When it comes to matzo, Chicago chef Laura Frankel says hers is a love-hate relationship.
"Matzo and I are frenemies," she says of the unleavened cracker-like bread traditionally eaten during Jewish Passover celebrations. "On one hand, matzo is a food you want to be proud of -- it's part of who we are as Jews. But frankly, it usually tastes like cardboard."
During Passover, leavened breads and most grains are prohibited. The tradition is intended to recall the flight of the Jews from Egypt after being freed by the pharaoh. As the story goes, they had no time to let their bread rise before baking it. So today, matzo -- the production of which is a highly regulated process -- is central to Passover meals.
It can be eaten as is, or ground into coarse crumbs or even a fine cake meal and used similar to traditional flours.
"Every year, people will tell me they made brownies with matzo cake flour and they were even better than the real thing," says Frankel, author of the cookbook "Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes." When she hears this, she usually thinks, "No, they're not," but keeps that to herself.
Leah Schapira, an Israeli-born kosher cook, has a more comfortable relationship with matzo. Schapira -- who co-authored the recent cookbook, "Passover Made Easy" -- is happy to munch matzo plain, but when cooking with it tends to treat it as a blank canvas upon which to build dishes. She also notes that these days matzo is available in many varieties -- including whole wheat -- many of which taste quite good.
The matzo toffee bar crunch from her book is a great example of using matzo creatively. It's reminiscent of the popular confection usually coated with chopped nuts, but her version melds similar flavors together with the toasty, crunchy qualities of the matzo. Schapira, who has four kids, also uses it as a "crust" for pizza (though she cautions that a very hot oven is key to ensuring the matzo doesn't get soggy).
She and writing partner Victoria Dwek also developed a recipe for tortillas with tomato-mint salsa and guacamole because they know how much families like having a taco night and wanted a Passover-suitable option.
Still, both Frankel and Schapira say it's essential not to be fooled into thinking that using matzo crumbs and meal is the same as using flour or bread crumbs, and they recommend not going out of your way to try to use matzo products to recreate dishes you might make at other times of the year.
Frankel points out that matzo, unlike leavened breads, doesn't have developed gluten (a protein that helps bread rise), so baked goods using matzo meal and cake meal won't have the same textures as ones made with traditional flour.
One of Frankel's tricks for baking and cooking with matzo meal and cake meal is to start out by emulsifying it by whipping it together with olive oil and egg, almost like making a mayonnaise. She uses this technique when making a matzo cake meal-based coffee cake and achieves very light and fluffy results.
Another favorite of hers during Passover is fried green tomatoes made with a seasoned matzo crumb coating. But she also regularly makes stews and soups thickened with a roux made by browning matzo meal and either olive oil or chicken fat. And as much as Frankel has her love-hate relationship with matzo, she ends up embracing it with plenty of culinary flair.
"The key thing," she says, "is you've got to strive to not have your cake and eat it too."