It is matzah season. The shelves in the supermarkets are already stocked with boxes of an assortment of matzah brands that come at the consumer from a series of directions. And the type of matzah that you are drawn to may say a lot about you—not so much about what you like to eat but to some extent about who you are.
So the unleavened bread is important for a combination of halachic and culinary reasons. Mostly it is a break from eating challah or bread for a full nine days over yom tov. The nutritionists and dietitians believe that matzah is preferable to bread in your diet so you are in a good place on that count. But on the other hand, there is something about matzah that has you just chomping on it almost mindlessly through a meal or at any time.
And then there is the matter of the butter and cream cheese that the matzah begs to have spread across it; the matzah seems incomplete, if not completely empty, without it. But that’s really a chol ha’moed issue, as the Sedarim and the yom tov days are largely dominated by meals that feature meat dishes that eliminate the use of cream cheese or butter from matzah-merger consideration.
Aliza Beer, a well-known Five Towns nutritionist, says, “Matzah is far superior to challah. Challah is basically cake; it contains sugar, eggs, and oil just like cake,” she says. And Aliza adds that matzah is just flour and water—simple, uncomplicated, and fewer calories than challah. The boxes of the square matzah that we use around the year list one matzah as being somewhere between 80 and 100 calories. The boxes of hand shemurah matzah oddly enough do not list calorie content as it doesn’t matter; regardless of what that number is, you are eating matzah anyway—so why go to all the trouble?
Tanya Rosen of Nutrition by Tanya has a long list of tips and advice on how to get through Pesach, which is usually a culinary-based festival, without gaining weight—or at least without gaining too much weight. The advice includes making a list before Pesach of foods you are committed to not eating at all over the yom tov. That means, according to Tanya, no kugel, no cake, and no chocolate.
On the matter of the Sedarim, Tanya says, “Find out the minimum amount of matzah and grape juice you can consume to be yotzei the mitzvah, and stick to those minimums.” She also suggests that you eat a light dinner and drink water before the Seder so that you are not too hungry, and since the meal takes place very late in the evening, eat in moderation and take a walk after the meal so that you do not go to sleep on a full stomach.
Yakov Charlop of Woodmere is well-known for the esrogim that he grows on his fields in Israel and distributes around the world at Sukkos time. About five years ago, Yakov decided that it was time to expand his enterprise and go into shemurah matzah that has quickly become widely acclaimed for the strict supervision over its baking in Israel.
It is important to understand that this is a market that is not easy to break into. There are quite a number of established matzah bakeries that probably produce the lion’s share of the matzah that is consumed all around the U.S. over Pesach. Just about half of the Jewish population in the United States is located in and around the New York area so it is logical that most of the bakeries are located here in New York.
I visited a supermarket the other day to get a sense of how many different brands of matzah are available out there for the consumer, but it is still slightly early as the shopping frenzy for kosher-for-Pesach products has not really gotten under way yet.
Just to be able to provide a sense of what is going on out there at Pesach time beyond our community that is accustomed to the traditional Ashkenazic minhagim, I inquired of a Sephardic friend of mine about what it is like to eat what they refer to as “soft matzah” over the chag.
While I never saw or ate “soft matzah,” to the best of my understanding it is more akin to pita, which is also bread that does not rise. But it’s also something that, if we in our communities saw on Pesach in a kosher-for-Passover home or eatery, would send us running in the other direction.
Michael Edery, who has an office on the same floor as the 5TJT here in Cedarhurst and whose parents were born in Algeria and Tangier, says that while he uses regular Ashkenazic “hard matzah” on Pesach, he has seen soft matzah. The kind that he experienced was not exactly like pita bread but was able to be folded without cracking, which sounds more like bread than matzah to me.
Michael adds that his mother told him that in Tunisia the matzah was very solid and thick and a challenge to even bite into. He says that he believes that it is the Syrian Jews for the most part who use matzah that resembles pita bread more than the type of matzah that we eat. The Sephardim also eat rice and all kinds of beans on Pesach, which is prohibited in most of our communities. While I have no real connection to any of this, these cultural differences are quite fascinating—if not to eat then at least to write about before the yom tov.
Amongst the many exciting and celebratory things that we do at the time of year known as the “Time of our Freedom” is the actual baking of the matzos. Over all these years, as far as I can recall, I have only baked my own matzos twice. Both times were a great experience and provided insight for me into the entirety and the importance of the process.
To this day, there is an exhilaration that takes over once I am inside a matzah bakery. And that uplifting feeling is a combination of the simplicity of the environment and an air of purity and holiness that is closely guarded by all involved in the process. It is dough and water, kneaded, smoothed out with rolling pins, rushed to a 2,000-degree oven, which transforms like magic into the staple of our holiday diet.
Now that is one very hot oven, and if you need it amply demonstrated, the matzah baking to a crispy brown color looks as if it is taking place in fast motion. The quickness of the baking is just a testament to the great heat generated by the fires in these ovens.
It’s an engaging and even beautiful process that is unique to our community. After all, who else bakes matzos in a 2,000-degree oven, rushing and concerned that the dough should not rise and that it remain unleavened and flat?
The Charlop hand shemurah matzah is baked in Bet Shemesh under very strict supervision and therefore is in demand by communities and shuls that are looking for shemurah matzah prepared and baked under the strictest of rabbinical supervision. Some of those kashrus guidelines are listed on the side of their box—26 special rules that their matzah-baking process adheres to.
Some of those rules include special supervision while machinery is being cleaned to be certain that there are no leftover kernels of wheat. Here’s another one: processing of the dough is done by hand only and not by an iron rod. And the rolling pins are made from wood, not metal. They are polished every 18 minutes and checked by the mashgiach. And on it goes.
There are a lot of popular brands of matzah and other kosher-for-Passover products, and you will most likely see a shift in the shopping population over the next week as observant Jews from all communities begin to descend on the stores to stock up for Pesach.
Based on past experience, I have noticed that there are actually some matzah brands that you might be precluded from being able to acquire if you do not pre-order. Two of those particular brands offer the distinctively thin matzah that is very much in demand. One brand is Chareidim, which is baked in Boro Park, and the other is Kerestir, which is baked in Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
Apparently, the most valuable—or at least expensive—matzahs one can use are those that are baked privately on erev Pesach. Those matzahs can run as much as $20 per matzah. Other matzah brands that have been already baked and boxed run somewhere between $23 and $30 per pound, which is also quite expensive. But there are also one-pound boxes of matzah available for $10 per pound in stores like Costco and Bingo in Brooklyn.
Since the baking started months ago and is now in full swing, we cannot say “Let the baking begin,” but we can say it is time for the Pesach-shopping frenzy to get under way.
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