Although the annual Beth Israel Bazaar has been postponed, dozens of steaming matzo balls, those soft and yielding morsels of comfort food, crowd a cooling rack in Robert Kay’s kitchen.
The celebrated community staple and annual fundraiser is also a showcase of traditional Jewish foods and temple members’ culinary talents.
Originally scheduled for March 25 at Beth Israel Congregation, the decision was made to reschedule due to COVID-19. When the new date is slated these matzo balls will nestle in the chicken soup fondly considered “Jewish penicillin” for its cozy warmth and curative powers.
Matzo ball soup is a treasured part of the bazaar’s hot food line, alongside cabbage rolls, brisket, noodle kugel, blintzes and more. Also on the bazaar’s menu will be: deli favorites such as reuben sandwiches, and traditional Israeli selections including hummus and tabbouli. Gourmet desserts put a sweet spin on the mountain of tasty offerings at an event that’s drawn the community to the table for 50-plus years. Sometimes — in the case of casseroles and takeout — it even follows them home.
While the food is a primary draw, shopping is a close second. The silent auction adds a vintage section this year, and the popular white elephant sale and raffle continue. Bazaar proceeds are used to support many organizations, including Stewpot, Dream Street, Jacob S. Jacobs Camp, Meals on Wheels and Salvation Army.
The bazaar, driven by Beth Israel Sisterhood, is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor for the congregation.
Kay, retired from the U.S. Army and the federal government, has been the bazaar’s man on matzo balls since about 2011 or 2012, he says. An old family recipe? “Yeah,” he laughs, gesturing to a sweep of small boxes on his counter. “It’s called Manischewitz.” Kay may do variations for dinner at home, but keeps the matzo ball mix for the bazaar’s inventory consistent from year to year. “Someone else makes the magic recipe with the broth, and I just put a little bit of Judaism in the matzo balls.”
Matzo is the unleavened flatbread, like a cracker, that’s an integral part of the Passover festival. Matzo balls are the dumplings made of matzo meal, egg, water and a fat (oil, margarine or chicken fat) that are served in chicken soup.
Kay relays the biblical story of Jews’ exodus from Egypt, fleeing with only what they could carry on their backs. “They had hard bread, so it was unleavened bread. … I’m assuming, through history, it was probably one of these ingredients that kept for a while, due to lack of refrigeration,” he says of matzo. “Like everything else, people put their own touches, over time, to it.”
The mixture is simple and straightforward. “The main part will come with the chicken broth, however the person likes to cook their chicken. And, then it’s like chili, spaghetti or anything else — the longer it sits and it absorbs, it’s a little better.”
Kay’s goal at the outset is 250 balls. He got on a roll and cranked out 450-plus by the session’s end.
With a focus on quantity as well as quality, Kay handles two packets at a time, mixing the contents with eggs and vegetable oil for the dough. It chills for a bit, then moves over to the stove where a simmering stockpot awaits. Kay pinches a bit of dough and, one by one, he hand rolls small matzo balls to plop into the hot water. They puff up to about double in size and solidify as they simmer, floating to the surface.
Once the balls have enjoyed a sufficient simmer, they’re pulled from the drink and set on racks to let off steam. When cool, they’re tucked into bags and frozen. Ultimately stashed in the bazaar’s dedicated freezers, they’re ready to roll when the Sisterhood team comes in to make broth for the bazaar.
“You always hear, the best cure for a common cold is chicken soup, so every Jewish grandma, every Oma, would make you matzo ball soup,” Kay says. Matzo balls give the soup some extra oomph — a little uncomplicated something to chew on — to make you feel loved and better.
“The healing powers,’ Kay says.