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Cooking with Grandparents: Shelley Hornstein's Matzo Ball Soup

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Shelley Hornstein | Photo by Maria Zizka

In a tidy, well-used kitchen, Shelley Hornstein has neatly arranged the ingredients for matzo ball soup. There are cartons of eggs, boxes of matzo meal, bowls of many sizes, and various cooking tools -- measuring cups, whisks, and wooden spoons -- all laid out in a grid pattern.

"When I cook it's not usually this organized," Shelley says.

"I've never not seen it this organized," her daughter, Lara, assures me.

Home cooks tend to fall into one of two groups. Either they are recipe followers, in which case they carefully measure each ingredient and dutifully follow each step, or they are recipe modifiers, changing and swapping just for the sake of it.

Shelley seems to fall somewhere in between. For many years she has been following her own grandmother's recipe for matzo ball soup, but every year she takes the time to reference other, more recent recipes written by Joan Nathan, Leah Koenig, and Norene Gilletz, a prominent Canadian cookbook author, among others. Shelley considers all the options. Should a splash of seltzer water be added to the batter? How long must the matzo balls rest in the refrigerator before they are boiled?

Boiling Matzo Balls | Photo by Maria Zizka

At each juncture in the recipe, she pauses to tell me that another cook might choose a slightly different method. It becomes clear that Shelley has thought about, if not tested, matzo balls made with schmaltz, matzo balls made with oil, matzo balls chilled in the fridge for just an hour, matzo balls chilled overnight, frozen matzo balls, and every variation therein.

She is willing to change her own recipe but only after much deliberation. While living in Strasbourg, France during her twenties, she developed a fondness for celery root, so she now includes at least one in the soup. Ever since she saw Martha Stewart add a beet to chicken soup in order to boost the color, she has been doing the same. Shelley is a professor of architectural history and visual culture at York University in Toronto, and she seems to carry the precision and diligence of academia with her into the kitchen.

She humbly claims to be no expert on matzo balls, however it's easy to see that a great deal of thought goes into her cooking. This is a soup I'd feel confident making over and over again.

Shelley Hornstein's Matzo Ball Soup | Photo by Maria Zizka

Shelley Hornstein's Matzo Ball Soup
There are two main parts to this recipe: the chicken soup and the matzo balls. You can make the soup in a pot on the stove or you can cook it in the oven. Shelley usually starts the pot on the stove and then moves it to the oven.

Serves 10 - 12 as a first course

For the chicken soup:
1 whole chicken, cut into parts
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
2 leeks, rinsed and root end trimmed
1 celery root, peeled and cut into large pieces
4 big parsnips, peeled and cut into large pieces
5 - 6 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 small red beet, peeled
1 head garlic, sliced in half horizontally
½ bunch fresh dill

For the matzo balls:
8 large eggs
½ cup schmalz (from the chicken soup) or grapeseed oil
1½ - 2 cups matzo meal
½ bunch fresh dill, finely chopped, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Seltzer water, as needed
Kosher salt

For the chicken soup:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Place the chicken in a large pot and pour in enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil, then skim any foam that rises to the surface. Adjust the heat so that the water simmers. Add the onion, leeks, celery root, parsnips, and carrots. Place the beet, garlic, and dill so that they rest on top of the other vegetables like a raft. Transfer the pot to the oven, cover it partially with a lid, and cook for several hours. (The exact amount of time isn't critical; it's done when the broth is very concentrated and flavorful.)

Pull out the vegetables and the chicken pieces. Clean the chicken by removing the skin, which can be fried in a little schmaltz or oil, and discard the bones. Squeeze all the liquid out of the onion, leek, and garlic, and then discard. Transfer the other vegetables to one container, the chicken to another container, and the broth to a third. (Chicken, vegetables, and broth can be made ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 2 days.)

For the matzo balls:
Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk to break them up. Remove the chicken soup from the fridge and scrape any schmaltz from the surface into a measuring cup. Add enough grapeseed oil to make ½ cup total, and stir into the eggs. Stir in 1½ teaspoons salt, 1½ cups of the matzo meal, and the dill. The texture of the matzo ball batter should be not too stiff, not too pasty, and not too liquidy--sort of like oatmeal. Add a bit more matzo meal or some seltzer water to achieve the proper texture. Place the batter in the refrigerator and let it chill for at least 1 hour.

Fill two large pots with salted water and bring to a boil. Fill a small bowl with ice water. Dip your hands into the ice water, then scoop up a golf ball-size ball of batter and shape it into a round ball. Drop it into the boiling water. Continue forming matzo balls until you've used up all the batter. Boil the matzo balls, partially covered with a lid, for 30 minutes. At this point, taste one to see if you like the texture. You can keep cooking the matzo balls for up to another 90 minutes, if you like. The texture will continue to change as it cooks and some people think it improves but others think it does not.

To serve:
Heat up the chicken broth and add enough water to dilute the broth to your liking. Chop the vegetables and chicken meat into bite-sized pieces and add them to the soup. Ladle some soup into each bowl, add a few matzo balls, and garnish with dill.

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