The Jewish calendar is full of holidays with rich food histories. Whether it’s latkes and sufganiyot for Hanukkah or the decadent fast breaking of Yom Kippur, food is inextricably linked to celebrating for the Jewish people. One of the religion’s most iconic holiday foods is eaten during the weeklong spring festival known as Passover, which commemorates the Israelites’ departure from ancient Egypt. Available in sheet or meal form, matzo becomes ubiquitous around the holiday, making appearances in appetizers, main courses and even desserts. Love it or loath it, this little cracker has a big history.
Jews snack on matzo because of the Passover prohibition against eating leavened food, or chametz, throughout the holiday’s duration. That’s because Passover centers on the retelling of the biblical Exodus tale, an epic story that encompasses the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, their eventual release by the pharaoh and their trek to the land of Canaan through the Sinai desert. According to legend, the fleeing Israelites left their bondage in such a hurry that they didn’t even wait for their bread dough to rise. Another theory holds that matzo-like flatbreads were simply easier to carry through the desert than regular bread.
Whatever the custom’s origin, it’s not enough just to abstain from leavened foods during Passover. Observant Jews purge their homes of every trace and crumb of chametz, often using the process as an excuse for some deep spring cleaning. One final sweep for chametz traditionally takes place the night before Passover begins.
Once bread has been removed from the house, its crispier replacement—matzo—gets its annual chance to shine. Strict standards govern the baking of the matzo: its flour and water must be mixed very quickly to prevent fermentation, and it must be pricked during the baking process so it won’t puff or rise. The matzo is then either left to harden and crisp or pulverized into a meal. Matzo flatbreads serve a ceremonial role during the Passover dinner, or seder, and stand in for their sliceable cousin throughout the week. As for matzo meal, it’s a key ingredient in the dumplings that crown the most signature Jewish comfort food: matzo ball soup.
But that’s not all matzo’s good for. In the recipe below—inspired by a Midwest favorite, saltine toffee—we bring out the sweeter side of the admittedly bland cracker. Part cookie and part candy confection, this matzo toffee with walnuts is a perfect way to wind down the seder or enjoy matzo at any time of year.