Dust off your Haggadah—it’s Passover this weekend. In light of the holiday, I made a recent visit to Holyland, a kosher market in the East Village, where an enthusiastic counterperson quizzed me upon discovering I wasn’t Sephardic. “What do you know about the Passover story?” he challenged. I replied, “When the Jews fled Egypt, they rushed to grab bread for their trip before it had risen.” Satisfied, my new friend offered his own philosophical interpretation: Passover, generally, and matzo, specifically, are reminders of Jewish slavery, so during the holiday, he thinks about freeing himself. He explained with some modern examples: “You can be a slave to work, or cigarettes, or anything.”
This is a hopeful alternative to the somber moment in a seder when matzo is held up and the phrase, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt,” is recited. Matzo ends the symbolic meal as a sign of humility. Indeed, it’s the humblest of foods, containing just flour and water—but matzo is still food. I sampled a variety and, not surprisingly, found them similar in taste. The browned-ness makes all the difference—too light is bland, too dark is bitter. Ideally, I like my bread of affliction with medium-brown spots all over. The texture is a more significant test. The best matzo (Streits, from the Lower East Side, an Israeli import called Jerusalem Shmura Matza, and Eli Zabar‘s homemade version) has a light, crisp bite, which flakes and crumbles easily. Others are outright hard and snap apart cleanly (crunch rather than crisp). Once you start working on a hard matzo, you’ve got yourself a mouth full of paste.
Right now, Jewish Groceries are filled with matzo and other products that are “Kosher for Passover,” meaning that no more than 18 minutes pass before the mixed dough is baked (a strict definition of leavening). These are either plain, whole wheat, or salted. Matzo shoppers will also see the label “Shmura,” which means that it’s been “guarded” and is ultra-Kosher. Not only is the baking processes supervised by a rabbi, but the ingredients (even the growing of the wheat), have been carefully monitored as well. The rest of the year, Streits and other brands make matzo that is just plain kosher, and can include flavors like egg, garlic, onion, and apple cinnamon.
Fortunately, Streits has been making perfect matzo on Rivington Street since 1925. Customers can see a tiny bakery through a doorway behind the register where a few men work at a time, carefully collecting large, rectangular sheets as they emerge from a hot conveyer belt. One person stacks while another breaks them into squares and places them in baskets floating on a mid-air track. On my last visit I noticed that broken pieces were being discarded so I finagled a taste. Hot matzo (luckily, I got a salted one) beats anything out of a box. I couldn’t help but think to myself: Now, if I can just get my hands on some peanut butter, cream cheese, or maybe a Little Manchego . . . I always accessorize my matzo, although my friend at Holyland did include a warning in his Passover speech—that one can be a slave to her freedom. I think I’ll take that chance.