In the spring of 2008, my 8-month-old daughter had allergy tests to discover why eczema had crept over increasing amounts of her body since wintertime. Two days before Passover, my pediatrician phoned with the results: My daughter was allergic to egg whites.
“She’s never eaten an egg!” I exclaimed into the phone.
“She’s getting the egg protein through your breast milk,” said the doctor. “Do you eat eggs?”
I guiltily contemplated all the eggs I’d devoured since my daughter’s birth. “I eat one almost every day.”
The pediatrician suggested I stop eating eggs until my daughter was weaned. “And you should check the ingredients of everything else you eat, too. Eggs hide in a lot of surprising places.”
It was just two days until Pesach. “How can I get through Passover with no eggs?” I asked. “I just baked two kugels this morning. Gefilte fish has eggs! Matzo balls!”
“Look, the eczema is not killing your daughter,” said the doctor. “The blood-test indicated a mild-to-moderate allergy, that’s all. Why don’t you wait until after Passover ends, and then cut out eggs from your diet for two weeks to see if her eczema goes away?”
I spent the next several days in denial, eating all my usual Passover favorites, but starting the day after the holiday ended, I dutifully refrained from my usual egg for breakfast. I got a recipe for egg-free “water challah” from a Sephardi friend—and did not use the leftovers to make french toast. I skipped the cake at birthday parties and switched brands of soy sausage.
My daughter’s eczema went away.
While the improvements in her skin put a smile on my face, the implications for our family’s diet did not. I now had to evaluate labels and recipes not only based on kashrut but on whether they were egg-free. A meat-eater, I began to haunt the websites of vegan chefs. Attending Shabbos meals and social functions became challenging. Many friends shared their own tales of their kids’ allergy-related woes. They comforted me with statistics that show many children’s egg allergies disappear.
My 8 month old is now nearly 8 years old, and she’s still allergic to eggs.
I’ve tried to offer her a normal Jewish culinary experience. Along with the aforementioned water challah, I’ve perfected eggless latkes, hamentaschen, cheesecake, carrot kugel, and apple kugel, and learned how to make schnitzel without dipping the cutlets in egg before dredging them through crumbs. Yerushalmi bagels work just as well as a regular bagel as a base for shmear. No one has been able to tell me how to make gefilte fish without eggs, but my daughter is happy with a salmon, trout, or tilapia fillet.
The one thing that had eluded me over the years was the matzo ball. Without using eggs, how could I get them to stick together when dropped into boiling water or soup? I saw all sorts of suggestions online—the most common ones involved substituting other products for the matzo meal and baking the matzo balls before dropping them in boiling water or broth. None really resembled matzo balls in taste or texture, so I continued to serve regular matzo balls to the rest of the family and dropped eggless noodles into my daughter’s chicken soup.
This particularly rankled when she had a cold. Making matzo ball soup for a sick child has always represented for me a Jewish mother’s love. Clearly, my fixation on matzo balls had more to do with my own hang-ups about providing Jewish foods for my daughter than any feeling of disappointment or lacking on her part. Still, I wanted to offer my daughter the same love my mother and grandmother offered me in a bowl when I was a child.
This June, my sister sent me a link to a story on Slate about making meringues with the liquid from canned chickpeas, dubbed “aquafaba” by vegan baker Goose Wohlt. The article touted the merits of using aquafaba to replace eggs in all sorts of recipes.
“Why not try matzo balls?” she asked.
I followed the Facebook group mentioned in the Slate article. Their page showed one post after another of gorgeous aquafaba confections. However, the vegan bakers seemed stumped about how to make matzo balls work. Everyone who attempted a straight egg-to-aquafaba substitution in them threw up their hands. “It just doesn’t work,” they complained. The matzo balls kept falling apart.
In a rather arrogant part of my brain arose a thought: “Hey, these are a bunch of vegans. They probably don’t know how to make a proper matzo ball due to inexperience. I, however have plenty matzo ball experience. Let me try.”
And so, one sunny June morning, I did.
The batter mixed together in the usual way, and I could work it into nice little balls. But the moment I dropped them into my vegetarian broth, they fell apart.
Clearly, my mockery of the vegan cooks had been misplaced. But I wasn’t going to give up.
I started looking up articles about different kinds of binders and leavenings used in vegan cookery and began to document my efforts in a notebook. And since I had been inspired by a post on Facebook, I hit up my Facebook friends for advice. First, my friend Michelle Helmer suggested baking the matzo balls.
“I can’t bring myself to do it,” I replied. “It’s just wrong to bake a matzo ball!”
She countered by advising me to use baking powder. I suspected, however, it would just make the matzo balls fluffier–it wouldn’t prevent them from falling apart in the boiling soup.
Another friend, Rae Shagalov, suggested using xanthan gum. That sounded better to me than the pre-baking method, to I ran to the store to buy xanthan gum, tied my apron back on, and resumed work the next morning.
Initially, the xanthan gum-plus-aquafaba mixture seemed promising. Xanthan gum provided a slipperiness to the batter that reminded me of eggs. When dropped into the boiling soup, they even held together for the first five minutes. But by the time they were cooked through, the matzo balls had fallen apart again.
“Maybe I just need more xanthan gum,” I mused. Then I mixed up another batch of batter, boiled up more soup (using powdered, vegan bouillon), and tried again.
Once again, the matzo balls fell apart. I frowned into the pot, took notes about my latest experiment, and adjourned for the day.
When I logged back onto Facebook, I discovered that my best friend’s husband, Rob Bowen, had replied to my question. Rob is an associate scientist in product development at McCormick. Tinkering with food chemistry is not a hobby, but his actual profession. He urged me to try the aquafaba with xanthan gum and to “par-bake” the matzo balls before adding them to soup (yes, he used that word: par-bake). I overcame all my reluctance to stick matzo balls into an oven and did it.
I tinkered with the recipe some more to improve the texture, and by Shabbat, I was ready to share the results of my experiments with my family. (You’ll find the recipe here.) My daughter ate her first two matzo balls with a smile on her face. “Yum!”
Since our family doesn’t eat legumes on Passover, I won’t be able to serve these eggless aquafaba matzo balls during the holiday. But I will be able to use them the rest of the year—on other holidays, or whenever my daughter gets the inevitable head cold.
And I might not even have to make two different batches of matzo balls; my husband and my other kids like the eggless matzo balls even more than my daughter does.
“They taste just the same as the regular kind, but with a slightly different texture,” my son told me. “Can I have more?”
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