As an adult, I've learned to lighten up my Grandmother's dense but delicious matzo balls, but I would never change her recipe for making Passover fun for her grandkids.
Hands forming a matzoh ball over a pot of soup
Credit: Getty Images / patrickheagney

My grandmother's matzo balls were hard as rocks. It was a familial joke: great flavor, but grab your knife and fork. This is not to say that we found her lovingly crafted matzo balls unenjoyable. You could say a lot of things about my grandmother, who tended to an acres-large former poultry farm turned toy and sundry business in central New Jersey, but you could never say that her fêtes were un-fun. They were fun.

The orange-and-white swirled shag carpet—conceived of and chosen by God knows who—was, at least by the grandkids' account, a lot of fun. The vista in the formal living room, which stared out onto a Venetian balcony (in central Jersey, I must remind you), was fun. The plastic orange tree, sprouting from the center island of one of the home's three kitchens? Fun.

At Passover, my grandmother's zest for life was always on display. I don't know what year it was when she bought the meshuggenah Passover Haggadah (a book containing the story of Passover) that featured puppets affixed to Popsicle sticks, but that version of our family Seder stayed with us for a long time. It was a well worn, fun, time-honored tradition. The kind of family fun you took for granted: that someone would have to play the sheep (why was there a sheep?) and that one of the desserts on the table would be nothing more than a giant bowl filled with scoops of different ice cream flavors.

Prepared in her yellow enamel Dansk pot that was part of a set received at her wedding, my grandmother's matzo ball soup was the type you'd have to eat with a fork and knife—we joked. Family gatherings are not necessarily about the food so much as they are about the memory, after all. My grandmother, into her 90s when she died almost four years ago, loved to tell us how she couldn't stand chicken soup anyway. (The stock, if you're curious, was a thing she made with expert precision. I learned her special ingredients after she died: a cube of bouillon and a pinch of sugar. I guess the secret was MSG.)

What made her matzo balls a little heavy on the stomach also made them delicious. It was the fat—a thing my grandmother always loved. When she ordered pastrami: extra fatty. She was a woman who didn't shy away from the marrow of life, the literal marrow. The fat.

Now, when I make my own matzo balls, maybe I don't use quite so much schmaltz, the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat. It's not that I have a Snackwellian fear of the stuff. I just prefer that my matzo balls float and not sink. But I do think she knew a thing or two about food, about entertaining, about the room in which we gather. You can borrow a tradition and make it your own. It's what I've done, taking a recipe that maybe I didn't love, twisting it on its axis, and, in honor of those puppet-crazed Seders—in honor of all the riotous fun we used to have—making it float.

Matzo Ball Soup
Credit: Ali Redmond

Matzo Ball Soup with Carrot & Dill

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Nothing says Passover like matzo ball soup. The key to these tender, flavorful matzo balls is a hint of schmaltz (chicken fat), a little seltzer and an extra-long simmer. If schmaltz is not readily available at your market, ask the butcher or seek out a local meat market. Or, if you have chicken on hand, remove the skin and cook it over low heat to render the fat. If matzo meal is unavailable, look for whole matzo crackers and grind them at home in your food processor.