Matzah isn't just for Jews, and it isn't just for the Jewish holiday of Passover. Its strong crunch and mild flavor make it a simple, delicious cracker that's ideal for all toppings for people all year round.
This week, ahead of Passover, Dan travels to the Manischewitz factory in Newark, NJ, to nerd out on matzah with Randall Copeland, a Southern Baptist who runs one of the biggest matzah factories in the world. It turns out those little holes in the matzah cracker — and other crackers like Ritz and Saltines — serve a very important purpose. We find out what it is.
Then Dan debates kosher law with Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who's kinda like the chief justice of the kosher Supreme Court. When Dan makes a point about the definition of matzah, the rabbi's response begins, "Let me strengthen your case before I tell you why you're wrong."
Rabbi Horowitz reveals the recipe for matzah brei from the women who work in the Manischewitz test kitchen, and be sure to check out Dan's recipe for Passover Sangria — after all, Passover is one of the great drinking holidays. Happy Passover to all you eaters (and drinkers)!
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Out To Lunch" by Chris Bierden
- "Simple Song" by Chris Bierden
- "Soul Good" by Lance Conrad
Photo courtesy of John Lodder/Flickr.
Randall Copeland: My name is Randall Copeland. I'm vice president of operations for the Manischewitz company in Newark, New Jersey.
Dan Pashman: And you're originally from where, in Georgia?
Randall Copeland: That would be Thomasville, Georgia, just north of Tallahassee, Florida.
Dan Pashman: And you're a Southern Baptist.
Randall Copeland: I was.
Dan Pashman: So what's a nice southern boy like you doing in a place like this?
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today on the show ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover. I visit the world's largest matzah manufacturer, Manischewitz. Randall Copeland and I are going to nerd out on matzah science, which is essentially cracker science. So whether or not you eat a lot of matzah, there's gonna be plenty in this episode for you. Then later in the show, I'll talk with the rabbi who's in charge of making sure all that matzah is kosher. It's a big job.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Matzah is supervised from when the wheat is cut on the fields. We have a rabbi in the flour mills, someplace in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and he supervises many, many, many tanker trucks of kosher for Passover flour, which are sent daily during the Passover season to our facility.
Dan Pashman: Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz is an expert in kosher law. In fact, when there are disagreements about it, he's sort of like the chief justice of the kosher Supreme Court. When I appear before him, I'll make an argument he's never quite considered.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: I think that it's pretty fair to say that our little boat has drifted out of traditional Jewish waters, here.
Dan Pashman: Now, in case you need a little Old Testament refresher, here it goes. The Jews were slaves in Egypt. They were fleeing in a hurry and they didn't have time to let their bread rise. So they ate unleavened bread, matzah. That's why each year on Passover, Jews eat matzah to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. It's a classic story, right? And matzah's a pretty classic cracker for all people, all year round. I mean, it's basically a perfect crunch delivery system. It's not too oily or salty. It pairs with just about anything while never overpowering. And I especially love that char around the edges. I like a nice chard matzah. You don't get that char in a lot of crackers. As I said, the Manischewitz company is the world's largest matzah manufacturer. They hired Randall Copeland because he has experience running plants for big food companies. Even though he was raised Southern Baptist, he had what he calls the original unleavened bread of Moses, at a young age.
Randall Copeland: First time I ever ate matzah, in all truth, was out of a communion plate in a Baptist church.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Randall Copeland: And that is not uncommon and it's an entirely appropriate use for matzah.
Dan Pashman: Do you just have matzah around your house all the time?
Randall Copeland: Oh, yeah. If I didn't, my wife would think I probably wasn't doing my job here.
Dan Pashman: Do you get as much free matzah as you want?
Randall Copeland: No, I don't. I pay for it like everybody else.
Dan Pashman: Oh, okay. You don't get like one box a week or something?
Randall Copeland: Well, once a once in a while, there's some that we bring in for some sampling in the layout.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Randall Copeland: It finds its way to my car.
Dan Pashman: Okay, alright. Fair enough. Is the whole office kosher? Do you have rules, like if you bring in your lunch, does it have to be kosher? Or how does that work?
Randall Copeland: The office itself is not kosher at all.
Dan Pashman: So you could, in theory, bring in a BLT for lunch and eat it in the office cafeteria?
Randall Copeland: That's correct. But once you get into the working part of the business— once you get into the lab, now all those rules change.
