Matzo Ball soup is one comfort item I go to every time I’m sick, or just need some home cooking. My cousin, Jess, refers to it as “Jewish penicillin.”
It is a classic Ashkenazi soup but is a diasporan dish that has become a part of American cuisine. Every Jewish family has their version. I have never seen an adaptation like my grandmother’s, which contains a secret ingredient. Every time I make it, I have requests for the recipe. When my grandmother gave me the instructions she told me it was a “secret.” I believe in sharing good food, and so it will be a secret no more.
My grandmother Zelda was born in 1920 in Camden, New Jersey. Her parents were Eastern European Jews who immigrated from what is now part of the Ukraine. Her father, who was married previously, lost his first wife during the flu epidemic of 1918, leaving him alone with three young children. After her death, he placed the children in an orphanage as he could not work and care for them. He remarried (whether arranged or a love match is unknown). His second wife bravely took on all of the children and then they had Zelda.
In the 1920’s, Camden, NJ was a melting pot of immigrants. One of my favorite stories about my Grandmother’s childhood was that a neighborhood friend came to the window asking her to play. Like many Jewish immigrants at that time, Yiddish was the language spoken at home. She yelled to her neighbor who had a profoundly Irish name like, Michael O’Flannery, “I’ll be out as soon as I finish my tsimmes!” Her mother rebuked her saying that a kid with a name like O’Flannery probably doesn’t know what tsimmes is. (For the record, tsimmes is a stew sweetened with dried fruits like apricots and/or prunes and sometimes mixed with meat).
and as a young woman
Zelda married my grandfather, George Bryen in 1940 at the age of twenty.
Exactly two years later, my father, Stephen was born. Three more children followed: Bob, Lora and finally Cindy. She was a complicated individual but was a consummate hostess.
Zi iz geven a gut baleboste. (She was good as the head of her home)
You never left her table hungry, and the food was delicious. My grandparents made the world’s best coffee in a stove top percolator. Although talented in the kitchen, Zelda was a notoriously bad driver, once driving through her den wall!. She loved her children fiercely and never met a stranger. Everyone was welcome in her home.
Even into her 90s, she was a snappy dresser who was a good conversationalist. She enjoyed following the news and the Eagles. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 95. Sharing this recipe is a tribute to her, and anyone who knew her knows she couldn’t keep a secret.
Matzo ball soup was originally a Passover dish made with matzo for a time of year that eating products with leavening are forbidden.
In our family, it is a soup course at a Passover seder, but eat it whenever you wish. A matzo ball is just a giant dumpling. It is perfectly acceptable to use any other filler, (noodles, rice, potatoes) if you don’t have matzo meal on hand or don’t like matzo balls.It is a thrifty supper designed to use the last bit of meat from a roasting chicken.
The dish is made in two parts, the stock and the soup.
The secret ingredient is sweet potato! It gives the stock a hint of sweetness. Use an orange sweet potato or a yam.
First the stock:
Then the soup:
I use Tori Avey’s floater matzoh ball recipe.
It is foolproof and very easy. Tori breaks it down step by step.
If you are in a hurry, you can also buy the Manischewitz Matzo Ball Mix but making your own is very satisfying.
A fun listen while making soup is classic klezmer. I like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K74sXKKus1w
Az dos harts iz ful, geyen di oygn iber
When the heart is full, the eyes overflow.