Monday night marks the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Jewish households all over the world will be holding a dinner called a Seder—the word means “order,” because there is a specific order to the dinner—and one of the featured foods will be the unleavened bread called matzo.
Matzos are made with nothing but flour and water, and must be prepared quickly—in no more than 18 minutes—lest the mixture rise. Because the ancient Hebrews departed Egypt in a hurry, their bread did not have a chance to rise. They carried the dough on their backs, where it baked in the desert sun, and that is why this form of flat, unleavened bread is eaten on this holiday.
There is a prohibition against eating leavened products during the entire eight-day celebration of Passover. Nothing made from flour—except matzos themselves—can be consumed. To avoid contamination with yeast or other leavening, many Jewish households completely switch their dishes over to a special set used just on the Passover holiday, dishes that are put away shortly after the holiday ends, until the following year.
Matzos can be eaten like crackers or bread, or can be broken up into small pieces (matzo farfel) to put into soups, or can be ground fine into matzo meal, from which matzo balls (dumplings) are made. Ground even finer, they may be incorporated into cakes and other pastry. They may be broken up into a kugel (a pudding/casserole that may be sweet or savory) or even a kind of lasagna (noodles themselves are forbidden during the holiday, but creative cooks have been known to substitute matzo panels). One popular Passover treat is matzo brie, or fried matzo, made by briefly soaking broken matzos in hot water and then in a beaten egg mixture, and then frying them. Matzos may also be coated with chocolate for dessert.
While all Passover matzos are made under rabbinical supervision, there are some, called “shmura matzos,” that are made under the strictest possible supervision, with the grain guarded from harvest to packaging. These are found in kosher specialty stores, or may be purchased from some congregations.
Popular brands of matzo available in the United States include Streit’s, Manischiewitz, Yehuda, and Osem. Matzos are traditionally sold in one-pound packages, or combo packs containing five such packages. You can also buy matzo meal and matzo farfel, so you don’t have to grind or break up your own.