Big crunch for matzo brittle

Popular Passover treat sold at Lake Falls Village

March 31, 2004|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With the approach of Passover, which begins at sundown on Monday, the lights burn late at Glasz Gourmet's prep kitchen in Hampden.

Nona Nielson-Parker, co-owner and chef for the catering business and cafe at Lake Falls Village, is hoping to surpass last year's sales record for matzo brittle, which may be the most addictive holiday treat in all of Baltimore.

Matzo brittle is Nielson-Parker's creation, perfected through trial and error. The shop has been selling the brittle since the mid-'90s, and demand has grown each year.

It's a simple treat - matzo, brown sugar, chocolate, pecans and almonds. But the trick is in the timing. "We mess up a couple of batches every year," says Nielson-Parker.

Once she and her helpers are in gear, they can produce 50 pounds, or about 10 batches, a night. Last year, she sold more than 200 pounds of matzo brittle.

Well, sold most of it. Some of it never leaves the kitchen.

"We usually keep a scrap box just for us," says sous-chef Ben Troast. This time of year, Troast says, "I sometimes look forward to coming in in the morning and pigging out."

Most customers prefer the original version with semisweet chocolate and nuts. But there is also a version with dried cherries and apricots instead of nuts, and Nielson-Parker has broadened the market with a couple of other variations.

Last year she offered Easter brittle - selling about 50 pounds of matzo crackers slathered with white chocolate, tiny pastel Easter eggs and sprinkles. That treat will be available again this year.

Two years ago, she created holiday brittle for Hanukkah and Christmas, featuring matzo crackers with white chocolate and candy canes. This past December, customers snapped up some 150 pounds of it.

The ingredients in Nielson-Parker treats are straightforward, but the proportions and procedures are private. However, she does drop a few hints. She makes each batch with 1 pound of butter. "It doesn't work to double it," she says. She uses Plugra butter, which has a higher butter fat content than most American butters, and her current choice for the matzo cracker is Streit's Lightly Salted.

She also harbors a few superstitions. For instance, only two of the many pots in her kitchen seem to work. When she has tried others, the results aren't up to snuff. And perhaps the most important kitchen tool is a loud, oversized timer - an "annoying" timer, Troast says.

For everything from caramelizing the sugar to toasting the crackers in the oven, the timer keeps the kitchen staffers on track - especially when they're doing batch after batch.

The brittle originated when Arnold Glassner, Nielson-Parker's business partner, brought in a matzo brittle without the chocolate and, she recalls, said, "Hey, let's put chocolate on this."

Nielson-Parker was familiar with a similar treat: saltines with chocolate. She consulted with Debbie Todd, who works with her catering business and had worked with similar recipes, and began experimenting. "It took us three Passover seasons to get it right," she says.

But it's perfect now - at least according to the fans who will begin snapping up the brittle at $17.99 a pound this week.

It will be available through the end of Passover on April 13.

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