Who knew we would need a chemist last weekend, when I tried to make matzoh balls for our Passover seder? True, it was the first time I had hosted a seder in a very long time, but I had managed to find my mother’s recipe for matzoh balls, and there is nothing particularly daunting about making them.
Unfortunately, things got a bit complicated.
First, when I went to find my mother’s recipes and other Passover items — which had been stored away for years — I got a shock. Mouse dung and little seeds clung to the items in the storage drawer! The edges of a silk cloth and some of the Haggadahs and pamphlets had had their edges munched away.
I forged ahead: I was looking forward to having a seder at home, and didn’t take this as a sign of trouble ahead.
Matzoh balls are controversial. There are those who love them round and heavy, and those who complain that if they are too compact you have to eat them with a knife and fork. Some recipes call for letting the dough rest in the refrigerator for a while; others say that is a waste of time. I always liked them fluffy, the way my mother made them.
Everything else about the meal went according to plan. I had set two days aside for getting the house, the table, and the food just right. Things were spinning along nicely until it came time to make the matzoh balls.
Among the prized household items Chris brought along when we got married is a big copper bowl. Most knowledgeable cooks, especially those who bake, know that a copper bowl is best for whipping egg whites, especially when you chill it. (Chris had whipped a lot of them for soufflés in a former life.) Making matzoh balls is generally an easy process, once you’ve stopped arguing about what kind is best.
One of my culinary achievements, if I say so myself, is good soup. A chicken soup for the meal had been under way all day, with an Iacono chicken purchased especially for it. The aromas were promising. Although some people cook their matzoh balls right in the soup they will be served in, I prefer boiling them separately in salted water.
Waiting until every other part of the meal was almost ready, Chris and I got at it: I separated the eggs and he whisked the egg whites enthusiastically. I beat the yolks with a little salt, and we folded them into the whites once the whites were stiff. I had a big enameled pot with boiling water ready on the stove, and we started shaping the balls with a spoon and dropping them in.
And then. And then? And then, as they cooked, they starting turning a distinct grayish green. If not exactly snow-white, matzoh balls are supposed to be at least in the realm of white. Ours looked like a science experiment. I tasted one and thought it was fine, if a little salty. Chris stood by, nonplused. Then, one of my sons, who had arrived for the seder, came into the kitchen, took a look, and pronounced them off the menu. What had gone wrong? A reaction between the copper bowl and the whites? Some sort of oxidation? Copper-polish poisoning?
When it came time to serve the soup, I took an informal poll, but recused myself. The matzoh balls had to go, all agreed. The soup was good enough to stand on its own, thank goodness, although a few of those at the table, the hungrier ones, tossed in some pieces of plain matzoh for bulk.
My granddaughter Evvy volunteered to ceremonially carry the gray matzoh balls one by one in a ladle to their respectable demise in the compost bin. On a night filled with traditional ritual, her matzoh-ball interment was something of a humorous and unexpected ritual. But one — unlike, say, the Four Questions — I hope we don’t have to repeat.