Making Matzo Ball Soup for Passover with the Wise Sons Deli Guys

Leo Beckerman (above, left) and Evan Bloom opened Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2012 after carving out space in the city’s pop-up food scene, and last year launched a second location at SF’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Beckerman and Bloom make things like pastrami and rye and babka like chefs, by hand, merging 20th-century-deli tradition with 21st-century craft. With Passover around the corner (it starts April 14), we asked the guys to Kitchen Coach us through their version of matzo ball soup, which is light, full of flavor, and would not make anyone’s grandma roll her eyes about kids these days. We’re publishing the recipe in kind of a real-time situation: soup today (it has to simmer for 6 to 8 hours, and is best if you refrigerate overnight and skim off the congealed schmaltz the next day), matzo balls tomorrow. Take it from here, gentlemen.

Leo: Passover is the most logistically difficult thing to pull off.

Evan: We always went to my grandma’s house—4 children, 16 grandkids—in West LA. My grandparents were Orthodox, so Passover was pretty serious business. I don’t remember eating matzo ball soup at my grandma’s. I remember the brisket with the onion soup mix (still the best), and mock chopped liver. My grandmother never made real chopped liver—it was the era of no butter so she used Nyafat, which was hydrogenated vegetable fat flavored with onion. They used to sell it at Safeway in the Jewish section. She would use it for mock chopped liver. We all used to call it We Can’t Believe It’s Not Liver.

Leo: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which should make me a Valley boy, if you couldn’t get my drawl. Passover was actually my family’s holiday, meaning we had people over to our house. My mom didn’t make everything, but a fair amount of stuff. Every year it kind of grew, until we had to put the table on the diagonal to fit everybody. For a couple years when I was little, for the second weekend of Passover we’d do this thing called Seder in the Desert. It was a bunch of Jews from LA celebrating Passover on the tail end: Everybody would bring their leftovers from Seder, everyone hanging out with eight different kinds of brisket, eight different kinds of matzo ball soup—you could taste the differences in the way everybody made them.

Evan: One thing we’ve definitely learned with this soup is keeping things as simple as possible, but putting extra care in it. We tried a lot of broth recipes when we started out. We even tried a version with kombu in the stock (we were reading a lot of David Chang at the time). We tried double broths, figuring out how we could pack the soup so full of umami, but it never came out quite right; it was too complicated. There’s a certain taste people expect from matzo ball soup, and they expect the broth to be yellow. Ours, especially at first, was brown and reduced. People would say, “Are you sure it isn’t beef?” But we found that really roasting things and getting it all dark, stuff like leaving the onion skins on, was giving us better results than we could ever do with any of the complicated things we were trying.

Leo: The roasting, leaving the onion skins on—a lot of Jewish delis don’t do it.

Evan: One thing we didn’t include in this recipe that we do at the deli is we put in chicken feet, something our great-grandmothers probably did but our mothers got away from. You don’t need to roast those, just toss them in. It creates a certain amount of collagen and mouthfeel. A lot of old-school delis would put beef shin in their chicken soup—2nd Ave Deli is famous for that. We never attempted that. Instead we cook our broth a long time, 8 to 10 hours at the deli, basically as long and as low as possible. That gets us the extra flavor. With a smaller batch at home, you can get that same flavor in slightly less time, about 6 to 8 hours.

Wise Sons Deli Chicken Soup
Makes 6 to 8 servings

5 pounds raw chicken pieces: carcasses, backs, necks, wings, etc.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 medium unpeeled yellow onions, halved
2 medium unpeeled carrots, split lengthwise
2 medium celery stalks, halved
Vegetable oil, for drizzling
3 medium garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
3 flat-leaf parsley sprigs
3 fresh thyme sprigs
6 whole black peppercorns
Cold water to cover

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet and sprinkle with the salt. On a second baking sheet, arrange the onions, carrots, and celery and drizzle with a little vegetable oil.

Put both pans in the oven and roast until well browned but not blackened: 15 to 20 minutes for the vegetables, and 25 to 30 minutes for the chicken.

Transfer all the roasted stuff to a tall stockpot and add the garlic, herbs, and peppercorns. Cover with water by about 4 inches and set over medium heat.

Slowly bring the water to a boil—this should take a while. When the water begins to boil, reduce the heat to its lowest setting and let the stock simmer very gently for 6 to 8 hours. Check it every hour or so to make sure too much liquid hasn’t boiled away. If it’s starting to look too reduced, add boiling water and make sure the heat is as low as it can go.

After 6 to 8 hours, remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Discard the stuff in the strainer. Let the stock cool to a warm room temperature, then refrigerate, preferably overnight.

Next day, remove the congealed schmaltz (chicken fat) from the surface (save it for frying matzo brie). The stock will keep five days in the fridge.

Also the next day: Tackle the matzo balls.

Evan: Before we opened the restaurant, when we were still in pop-up mode, in my kitchen at home Leo and I made 10, 12, 15 types of matzo balls to find out how to make the lightest ones. Was it the leavening, the baking powder that was the key? Ultimately we took the most basic recipe and doubled the fat and doubled the salt. And that was it. Oh, and we only use Streit’s matzo meal. It comes in toastier and coarser, besides the fact that they're just an awesome company.

Leo: One piece of advice for the matzo balls themselves, it’s a delicate batter. When you’re making the batter you can mess up if you overdo it.

Evan: They’re not easy to get right. The steps are simple, but they’re easy to mess up. I’d say matzo balls are like snowflakes: They’re all a little bit different. Floaters or sinkers, leaden or light, there are huge variations.

Leo: Schmaltz, that’s what makes a good matzo ball. We bring in a 40-pound case of chicken fat, cook that down with sliced onions for pretty much the whole day, then strain it. It’s Jewish gold.

Wise Sons Deli Matzo Balls
Makes 10 to 12 large matzo balls

4 eggs
1/4 cup schmaltz
1 cup unsalted matzo meal, preferably Streit’s (make sure it’s kosher for Passover—the one we used here is not)
1/4 cup seltzer water or club soda
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Vegetable oil, for your hands

Combine the eggs and schmaltz, either by hand with a whisk, or in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat until thoroughly mixed and fluffy.

Add the matzo meal slowly, in a few additions, until combined.

Then add the seltzer, salt, and pepper, mixing until just combined. Taste again for salt (it should taste well seasoned). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and rest in the refrigerator at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight.

Combine 4 quarts of cold water and a big pinch of kosher salt in a wide, high-sided saucepan with a tightfitting lid and bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Scoop 10 to 12 evenly sized lumps of the matzo mixture and place on a platter or baking sheet. Lightly coat your hands with vegetable oil and gently roll each lump into a ball between your palms, trying not to compress it, and place it gently into the water.

Repeat until all are in the water. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the matzo balls. Put them directly into warmed soup bowls, ladle over the hot chicken soup, and garnish with fresh dill sprigs.

If you’re not serving the soup right away, cool the matzo balls by placing them in a cool water bath and refrigerate up to 2 days. Reheat gently in the soup and serve.

Photos by Chris Rochelle