Passover starts on Monday evening at sundown, and that means eating all the festive holiday foods. The most iconic Passover food is matzah, an unleavened bread that symbolizes the flight of ancient Jews from Egypt. According to the story, the Jews were in such a rush to flee, they had no time to allow the bread to rise. So, the story goes, it was baked on their backs like a flat cracker. Annually, Jews gather together to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, over a meal of ceremonial foods like matzah and haroset.
As a non-Jew who married into a Jewish family, I came to Passover many years ago excited about the traditions and the connection to my own faith, Catholicism (Jesus was celebrating Passover at the Last Supper), but often disappointed with the food. This was before the internet, so I relied on cookbooks and foodie friends to find ways to personalize the meal and, in my opinion, improve the taste of the traditional foods. But I never thought you could change the matzah…until one year a friend who was a chef and cookbook author told me that La Brea Bakery would take special orders for homemade matzah. I ordered some and it was amazing. So, so much better than what’s for sale in most grocery stores. It turns out that was a limited thing and La Brea stopped making it, but I never wanted to go back to regular store bought matzah.
So I decided to try to make it myself. Turns out there are tons of recipes for making matzah — it’s very simple: salt, water, olive oil and flour. For the last several years, I’ve been making matzah for Passover with my daughters, and it’s been a delicious, new tradition at our house. To be kosher for Passover, the matzah should be mixed and baked within 18 minutes. I did it one year with my daughters and it was crazy fun to mix up the dough, run it through our pasta machine as fast as we could, then bake it before the timer went off. Now I take my time, since there’s no way a non-Jew could make it kosher anyway. Kosher or not, it’s still delicious and a welcome alternative to the boxed matzah.
This year, my daughters are away but my mother (also not Jewish) wanted to try making it in her new pizza oven. The result was even better. Not surprisingly, a wood-fired pizza oven is a bit more work and takes more time to heat than a conventional oven with a pizza stone, but the result is a completely baked bread that feels just right when you crunch it. If you’re up for it, here’s the relatively simple process we followed to make our matzah.
I found the recipe online and made the dough in the food processor. Then we cut the dough into eight small balls and ran each of them through the pasta machine to roll out the dough. After each pass, we increased the setting on the machine, decreasing the space between the rollers to get progressively thinner sheets of dough. We stopped at number 5 because it is possible to make it too thin — it tends to burn instead of brown — but you should experiment to find your favorite thickness. If you don’t have a pasta machine, you can roll the dough by hand with a rolling pin. That would be more work, but could yield a more interesting result, too. We went the machine route, since we were trying to work fast.
Once the dough was thin enough, the dough sheets were transferred to a floured pizza peel, poked with a fork and salted. Some we lightly sprayed with olive oil, which seemed to create a nicer browning effect. From the peel, the dough sheets were transferred to the oven, placing them directly on the oven floor that had been wiped down with a wet towel to remove any ash and cool it down somewhat. Within moments, they started to bubble and crisp up. With long tongs, we turned the crackers over once, then pulled them out when they seemed done enough to suit my husband’s taste. Then we placed them on a wireless rack to cool. They can be stored in giant Ziplock bags for up to a week…though they’re so good, they won’t last that long in our house!