I’ve never understood the appeal of a matzo ball. No great beauty, the spongy dough ball just sits there, taking up space in an otherwise nice bowl of chicken soup. As a kid I dreaded encountering it at holiday tables. No matter how hard I tried, I could never bring myself to finish, or even start, the scary soup.
Looking back, my aversion may have had something to do with a fear of carbohydrates passed along at an early age by my mother. “Cut back on the bread,” mom would warn me at breakfast as she pulled out the doughy centers of bagels and rolls and tossed them in the trash to save calories—a confusing dictum for a kid who still wasn’t eating her crusts.
I asked myself, “What is a matzo ball, after all, if not a bland, giant, doughy center with no crust?” I learned to hold my nose and pretend to taste as a guest at other people’s seder tables for the next 60 years.
But how could I give up on a food that so many treasured? When I read about the new restaurant Birdie G’s opening on the Westside in 2019, my matzo ball radar screen started blinking. Apparently, James Beard award-winning super chef Jeremy Fox was serving dishes like matzo ball soup and kugel inspired by his Jewish grandmother, Gladys, alongside creations like ‘Nduja & Strawberry Cavatelli with Calabrian chili and fennel pollen inspired by his experience cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay area. ‘Nduja is fermented pork salumi, in case you don’t know. His $15 bowl of matzo ball soup featured in every review is described as a masterpiece—the major reason to go.
As soon as the pandemic started slowing down in early May, my husband and I nabbed a reservation on the patio to celebrate being alive and to taste the signature soup. Located in Santa Monica near Bergamot Station, the restaurant’s design was in perfect harmony with the chef’s modern concept. Zen-like in its simplicity, the patio was dotted with native plants, gravel pathways and well-sculpted trees. All was understated California chic. The eclectic menu sounded wonderful with inventive items like duck oca kebabs in beet coulis and a salad of several types of spring peas with burrata. The Jewish dishes were more like an add-on than the main event.
We started, of course, with the matzo ball soup with a side of house made matzo served with a generous dollop of perfectly salted butter. The soup was set on the table ceremoniously with a gold-plated spoon. After taking a photo for posterity, I dug in with a full heart, hoping to finally discover what my friends have been kvelling about all these years. Disappointment swiftly followed. The broth was deep, dark and mysterious with a musty, fermented flavor that caught in my throat. Lots of healthy things were floating in it. The ball itself, about the size of a small melon and nearly filling the bowl, was dense and tasted of many exciting things in addition to bland matzo. My husband’s judgement was less harsh. Never a man to turn down a matzo ball, especially one priced at $15, he deemed it “not bad.” To be honest, I loved everything else about the restaurant and would gladly go back. The dessert, a mini empress date bundt cake in a lake of molasses syrup, more than made up for my earlier stress.
Not ready to give up, I continue to study the beloved specialty. In reality, there is no one authentic matzo ball. As with many things Jewish, argument is baked into the story. Historically, the long-standing disagreements are over size and texture. Mimi Sheraton and Joan Nathan, historians of Jewish cuisine, agree on a ball no bigger than a walnut, as does the 1965 edition of “The Settlement Cookbook,” the Jewish “Joy of Cooking.” Meanwhile, the homely matzo ball grew to gargantuan proportions, as do many foodstuffs, here in the U.S. thanks to Jewish delis. So the same guys who gave us sandwiches stuffed with a pound of warm corned beef or pastrami, were also responsible for steroidal matzo balls?
In reality, there is no one authentic matzo ball. As with many things Jewish, argument is baked into the story.
Still on a quest to understand this inexplicable passion, I picked up my research recently with a visit to Langer’s, whose matzo ball soup is on every top five list in the city. At $5.95, they serve two tennis ball-sized dumplings in a bowl of pale-yellow broth devoid of any distractions—no soggy carrots, celery, or herbs. The ball itself is mild and fluffy. It offers absolutely no resistance when you take a bite—as my husband pointed out, you don’t even need teeth to eat it! The gestalt is one of total purity combined with a mild but strong character. One that you could love like a mother.
When making a matzo ball:
The salient cooking tips are these: (1) Chill the balls before cooking for a lighter texture. (2) Boil them first in well-salted water before gently dropping them into the broth for a warm-up. (3) Seltzer and schmaltz are traditional additions. (4) Vodka or nuts are affectations best left for millennials.
Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.