Dan Pashman: Let's talk about R&D, because that—I'm generally really interested in sort of the science of what big companies and how they decide to make foods a certain way. Let's start off talking about crunch. Crunch is part of what makes matzah great. And crunch is part of what makes so many crackers and snack foods great, to the point that some junk food companies have machines—you may know about this—that measure the amount of bite force required to break a chip or snack food. Is this something that you guys have researched independently here? The ideal level of crunch? How many PSI does it take to break a piece of Manischewitz matzah? Talk to me about the science of crunch here.
Randall Copeland: The way we work with those kinds of aesthetic values on food is...
Dan Pashman: Oh Randall, excuse me. That is much more than aesthetic. That is not just aesthetics. Crunch is not just aesthetic value, sir. I object.
Randall Copeland: Okay, crunch is very serious.
Dan Pashman: Okay. All right. All right. Go on, please.
Randall Copeland: The way we work with those kinds of values is we bring in people. A lot of the folks from the office participate in regular test panels. And we ask them some very specific things about taste, texture, crunch, being one of them—one of the more important ones. And we get their feedback. So we don't necessarily have the instrumentation to do the same kind of measurement that perhaps Nabisco would be able to do. But we'd certainly get that information from the human side by direct comparison, A versus B versus C versus D.
Dan Pashman: So, but crunch is definitely a factor.
Randall Copeland: Crunch will have a lot to do with how people like things like crackers, in particular.
Dan Pashman: Is there such a thing as too much crunch?
Randall Copeland: Sure. You can have things that are too brittle, absolutely.
Dan Pashman: Let's say you make ten different crackers that are on a spectrum of crunch from 1, being least, to 10, being too crunchy. What ingredient? What processes are changing along that spectrum to alter the crunch?
Randall Copeland: Well, in the cooking process, you're working with time, temperature and relative humidity. So you can change the rate at which you draw that product or the terminal point where you draw that product to as you go through the oven. How fast you cook it, how harshly you're treating the moisture of it, how much you hold in when you let it out. And that will have a lot to do within a given formula. Now, in things like matzah, you don't have any choice on ingredients. You're dealing with kosher flour and water. Stories over.
Dan Pashman: Another component of the matzah experience that I think makes it a great cracker and different from other crackers is the charring. There's a slight char around the trim that I really enjoy.
Randall Copeland: We call about the border.
Dan Pashman: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Randall Copeland: Yeah, or the frame.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Randall Copeland: So you like a matzah that has a nice dark frame.
Dan Pashman: That's right. Yeah. Have you experimented with how much frame and how dark it should be? And where do you come down on that?
Randall Copeland: Well, here's where we come down. When I have about the same number of customer complaints about it being too dark as I have that it's too light. I know I probably have it at about the right.
Dan Pashman: This is a point between you and some of your competitors that some are more charred than others.
Randall Copeland: When you have the same functional ingredient defined for you, flour and water, then the only real difference you have is in thickness and process and how much you cook it. So in order to have some difference and because of individual taste and regionality, there are matzahs that are cooked very dark. Ours is more in the middle and in some parts of the world, matzah is a little lighter.
Dan Pashman: One of the other hallmark components of matzah well, really of all crackers. But I think more so with matzah is the little holes up and down, which as I understand it, correct me if I'm wrong but those are commonly and all sorts of crackers, especially mass produced crackers, they're just meant to pop out of the bubbles. You don't get air bubbles.
Randall Copeland: Well, they have that—Yes. They have some very defined reasons for being.
Dan Pashman: The people out there who have never seen a piece of matzah, if you look at the Ritz cracker or a saltine, you will see those same little holes in them. So there it goes—his goes beyond matzah.
Randall Copeland: The number of holes you have in their pattern and the distance between them will have a lot to do with how that product tastes and performs.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about that. How so?
Randall Copeland: Well, the further they are apart, the more you allow for expansion. Whenever you're cooking this dough—it's going through very hot ovens. The water turns into steam. It expands by approximately sixteen hundred times in volume. And that water, now steam, has to escape. And as it escapes, it opens up the structure and forms these bubbles that you see on crackers. And that's important in that it sets the texture that that cracker is going to have when the process is finished. So more you separate those holes, which really are spot wells—if you think of it that way. That's where you lock those layers together to prevent them from expanding. The further apart they are, the more you allow it to expand, the bigger the bubbles are, the more open the structure.
Dan Pashman: And am I correct that it tends to have more of those per square inch than other crackers?
