When many not-exactly-observant Jews think of Passover, they nostalgically recall that special Rugrats episode, which remains an epic of Game of Thrones proportions. But few take the time to truly appreciate the nuts and bolts of this weeklong celebration, including its historic centerpiece: matzah.
Banish visions of store-bought stuff with the texture of corrugated cardboard and the dense-as-hell matzah balls in your bubbe's soup. If you want the real-deal stuff, you can find it at whole-grain haven Bakeshop in Portland, Oregon, where owner Kim Boyce has decided to give the classic an old spin: She's making matzah from the 16th century.
Boyce's recipe stems from the era of the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic Spaniards were encouraged to report any religious activity outside of the Church. Among those reports was a detailed recipe for homemade matzah. The female baker behind it was executed, but the recipe remained.
"There's something redemptive about this," explains Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer of Religion Outside the Box, who runs a pluralistic, non-denominational, Internet-based congregation. "The very institution that was trying to get rid of it preserved it. When I think of the Exodus from Egypt, I have a much closer connection to the Jews of the Spanish Inquisition. Now, we're living in a time where we're realizing how precious our religious freedoms are."
Rabbi Brian doesn't remember meeting Boyce when he was officiating a mutual friend's wedding in LA in 2007. But when both relocated to Portland (Boyce in 2010, Rabbi Brian in 2012) they serendipitously became neighbors.
Earlier this year, the Rabbi texted Boyce and asked her if she'd be willing to make the matzah, based on a recipe he had held onto from a 1997 New York Times article.
At the time, Rabbi Brian had been acting as a one-man cleanup crew fighting local incidents of antisemitism. Brian and Boyce wanted to join forces to do something about it, but she wasn't immediately convinced.
Boyce has Jewish roots, but hadn't previously identified with them. This was a chance for that to change.
"I had never made matzah before," she says. "So when [Rabbi Brian] first came forward, I was a little hesitant. I shelf-tested it. I wanted to make a product that I could stand behind; I was intrigued by the honey and the spiciness of the pepper. It's a really sticky dough."
"This has honey and egg and pepper," says Boyce. "It's a tender, sweet, spicy flatbread. Regular matzah is flavorless. There's really nice ingredients in this recipe."
Even with those additions, the recipe is still simple. Boyce whisks the wet and dry ingredients separately, then streams the mixture of eggs, honey, olive oil, and water into the seasoned flour.
After a 15-minute rest, the dough is cut into eight pieces and rolled out as thin as possible. Boyce then pricks it with a fork and bakes it in a 400-degree oven.
"It's a really fast bake; here, I'm baking it for 12 minutes, but at home it would be anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes," notes Boyce.
Initially, she and Rabbi Brian were unsure whether the matzah would sell, but it's received overwhelming acclaim from customers both near and far. "People have come to us from Seattle and Eugene," says Rabbi Brian. "We're even on the news."
Boyce and Rabbi Brian even led an overbooked 16th-century matzah tutorial earlier this month. For Passover, they've received 100 orders and are now being forced to turn people away.
Beyond celebrating the Exodus with historical accuracy, the matzah supports a good cause: For each box of matzah sold, Bakeshop will donate $2 to the ACLU to fight religious discrimination. Next year, the Boyce and Rabbi Brian plans to make even more matzah and donate more money.
For Boyce, the experiment has not only succeeded in bringing delicious matzah to Passover tables in Oregon, it's also helped her connect with her Jewish heritage. "It isn't a side of me that I practice or particularly relate to," she says. "And this was a meaningful way to honor that part of my history."