Off from school on Passover mornings, we usually awoke to the smell of egg-dipped matzah frying in sizzling oil. I have to say that on more than one occasion it was actually the smell of burnt fried matzah. My late mother was the kind of cook who cooked to feed, not to woo. She passed away last summer, and since then, I have found comfort in baking and cooking the foods she cooked for us or told me about. When I was thinking about which food to write about for the holiday, I was surprised that the one food that came to mind was my mother’s mgala, fried matzah.
My mother was quite unceremonious about making the fried matzah. She simply dipped a damp matzah in egg and fried it. While as a child I looked forward to the hot fried matzah, once introduced to matzah brei in the US, I adopted it readily because it is more flavorful. Matzah is bland. Even when dipped in egg and salted, the layers of fried matzah remain somewhat bland. On the other hand, the crushed bits of matzah used for matzah brei absorb and blend better with the salted egg mixture.
Looking back on the Passover foods of my childhood, the dishes I remember have the vibrant colors and aromas of the ingredients used in everyday Yemenite Jewish cooking. Only a few dishes in the Yemenite Passover repertoire stand out as unique to the holiday, fried matzah being the least distinctively Yemenite in appearance and flavor. So when I donned my apron to recreate the fried matzah recipe, I aimed to give it some kick, Yemenite style.
I started with the basic recipe, only I took the time to wrap the damp matzah in a damp towel and carefully cut each one into even quarters. I then dipped each quarter in eggs blended with a bit of milk and salt, stacked the matzah squares and fried them in olive oil.
For the next batch, I dipped the four squares in the egg batter, topped three of them with a dollop of cilantro pesto and a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella, stacked them, capped the stack with the fourth square and then fried it. Next, I added some of the pesto to the egg batter, dipped and fried another batch.
Finally, I broke the last matzah into the leftover egg mixture and fried a large matzah brei. I then gorged on all of the variations of fried matzah. It was satisfying and comforting.
Year after year, my kids ask for the same holiday foods. Holidays really are all about tradition after all. Not only do we find the traditional foods comforting, we also anticipate them with excitement when they appear on the table only once a year.
Passover is all about remembering, and when associated with a departed loved one, a remembered food acquires an added layer of meaning and comfort. The simple fried matzah is all that for me. My dear mother may have cooked simply to feed us, but she dished us sweet memories to last us a lifetime.