Randall Copeland: Matzah has a lot. When you look at a sheet of Manischewitz, you're generally going to have about 700 of those docks.
Dan Pashman: Wow. When you're not in the lab and the kosher-ary, I assume you eat pork. You eat everything, right?
Randall Copeland: Sure.
Dan Pashman: I'm Jewish. I do, too. I grew up not kosher, at all. Pork, shellfish, cheese on top, I love it all. I ask because I'm curious. So I threw this question out on Facebook to my audience, "I'm going to Manischewitz. I'm going to talk about matzah. You got any questions? What are some of your thoughts?" So Caroline Day on Facebook wrote, "I'm confident I'm going to hell for this, but it's great with ham." She says an open faced sandwich or cracker approach using really salty ham, and if I'm feeling the need, I add berry jam to bring the sweet in with the salty and crunchy. Now I have to admit, Randall, that sounds delicious to me.
Randall Copeland: Sounds like we need to hire her to do some consulting and new product development.
Dan Pashman: I don't know how long she'd last here. Have you ever been outside of your work here at home with them also? Have you ever tried anything like that?
Randall Copeland: I've never tried anything like that. No. But some of the uses that I've used matzah for probably would never be considered kosher in any place, any time.
Dan Pashman: That's Randall Copeland. Since we taped that interview, he's moved on from Manischewitz. He's now senior vise, president of operations at Just Born Foods. The folks who make Peeps, Mike and Ike’s, and more. Coming up, I debate kosher law with a rabbi. The rules say from the minute you mix the flour and water to make matzah, it must go in the oven within 18 minutes or it's not kosher. I'll ask the rabbi, why not 19? Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I'm Dan Pashman. In case you listen to this show in Stitcher, please take a minute right now and add the show to your favorites. That really helps us out and it ensures you never miss an episode. An episode like the one we did last week about the artist Georgia O'Keeffe's box of handwritten recipes that went up for auction recently. I go to see the recipes and talk with experts about why they're special.
CLIP (EXPERT):The idea of this person who can inhabit the world that all women know the day to day world of making breakfast and sweeping the kitchen. And also this surreal, mysterious and deeply fascinating and comforting on some level, that the world of her paintings, the idea that she can inhabit both those worlds is a matter of such enormous import to women.
Dan Pashman: Can a box of recipes bring Georgia O'Keeffe back to life? That episode is up now. Check it out. And again, if you're listening on Stitcher, please favorite our show. You can even do it right now. Why? You're listening. Thanks. Now back to matzah.
Dan Pashman: First, a bit of terminology for this next segment. The ritual observance of Passover is called the Seder. It's generally done around a big dinner table with a big meal, you know, like just about every holiday everywhere. As I said, the reason Jews eat matzah on Passover has its roots in the exodus from Egypt in the Old Testament. But over thousands of years, the rules about what Jews can and can't eat on Passover have evolved. Nowadays, it can be a lot more than just avoiding leavened bread. Some groups of Jews don't eat rice, beans and corn because those foods have certain properties in common with leavened bread. And the rules keep changing. In fact, rice and beans just became okay for some Jews a few years ago for the first time since the 13th century, thanks to a new ruling from conservative rabbis. Other groups of Jews, they've been eating those foods at Passover all along. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz oversees kosher certification for Manischewitz. When it comes to deciding whether or not a food qualifies as kosher for Passover, like I said, he's sort of the chief justice of the kosher Supreme Court. And one of the big rules for matzah, is that from the moment the flour and water are mixed, it must go into the oven within 18 minutes. Matzah factories have rabbinic inspectors all over the place with timers to make sure of it. So I asked Rabbi Horowitz, why?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: The preeminent guiding principle for matzo is that it has to be unleavened. The Bible says unleavened bread. When the Bible says it's unleavened, what does unleavened mean? If you have flour and water, no other ingredients and you mix them and you get it into an oven within 18 minutes, then the dough does not have a chance to leaven, according to the rabbis. That's what really the main thing that all of the rabbinic inspectors are looking for, making sure that this 18-minute rule is implemented.
Dan Pashman: And if you if something goes wrong on the assembly line and there's a brief delay and it's 19 minutes, what happens?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Okay. So that's a good question. The actual production from water to adding the flour till the time it gets to the oven can vary anywhere between 12 and 15 minutes. We have a three-minute cushion in there to make sure that we don't fall afoul of the 18-minute rule. But let's say one of the machines stops working or, like today, we have a little bit of a blackout. So there actually is a stopwatch which the rabbi hits and everybody's eyes are on the clock. We want to make sure that the product is produced, if it's not produced in all of the product, gets off the line through that's in front of the oven, thrown into the trash. And a very significant cleaning process takes place about an hour and a half.
