RISE OF THE MACHINES
(AND HOW MATZA MADE AMERICA OR AT LEAST CONTRIBUTED TO THE SETTLING OF THE WEST)
By Gil Marks
Matza is bread made from flour of members of the wheat and barley families mixed with water and then, to avoid engendering chametz, baked within 18 minutes of mixing. Throughout most of history, all bread making, including matza, was women’s work and done by hand, including grinding the grains. It was customary for each household to bake their own matzas, typically performed in groups of two or three women in a miniature production line: one to mix and knead and one or two to add the water, roll or spread the dough, and bake. The result was a relatively soft, thin round loaf akin to a firm (pocket-less) pita bread.
In biblical times, matzas, like other flatbreads, were made from a relatively loose dough and cooked in three basic ways: On heated horizontal baking stones or clay griddles; on the outer vertical walls of clay jar-ovens; or in a clay-lined pit-oven. All of these rudimentary ovens could be relatively easily constructed by individuals, and families typically made a new one each year for Passover use. With the advent of the cylindrical Persian oven (the tanur, it’s the same as the modern Indian tandoor oven) more then 2,400 years ago, matzas were baked on the vertical inner clay walls, a more efficient process exposing food to both radiant and convection heat that can approach 900°F (480°C). Most areas maintained a communal tanur in which anyone could bake, while many families also possessed their own private ovens. The tanur (tabun in Arabic) could be free-standing or, for greater insulation, built into the ground. Then the Romans introduced the large permanent wood-burning stone-lined oven (furn) with a flat-bottomed baking chamber, turning the bread baking world upside down (or sideways). These masonry ovens became the norm in much or medieval Europe and parts of the Middle East, and the types still used in modern hand matza factories and “brick-oven” pizza parlors. Since furns were somewhat complicated and expensive to construct and maintain, they were generally communal or sometimes privately owned by one (or at most, only a few) of the wealthier families in the area and shared with the townsfolk, usually for a small remuneration. As an increasing concentration of Jews began living in the large urban centers of Europe and as many became incompetent to make their own matza, the concept of the commercial matza bakery equipped with a large masonry oven appeared. The product of these bakeries is known as hand matza (or, in some circles today, as artisanal matza).
For thousands of years, matza was made fresh on a daily basis throughout Passover, except for the Sabbath. However, any failed or problematic batches of matza made before Passover can be safely disposed of without any spiritual repercussions, while any mishaps during the holiday results in the forbidden chametz. Consequently, during the late Middle Ages, to avoid even the possibility of creating chametz on Passover, Ashkenazim developed a stringency to bake their matza only before the onset of Passover and never during the festival. This change meant that the original soft style of matza would be quite inedible within a few days let alone by the end of the holiday. As a result, Ashkenazim adopted another stringency — mandating thinner, crisper matzas, considered less capable of becoming chametz and capable of being stored for many months without any deleterious effects. (Today, most hand matza bakeries begin baking and stockpiling matzas around Chanukah. Many non-Ashkenazim continued to bake matzas throughout the holiday and continued to make the old-fashioned soft matzas.) It was at this point that matza making, requiring major muscle power to mix the dense dough and lift batch after batch of loaves in and out of the furn, shifted from women’s work to men’s work. Women generally still did the rolling of the individual dough balls. The bakery sold its wares to the masses and allowed rabbis and yeshiva students to come and make their own.
Then in 1838, Isaac Singer of Alsace created a machine to roll out matza dough, the mixing and perforating still performed by hand. The new-fangled device consisted of two parallel cylindrical metal drums, manually rotated by a wheel. The dough was pressed between the drums, flowing out in sheets onto a long table, where workers cut out dough rounds using sharp metal rings, then perforated the rounds. Rolling out a single large piece of dough and cutting it into sections was quicker and more efficient than hand-rolling individual balls of dough. The entire process for each batch, from mixing to baked matza, took about two minutes. The matza rolling machine found general acceptance in western and central Europe, but met intense resistance in eastern Europe, especially among Chassidim. Large commercial hand matza bakeries were never established in nineteenth century America and mass immigration of Chasidim only occurred following World War II and, consequently, machine matza factories more easily found acceptance in the New World. The first matza rolling machine arrived in Israel in Jerusalem in 1863, where it generally found acceptance among the non-Chassidim, but, as in Europe, was vehemently denounced by Chassidim. Today, Israeli machine matza is exported throughout much of the world.
