Are you Jewish? If so, try to explain matzo to someone who isn’t. It’s like this flat cracker. That doesn’t have flavor. It’s just a big flat flavorless cracker.
It’s hard to sell. Frankly, unless the person you’re talking to is teething, there’s really no selling point for the 10 x 10 boards of wheat flour and water ONLY that observing Jews get stuck with for eight days a year. I do love matzo, though. It’s big, it’s crunchy, it only comes around every so often and it’s versatile AF. So when I heard there was an artisanal matzo company coming to Brooklyn, I did a simultaneous eye-roll/spit-take. Did this mean the bread of affliction was suddenly… hip?
That was my first question for Ashley Albert, co-founder of The Matzo Project. For the past six months, Albert and her team of bakers have been toiling away in commissary kitchens and R&D labs out-of-state to craft the perfect unleavened cracker. She’s been juggling the task furiously on top of her other co-owned business, the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Gowanus.
As luck would have it, The Matzo Project came together just in time for Passover. I was surprised to learn, however, that Albert wasn’t looking to corner the holiday market. Not even a little.
“We’re not planning on making this a Passover item,” Albert told me. But wait. How can matzo be anything other than a Passover item?
Far from its niche beginnings as a symbol of Jewish enslavement in Egypt, Albert told us that The Matzo Project’s ultimate goal was “to move matzo out of the ethnic food aisle and into the cracker aisle.” She sees it going the way of the once strictly ethnic pita chip and classified artisanal matzo as part of the “new wave of elevated Jewish Food,” citing the über hip Jewish deli Mile End and the Gefilteria — which re-imagines another traditional seder food, gefilte fish — as instances of the same.
The Matzo Project’s crackers will be available in three flavors: Salted, Cinnamon & Sugared, and Everything & Two More Things. Their base recipe is simple and wholesome, albeit a little more flavorful than most non-artisanal matzos you’ll find in stores: wheat flour (unbleached and unbromated), sea salt, coconut oil, canola oil and water.
“Jewish food has always been this heavy peasant food,” Albert told us. “Now, there’s a little bit of reclaiming.”
Reclaiming what, exactly?
For Albert, Judaism was always more friendship than faith-based. Her business partner on the Matzo Project, Kevin Rodriguez, is a friend from the Jewish summer camp that both attended as kids in Miami. Today, a 43-year-old Albert lives in Gowanus and identifies only as a “heritage Jew” who believes in “the culture, not the dogma.”
In trying to qualify just what the once for-seders-only matzo square means to her now, Albert described what she felt was the quintessential heritage experience in New York: a trip to Russ & Daughters, the Lower East Side snack shop famous for bagels, lox and other fare evocative of the Jewish Delicatessen.
“It feels cool in there,” she said. “I feel pride. It’s funny and fun, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
(I’m reminded of those customizable bagel clocks, which similarly evoke Judaic tradition without invoking it.)
That feeling was the guiding philosophy behind The Matzo Project, which Albert hopes will cater to individuals of any denomination, but to Jews for the reason of inspiring pride, “for people who don’t even know that they identify as Jewish.” That is, until they recognize the familiar ‘Jewish guilt’ jokes and cultural tropes on the product’s box, which Albert had custom-designed.
“My business partner Kevin and I were both exceptionally close to our grandmothers, so it’s completely based on their humor,” she said. “But we wanted to get away from the ‘older woman’ archetype. My grandmother was sassy, elegant and funny, and I wanted [to bring] that person to this. That version of a woman.”
Even though she considers herself a heritage Jew, Albert doesn’t want kids and has no grand visions of using The Matzo Project to pass down tradition. She admitted that as co-owner of Royal Palms, her business hands were already full enough. “And all I really wanna do is eat donuts.”
Albert and Rodriguez’ matzo has already been a hit with bonafide bubbies in the borough. Linda Schnapp, mother of Royal Palms co-owner Jonathan Schnapp, is one of The Matzo Project’s biggest fans.
“She already wants to order boxes from us,” Albert laughed and then added, doing her best impression of Schnapp’s signature bubbe accent: “‘I found this matzo, it’s gonna knock your socks off.'”
Albert’s company strives to bubbify (my word, not hers) the baking process, too — part of what gives these small-batch squares their appetizing charm. “Most bakeries have convection ovens to make it even. Our goal is to make it uneven.” The company’s matzo bakes under direct fire, in order to achieve the toast points that make it look so tantalizingly blistered and crisp around the edges.
In order for matzo to be deemed “unleavened,” it has to be prepared in 18 minutes or less, starting from the second the ingredients touch the bowl. Albert honors the spiritual significance of the time constraint and follows it in her baking, but this matzo still isn’t kosher for passover.
“There are ridiculous laws for that,” Albert said, “like that the dough ‘can’t be touched by non-Jewish hands.’ Some of my bakers aren’t Jewish. So this matzo is just kosher, not [kosher] for Passover.”
Still, for anyone who celebrates Passover with a traditional seder, Albert’s predictions about the success of The Matzo Project might have a familiar ring to it. “This year they’ll buy it because it’s hilarious. Next year they’ll buy it because it’s delicious.”
Want a taste of The Matzo Project? You might have to fight someone off to get it. On April 15, just two cases of matzo will be delivered to each of the following stores in Brooklyn: The Greene Grape ( 767 Fulton St.) in Fort Greene, Peck’s (455 Myrtle Ave.) in Clinton Hill, Shelsky’s (141 Court St.) in Cobble Hill, and Stinky Cheese across the river in Manhattan. One box costs $8.99. Once the couple dozen boxes available sell out at each location, they won’t be restocked again. At least, not until Albert’s company can find a more permanent kitchen to bake in this summer.
“For this batch we were using a [research and development] lab in Pennsylvania,” Albert explained. “It was super super expensive.”
If you can’t get your hands on a box, look out for an upcoming Passover-time collaboration between The Matzo Project and Ample Hills Creamery — the “Milk and Honey” flavor will be a sweet cream ice cream with bits of cinnamon bun matzo buttercrunch!
Albert wasn’t worried about competition or backlash from the legacy matzo companies like Streits and Manischewitz.
“We’re not going after them, and their customers are not our customers,” she said. “There’s room for everyone.”
Albert also sought out her neighborhood rabbi to discuss the implications of taking the “bread of affliction” off the seder table. She wasn’t told to cease and desist or anything. Notwithstanding their discussion, Albert believes that matzo has long been far removed from its religious context.
“Is matzo the bread of affliction?” she mused. “We indulge with cream cheese, we dip it in chocolate… so how afflicted are we, really?”
Follow Sam on Twitter as she live-tweets the eight days of Passover: @ahoysamantha