Keys to matzo-ball magic: Size, texture, seasoning - & family tradition

Amy Soper (left) of Palmyra, N.J., makes her matzo balls on the small side, anticipating that they'll double or even triple in size while they're cooking.

TURNS OUT, size really does matter. When it comes to matzo balls, that is.

Many people have an imprinted memory from their childhood of what a matzo ball should look and taste like, and suggesting a different approach to this traditional Seder fare is akin to heresy.

Even though not everybody likes matzo balls - they taste "like mildewed drywall," according to one critic - family memories are what they are, and you shouldn't mess with them.

"I'm always in charge of the matzo balls," said Amy Soper, of Palmyra, N.J., who is the family expert on all things dumpling - though she's quick to add that her mom, Irene Goldbloom, taught her everything she knows.

Soper, a down-to-earth cook who describes herself as "the ironic chef," makes hers on the small side, anticipating that they'll double or even triple in size while they're cooking.

"Now that our parents are getting older, my sister has Passover at her house, anywhere from 15 to 25 people. Which is a lot of matzo balls," Soper said.

She likes her matzo balls light and fluffy, with a hint of seasoning for flavor. "It's important to cover them when they cook - that way they really cook through," she said. They also freeze well, a time-saver Soper appreciates, since she works full time.

At Short Hills Deli in Cherry Hill, N.J., Jerry Kaplan and his kitchen staff make matzo-ball soup from scratch year-round. But production soars during Passover; the kitchen makes as many as 1,000 matzo balls a day during the holiday.

"We called them knaydelach [Yiddish for "dumpling"] around our house. You never heard of matzo balls years ago," Kaplan said. He prefers a good-sized matzo ball - "a little smaller than a tennis ball."

For David Katz, chef/owner of Meme in Center City, no modern matzo ball can ever live up to his Aunt Selma's in Parsippany, N.J.

"My sister and I used to fight over them. She never put pieces of chicken in the soup - she grew up poor, so they always just used broth, and it stayed that way."

Katz hasn't strayed far from tradition at his own table. "My wife puts egg noodles in, and I use some fresh herbs. But that's it. I use the recipe from the Manischewitz box. And they always turn out."

Matzo balls come in two varieties, according to Neil Parish of the Kibitz Room in Cherry Hill, with a second location opening in Philadelphia in April. "Either light and fluffy, or sinkers," he said. "I prefer the sinkers. You need that texture so they don't fall apart in the soup."

The Kibitz Room serves a version that's a bit of both - "firm enough, but you don't have to cut them with a knife," he said. As for his recipe, the only thing Parish will say is that schmaltz [chicken or duck fat] and TLC are his secret ingredients.

At Fitzpatrick's in Somers Point, Bill Hurst delivers matzo balls that are lighter than most. "Our customers like them fluffy. And big - one ball per cup."

Fighting over the matzo balls is something Daniel Stern, chef/owner of MidAtlantic and R2L, can relate to. "It was my favorite part of the meal," said Stern, who still loves his mother's best. "I didn't eat gefilte fish, or hard-boiled eggs, so I'd be sitting there and sitting there [at the Seder], not eating anything waiting for the soup. It was a highlight."

He's been toying with a few ingredient combinations lately but still hasn't improved on his mother's recipe.

Derek Davis knows from experience that there's such a thing as a matzo ball that's too hard. When the chef/owner of Derek's in Manayunk was 15, he worked at a Jewish deli/bagel bakery. He remembered playing baseball with the matzo balls and the long wooden paddles used to put bagel dough into the oven.

"We played six innings with the same matzo ball - now that's hard!"

For his own matzo balls, Davis also likes the Manischewitz mix. The only thing he does differently is separate the eggs and beat the egg whites until they're fluffy, then fold them into the dough for added lightness. "The key is not to overwork the dough," he said.

Davis likes to stick with tradition as far as ingredients go, except for a family twist to the soup. "My grandmother put chunks of yams into the chicken soup. They add a little sweetness and color to the broth."

Not everybody is married to tradition. Michael Solomonov, the inventive chef from Zahav in Society Hill, has been playing around with recipes for a while. He recently served cinnamon-paprika matzo balls in a bowl of roasted garlic consommé. "I think the key is schmaltz, using chicken fat instead of oil," he said.

To take that idea a bit further, he's been known to replace the schmaltz with rendered foie gras fat to add richness to the dumplings. "I think the matzo can be an interesting flavor vehicle," he said.