balls, and closer to 45 minutes for lighter matzo balls. To test their readiness, remove one with a slotted spoon and cut in half—the matzo ball should be the same color and texture throughout.
Just before serving, strain the soup, setting aside the chicken for chicken salad. Discard the vegetables, and reheat the broth. Spoon a matzo ball into each bowl, pour soup over the matzo ball, and sprinkle with the remaining dill sprigs.
Like many Jewish foods, matzo balls are polarizing. First, there’s the size: Some prefer a boulder big enough to occupy most of the soup dish, while others like a ball small enough to fit two or three to a bowl. Then, there’s the texture. The larger balls, usually leavened with baking powder or seltzer, err on the light and airy side, aka “floaters.” The more petite kneidlach typically correspond to a dense, “sinker” consistency. This recipe, which balances heft and fluff, lands somewhere in between.
Excerpted from The 100 Most Jewish Foods by Alana Newhouse (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019. Photographs by Noah Fecks.