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NEWARK, N.J. — At Passover, which begins at sundown on Monday, Jews avoid all leavened foods. For at least the first ceremonial meal of the holiday, the only bread allowed is an unleavened flatbread called matzo, also known as "the bread of affliction." Eating matzo is an obligation, creating a symbolic connection with the persecuted Jewish ancestors' flight from Egypt, who had no time to let bread dough rise while fleeing slavery.
The country’s largest producer of Passover matzo is the Manischewitz Co.in Newark, N.J. At a recent factory tour, Rabbi Aron Hayum, the plant manager, noted that matzo contained only two ingredients: “It’s just flour and water. How complicated can it get?”
In fact, it’s very complicated. Once the flour is moistened, matzo must be mixed, shaped and put in the oven within 18 minutes. Also, it must not be allowed to rise or ferment.
Manischewitz matzo is made from soft red winter wheat grown and milled in Lancaster County. The process is always under rabbinical supervision to ensure that neither grain nor flour becomes wet, heated, treated with chemicals or otherwise contaminated.
The flour is dispatched to the Newark factory in tanker trucks tagged with a kosher seal and then transferred to special silos. The company begins making matzo for Passover each August, with a yearly output of more than 100,000 cases. All this from a humble start: a small matzo bakery opened by Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz in Cincinnati.
The water used is municipal Newark city water, which is drawn into a special tank at sunset and sits overnight. Cool water is essential when making matzo; otherwise the dough could start to rise.
“Rabbis have OCD,” said Rabbi Hayum. “We’re always worried about ‘what if’.”
To make the dough, the flour and water are mixed in huge bowls. “You keep it in constant motion. You keep moving it, pushing it, pressing on it, so that it doesn’t sit unattended for even a minute,” he said. “Every matzo baker in the world is hyper-focused on not letting it sit.”
The critical point is once the flour and water meet, the dough must be baked within 18 minutes. Otherwise, it’s discarded.
The entire process is closely observed by several hawk-eyed supervisors known as mashgiach. They ensure all the religious rules are followed, equipment is properly cleaned, nothing is contaminated, matzos are completely docked (perforated) and that they do not touch in the oven, so they cook evenly.
“It’s a rush, rush, rush, all in the spirit of Passover,” he said. “Constant movement, constant motion.”
From the dough, a small, symbolic portion is taken and burned.
“For the high priest in the temple,” the rabbi explained. “It’s a biblical commandment that every time you make a batch of dough you give a tithe. As a symbolic gesture we continue to do it, even though there is no temple and no priest. Judaism has a lot of these symbolic traditions, reminders of where we originally came from and where we would wish to be.”
Conveyor belts send the matzos into a 150-foot-long oven that’s heated to 750 to 850 degrees. Baked matzos roll out about two minutes later, hot and crisp, onto another belt, cooling as they go, toward the wrapping station, or to a grinder to be made into matzo meal.
When the bakery facilities moved here in 2007 from the old Jersey City factory, bakers felt their new oven wasn’t producing good matzo. So the company lined the new oven bottom with bricks from the old oven.
“No one really knew what the problem was,” Rabbi Hayum said, “It may have been the new equipment. But by the next Passover season, the matzo was up to standards.”
He feels he has a mission. “What we are doing here, making matzo, is for some Jews their last connection to Judaism,” he said. “Bubbe had matzo on the table, so I need a box, too. It’s very fulfilling to do a job that touches so many people in such a meaningful way.”
Another well-known matzo producer is Streit’s. A new book by fourth-generation “matzo heiress” Michele Streit Heilbrun offers new recipes using matzo. The book is perfect for Passover, although its goal is to keep us eating matzo year-round. Streit’s, which until 2015 was baking matzo on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, also has a new movie about its history, “Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream.”
Unable to maintain aging equipment among other reasons, Streit’s sold the factory, where it has been since 1925. The buildings have been razed and turned into condos. By next year, it will be baking Passover matzo in a new factory in Orangeburg, N.Y., said a spokesperson, who added, “God willing.”
Miriam Rubin: email@example.com or on Twitter @mmmrubin.
Greek Matzo Panzanella
An unusual and nifty way to use matzo is based on the famous Tuscan salad in which bread chunks soak up the salad’s juices. This panzanella is great for a light lunch.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 to 6 sheets matzo
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, divided
2 cups watercress, large stems removed
1 pint basket cherry tomatoes, halved (2 cups)
1 hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, sliced ¼-inch-thick
1 cup crumbled feta
1 cup Kalamata black olives, pitted
1 cup thinly sliced red onion, crisped in ice water 15 minutes, drained and patted dry
1 garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with foil.
For the salad: Brush oil on both sides of matzos, and season with salt and pepper. Lay on prepared baking sheets. Bake, in batches if necessary, 5 to 6 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven, let cool 5 minutes, then roughly break into 1½-inch squares.
In large bowl, combine watercress, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, feta, olives, red onion and matzo.
For the vinaigrette: In small bowl, whisk together garlic, oregano, lemon juice, honey and vinegar. Whisk in oil, and season with salt and pepper.
Pour vinaigrette over the salad and gently toss, taking care not to break up the matzo further. Season again, and let sit for 10 minutes to soften.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
— Adapted from “Matzo: 35 Recipes for Passover and All Year Long” by Michele Streit Heilbrun (Clarkson Potter; March 7, 2017; $14.99)
L.E.O. Matzo Brei
“Lox, eggs and onions, or L.E.O, as the combination is commonly known, is as quintessential to Jewish food as the bagel. Right after I learned to talk, I’m sure the next thing my father taught me to do was eat L.E.O,” author Michele Streit Heilbrun says.
4 sheets matzo
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 heaping cup thinly sliced sweet onion
8 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces lox or smoked salmon, cut into ½-inch-wide strips
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon chopped chives
1½ tablespoons drained capers
Run each matzo sheet under cold running water for 15 seconds until it just begins to soften but isn’t falling apart. Break into 1½-inch pieces and set aside.
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion slices in single layer. Cook, without stirring, until dark brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Stir onion and cook and stir until evenly golden brown, 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat eggs, salt and pepper in medium bowl. Stir in matzo; let soak 1 minute, pressing pieces into the beaten eggs.
Reduce heat to medium-low. Add egg-matzo mixture and gently stir as for scrambled eggs. Once eggs begin to set, about 3 minutes, add lox, dill, chives and capers. Continue stirring until eggs are cooked but still soft, about 1 minute, or to desired consistency. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
— Adapted from “Matzo: 35 Recipes for Passover and All Year Long” by Michele Streit Heilbrun (Clarkson Potter, March 7, 2017, $14.99)