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The Deli Way: Classic Matzah Brei

Barney Greengrass’s famous matzah brei recipe is closely guarded; when I called to speak to their chef, Nicholas Simone, I reached an elderly gentleman who made me explain myself three times before he would hand over the phone. The secrecy … Read More

By / April 16, 2007
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Barney Greengrass’s famous matzah brei recipe is closely guarded; when I called to speak to their chef, Nicholas Simone, I reached an elderly gentleman who made me explain myself three times before he would hand over the phone. The secrecy might be worth it: Mr. Simone has a wealth of deli knowledge, having headed the Barney Greengrass kitchen for 25 years. Before his current gig he worked at Sarges, another Jewish deli in New York established in 1964. And if that‘s not enough Jewish credibility for you, consider this: He uses a matzah brei recipe from his grandmother. Though the restaurant serves it to the customer’s preference—with or without onions, scrambled or whole, choice of preserves or applesauce—Mr. Simone takes his with just a dusting of powdered sugar. “It’s like French toast,” he says. “So you use anything that would go on French toast.”

There was hardly a recipe to give out. No salt, no sugar, no vanilla, Mr. Simone explained. Just eggs, matzah, half and half, and butter for the skillet. I confess, I was hoping for more of a challenge. (This was my first time preparing matzah brei myself for the urban family.) But the ease of preparation was a blessing, considering I cooked in my Manhattan apartment with little space and few tools.

Though it ran contradictory to my culinary principles, I followed Mr. Simone’s instructions and added no flavorings, not even salt. Mr. Simone uses Manischewitz unsalted matzahs, but I used the crispier, wheatier Yehoda I had on hand. While many recipes call for soaking the matzahs in water before adding them to an egg mixture, Mr. Simone soaks them directly in the liquid, which has always made more sense to me.

The recipe is great because it requires nothing more than a bowl and a pan. After a half-hour soak, the mixture is ready for the skillet. I used an oversized sauté pan and prepared half the mixture—which would serve two according to Mr. Simone—scrambled and half as a giant pancake. I started with the easier scrambled version since I had been warned by Mr. Davis that flipping was the real challenge.

I found color the key to preparing the scrambled variety. You must abandon the just-until-done scrambled egg mentality: Matzah brei is meant to have color. Really let it brown and form naturally into separate spongy chunks. The browning principle also holds for the whole pancake. Without the support of a binding browned crust, the brei will fall apart mid-flip. When mine looked nicely colored, I managed to flip the 15-inch disk of brei with three spatulas.

Both scrambled and whole breis tasted the same, but the added surface area of the scrambled allowed it to absorb much more butter, while the pancake came out swimming in a pan of buttery foam.

It’s a bland dish on its own and not meant to be eaten plain—hence the debate over toppings. Topping the scrambled brei with salt and ketchup made it truly nostalgic and a favorite of my roommate. But the pancake with a few spoonfuls of powdered sugar was delicious—-like French toast but denser and heartier. And with the extra butter, the powdered sugar melted into a glaze reminiscent of a donut’s.

As much as I loved the way brei with salt and ketchup made me feel like a 12-year-old, I took seconds of the pancake with powdered sugar. Thinking of my mom, I felt a little guilty, but it seems sweet is the universal preference: Most customers at Barney Greengrass order it that way (10 to one according to the chef) and the only girl on my tasting panel who grew up with brei takes hers with sour cream and powdered sugar. The half-and-half—the recipe’s defining ingredient—made this brei almost custard-like in texture, like a bread pudding, perhaps better lending the dish to extra sucrose.

I found applesauce a disappointing accompaniment, though. Its mealy texture conflicted with the brei, and it fizzled against the richness of the half-and-half, eggs, and butter. Powdered sugar is a far more robust sweetener.

Mr. Simone’s recipe may have converted me to the sweet camp.

Next: Healthier than Domino's, and almost as easy

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