There are the sweet-toothed people of the world, and there are those who prefer savory foods. For most of the year the divide goes something like this: crme brulee or foie gras; chocolate chip cookies or tortilla chips, honey roasted peanuts or plain salted. But for Jews during Passover, the dichotomy condenses into one telling choice: How do you take your matzoh brei, savory or sweet?
In my family, the brei -- rhymes with fry -- was always, necessarily savory. Made from crumbled matzoh fried hard and crisp with eggs, salt, pepper, and occasionally onions, it was crunchy, browned around the edges, and as salty and addictive as potato chips. The recipe was so ingrained in our family's psyche that as a child I didn't even realize there was another way to serve it.
The epiphany arrived via my sister, who, after nearly a year at the University of Michigan, returned home for the holidays and poured maple syrup over her brei. Sweet matzoh brei? Had I known this was a possibility I would have explored it much earlier, given my penchant for things sweet and gooey. A whole new world opened up - matzoh brei with honey, cinnamon sugar, brown sugar, confectioners' sugar - let's just say lots of sugar.
Still, no matter how much I experimented with sugary toppings, the lure of my parent's matzoh brei with plenty of brown sauted onions, loads of black pepper, and a heady dose of nostalgia was too strong to ignore. Although I am a committed member of the sweet-toothed tribe, when it comes to matzoh brie, I go both ways.
My flexibility, it turns out, is rare. For most people, the sweet-salty chasm is too wide to cross.
"Everybody remembers matzoh brei from when they were kids, whether they had it a little sweet or salty," said Jeffrey Bank, one of the owners of Artie's Delicatessen on the Upper West Side. There, matzoh brei is always on the menu (year-round and all-day), and it's always served sweet, with a thick dusting of cinnamon sugar. The recipe, naturally, came from Mr. Bank's grandmother, Bea.
So what if a customer's grandmother made it savory?
"They'll have to ask for a special order," he said.
Or, they will have to subway it downtown to Good in the Village, where, starting a few weekends before Passover, Chef Steven Picker serves a very savory matzoh brei with sauted onions, dill and sour cream. The sweet version is definitely not part of his repertoire.
"Sweet matzoh brei is heretical," he insisted, "it's like grape jelly on a bagel."
But what if a devotee of savory matzoh breis wants to breakfast with a fan of the sweet?
The answer is also downtown, at Jane restaurant on Houston Street. There, Chef Glenn Harris offers it both ways - but not, he will quickly tell you, because he likes it both ways. Mr. Harris' mother, in Brooklyn, made sweet matzoh brei with honey or jelly, or matzoh meal pancakes the size of silver dollars sprinkled with sugar. His version is much more elaborate, with cubes of caramelized apples, a vanilla-honey sauce, and mascarpone. He only makes the savory kind, with deliciously glossy, nearly black, fried onions, as a concession to his partner in the restaurant, Jeff Lefcourt. Needless to say, Jeff's grandmother made hers savory.
"Of course I like the sweet kind best," Mr. Harris admitted, "I don't dislike the savory kind, but it's not what I grew up with."
Since nostalgia is such an important ingredient in matzoh brei, it's not surprising that chefs, who are normally so quick to push the culinary envelop, stay pretty traditional with this recipe. Twists, like Mr. Harris' caramelized apples and Mr. Picker's addition of dill, can be found. But few people are willing to go out on a matzoh brei limb.
One exception is Mitchell Davis, Director of Publications at the James Beard Foundation and author of The Mensch Chef (Clarkson Potter, 2002). As a child, Mr. David grew up on sweet matzoh brei in Toronto (his parents are from Brooklyn and New Jersey).
"My mother made matzoh brei with little pieces of fresh apple or pineapple in it, then she fried it in tons of butter and put cinnamon sugar on top when it was hot so it melted and caramelized. It was so delicious, " he remembered. "I didn't even know there was matzoh brei with pepper and onions and lox. It didn't exist in my world."
But that doesn't stop him from toppling the matzoh brei paradigm. Recently, he taught a class on baking for Passover at the James Beard Foundation. His most popular recipe, by far, was for matzoh brei canaps, one with smoked salmon and onions and the other, Italian-style, with roasted tomatoes, garlic, and mozzarella.
"They looked like regular canaps, but the base was made of matzoh brei cut into rounds. People absolutely loved them," he said, but then added one caveat.
"I use the word matzoh brei for those canaps because that's how people will understand what they are, but they really don't qualify as matzoh brei. For me, it's got to be my mother's recipe."
Indeed, be it sweet or savory, when it comes to matzoh brei, that's what counts the most.
Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Matzoh Brei
Adapted from Taste
Time: 20 minutes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup diced onions
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 boards(about 2 ounces) matzoh, broken into pieces
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1. In a skillet over low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until caramelized, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Add the mushrooms and raise the heat to medium-high. Continue to cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are soft, about 5 minutes. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.
3. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the pan and let it melt. Add the matzoh and cook, tossing to coat the matzoh in butter, for 2 minutes.
4. Pour the eggs into the pan and season them generously with salt and pepper. Cook, scrambling the mixture, until the eggs are set, about 2 to 3 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Matzoh Brei with Caramelized Apples, Honey Vanilla Sauce, and Mascarpone
Adapted from Jane
Time: 30 minutes
1/2 cup honey
1 vanilla bean
9 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons sugar
1 pound box matzoh
8 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces mascarpone cheese (or yogurt)
1. Place the honey in a small saucepan or microwaveable bowl. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and use the tip of a knife to scrape the seeds into the honey. Add the bean to the honey as well. Gently warm the honey over low heat or in the microwave until it thins enough to easily pour, about 1 to 2 minutes. Keep warm or reheat before serving.
2. Heat a saut pan until very hot, then add 2 tablespoons of the butter and the apples and sugar. Fry, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft and caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a dish and keep warm.
3. Place the matzoh in a large bowl and cover it with warm water. Let soak for 1 minute, then drain, pressing to remove excess water.
4. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the salt. Break the soaked matzoh into large pieces, adding them to the eggs, and toss well.
5. Melt 6 tablespoons of the remaining butter in a 10-inch, preferably nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Add the matzoh and eggs and cook, pressing down on the top with a spatula, until crisp on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Use a flexible metal spatula to loosen the bottom and sides, then invert the pan over a plate to flip the matzoh brie. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the pan and swirl to coat the bottom. Slide the matzoh brie back into the pan and continue to cook until a crust has formed on the bottom and it is cooked through, about 3 to 5 more minutes.
6. Cut the matzoh brie into 6 pieces, top each piece with apples and a spoonful of mascarpone, and serve drizzled with the honey vanilla sauce.
Yield: 6 servings