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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Matzah Heaven and Family Love

My father recently had a scary episode on a sidewalk in which concrete was the clear victor, and my father’s head was the loser. It was not too damaging in the end, but the incident made us all shudder in the knowledge that had he fallen just a fraction of an inch differently, it easily could have led to his demise. And by his demise, I mean mine because I’m a daddy’s girl through and through. The fact that I’m not such a girl anymore is irrelevant because my world would have instantaneously shattered into a thousand little pieces if that head had fallen just a little bit harder.

I needed to see for myself that he was as hard-headed as he was cracked up to be, so I decided to go home for the Passover holiday. I jumped on a plane and made the long trip from Uganda to the United States. During the flight over, I planned how I would make my father one of his favorite Passover foods — Burmolikos, the Bulgarian version of matzo brei.

Sure enough, when I got to my parents’ house, my father was on the mend, in high spirits and hardly the worse for wear.

It’s an odd sensation sleeping in your childhood home. Let’s face it, in the real world, people are not likely to respond well if you let your real childish inner-self shine through. In sharp contrast, at home, with the people who love you wholly and unconditionally, know your weaknesses, your buttons and your failures — well, there’s no playing those people. There’s no nonsense that you can come up with or rationalization you can muster, however creative, that can mask your true self from those people.

Perhaps that’s why coming home for holidays is a universally tough experience for most people. There’s a clash from the get-go between the you that you think you are and the you that your parents know you are. The other odd thing about coming home as an adult is that it’s a severe reality check regarding your mortality. You can’t help it when your parents tell you stories, and you look at photos of yourself when you were much younger. It’s hard not to have your mind turn to thoughts of that inevitable day when you will be trying to patch together conversations that took place through a lens of hazy memories.

The only possible way to avoid self-inflicted melodrama that I know of is to cook, so between lessons in oxtail stew and chicken and onions from my mother, I busied myself with the Burmolikos, even though they are usually reserved for the day after the second seder in our family. I then splashed out on a new recipe for Chremslach, a pillowy cheese pancake made with matzo meal, a more Ashkenazi version for my Romanian mother. While I was cooking, I remembered an episode from my childhood that exemplifies my father’s style of parenting.

While you’re frying your Matzo Brei this Passover, remember that even if you were a thorn in your parents’ side, you’re still the best thing that ever happened to them.

When I was 16, I picked up my best friend, Michelle, in the morning and promptly skipped that pesky thing called high school and instead drove us straight to downtown Washington, D.C. I wasn’t even allowed to drive my car that far but I figured smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee would be a good enough lesson for that day. We walked around tony Georgetown for a bit, and after a few hours, when Michelle had loosened up a little and lunchtime approached, we headed on over to a French bistro called Café de Paris.

The place was full of Georgetown hipsters, and Michelle, who was usually far more adventurous than me, was so nervous that she couldn’t calm down. We ordered her a beer, which she speed drank, and after a while, she started to relax. Just as we were hitting our stride, giggling about boys, our waiter approached us with two Heinekens and a bit too gleefully remarked, “These are from that gentleman over there.” Fully expecting to see a hotter version of Jude Law staring back at me, I turned my head quickly, only to find my father toasting me with a beer from across the restaurant. While Michelle and I turned every shade of red known to man and tried to figure out an exit strategy, my father quietly paid our bill and his, and then he and my mother left the bistro. My parents never broached the subject with me again, but I can tell you that was the last time I ever skipped school.

Although none of us can escape the fact that our futures are uncertain, and that at any time our loved ones can be ripped away from us, it’s important to savor every occasion. While you’re frying your Matzo Brei this Passover, remember that even if you were a thorn in your parents’ side for a period during your younger years, you’re still the best thing that ever happened to them. From the first moment they saw you to the last — the world is in its correct orbit in your company.

BURMOLIKOS — MATZO BREI
8 sheets of matzo
Boiling water to cover
5 whole eggs
2 teaspoons of kosher salt (or to taste)
3/4 teaspoon of black pepper (optional)
1 cup neutral tasting oil for frying (or a
combination of butter and oil)
Sugar syrup, maple syrup or Bulgaria
feta for serving

Crumble matzo sheets into large pieces into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 5 minutes, then drain in a colander. Beat eggs in a separate bowl and season with salt and pepper, if using.  Squeeze the matzo until it is dry and add to the beaten eggs. Let mixture sit for 5 minutes while you heat the oil.

When the oil is hot but not smoking, use a tablespoon or an ice cream scoop to drop dollops of the mixture into the hot oil. Fry for about 1 minute on the first side and then gently turn over patties and fry another minute on the second side. Burmolikos should be golden brown on both sides and cooked through. You may have to sacrifice one to the see if it’s cooked. You’ll be happy to do it.

Serve with syrup for a sweet version or even with Bulgarian feta for a salty version.

Makes about 20 Burmolikos.

CHEESE-FILLED CHREMSLACH — CHEESE-FILLED MATZO PANCAKES
4 ounces cream cheese
(room temperature)
4 ounces cottage cheese
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 cups matzo meal, divided
1/2 cup oil or butter or a combination
Sour cherry jam and sour cream
for serving (optional)
Powdered sugar for serving (optional)

Beat the cream cheese and cottage cheese together until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs, salt, sugar and 1/2 cup of the matzo meal and mix well. Put 1/4 cup of the matzo meal on a plate. Form pancakes out of 2 tablespoons of the mixture and dredge in the matzo meal to coat. Heat oil or butter in a frying pan until hot but not smoking. Fry pancakes in oil for about 45 seconds to a minute on each side until lightly browned. Serve hot with sugar, jam, sour cream or all of the above.

Makes about 15 small pancakes.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

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