Passover is nearly upon us. And for many observers of the Jewish faith, that means saying goodbye to leavened bread.
In the place of leavened bread comes what many Jews call the "bread of affliction," or matzo. Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. And as the biblical narrative goes, they had to leave in such a hurry that they couldn't wait for their bread to rise.
So the matzo at Passover is symbolic. But the plain, dry crackers tend to get a bad rap for their taste (or lack thereof).
But to Dan Pashman, host of a food podcast and blog called The Sporkful, the simple matzo cracker is a culinary marvel.
"In a typical cracker you kind of have one or two options," he says. "Either a cracker that will be crunchy but it will also be very oily and salty."
Or, he says, "The other option is your table water cracker, which is plain in flavor, but very flimsy. it lacks structural integrity; it doesn't have very much crunch."
Matzo is the best of both worlds — plain in flavor, wonderfully crunchy. "It's like a blank canvas," Pashman says. And you can load it up with any number of toppings.
Curious about what gives matzo its characteristic crunch, Pashman also visited the largest producer of kosher goods in the U.S., the Manischewitz factory in Newark, N.J.
One of the things that make matzo special is the way it is charred. "And the degree of charring sets different matzos apart from each other."
And there's another thing that puts matzo crackers a crunch above the rest: lots and lots of holes. "There's a lot of science behind those holes," Pashman says.
When you bake crackers, the water in the dough turns into steam, expands and creates bubbles that pull the layers of the dough apart. "Those holes act like staples to hold the dough together," Pashman says. So the more holes a cracker has, the denser it will turn out.
The holes are also where science intersects with religion. "The rabbinical inspectors, who make sure the matzo is kosher when it comes off the assembly line, they break it along those holes ... and then against the grain, to make sure it cooked through so they can make sure it's not longer leavening."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Passover is nearly upon us, and that means, for many observers of the Jewish faith, saying goodbye to leavened bread. The Jews were fleeing Egypt. They didn't have time to bake their bread, so they had to take bread that didn't rise. So in the place of leavened bread comes what many Jews call the bread of affliction, matzo. To many it's rough, tasteless, and mostly there for it's deeper symbolic meaning. Not so for Sporkful.com's Dan Pashman. Hey, Dan.
DAN PASHMAN: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK, so I'm going to just set the stage here by eating a little matzo.
PASHMAN: OK, I'll do the same.
MARTIN: OK, so let's break off...
PASHMAN: Oh, that is good.
MARTIN: Matzo makes for good radio because it's crunchy.
PASHMAN: Yeah, that's right. That's right, great sound effects.
MARTIN: And before everyone writes nasty e-mails to me, I have to say that's about the only positive attribute that I see in this unleavened bread.
MARTIN: There, I've said it, OK.
PASHMAN: ...Rachel, you're certainly not alone. I know many Jewish people and non-Jews who are not the biggest fans of matzo. But I will stand up for matzo.
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.
PASHMAN: You know, I feel like one woman's bread of affliction is my bread of affection, you could say.
PASHMAN: All right, here's the thing about matzo. Let's just talk about it as a cracker. There's two things that set matzo apart. In a typical cracker, you kind of have one of two options, either a cracker that would be crunchy, but it will also be very oily and salty. The other option is like your table water cracker, which is plain in flavor but very flimsy. It lacks structural integrity...
PASHMAN: ...and it doesn't have very much crunch.
MARTIN: That's true.
PASHMAN: Matzo is plain in flavor. It's like a blank canvas, but it has maximum crunch. Now I'm not alone here on my end of this debate either. I found a lot of non-Jews who love matzo. I spoke to one woman whose parents immigrated here from China. They love matzo. On the Sporkful Facebook page, Caroline Day commented. She said, I'm probably going to hell for saying this, but I love matzo with some ham on top.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Now that sounds delicious.
PASHMAN: Yeah, with a little berry jam, she says.
MARTIN: Oh, that's not bad. OK, you, you wanted to find out what gives matzo its special je ne sais quoi, so you went on a little field trip. What did you find out?
PASHMAN: That's right. I went to the Manischewitz factory. Manischewitz is the largest manufacturer of processed kosher products in America. Went to their factory in Newark, and I met a guy named Randall Copeland. And he actually is Southern Baptist. And one of the things I talked to him about is the charring of the matzo because that charring sets matzo apart from other crackers. And the degree of charring sets different matzos apart from each other.
PASHMAN: Yes, and I asked Randall Copeland at Manischewitz, I said, how do you know when the matzo has just the right level of char?
RANDALL COPELAND: When I have about the same number of customer complaints about it being too dark as I have that it's too light, I know I probably have it at about the right level.
MARTIN: OK, so another thing that I have a question about. All these little holes in the matzo, they're aesthetically pleasing to some degree, but do they have a utilitarian function?
PASHMAN: They do. There's a lot of science behind those holes. And when the dough goes in the oven, water turns to steam. It expands, and it creates bubbles and pulls the layers of the dough apart. Those holes act as staples to hold the dough together so more holes, like with matzo, means a denser cracker.
But this is where the science and the religion come together because the rabbinical inspectors who make sure the matzo is kosher when it comes off the assembly line, they break it along those holes, along those perforations, as I call them, and then against the grain to make sure it's cooked through so they can make sure that it's no longer leavening. When I talked to Randall, he said, you know, this age-old practice is actually rooted in some science.
COPELAND: When I first got here, I looked at that and said, you know, this is kind of a strange practice. So I would go out and break matzo with them and talk to them and figure out what they were doing. And I learned within about three months, I could tell within two tenths of 1 percent moisture what that matzo was just by breaking it in the way they broke it.
MARTIN: Breaking the matzo. Breaking the bread together. Bringing people together.
PASHMAN: That's right. Just make sure you have a glass of water handy.
MARTIN: Dan Pashman of The Sporkful food podcast. Thanks so much for joining us, Dan. Happy Passover.
PASHMAN: Thanks. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.