Dan Pashman: Wow. And so the lights went out here in the factory right now as we speak. Does that mean that's happening right now?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Yes, that happens very rarely. But we happen to have—I guess it's an honor of The Sporkful people that somebody pulled the plug.
Dan Pashman: Right. But I mean, can you give me a brief sketch? Why not 19 minutes?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Well, there's some kind of tradition handed down, something about walking the Roman mile. And there was a Talmudic calculation that the Roman miles walked in 18 minutes. And again, we're not saying that it has to ferment if it's more than 18 minutes but we want to guarantee that it won't ferment. So it definitely will not ferment in less than 18 minutes.
Dan Pashman: Now, people should know. I'm sure even folks who don't know much about kosher law, they know they vaguely understand it. There's the term kosher. But then there is also kosher for Passover.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Correct.
Dan Pashman: Which means it must also fulfill this other set of rules that only applies during Passover.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Right, an additional set of rules.
Dan Pashman: Right. Now, am I correct that there is some matzah that is not kosher for Passover?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Yes. Yes, and this actually is a good question because this creates a great amount of confusion.
Dan Pashman: So here's what I want to kind of call on you or ask you to call upon your knowledge, as I put it, sort of a Supreme Court justice of kosher law.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Thank you.
Dan Pashman: But it seems to me that to some extent, matzah that is not kosher for Passover should not be allowed to be called matzah.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Well, I hear where you're coming from.
Dan Pashman: Isn't that inherent? Its history, its design, its creation is so bound up in this in Passover that it's like I can't separate one from the other.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Well, let me strengthen your argument before I...
Dan Pashman: Before you disagree.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Before I tell you why you're wrong. If you would define the matzah as unleavened bread—if you want to do that, then your question is exceedingly valid. Because if it's unleavened bread, how could you have a leavened unleavened bread?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: But basically, matzah has acquired the meaning of being a matzah-style cracker. In other words, a cracker with nothing else but flour and water.
Dan Pashman: So it's sort of a term of art.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Perhaps.
Dan Pashman: It's not really a...
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Well, it has become a culinary term, perhaps.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: A culinary term is what do you call it, a unleavened cracker. When you say unleavened, again, it means that you don't add leavening ingredients in. What do you call such a cracker? You'd call it a matzah cracker or a matzah. But that flour or the process that you use and to make that matzah or that cracker doesn't follow the 18-minute rule and it may have ingredients in there that's not leavening, but it may have ingredients that are problematic from a kosher for Passover matzah perspective. According to the very religious, the more flavors of matzah you have, the better we are. Religious Jews welcome new taste experiences and—which is, of course, what The Sporkful is interested in.
Dan Pashman: Of course.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: But many folks who are not necessarily kosher oriented, but they're Jewish oriented, I've gotten phone calls from people saying, "It doesn't sound kosher to have flavored matzah."
Dan Pashman: Like you guys have an everything matzah.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Correct.
Dan Pashman: Like an everything bagel. You sell everything matzah, which I saw in the store. I was like, "Arh?" I mean.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Right, right. Right, right.
Dan Pashman: I mean, that's what I'm picturing is your...
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Yes. Yes.
Dan Pashman: New taste experience.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Yes. That's what I'm talking about.
Dan Pashman: But it's interesting. It is interesting that you say that in some ways it's the more observant Jews who are more open to new and different experiences.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Very often, that is the case.
Dan Pashman: In some ways. I think maybe it's because they feel like, "I know I'm following all the rules." So if I want to try something different, it's not a problem. Whereas, the people who are more on the fence or are less observant are like, "Well, for Passover I want to be sure that I'm doing it 'the old fashioned way'".
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Right. Right.
Dan Pashman: So they're less likely because they feel like if they do that, it's sort of one more step away from tradition.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Well, you could say that but you could perhaps say something else, which is, "What does Jewish or kosher mean to you?" And to a religious Jew, kosher means what with the kosher law says. But for people that are not observant, kosher means connecting to tradition. And some people may in their minds feel that there's something not traditional about, as you say, an everything matzah. So again, it doesn't cast anybody in a bad light. It really is a question of what your point of reference is.
