About a decade ago a brief article by Florence Fabricant in the New York Times presented the concept of making your own matzo with a recipe apparently dated to Medieval Spain. Seasoned with a generous amount of black pepper and sweetened with a touch of honey, these beautiful, crisp, round crackers with a refreshingly complex flavor became an instant Passover tradition. Our family’s chopped liver, which has always elicited raves, is elevated to the sublime on these tasty matzot.
Of course, it isn’t exactly pesadic to be baking your own matzos using regular flour and without rabbinical supervision. For matzos of the shmura or “guarded” kind—that is, the most religious and least delectable matzos made by and for ultra orthodox Jews—the wheat is supervised from the field to the oven to ensure it doesn’t come into contact with any moisture until the moment that the flour is mixed with water to make the matzo. Moisture might activate natural yeasts and start the verboten leavening process. At the precise moment water meets wheat, a stopwatch is set to 18 minutes, the time Talmudic science has determined that it takes for fermentation to begin. According to one matzo-supervising Lubvaticher I asked, the fact that the number of minutes is also the symbolically significant Jewish number of chai is pure coincidence.
The ordered-chaos inside a shmura matzo bakery during those 18 minutes is indescribable. From behind paper walls two disembodied hands come out, one with flour one with water, which they dump into a bowl set between them. The dough is mixed and then balled. The balls are thrown across the room to women banging dowels on the rolling table to indicate they need something to work. They roll out the dough into flat disks. The disks are draped on long dowels and carried across to the wood-burning oven. With a giant peel the matzos are set into the roaring fire of the oven. They bake in seconds and, once lightly charred, are thrown Frisbee-like to another area where they cool completely before being boxed. There is no place to stand in a shmura matzo bakery that isn’t in the line of something that will hit you. At the end of 18 minutes, everything stops. Calm returns. The tables are cleaned. The paper walls are stripped. The dowels are collected. Then everything is replaced to avoid any possibility of contamination by natural yeast or fermentation. And the entire process starts again.
In her original piece, Fabricant provided a pesadic alternative for these homemade matzos, substituting Passover cake meal for flour. But the results are not nearly as gastronomically satisfying, even if they are more Talmudically correct.
Below is the recipe as I have adapted it. I have to confess, making these matzos is a bit of a production, especially if you are having a large seder. Plus, unlike most matzos, these are delicious, so guests tend to eat a lot more of them than they do anything you take out of a box. Still, the effort is worth it. No one can believe you made them. And they really are delicious.
For best results, the matzos should be baked no more than a few hours before your guests arrive. I get all of the other components of my meal ready—luckily Passover food gets better as it sits—and then give myself an hour or so to make the matzos. After a while, if you have three baking sheets, you can develop a rhythm: rolling out and pricking two matzos, which is all you can fit onto a baking sheet, takes about as much time as it does to bake them. I roll out one, turn the ones in the oven over, then roll out the second. That’s when the first batch is ready to come out of the oven. The new ones go in, and the hot pan cools as I ready the third. Piece of (sponge) cake!
Homemade Honey-Pepper Matzos
Adapted from The Mensch Chef
Makes 12, 8-inch matzos
4 cups plus 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large eggs, beaten
5 tablespoons mild honey, such as acacia or wildflower
4 teaspoons olive oil
7 to 8 tablespoons water
Preheat the oven to 400F. In a large mixing bowl, combine 4 cups of the flour, pepper, and salt, and mix well. Make a well in the center. Into the well pour the eggs, honey, olive oil, and 7 tablespoons of the water. Using a fork, mix to form a stiff dough. Knead once or twice by hand until smooth and let rest, covered, for 30 minutes.
Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and shape each portion into a ball. Use the remaining 1/2 cup of flour to lightly flour your work surface. Using a long, thin rolling pin (I prefer an Italian mattarello intended for making pasta), roll each ball out into a thin 8-inch dish. Using a fork with the tines dipped in flour, pierce the entire surface of the dough with little holes. Repeat with another piece of dough. Bake the matzos in the preheated oven two at a time on cookie sheets for 10 minutes, or until they are slightly puffed and browned around the edges. You may want to turn them over once while they are baking so they brown evenly. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. While they are baking, continue rolling out the next couple of matzos. Keep working in this way until all 12 matzos are baked. On the day they are made, store them in the open air. Wrap air tight to keep longer.
Pesadic Spanish Matzos
Though still not suitable for ceremonial purposes, these Spanish matzos can be made pesadic by substituting matzo cake meal for flour. Increase the water to 3/4 cup. The dough will be more difficult to roll out and the resulting matzos will be smaller. But they do have an excellent flavor.