The star of the seder meal &mdash matzah ball soup

On Passover, whether in the Bay Area or Tel Aviv, your back yard in the East Bay or a balcony overlooking Jerusalem, the scent of flowers and sensation of sunny days leave no doubt that spring has arrived. Almost like awakening from a long winter hibernation, thoughts about the seder dinner start to bloom.

Some families have a long tradition of hosting the seder. Some take the rotation approach. Whether you cook or hire a caterer, buy or just show up for the meal, we all talk about one thing — the food.

Yes, there’s the story of freedom and the miracle on the journey to the Promised Land. There’s the afikomen that send the kids running wild through the house, the traditions and the family gathering. But after everything is said and done, it’s the food.

We’ve all scrambled through recipes and old notes trying to recreate, even if it’s only for one night, the smells and flavors that take us back in time and to our childhoods. In the mix of traditions and endless options for the “traditional” dinner, one item leaves no room for argument. The unbeatable king of the seder dinner.

The essential non-negotiable item of the night — the matzah ball soup. Not just any matzah ball soup, my grandmother’s matzah ball soup. I don’t know what is it with grandmothers and matzah ball soup, but I can tell you, my mother’s soup wasn’t perfected until she herself became a grandmother.

The recipe we are using is basic and simple to make, while the result is exceptional. Light and fluffy matzo balls in flavorful chicken soup are just irresistible. Enjoy and happy Passover to all.

Grandmother’s Matzah Ball Soup | Serves 8-10

For the chicken broth:
4-5 lbs. fatty chicken meat and bones cut into eight pieces
1 turkey neck (optional but worth the trouble)
16 cups water
1 large onion peeled, clean and cut in half
2 stalks of celery, cut to about 1/2-inch pieces
1 small parsnip root, peeled and cleaned
1 smallcelery root, peeled, cleaned and cut into four
3 large carrots, peeled, cleaned and cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch rounds
1/2 bunch fresh parsley
1/2 bunch fresh dill
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper

For the Matzah Balls (makes about 24):
1 cup water
3 1/2 oz margarine
1 cup matzah meal
4 eggs
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
pinch of white pepper

Broth: Wash the chicken pieces and turkey neck and place in a large stockpot. Add all vegetables and top with water. Add parsley, dill and bay leaves. Add 1 teaspoon salt (omit if using kosher chicken). Bring to a simmer and skim. Let simmer, half covered, for about 2 hours. For best results and a clear, flavorful broth, do not let the soup boil at any time. Season with salt and pepper to taste

Tips for serving: Cool down before refrigeration. For the best flavor, prepare the soup one day in advance and leave in the refrigerator with the chicken and vegetables overnight. For a lower fat content, skim all the fat from the top after overnight refrigeration. The soup can be served with or without the vegetables.

Matzah Balls: In a saucepan bring water and margarine to a boil. While still on the flame, carefully add matzah meal and salt and mix together to make a paste (about 1 minute). Cool down to a temperature comfortable to the touch (if too hot, the eggs will coagulate). Add the eggs one by one, mixing after each addition until eggs are completely dissolved into the mix (this step can be done by electric mixer). Bring a large pot with salted water to a boil. With wet hands, shape the mixture into balls and drop into boiling water. (Make the balls smaller than desired since they will almost double in size while cooking.)

Boil for about 5 minutes until the balls float, removing with a slotted spoon.

Serving tips: For the best effect, make them fresh the same day. Otherwise, fresh matzah balls can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. After cooking, do not stack the matzah balls. Store in one layer with some chilled chicken broth to prevent drying.

Tal Franbuch, executive sous chef of the Hilton San Francisco, presides over the hotel’s kosher kitchen. A graduate of Tadmor, the Israeli culinary arts and hotel school in Herzilya, and the professional chefs training program at the California Culinary Academy, he honed his skills in San Francisco at Fleur de Lys, Masa’s and the Ritz Carlton’s dining room.