Friday, April 24, 2015

A year of matzah

Last year, a conversation on Pesach led to me and two friends realizing we didn't really understand what chametz and matzah are. So we spent a year learning the classical Jewish sources (along with some modern scientific/cooking/brewing sources) and baking many, many practice batches of matzah. We also spoke with people who have baked matzah and I visited a few professional matzah bakeries. The year culminated with us baking our own matzah during the afternoon on Erev Pesach (Eve of Passover).

We needed an oven:
The oven is lined with firebricks (purchased from a local masonry supply store), and was pre-heated to its highest running temperature for a few hours before baking.

We needed flour:
We purchased an 80lb sack of shmurah flour (the smallest they sell) from a matzah bakery in Brooklyn. This picture shows the sack, and some pre-weighed portions of flour for a bunch of matzah batches.

We needed water. Unfortunately, I forgot to photo-document the process of setting aside water to cool overnight. We filled a 5 gallon, empty water cooler water bottle with water, so this picture can serve as an illustration:
This amount of water is enough to bake the entire 80lb sack of flour (which we didn't do), but we figured better to be safe than sorry, so we wouldn't run out of overnight-chilled water. We poured off a small pitcher's worth from the giant thing to bring upstairs from the basement just before baking, and weighed off appropriate amounts of water before each batch.

This is not the place for an extended summary of all the special processes and procedures we went through (feel free to contact me if you want more detailed info), so let's cut to the chase and show the baking!
This is the beginning of the process. The dough is mixed and kneaded in a bowl, and further kneaded by hand until the flour is fully hydrated. For modern, cracker style matzot, the dough is very dry so that it doesn't stick to the rollers (45% hydration, baker's percentage) and it takes a lot of work to get it together. Borrowing a technique we saw in professional bakeries, we used a rolling pin as a lever to gain some mechanical advantage when kneading by hand. For softer, thicker matzot, where there is less rolling required, the hydration level is slightly higher (50%), but it still takes some effort to get it to form a fully-hydrated, cohesive dough.

We then split off into pieces for individual matzot, while consistently kneading the remaining hunk of dough.
To dock the matzot so they don't puff up with steam during baking, we used plastic forks. You may note the person in the left of the picture holding a book -- when you bake Erev Pesach you sing Hallel while baking!

After each (18 minute) batch we sanded the rollers, and disposed of all surfaces that came in contact with the dough (bowls, plastic tablecloth, etc.). In big bakeries they use washable bowls, but we were only doing a few batches, so it was easier to just go with disposable.

Here are the completed matzot, in a box for hafrashat challah.

And, finally, here is our seder table, with the matzah cover Stacy had embroidered:
I particularly liked the pattern on the covers, since it reminded me of the way people used to dock their matzot in the middle ages.

A brief note about baking on Erev Pesach. This is a crazy day under the best of circumstances and this was the first year we were making our own seder. Although each batch took at most 18 minutes, the whole process took longer than expected, which is not ideal when you still have a giant list of things to do before the holiday. So, the timing wasn't such a win, but I found the experience of baking my own matzot on Erev Pesach very meaningful. And, since most people do not bake their matzot at this time (some sources try to put a positive spin on this, but others point out that it's likely because of the Erev Pesach crazy timing), we won't be doing the Erev Pesach baking next year (although we will likely still bake our own). But, I'm very glad I did this at least once.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Siberia from the air

Jonathan/Yoni requested that I blog this picture from him. His comment was, "It's Siberia, we flew over the North Pole practically":

Thursday, March 12, 2015

New York Post, meet NPR

The New York Post has been running a bunch of subway ads recently:
Ad reads: "NOBODY SAYS, "HEY, WANNA HEAR A DULL STORY THE LONGEST WAY POSSIBLE?"
My only response is: NY Post, meet NPR.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Boott Cotton Mills

I recently visited the Boott Cotton Mills (yes two t's) and was amazingly impressed by everything. They actually have a whole bunch of ancient power looms running every day.


A loom works by passing a shuttle back and forth with each step - and the shuttle has a little bobbin of thread in it. The reel you see there actually spins around and auto-loads a new bobbin in to the machine when the last bobbin runs out of thread. By loading different colored bobbins in order, you can make patterns. A couple of things are really amazing about this:
  • The machines are a combination of wood, metal and leather. There is not a scrap of plastic in the whole thing (except possibly for the counters at the top which look like they were added later).
  • Iron was like plastic back then, you could mold it with relative ease into precise, intricate shapes. Wood was used for comparatively simple forms. Those red wheels you see needed only to hold the force of taut thread, yet they were made of iron so thick I could have stood on it.
    Note: I'm pontificating here about materials... please correct me if you know better
  • Although the machinery was super heavy, it had a very fine touch too; the subtle force of a thread governed the power cycle.

This isn't a loom, its one of the machines to ready the cotton for threading. 

To make patterns these wooden things dance up and down in special order. Each one holds a specific arrangement of threads.

Cams at the bottom lifted them upwards against strong springs holding them down, while light springs on pulleys at the top took up the slack.



Go and visit! It really isn't far from Boston and it is well worth the trip.

Also, I want to call attention to an Awesome Foundation grant we just granted. For someone who wants to make actual nice looking clothes from the new fabric made on these century old machines.
http://www.awesomefoundation.org/en/projects/43205-lowell-girls-a-local-gentle-garment-collection

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thanks, Waze

I usually love Waze. However, adding 41 minutes to my already too-long commute just for BP gasoline seems idiotic.