Religious holidays the world over are associated with food traditions, and none more than the Jewish celebration of Passover. A thin, crisp cracker called matzo is one of the main ingredients of the Passover feast, or Seder. It is the first food eaten at the Seder and is also served with bitter herbs as a symbolic sandwich later in the meal.
The Seder and the traditional plate of special food used are filled with symbols of the long history of the Jewish people.
The plate holds bitter herbs as reminders of the bitter years, a shankbone symbolic of religious sacrifice, and a roasted egg for mourning. A mixture of fruit and nuts represents mortar used by Jewish slaves while building pyramids in Egypt. Parsley or other greens symbolize the slaves' springtime release.
A combination of ceremony, symbolism, and baking, the making of matzos is a special event for Rabbi Levi I. Horwitz and members of the New England Chassidic Center, Congregation Beth Pinchas, Brookline, Mass.
They are invited each year to watch the making of this unleavened Passover bread, a ritual begun by Beth Pinchas 61 years ago.
This year Passover began at sundown Friday, April 5, and will end when the sun goes down Saturday, April 13.
During the holiday, Jewish families gather in their homes to celebrate the Seder feast, sharing the story of Exodus, singing hymns, praying, and enjoying the foods that make up this beautiful ``service within a meal.''
Throughout the week many families use a separate set of dishes, cutlery, and cooking utensils, and everyone enjoys this opportunity to set a fine table. In modern homes, although the seder menu is festive, foods may be lighter, with smaller servings and fewer courses.
During the eight days of Passover, they will eat no products made from regular flour and no foods with leavening agents.
For weeks before the festival, houses are thoroughly cleaned to remove any trace of leavening.
But this is nothing compared with the scrupulous attention given each grain of wheat that will go into the flour of the matzos.
Strict cleanliness is basic. The grain is grown especially for this purpose, and it is inspected to be sure it is not overgrown and therefore subject to fermentation, which would indicate yeast, or leavening. Mills are reserved to grind the Passover flour, and factories are meticulously cleaned.
Quickly baked, matzo recalls that the Jews fleeing Egypt were in such a hurry that there was no time to let the bread rise and to bake it properly.
Besides flour, the only other ingredient in matzos is water. The water is gathered from a running stream and strained. Then it must sit for 24 hours with no foreign elements allowed to contaminate it.
At the New England Chassidic Center, a wood fire is built to heat, to 500 degrees F. or more, the unique, tile-lined brick oven used exclusively for matzo baking.
The special water and flour are placed as far apart as possible -- water in the hallway and flour in the main room. They are measured, brought together, and mixed, then kneaded and rolled on a table topped with glass. The dough is kneaded on only one side to avoid rising.
Members of the congregation watch as the bread is made into roughly hewn circles, slightly thicker than the crisp, machine-made brands available in supermarkets.
Children are then allowed to carry the matzos over a rolling pin to the next table, where holes are pierced in the dough with a special cylinder to prevent bubbles and aid in heat penetration. After perforation, the matzos are put on long poles and then into the oven.
Baking takes a very short time, sometimes only seconds, or 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the oven heat.
Talk about fast food -- according to Jewish law the whole operation must take no more than 18 minutes. This is timed from mixing the flour and water to the finished product. If too much time elapses, the bread will rise and it will not be suitable for Passover.
Members sing a section of psalms during the matzo preparation. When the last batch is done, a small piece of dough is separated from the rest and burned in the oven, another of the many traditions, as a symbolic offering.
Because of the stringent laws for baking matzos and because the special flour is not available commercially, matzos are not made at home.
It is an important ingredient in all Passover foods. As a substitute for bread, it can be spread with butter, salt, or honey, and haroset, the fruit-and-nut mixture from the Seder, is a good topping. Matzo meal is made into pancakes, popovers, and a popular dish called Matzo Balls.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.