The use of rolling machines led to an unprecedented but now standardized physical change –- the square matza. Initially, the machine matzas, like the handmade type, were round — the dough rolled out and cut into rounds, leaving the corners. These edges, for economic reasons, were rerolled and cut, threatening the 18 minute time frame. To eliminate trimmings, thereby saving time and money, machine matza makers in Europe early on opted for cutting the dough sheets into contiguous squares, altering the traditional shape. Coincidentally, the square shape would eventually prove more convenient for packing and shipping than the rounds.
Then in 1886, Rabbi Abramson (died 1914) from the Lithuanian town of Salant purchased the passport of a dead man to escape from Europe — and possibly conscription into the Russian army — the name on the document being Dov Behr Manischewitz. Using his new name, Manischewitz along with his wife, Nesha, immigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio and subsequently served as a ritual slaughterer (shochet) and part-time peddler. For his first Passover in American, with matzas impossible to obtain in his new hometown, Manischewitz made his own hand matza. Two years later, he started a small matza bakery in his basement for family and friends. Demand grew. In particular, Manischewitz discovered a totally unexpected market. For Cincinnati was a prominent starting point for pioneers heading West, who needed durable and nonperishable items to take in the wagons for the lengthy, dangerous trip. Matza’s keeping ability proved ideal for pioneers.
By 1900, Manischewitz opened a massive factory, revolutionizing the business by switching from coal to gas ovens, allowing for better control. The company built a new oven, at the time the largest on earth. Instead of merely using machines to roll out the dough, Manischewitz established a fully-automated factory with machines also mixing, perforating, and cutting the dough. He also introduced a patented belt to transfer the dough squares through the oven. In order to prevent the dough from coming into contact with heat before entering the oven, it was insulated, an innovation most welcomed by the workers. The factory was soon turning out 75,000 pounds of matza daily, much of it initially purchased by non-Jews heading west. Unlike irregular and frequently charred hand matzas, those made my Manischewitz were uniform and standardized.
At first, Manischewitz’s new factory produced matza for non-Passover use, where chametz is no problem, as many rabbis were hesitant about using the new machinery for Passover. After the then wealthy Manischewitz donated sizeable sums of money to European and Israeli yeshivas, his company eventually received sufficient rabbinic approval to use the machines for Passover matza as well. The machines were cleaned at the outset of each run, then continuously operated, and only cleaned again before the next operation.
Through aggressive marketing and advertising, Manischewitz transformed the matza bearing his name from a seasonal local product to a high-volume commodity shipped throughout the country as well as many parts of the world. The machine transformed matza from a product generally eaten exclusively during the festival of Passover to a widely available and inexpensive item consumed year round by some non-Jews as well as Jews. (I know a non-Jewish wine teacher who waits each year till after Passover to purchase matzas on sale to use for clearing the palates during wine tastings.) The company’s introduction in 1903 and marketing of packaged matza meal, ground and packaged by machines, also revolutionized the culinary world transforming the matza ball from a solely Passover dish into a food enjoyed year round.
In 1932, Manischewitz, a public company since 1923 but still led by the Manischewitz family, opened a branch in Jersey City to be closer to the center of the expanding American Jewish population, eventually closing the Cincinnati location in 1958. In the 1940s, Manischewitz expanded its line with non-Passover crackers and canned soups and, in the next decade, to include bottled gefilte fish and borscht. The company became so well known that during his 1973 walk on the moon, astronaut Gene Cernan commented, “Man, oh Manischewitz.” Today, Manischewitz (now owned by Harbinger Capital Partners), after acquiring several rival companies (Goodman’s and Horowitz Margareten), produces more than half the matza consumed in America on Passover.
Manischewitz’s main American rival is Streits. Near the turn of the 20th century, Aron Streit, a hand matza baker, and his wife Nettie emigrated from their native Austria, ending up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1916, Aron and his partner Rabbi Weinberger opened a hand matza bakery on Pitt Street. Then in 1925, along with his oldest son, Irving, Streit opened a modern matza factory — using various machines to mix, roll out, cut, and bake the dough — on the corner of Rivington and Stanton Streets. As the company expanded, Streit’s purchased the three adjoining buildings. Streit’s remains in the same location, the last of the Lower East Side matza bakeries. After Aron’s death in 1937, his children and grandchildren continued to run the company. Unlike many other machine matza bakeries, Streits only produces 18-minute runs, the rabbis checking the timing with stopwatches. By 2005, however, the company did offer some unorthodox flavors, including sun-dried tomatoes and garlic and olive oil.
