At the center of the annual Passover Seder, a meal commemorating the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, is matzo. An unleavened bread, its quick preparation recalls the lack of rising time available to a people on the move.
There are several varieties, and everyone has a strong opinion – guided by personal taste or religious doctrine – for which is best. This year, for the first time, Shelsky's Smoked Fish, an appetizing emporium in Brooklyn, will toss its own homemade version into the mix. Its matzo is baked in the store's kitchen in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where such year-round delights as rugelach, babka, and macaroons, and gefilte fish are also prepared. "I decided to make matzo from scratch, on our own, because this is Brooklyn," says owner Peter Shelsky. "It's in the spirit of the borough, and we thought it would be a lot of fun. We were right!"
Shelsky's homemade matzo contains flour, water, and a pinch of salt – nothing else. It's a bit lighter than store-bought brands, and less charred than, say, shmura matzo, the type favored by the ultra religious. (Shmura means "guarded" in Hebrew, and the flour is made from grain that is carefully supervised from harvest to baking, a process that guarantees that no fermentation, which would render the matzo un-kosher for Passover, has occurred.) Let's just say it's not Shelsky's first choice. "I am convinced that the actual definition of shmura is a burnt-tasting cardboard-like cracker that looks beautiful on the Seder Table," he jokes. When developing his homemade matzo, Shelsky told his chef what he wanted – something less burnt, but with good flavor – and it came out exactly as he wanted it on the first try. (For the record, Shelsky's matzo is not kosher for Passover, but the shop does sell commercial brands and shmura, both of which are.)
Beginning the day after Passover, people make a matzo and egg dish called matzo brei; and, once more, there are lots of variations. "You grow up eating it a certain way and any other way is heresy," says Shelsky. "Would my stuff make a good matzo brei – absolutely! Will I use it to make mine – no way! I stick with regular, out-of-the-box, machine-made – Streit's or Manischewitz – scrambled with sugar and black pepper."
In the off season, Shelsky likes to serve matzo in a cross-cultural way, topped with kimchi. "It sounds nuts, but it's really great. Also, a can of sardines and some Sriracha on matzo – my mouth is watering!"
The matzo is sold in 1 lb. boxes for $20, available in Shelsky's Brooklyn store or by phone. [shelskys.com, 718-855-8817]