Matzo! Matzoh! Matzah!
No matter how your spell it – Matzah is the quintessential Passover food.
Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is the eight-day holiday commemorating the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. During the holiday, only unleavened bread may be eaten. That means no pasta, cereal, bread, cakes, cookies or any other starch product made with yeast or other rising agent.
In the place of leavened bread, Pesach observers enjoy matzah, unleavened bread made purely from flour and water. During the eight days of Passover, matzah is used in sandwiches, schmeared with cream cheese, baked into pizza and even pan fried in butter for matzahbrie, a Pesach-friendly substitute for French toast.
Why unleavened bread?
Referred to as lechem oni, or the bread of affliction, matzah symbolizes the minimalist fare that was eaten by Egyptian slaves.
The matzah also represents the actual food taken by the Jews when they fled from bondage. The Jews had to leave so quickly that they didn’t have time to rise their dough. “Why do we eat this matzah?” asks the Hagaddah, the compilation of stories, prayers and songs recited during the seder (ritual meal). It answers, simply: “Because the Holy One redeemed our forefathers from Egypt before their dough could rise.”
In their haste, the Jews were forced to focus on the bare essentials. On both a literal and a spiritual level, matzah embodies this concentrated, singular focus.
While matzah is called the bread of slavery (lechem oni), it is actually the bread of freedom: The freedom that comes from learning what you really need in order to enjoy the things you want.
According to Jewish law, it takes approximately 18 minutes for dough to rise. Matzah makers, therefore, must work very quickly. No more than 18 minutes may elapse between mixing the flour and water and finishing the baking of the matzah. The Bible also teaches that matzah ingredients must be watched over carefully to prevent them from becoming accidentally leavened. As is stated in Exodus 12:17: “You shall guard the matzot.”
For most religious authorities, this guarding commandment is understood to apply to the time from when the wheat is ground until the matzah has been baked. Some authorities, however, maintain that the wheat must be guarded beginning from its harvest.
Those who observe the added harvest stringency eat a special kind of matzah called shmura, or guarded, matzah. Unlike the store-bought matzah, which is machine-made into perfectly shaped squares, shmura matzah is made by hand, shaped into imperfect circles and baked in special matzah ovens. Since shmura matzah is at least 10 times as expensive as store-bought matzah, many serve it only at their Pesach seder.
Make Your Own Matzah
If you want to make your own matzah this Passover, here’s a recipe you can try out at home.
Ingredients: cold water flour
Preheat your oven to its highest temperature.
Combine 1-part water to 3-parts flour. At this point, the 18-minute stopwatch starts ticking, so you must move fast.
Quickly mix and kneed into a firm ball. Roll out the dough into as thin a circle as possible. Poke holes in the dough. Make sure that no more than 15 minutes have passed since you first mixed the flour and water.
Cook matzah on baking tiles in your oven for 2-3 minutes until done. Cool and serve.