Here are a few matza recipes:
Ashkenazic Cream Cheese Matza (Geschmirte Matza) D
1 pound (2 cups) softened cream cheese, or 8 ounces cream cheese and ¼ cup (½ stick) butter
½ cup sour cream or heavy cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
About 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon potato starch
6 machine matzas
About ½ cup milk
Cinnamon-sugar (½ cup sugar mixed with ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease baking sheets.
2. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sour cream, egg, sugar, and potato starch and beat until smooth.
3. Dip the matzas briefly in the milk until moistened but not soggy, about 1 minute. Place the matzas in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets and thickly spread with the cheese mixture. Sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar.
4. Bake until the cheese topping is set and lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Cut into squares while warm.
Substitute 1 pound gevina levana (Israeli white cheese) for the cream cheese and sour cream.
Passover Kreplach (Filled Matza Balls) D
(About 16 dumplings)
3 large eggs
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons milk
About 1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (4.25 ounces/120 grams) matza meal
1 cup farmer cheese or drained cottage cheese
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1. To make the dough: Beat together the eggs, oil, milk, and salt. Stir in the matzah meal. Let stand for 15 minutes.
2. To make the filling: Combine the cheese and sugar.
3. Form the dough into 1-inch balls. With moistened fingers, hollow out each ball. Stuff about 1 tablespoon cheese filling into each ball and press the edges over the filling to seal. If desired, flatten slightly.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a low boil. Add the kreplach, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.
Matza and Vegetable Kugel
(6 to 8 servings)
2 cups (about 4 ounces\115 grams\3 whole) crumbled matza
1 cup boiling water
¼ cup vegetable oil, margarine, or schmaltz
2 medium onions, chopped
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 medium boiling potato, peeled and grated
1 sweet potato, peeled and grated
½ cup grated carrot
½ cup grated parsnip
½ cup chopped spinach
½ cup grated zucchini
Salt to taste
Ground pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C). Grease a 2-quart (2-liter) or 8-inch-square baking dish.
2. Pour the water over the matzas and let soak until softened but not mushy, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain well.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the matza and remaining ingredients.
4. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake until golden brown, about 50 minutes.
Double the recipe and bake in a 13- by 9-inch pan.
Sephardic Matza with Poached Eggs (Manouras) D
2 cups boiling water
2 machine matzas, each broken in half
Olive or vegetable oil
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
4 poached eggs
In a shallow casserole, pour the water over the matzas and let stand until soft but not mushy, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and place the matzas on serving plates. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with cheese. Top each piece with a poached egg.
Sephardic Matza Fritters (Buenueloes/Bunuelos) P
(12 to 15 fritters)
You can also fry these as small pancakes in enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet.
4 machine matzas, crumbled (about 3 cups)
3 cups boiling water
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons matza meal
Pinch of salt
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Shira (sugar syrup), arrope (raisin syrup), or cinnamon-sugar
Ground nuts (optional)
1. Soak the matza pieces in water until softened, but not mushy, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and squeeze out the excess moisture. Add the eggs, sugar, matza meal, and salt.
2. In a large pot, heat 1- to 2-inches oil over medium heat.
3. In batches, drop the batter in tablespoonfuls and deep-fry, turning once, until golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels. Dip the hot fritters into the syrup, letting the excess drip off, or sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. If desired, roll in ground nuts.
Add about 2 cups chopped fruit, such as apples, bananas, pears, or dates to the batter.
Mina de Espinaca (Matza-Spinach Pie)
(5 to 6 servings)
1 pound (455 grams/4 cups) fresh spinach
1 to 1 1/3 cups mashed potatoes
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
5 whole matzas
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1. To make the filling: Wash the spinach. Cook in the water clinging to the leaves until wilted. Chop. Let cool. Add the potatoes, eggs, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (190 C). Oil an 8- or 9-inch pie plate, skillet, or baking pan.
3. Soak the unbroken matzas in warm water until semisoft but not soggy, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and place on paper towels.
4. Cover the bottom of prepared pan with 2 matza. Spread with half of spinach mixture. Top with 1 matza and spread with remaining spinach mixture. Cover with remaining 2 matzas. Beat the remaining egg and spread over top.
5. Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Double recipe and bake in a 13- by 9-inch baking pan.
Mina de Espinaca con Queso (Matza-Spinach Pie with Cheese): Add ¾ to 1 cup (3 to 4 ounces/85 to 115 grams) grated Muenster, Monterey Jack, or Cheddar cheese. Or substitute 6 ounces (170 grams) feta or drained cottage cheese for the potatoes.