Family recipe reveals a sweet side of matzah

Mollie Lewis’s new product may indeed be made with matzah, but she believes it is good enough to eat year-round — including during Chanukah. That’s why the San Francisco resident has been spotted at local Jewish gift fairs, peddling her new confection called “Matzel Toffee.”

Consisting of matzah crackers dipped in dark chocolate with bits of toffee and pecans, the candy comes from an old family recipe that Lewis’ grandmother — known as Nana — has been making for years.

Now, much to Nana’s surprise, her granddaughter has taken the old family recipe and is selling it in upscale supermarkets and Jewish gift stores.

So what does her Nana think?

“She thinks it’s funny,” said Lewis. “Now when I have a successful show, I call her and tell her, and she laughs. She can’t believe I took a family recipe and turned it into a product.”

The story of Matzel Toffee begins the Passover before last. Lewis was sitting around the seder table with her family in her native Louisville, Ky., savoring the delicious kosher-for-Passover treat her grandmother made each year.

“We were joking about how delicious these were, and how there’s never anything tasty at Passover for dessert,” said Lewis, “and how everyone we know complains about that. I thought that more people should know about them. And then all of a sudden, I came up with the name, and said ‘We should call it Matzel Toffee.'”

Lewis, 28, is a one-woman operation. She works full time for a wine importer, and rents the dairy kitchen at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco to bake on the weekends. The toffee is certified kosher.

Deciding to market the product was easy — she studied product design in New York — but coming up with a workable recipe was not. Her grandmother had never written anything down, going purely by intuition.

“It was more a pinch of this, and a pat of butter and then sprinkle this and bake it in the oven,” said Lewis. “Every time it came out a little different.”

Lewis used her friends as a focus group, and went through numerous variations, until she felt she got it right. She decided to use small matzah crackers rather than whole pieces, because the pieces never break evenly.

Lewis uses pecans in a nod to her Southern heritage; had she been from California, she might have gone with almonds.

After baking at the JCC, she packages the product in her apartment, doing the heat sealing, labeling and shipping from her central headquarters in her dining room.

The label has Bubbie’s seal of approval, with a date stamp, Jan. 21, 1920, her grandmother’s birthday. “Bubbie tested, Bubbie approved,” it says.

Since she launched it in June, she’s gone to stores herself, and is so far selling at Dayenu, bob and bob, Bi-Rite, Berkeley Bowl, and Saul’s Deli. She also ships directly (to order, email [email protected]). She plans to have her Web site up and running by next Passover, when she will make a much bigger push.

She admitted that it’s a tough sell — at first.

“People are so used to matzah tasting like cardboard,” she said. “But if I put samples out, then it’s an easy sell, and I have people coming back for seconds. It’s sweet and salty, with very complex flavors, and people realize they’re yummy. It’s just that without tasting it, they’re a little unsure about buying something with matzah in it.”

While Lewis works the gift fairs and goes around trying to market her product, she dreams about being formally trained as a pastry chef, expanding her line, and perhaps, one day, doing this full time.

The packaging process is “kind of Zen in a way, and I enjoy the cooking as well. It’s a nice out from the real world to be there, and it’s a nice connection to family.”

While Lewis grew up Reform, and is just getting to know the Jewish community in the Bay Area, she said, “I feel more connected [to my Jewishness] through Matzel Toffee.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."