Dan Pashman: Let's talk about the Seder observance itself.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Sure. Sure.
Dan Pashman: One of the integral parts of the Seder is charoset, which recipes vary widely, but at its essence it's chopped apple. Usually some chopped nuts, a dash of kosher wine, sweet wine, maybe a little more sugar and some cinnamon.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Right.
Dan Pashman: And then other people add all this all different kinds of variations right from there. And then charoset is meant to represent mortar. The mortar that the Jews used to build the pyramids in Egypt when we were slaves there.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Correct.
Dan Pashman: Okay, now I think that people need to give more thought to how finally they chop the apples and the nuts.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Okay.
Dan Pashman: In the charoset.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Okay.
Dan Pashman: Because it's not only representative of mortar.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Right.
Dan Pashman: But it is a mortar. It's an actual mortar because part of the Seder is that you eat it on matzah with morar, bitter herbs.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Correct.
Dan Pashman: Which are meant to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Right.
Dan Pashman: And so and I talk often about sandwich-ization, in all its forms, here in The Sporkful, you need a mortar round. You need something to hold it together. And if you have a charoset with big chunks of apples and big nuts, it's not going to stay on your matzah. When you bite into it's going to crumble and fall all over the place. It's not going to act as a good mortar. Is this a valid concern? And are you willing to endorse my belief that if the apples and nuts are chopped too largely for it to act as a good mortar on your matzah, it should not count as charoset?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: For a secular question, you got a pretty legal type of approach to this.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, that's right.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: I am impressed, actually.
Dan Pashman: Thank you.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: I think that—well, you see. It depends. Again, there are different people who use charoset in different ways. There are those, who as you say, kind of literally pile it on. And it has to stick on to the matzah, if you're gonna pile it on. But there are those—and actually, traditional law dictates like that. You just have to dip them, the morar into the charoset. So you don't really need a significant amount of charoset residue.
Dan Pashman: Matzah sandwich-ization. The only way you can sandwich as matzah is if you have some kind of a sealant. And I think if you melt cheese on each side of the matzah, then when you bite into it, the cheese will act as an adhesive. That's a mortar, right there. That will hold that thing, that sandwich together. Some people will say, "oh well, then maybe just make an open-faced matzah sandwich.", but I have argued that an open faced sandwich is not a sandwich. As a scholar and man who often studies words and the things that we're allowed to eat and the words that describe the things we're allowed to eat, do you think an open-face sandwich is a sandwich?
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: Well, I think that it's pretty fair to say that our little boat has drifted out of traditional Jewish waters, here. And we have gone to rarefied heights of wisdom that, unfortunately, I have not been privy to. So I would have to ponder this one for a little while.
Dan Pashman: Okay, fair enough. Well, Rabbi Horowitz, it's been really a real pleasure to speak with you and to learn so much from you. So thank you so much.
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz: My great pleasure. Best of luck.
Dan Pashman: Quick follow up to that conversation about a year after that interview was recorded, Rabbi Horowitz and Manischewitz had a falling out. They fired him. He sued. It was all over a disagreement about whether the company was following kosher law properly. For the record, Manischewitz matzah is still certified kosher by the Orthodox Union of Rabbis. Now, a few final thoughts on matzah and Passover that I'd like to share. First of all, I think people of all backgrounds are starting to realize that matzah is just a good cracker because year round matzah sales are on the rise. And it's an especially good food for quarantine, Okay? Because it doesn't go bad. And I'm just gonna say it, it kind of makes you constipated. So if you can't get your hands on toilet paper, just load up on matzah. Finally, I don't get why so many of my Jewish brothers and sisters complain about observing Passover like it's some kind of cross to bear. When the holiday ends, they go frantically to find pizza or something as if the rest of the year they've never gone eight days without eating pizza. I, especially, love a massive sandwich with cream cheese in the middle. You got to give it a shot, add hot sauce if that's your style.
Dan Pashman: Anyway, if you're celebrating Passover this year, I know it's gonna be a little weird and different but I hope you still have a great holiday. Next week on the show, I talked with the absurdist comedian, Eugene Mirman, about his attempts to get Whole Foods to feature his very bad artwork and about his wife's battle with cancer. That's next week. Remember, if you're listening to this episode in Stitcher, please add it to your favorites. That really helps our show and it ensures you won't miss an episode. You can add your favorites right now while you're listening. Thanks.