This is NOT Your Momma’s Bread of Affliction
Editor’s Note: On Friday night, Jews around Chicagoland will taste the bread of affliction, also known as matzah. It aint no chocolate bunny that’s fer sure. Unless it’s local matzah. A few years ago, we brought you the story of Anne Kostroski of Crumb Bakery and Sauce and Bread Kitchen, who also makes a version of matzah. She’s selling it again at SBK, 6338 N. Clark, Chicago and at Green City Market on Saturday. Enjoy this seasonal treat and this seasonal report.
With several ovens a blazing, Tipsycake (1043 N. California Ave.) was lively and summerlike on a chilly Saturday night in March, just before the Jewish holiday of Passover. The wind was howling through Humboldt Park while inside this communal kitchen, artisanal breadsmith Anne Kostroski plopped loaf after loaf of dough into Chinese clay pots and deposited them quickly into an oven before her hands got scorched. Each loaf rose to golden brown, hand-made perfection in its own covered pot as she hurriedly repeated the process to bake enough for sale at the Logan Square Farmers’ Market.
As a seasonal change of pace, in anticipation of the two traditional Seder (“order”) meals that begin Passover, Kostroski is making matzah the old-fashioned way. Like, 500 years old. Although compared to the first matzah, baked about 3,000 years ago, her Spanish-Jewish (Sephardic) recipe is a relative newcomer. While Anne was not pressed for time the way a tribe of Israelite slaves fleeing an angry Egyptian army might have been, the native Wisconsonite moved with a confidence and surety that suggested she’d baked this before.
Strictly kosher matzah, called “shmura,” complies with a set of rules determined by the rabbis and sages of yore. These include careful rabbinic supervision, completion of the mixing and baking in less than 18 minutes as well as the avoidance of interruptions.
Kostroski, whose bread business is named Crumb, enjoyed no such peace. In addition to TheLocalBeet reporter asking questions and filming, there were the distractions of Tipsycake owner, Naomi Levine, directing her staff, as well as other independent bakers who, like Kostroski, rent space in Tipsycake to practice their craft. The relaxed banter, gossip and chitchat went back and forth across the kitchen as one baker built a car-tire-sized Simpsonesque donut (with a large bite removed), another prepared an oversized fondant cupcake and a third decorated a Chicago Cubs-theme birthday cake. Crumb was the only matzah baker in the place.
“I feel that sense of history and tradition,” said Kostroski, a convert to Judaism who moved from Racine to Chicago after a detour studying pastries at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and running a restaurant in Nashville.
“The first time I made matzah was when I was in college in Milwaukee and working at a Breadsmith. I was NOT a good baker when I was growing up. My mom used to make fun of me.”
The recipe she uses includes the “nontraditional” elements of pepper (ever a popular staple in Medieval Western Europe for those who could afford it), honey (which she buys from Dennanne Farms in Elgin) and eggs that she finds at the Logan Square Market, as well as organic wheat. Kostroski makes a variety of breads for the Market, but brings out the matzah only for Passover.
“I’m trying to make a home and a life for myself in Chicago and I want to create a community with my fellow entrepreneurs,” she said, noting that once buyers discover how local her bread or matzah is, they become much more enthusiastic.
The finished product is unlike any matzah this reporter, or just about anybody, has ever tried. Kostroski found the recipe in a 1997 New York Times article about an Inquisition-era family in Spain that was put on trial by their host country in the early 16th century for secretly practicing Judaism after ostensibly converting to Christianity. The recipe, once used by Angelina de León, was found centuries years later along with documents of her trial. Now, half a millennium after de León met her fate, Kostroski carries on a tradition seldom seen in this area, where the majority of Jews come from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi).
For starters, this matzah isn’t square. It’s oval. And it doesn’t come in a sealed box. It is also aromatic, which can hardly be said about ordinary matzah. But the flavor is totally unexpected. The honey taste covers the front of the tongue quickly and creates a much richer experience than traditional matzah, which is ordinarily (and fairly) compared to cardboard. To be certain, this matzah is not kosher for Passover in the legal sense, nor does it fulfill the spiritual meaning of matzah: to remind Jews of a time when we didn’t have the luxury of waiting for bread to rise and then enjoy a relaxed meal. Nope. This stuff is good.
For those who expect their matzah to be a passably tolerable food eaten out of obligation, Kostroski’s recipe will disappoint. Soon after chewing, as the cracker-like flatbread dissolves, the peppery taste hits. Now the sweetness is countered by the mild spiciness, bringing a complexity to this ancient icon that few modern eaters have ever tasted in a matzah. Crumb’s matzah deserves to be savored alone—not slathered in butter and jelly or peanut butter. I tried it with jelly, but quickly scraped it off. Anne’s unleavened bread stands on its own.
Eating it, I wasn’t really thinking about the travails of fleeing Pharaoh, crossing the Red Sea or wandering the Sinai. But I did picture the Converso (converted) de León family, persecuted like so many others in the 15th and 16th centuries, for their beliefs and dragged before inquisitors because their maid ratted them out for practicing their cultural tradition. The expulsion of Jews from Spain, followed by the systemic murder of many who remained behind but were not deemed converted enough for the authorities, was a catastrophe of epic proportion.
Watching Anne take pleasure in her craft, I thought about how she voluntarily converted to Judaism, and as a result, baked this ancient recipe proudly and with gusto. Señora de León was forcibly converted to Catholicism upon pain of death or exile, but continued to bake her matzah in secret, or so she thought.
As I sit down with my family for two nights this year, I will remember Señora de León and speak her name at the Seder, as a reminder that we Americans enjoy a security and comfort today seldom seen in the history of the Jewish people.
The recipe for the matzah and the story of the de León family was recorded in A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews by David M. Gitzlitz and Linda Kay Davidson.