Matzo Brei: History and Recipe
Many people believe the first matzo brei was prepared in the Sinai, shortly after we got out of Egypt. This is a myth. We were in too much of a hurry. Although everyone remembers we didn’t have time to leaven our bread, we’ve forgotten our supplies of the unleavened variety were pretty meager, too. That’s why there was so much grousing on the way. An empty belly does not make for convivial traveling.
We ran out of matzo before matzo brei could be invented. And then there was manna. When you’ve got manna, you’re not thinking about matzo. Yes, a few people fooled around with mixing manna and hot water and frying the glop in schmaltz, but these experiments didn’t go very far. Manna, a gift from heaven with no middleman, is quite tasty on its own. Matzo, on the other hand, is a lot like corrugated cardboard. This alone inspires culinary invention.
Still, it wasn’t until the course of history delivered us to the land of Ashkenaz that the restless ingenuity of the Jewish people manifested itself in the peculiar delights of matzo brei. Maybe it was the chickens. Eastern Europe is full of chickens. We never saw so many before we arrived. And eggs. There were mountains of eggs. If you’ve heard that Jews felt like they had to walk around Europe softly and on their tiptoes, now you know why. It was the eggs.
So how did it happen that matzo and water and egg and butter found their way into a pan? No one can know. But I think of my father. The man is a crumbler. He always was, and he always will be. He crumbles cookies in milk, crackers in soup and, believe or don’t, matzo in coffee. That’s right. Coffee. If my father can do that, it isn’t hard to imagine some other Jew out there in the world deciding one day to break his matzo in pieces and sprinkle it into an omelet. Things catch on. Improvements are made. Traditions are born.
One medium sized mixing bowl, one skillet, one fork, and maybe a butter knife
Five large eggs, four Matzos, one half stick of butter, dill weed, salt, and pepper. Garlic is nice, too, if you like. It couldn’t hurt. And a little milk.
- Soak Matzos thoroughly in water, shaking off excess, and then crumble them into a medium sized mixing bowl.
- Break eggs over matzo, add a little milk, and mix it all together until your arm is tired. Add milk.
- Melt butter in skillet at high temperature.
- Sprinkle three or four pinches of dill weed into the melted butter and stir.
- Pour egg and matzo mixture into skillet and stir fry swiftly and with gusto, in the manner of scrambled eggs, adding salt, pepper and garlic to taste.
- The Matzo Brie is done when the eggs are done, and if you don’t know when eggs are done, you shouldn’t be in the kitchen in the first place.
This recipe feeds four who eat like birds, three average breakfasters, two hungry people or one zaftig person with an empty pit for a belly.
A delightful Passover frittata, probably Sephardic in origin, can be prepared with just a small variation of the directions. Begin by following steps 1 to 4 above. After pouring the mixture into the skillet, simply lower the heat, smooth the surface of the mixture and cover the skillet. Let one side of your large pancake brown. Estimate the time yourself. What do I look like, a clock? How long it takes depends on your skillet. Also, if the pancake is thin, it will cook more quickly. This is common sense. Use your head. When one side is browned, flip the Matzo Brie over and brown the other side.
That’s all. Try not to break it as you put it in a serving dish. Salt and pepper can be added. Or, for a sweet, breakfast treat, you can use jam, sugar or maple syrup. Slice pizza style.
Originally published in Jewish Magazine, April 2009
Photo: “Haggadah,” mixed media on copper, Mark Ari