In our house on Passover, the matzah options include regular cardboard (standard store-bought matzah, the kind you get free once you spend a certain amount in the kosher-for-Passover aisle at ShopRite); artisanal cardboard (shmurah matzah); gluten-free cardboard (oat or spelt matzah); and digestible soft cardboard (egg matzah).
But until this year, it never occurred to me that there was one more option: Do-It-Yourself (DIY) cardboard. And suddenly, I see it everywhere. It’s in Shannon Sarna’s “Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels & More” (Countryman Press, 2017), with varieties from truffle oil to turmeric-flavored matzah; it’s in Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s new Haggadah, “Welcome to the Seder: A Passover Haggadah For Everyone” (Berman House, 2018), which describes the baking process as “a fun activity in the days before Passover”; and it’s all over cooking blogs, from The Kitchn to My Jewish Learning, plus a paleo version that’s grain-free from Elana’s Pantry website.
Maybe the rising profile of DIY matzah comes from the overlap between the slow-cooking movement, popularized in the Jewish world by Liz Alpern and Summit-native Jeff Yoskowitz, co-authors of “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods ” (Flatiron Books, 2016); and what I refer to as the Take-Back-This-Mitzvah movement, perhaps best encapsulated by the re-emergence of the chevra kadisha (burial society) and the embrace of the mikvah in liberal communities around the country over the last several decades.
Baking your own bread of affliction may be a revelation for Jewish foodies — you know, the Martha Stewart wannabes who bake their own challah every week with rotating flavors and consider the kitchen their personal play pens. (On the off chance you’re wondering, yes, Martha also has a matzah recipe on her site.) It’s also a boon for Jewish educators, who have made dogma of experiential education.
But before you reach for that rolling pin and get ready to experience matzah piping hot from your own oven, you might want to have a conversation with your rabbi. Why?
The requirements for baking matzah are rather particular — and inflexible — according to strict Jewish law. It’s all about the clock: From the moment the flour and water touch, you get 18 minutes, no more. If the matzah is not finished baking by then, well, your kitchen is no longer kosher for Passover. And I won’t even get into the problem of crumbs left on the rolling pin; better to leave that to an actual rabbi (see below).
Of course, there’s a divide between strictly observant and culturally literate Jews when it comes to making matzah at home (I’ll take the liberty of suggesting that this divide is not limited to baking unleavened bread).
Nowhere in Susie Fishbein’s “Passover by Design: Picture-perfect Kosher by Design recipes for the holiday” (Mesorah Publications Ltd., 2008) does she offer a DIY matzah recipe. When asked to comment on this trend, the Livingston, N.J., chef responded, “I have never heard of anyone doing it.” But she did suggest visiting a supervised matzah bakery in Brooklyn, where you can have the experience of baking your own, as a compromise.
Rabbi Elie Mischel, who leads the Orthodox Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, understands the interest in making your own. Calling the practice “ideal,” he said, “Many chasidic rebbes make a point of being personally involved in the matzah baking.”
But in his opinion, it’s not for the average cook. “Baking matzah at home is not a good idea, halachically,” he said, using the Hebrew word for Jewish law. “It’s very easy to make mistakes, and the matzah may end up being chametz. The dough has to be kneaded very quickly, and if little bits of dough are left on the rolling pin, they become chametz and everything becomes contaminated. For that reason, people who want to be involved in matzah baking have traditionally done so by going to matzah factories, where they are very careful to ensure that nothing becomes chametz.
“In short, the desire to bake matzah at home is laudable, but it is likely to lead to mistakes.”
Mischel speaks for those who strictly follow halacha, but Olitzky offers a broader perspective. He has spent much of his career working with marginalized Jews of many stripes, and sees himself as living “in the tensions between movements.” Asked about including the recipe in his Haggadah, given the halachic challenges, he acknowledged the wide spectrum of Jews and their differing approaches. “Those people for whom the specifics of halacha are important will abide by them,” he said. “Those for whom they are not as important, will take liberties.” His recipe mentions the 18-minute caveat, but he does not include the expansive dangers of DIY matzah of the kind Mischel described.
Another suggestion if you fancy yourself a culinary whiz but find yourself on the strict end of the spectrum, try one of the grain-free matzah recipes. Unleavened bread that does not include wheat, oat, spelt, barley or rye won’t fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah during the holiday, according to the letter of the law, but you can bake with other ingredients, such as almond flour and others that are kosher-for-Passover, without worrying about bringing chametz into your kitchen.
So, whether you choose grain-free or grain-full, the only remaining questions is, are you going to spend this coming Pesach eating regular or homemade cardboard? The choice is yours.