Baking soft matsah
I first heard of soft matsah when I was in high school, when my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Alan Brill, mentioned to us that the Syrian Jews have a tradition to eat matsah that is soft, rather than the crackery-type that most of us are used to. He mentioned that it is perfectly kosher, but it is hard to find, except in Israel. I was intrigued.
A few years later, my brother met a rabbi who imported soft matsah from Israel, and as soon as I heard that, I wanted some. We ordered it, and it was quite different. It came frozen in plastic bags with instructions to heat before eating. Once defrosted, it was bendable (to a point, beyond which it would break) and chewy, but relatively tasteless. When warm, it tasted much better. However, it was quite expensive.
A couple of years later, I discovered SoftMatza.com, where you can order regular and whole wheat varieties of soft matsah over the Internet (made in Brooklyn). It worked out to be slightly cheaper, so I ordered some. The matsot were pretty similar, but the whole wheat ones were even more tasteless than the regular ones. However, they were slightly cheaper than the ones from Israel. You can look at pictures of their soft matsah.
I was curious about how they are made, and also whether Ashkenazim could eat them. I thought that perhaps they used moister dough or a lower temperature oven. However, according to SoftMatza.com, the main difference is that they are rolled out thicker. The site also mentions that “[p]eople from Ashkenazic lineage have a minhag (tradition) to eat Matza that is as thin as possible, and therefore should consult their Rabbi to determine if they are allowed to [eat] our thicker Matza.” When I looked into it in college for a cultural event that we wanted to run, the local Hillel Rabbinic adviser was not able to determine to his satisfaction whether the matsot were acceptable for Ashkenazim. However, apparently, Rabbi Schachter at YU allows Ashkenazim to eat these.
About 8 or 9 years ago, I decided I would try to make my own soft matsah. So, I mixed together a low-water batch of dough (using only unbleached white whole wheat flour and water), rolled it out about 1/3 of an inch thick, and baked it at the highest setting my oven could produce (according to the thermometer in my oven, it reached about 650F). As I recall, I think I used about 3.5 cups of flour per cup of water (which, converting to mass-based baker’s percentages, is about 48% water). I was careful to constantly work the dough once it was mixed, and from the time I mixed it until it went into the oven was (significantly) less than 18 minutes. However, I did not use guarded Passover flour (nor did I use kosher for Passover equipment), so it wasn’t actually kosher for Passover. I managed to produce an edible softish flatbread after baking for several minutes, but it was quite grainy.
Fast forward to this past week, when I decided to try again. Since our custom is to not eat matsah for the month before Pesach (starting on Purim, although some people don’t start abstaining until the 1st of Nissan), I had to act fast. Fortunately, matsah is quick and easy to bake. My current oven no longer goes up to 650F, so I decided I would try to bake it on my pizza stone (which, when pre-heated on the floor of my oven set to 525F, gets up to about 625F, as measured by my IR thermometer).
I realized I wasn’t exactly sure how to tell exactly when the matsah was fully-baked according to halakha, so I looked it up in the Shulhan Arukh (OC 461:3). I discovered that when you break it open, it is considered fully-cooked if you no longer see threads of dough stretching between. I also discovered that you should use water drawn the previous day (presumably because freshly-drawn water is more bubbly) that is cold. So, I used water from the Brita pitcher in my fridge. I couldn’t find any information about the proper flour:water ratio, so I decided to try a 55% water recipe (since regular bread is typically 60-65%).
For the first batch, I mixed 55g of cold water into 100g of unbleached all-purpose flour. It was so dry and crumbly that I could barely get it to hold together. I needed to work it with my hands for a good 5 minutes before it held together without crumbs. I then rolled it out into a sheet (about 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick), which was quite easy to do, given the dryness of the dough, put it on my pizza peel , and transferred it to my pizza stone. I baked it for 4 minutes. I then noticed that it had puffed up like a pita bread, and I was worried that the top wasn’t getting enough heat, so I flipped it over and baked another 2 minutes. When I tore it open, there were no threads, however, I later noticed, upon cooling, that the inside still appeared a bit doughy (although the puffiness had collapsed). It tasted great when hot, but as it cooled it lost a lot of flavor. It was, however, pretty soft inside, although the outside was a bit crunchy and crumbly. See pictures below:
First batch, outside
First batch, inside
For batch two, I decided to make a wetter dough, since the first one was so hard to get to come together. I also decided to poke holes in the dough to prevent puffing and to pour the flour into the water instead of vice-versa. So, I mixed 100g of unbleached all-purpose flour into 63g of cold water. This dough came together much more easily, and it was actually a bit too sticky. It was harder to roll out due to the stickiness. After rolling it out, I pricked it with a fork several times and then baked it on the pizza stone for 4 minutes. I then flipped it and baked another 2 minutes. I removed it from the oven and tore it open. I didn’t see any threads, but I realized that it was still kind of doughy inside, so after a minute or so, I returned it (on side 2) to the pizza stone for another minute and a half. At that point, I removed it. It came out much better than the first batch, but it was still a bit doughy inside upon later examination. Pictures below:
Second batch, top
Second batch, bottom
Second batch, inside
For the final batch, I decided to reduce the water slightly and bake for a total of 7 minutes (which is also how long I bake pizza for on my pizza stone). So, I mixed 100g of unbleached all-purpose flour into 60g of cold water. This dough came together relatively easily, and it was just right. It rolled out just fine. This is what it looked like, rolled out:
Third batch, rolled
After rolling it out, I pricked it with a fork several times on both sides and then baked it on the pizza stone for 4 minutes. I then flipped it and baked another 3 minutes. I removed it from the oven and tore it open. I didn’t see any threads, and it did not appear at all doughy inside. It came out much better than the first two batches. Success! Pictures below:
Third batch, top
Third batch, bottom and inside
The next step is to find Passover flour and make my own for Pesach in a KFP kitchen. I doubt that will ever happen. My understanding is that KFP flour is not available on the open market — I would have to grind the grain myself and make sure it stayed dry until mixing (annoying, but doable). Even then, however, it would not be real Shemurah matsah, although it would be kosher for Pesach. However, the custom is to use Shemurah matsah (which has been watched since it was harvested, or more precisely, since it was cut) for the Seder. That is pretty much impracticable, since it would involve an inordinate amount of work (reaping, harvesting, winnowing, grinding… and I may be leaving out one or two intermediate steps).
By the way, I should mention that it seems likely that all matsah eaten throughout the world was of this soft variety until about the 18th century, when various Ashkenazic authorities decided that it was a good idea to make very thin and crunchy matsah, just be 100% certain that it was completely baked through. That was an unfortunate development, however, in its favor, crisp matsah stays fresh a lot longer than soft matsah (which can go stale in a few hours outside of the freezer).
One last point: according to the Shulhan Arukh, matsah can be up to a tefach thick (about 3 or 4 inches). I wonder how that would come out…