For the past few weeks, Fork in the Road has been keeping track of matzoh price-gouging going in neighborhood grocery stores. But while costs may vary between brands and stores, matzoh flavor, the thinking typically goes, is pretty much a constant. Meaning that there isn’t any.
But anyone who’s ever been subjected to seven straight days in the purgatory of the unleavened knows that all matzohs are not created equal. Far from it: Even leaving aside all of the embellishments matzoh manufacturers have dreamed up — salt, poppy seeds, whole wheat, spelt — some matzohs really are less bad than others. We’d long been curious about shmurah matzoh, which comes in big, round pieces and is prepared under exacting rabbinical supervision. It’s been called the Rolls-Royce of matzoh, and is priced accordingly: a one-pound box sells on average for $20. But how would it compare to its more humble counterpart? To find out, we bought a $2.50 1-pound box of plain Streit’s matzoh direct from the Rivington Street factory, and then headed a few blocks west to Russ & Daughters, where we bought a $22.50 1-pound box of shmurah matzoh, made by the D&T Shmurah Bakery in Crown Heights.
Both matzohs answer to the names of “local,” but only D&T’s can claim to be handmade. As Jeremiah Moss observed during a tour of the bakery last year, the matzoh is produced on a painstakingly human scale: the flour and water are kneaded by one worker, after which the dough is rolled flat by a group of Russian women and then punched with holes by someone else before another worker feeds it into the oven. In other words, it’s artisanal as all get out. And about as kosher, too: the bakery is owned by two rabbis, and the matzoh making process must take no more than 18 minutes — after that, the matzoh is no longer considered unleavened. So strict is the bakery that everything the matzoh touches is cleaned or sanded down every 18 minutes.
All of which is fine, but how does it taste?
First up was the Streit’s. Two tasters, both the product of observant Jewish households, noted that as far as matzoh went, it was fine. “You could put stuff on it, and it would taste OK,” was the prevailing sentiment. A third taster, a member of the goyim and thus inclined to view matzoh through a more dispassionate lens, observed that it resembled a heavier Saltine, but without salt. Generally, Streit’s was judged to be an acceptable vehicle for the panoply of toppings that make matzoh taste a bit less like matzoh. Texture-wise, it had a good, clean snap, was impressively sturdy, and, true to matzoh form, formed a paste that got stuck in our molars.
Next was the shmurah matzoh. Deeply tanned and delicately blistered, its round, pleasingly rumpled shape brought to mind a pizza crust. And perhaps that was the root of the problem: if you look at matzoh and expect something even vaguely similar to a pizza crust, you are going to be sorely and severely disappointed. And so it was with the shmurah: despite its winning appearance, it tasted like — well, as one taster said, “you know how they say that matzoh tastes like cardboard? This really does taste like cardboard.” Also, as our other, gentile, taster noted disapprovingly, it tasted burnt. Which meant it tasted like burnt cardboard. The texture was also disappointing, reminding one taster of both packing material and dehydrated space ice cream. And just like the Streit’s, it got stuck in our molars. All in all, it led one taster, a product of eight straight years of Jewish summer camp, to exclaim in abject disgust, “the more kosher it is, the worse it tastes!”
In this case, we were sadly inclined to agree. And inclined to believe that should you choose to observe Passover, you should do it with Streit’s. It may not be made in under 18 minutes, but it will give you a better chance of retaining your sanity for seven days.