The four (cooking) questions

An insider’s answers to Pessah’s trouble spots.

While the four questions of the Haggada remind us why the Seder is unlike other dinners, these four culinary questions are useful for remembering how Pessah cooking is different.
The First Question: Why do my matza balls turn out too hard?
It was my mother who taught me the secret of tasty, tender matza balls – keep the batter soft and shape the balls with moistened hands, using a light touch. If you find it easy to form the batter into even, perfectly round balls, your batter is too stiff and the kneidlach will be too firm.
The Second Question: Why does my chicken soup lack flavor?
I was surprised at the number of queries I received at a recent Pessah cooking demonstration about chicken soup. One woman asked me why her chicken soup seemed tasteless. When I asked her whether she made her soup from chicken breasts, she said “Of course; that’s the healthiest part of the chicken.” I pointed out that white chicken meat, because it is lean and cooks quickly, doesn’t add enough flavor to the soup. The best choice is a whole chicken or chicken legs, thighs or wings; add chicken necks and gizzards too if you have them. Leaving the skin on the chicken pieces produces even more flavorful soup, although there will be plenty of fat to skim off at the end. This is not hard to do if you prepare the soup a day ahead and refrigerate it, so that the fat solidifies on top.
For even greater depth of chicken flavor, try a professional cooks’ technique sometimes used for making consommé: First make chicken stock by cooking chicken bones, wing tips and neck pieces in water for two or three hours, and then strain the stock and use it as part or all of the liquid to make your soup with the usual meaty chicken pieces.
Use plenty of aromatic vegetables too, not only carrots and onions but also celery ribs and parsley root. Another trick I learned in my chef training is to add leek greens or parsley stems tied in a bundle with thyme sprigs and bay leaves to the pot, and to remove the bundle before serving the soup. Even though the koshering process makes chickens salty, for soup you usually need to add a little salt; be sure to taste the soup for seasoning before serving it.
The Third Question: How do I substitute matza meal for flour in cakes?
Pessah baking is the part of Pessah meals that is most different from the rest of the year. Unfortunately, substituting matza meal for an equivalent amount of flour usually does not work because flour contains gluten, which helps give cakes structure, whereas matza meal does not.
In a few kinds of baked goods that contain only a small proportion of flour, such as fudge brownies and mostly-nut cakes, I have found that substituting an equal weight – not an equal volume – of matza meal for flour did work. If you enjoy experimenting, start with those kinds of cakes and keep good notes. During the hectic time of preparing for Pessah, however, the best solution is to use tried-and-true recipes that have been developed specifically for the holiday.
I find that matza meal is a good substitute for an equivalent volume of bread crumbs in coatings for fried foods, in savory casseroles and in sweet and savory kugels.
The Fourth Question: Why are my cakes too heavy?
With leavening not permitted, Pessah cakes depend on whipped egg whites to make them rise. To make sure that classic Pessah cakes like sponge cakes and nut tortes are light in texture, careful beating of the egg whites and gentle handling of the batter are key. Here are a few tips:
• Whip the egg whites in a clean bowl until they are stiff. To ensure that the whites do not become dry during beating, reserve part of the sugar in the recipe and beat it gradually into the whites.
• Don’t let the beaten egg whites wait, or they will deflate. Before whipping them, prepare the pan, preheat the oven and be sure all the other ingredients are ready.
• Fold the batter quickly and lightly, just until it is blended. To do this, use a wide spatula or a slotted spoon, not an electric mixer. Fold the batter with a clockwise motion, and with each stroke, rotate the bowl in the opposite direction – counterclockwise.
• As soon as the batter is ready, transfer it to the baking pan and bake it without delay.
Keep in mind that even well-made sponge cakes have a drier texture than butter cakes or pound cakes. To make your Pessah cake into a more appealing dessert, serve it with fresh fruit sauce, chocolate sauce or whipped cream or frost it with buttercream.
For flavorful chicken soup, add water to just cover the ingredients. If you like, season the soup with 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon ground cumin and a sprinkling of chopped fresh coriander, in addition to the dill. You can keep chicken soup up to three days in the refrigerator, with the matza balls in some of their cooking liquid in a separate covered container; reheat matza balls gently in their liquid.
900 gr. chicken wings or drumsticks
9 cups cold water
1 whole onion, peeled
1 whole carrot, peeled
1 small parsley root, peeled (optional)
2 stalks celery, including leafy tops
5 sprigs parsley
3 sprigs fresh dill
salt and pepper
1 Tbsp. snipped fresh dill
Matza Balls:
2 eggs
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup matza meal
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. Pessah baking powder (optional)
1-2 Tbsp. water or chicken soup
about 8 cups salted water or light chicken broth (for simmering)
Combine chicken, water, onion, carrot, parsnip, celery, parsley, dill sprigs and pinch of salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Partially cover and simmer 2 hours, skimming occasionally. Skim off excess fat.
Matza balls: In a medium-sized bowl, lightly beat eggs with oil. Add matza meal, salt and baking powder and stir until smooth. Last stir in water. Let mixture stand for 20 minutes so matza meal absorbs liquid.
Bring salted water to a boil. With wet hands, take about 1 teaspoon of matza ball mixture and roll it between your palms to a ball; mixture will be very soft. Set balls on a plate. With a rubber spatula, carefully slide balls into boiling water. Cover and simmer over low heat about 30 minutes or until firm. Cover and keep them warm until ready to serve.
To serve soup, remove chicken wings, onion, celery, parsnip, parsley and dill sprigs. Add pepper to soup, stir in snipped dill and taste soup for seasoning. Add a few carrot slices to each bowl. With a slotted spoon, add a few matza balls. Serve hot.
Makes 8 servings.
Toasted sliced almonds atop the rich lemon frosting give this cake holiday flair. The technique of grinding the sugar in the food processor makes it finer, so it simulates superfine sugar. You can keep the frosted cake, covered, two days in the refrigerator. A sauce of pureed sweetened strawberries makes a tasty, colorful accompaniment.
11⁄2 cups unblanched almonds
1⁄4 cup matza meal
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
Lemon Frosting:
1⁄3 cup sugar
170 gr. (3⁄4 cup) unsalted butter or margarine, softened slightly
2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 to 3 Tbsp. fresh strained lemon juice
2 to 3 Tbsp. toasted sliced almonds, for garnish
Preheat oven to 175º. Grease a 23-cm. springform pan and flour pan with a little matza meal.
Grind almonds with matza meal and 1⁄4 cup sugar in food processor until fine. Beat egg yolks with 1⁄2 cup sugar at high speed of mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in lemon zest. Set aside.
In clean bowl whip egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually beat in remaining 1⁄4 cup sugar, beating until stiff and shiny.
Alternately fold whites and almond mixture into yolk mixture, each in 3 batches. Transfer to pan. Bake about 35 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out dry. Cool slightly, then run a metal spatula gently around cake and remove sides of springform. Cool on a rack. Cake will sink slightly.
Lemon Frosting: Put sugar in food processor, and process until it ispowdery. Let settle for a minute before removing from machine.
Cream butter and sugar until smooth. Add grated lemon zest. Graduallybeat in juice. Beat until smooth and fluffy. Spread frosting on sidesand top of cake. Sprinkle top with toasted sliced almonds. Serve atcool room temperature.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.