You know the old joke about the Jewish pessimist and the Jewish optimist? The pessimist says, "Oy, things can't get any worse." And the optimist


The Great Matzo Showdown

You know the old joke about the Jewish pessimist and the Jewish optimist? The pessimist says, "Oy, things can't get any worse." And the optimist says, "Things can always get worse!"

Things got worse at Voracious' first-ever Great Matzo Showdown -- convened to correct the image of unleavened bread as a flat, flavorless holiday obligation -- when a closer examination of the winning matzo's box revealed the matzo wasn't approved for sacramental purposes. "It's not matzo, it's a different food," panelist and University of Washington Jewish Studies department chair Noam Pianko grumbled after learning Yehuda's gluten-free, kosher for Passover "matzo-style" crackers were made with potato flour. "When given the choice, nobody chooses matzo."

So why mess with matzo? The Torah commands Jews to eat and digest matzo (sorry, Noam) on the first two nights of Passover in recollection of the Jews who fled Egypt before their bread could rise. Matzo also symbolizes humility, since it's not puffed up.

While the prohibition on leavening lasts throughout the eight-day holiday, the rules governing Seder matzo are especially stringent: The matzo must be made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats, since only those grains are capable of fermenting. It can't have any added eggs, fruit juices or other fancy flavorings, since it represents the "bread of affliction," and it must retain its flavor, which is why some rabbis frown on the practice of soaking matzo in wine to make it easier for sickly Seder-goers to swallow it. Hasidic Jews believe the perfect matzo is handmade in a bakery where everyone yells, "for the sake of the mitzvah of matzo!" before the dough's kneaded, rolled or baked.

Yehuda's airy toasted onion squares fail on all counts, which means they can only be used for non-Seder snacking. But that's important too, since nuts, pretzels and chips fried in corn oil are prohibited during Passover. Pianko, who says "my goal on Passover is to eat as regularly as I can without eating matzo," liked the squares so much that he's planning to buy a box.

"They're delicious," panelist Anna Berman, who blogs at Snacking in the Kitchen, said. "It's like a Baked Lay potato chip."

"That's really yummy," panelist and chef Robin Leventhal agreed. "It's so crisp, but it doesn't shatter. It's super good."

Fortunately, Pianko, Berman and Leventhal also found matzos to like among the other five contenders, all of which are welcome Seder guests. The panelists ranked each matzo on an eight-point scale: Their scores and commentary follow.


Manischewitz Whole Wheat Matzo

Purchased at Metropolitan Market, $3.49

Average score: 2

Leventhal's whole wheat fears were exacerbated by Manischewitz's lackluster stab at the genre. "This is what I'd expect whole wheat to be like," she said. "It's like eating bran." Or worse: Berman criticized the bitter aftertaste. The matzo's only attractive quality was its cost. "I feel violated when I buy a box of matzo," Leventhal says of the price usually assigned to flour and water.


Manischewitz Matzo

Purchased at Whole Foods, $3.49

Average score: 3.5

Manischewitz is the Maxwell House Haggadah of matzos, reporting for duty at nearly every American Seder. "I think we all know this matzo," Leventhal said. But nostalgia isn't always tasty: "It's cardboardy," Pianko said, sounding the battle cry of matzo haters everywhere.


Aviv Organic Whole Wheat Matzo

Purchased at Whole Foods, $5.99

Average score: 5.25

"Who knew matzo tasting would be so enlightening?," Pianko asked as panelists parsed the differences between Aviv's entry and its whole wheat competitors. Panelists agreed Aviv wasn't the crispest of the bunch, but had an appealingly sweet flavor. "I'd give it the middle," Pianko said.


Yehuda Organic Matzo

Purchased at Whole Foods, $6.99

Average score: 6.5

Yehuda Matzo is made with whole wheat, and has a strikingly different look from most matzos: Each matzo is a warren of gently-toasted bubbles and dales. "What I like is it's got some flavor, some nuttiness" Leventhal said. "I never would have bought a whole wheat matzo, but you've changed my mind." Berman liked the matzo's density, and tasters agreed it would be an ideal vehicle for hummus or eggplant spread.


Streit's Lightly Salted Matzos

Purchased at Whole Foods, $4.49

Average score: 7.25

The clear favorite, Streit's matzos were praised for their pretzel-like chew and enlivening salt. Berman also liked the uniformity of the matzos, which were evenly baked. Panelists fantasized about smearing the matzos with good butter or creamed herring, and wondered how well it would work in matzo brei, the fried soggy matzo dish that many Jewish cooks prepare year-round. Pianko didn't think the matzo needed any accoutrements. "It's something you could much on," he said. "You could have this by itself."

Passover begins on Apr. 6.

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