Eric Silberman, a junior at Princeton University, has been urging his mother — by his estimation, a great cook — to enter the Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-Off since it started six years ago. But it was the 20-year-old Silberman himself who not only entered, but earned a place among the finalists in this year’s March 28 competition at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
Each year, the Newark-based kosher food company challenges people to prepare “family-friendly” dishes using a number of its products. The first prize is $25,000, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proclaimed the day “Man-O-Manischewitz Day.”
Cooking “traditional Jewish foods,” said Silberman, a Modern Orthodox Jew from Lincolnwood, Ill., has been part of his life since he was a little boy. “When my grandmother was younger, she would always make chicken soup with matza balls. Then my mom took over, and then I started making the matza balls. I must have been about six or seven when I started,” and he’s been making them for the family ever since, he told NJJN in a phone interview.
What’s more, he said, even though he’s in college hundreds of miles away, he hasn’t given up his job of making the family matza balls. Whenever he goes home, he makes giant batches and puts them in the freezer. “Then my family can use them every Shabbat,” he said.
The recipe Silberman entered in the competition brings classic matza balls together with a more contemporary soup. In fact, he calls it his “mod” matza ball soup — basically a vegetable broth with matza balls.
“People eat more vegetarian foods and less meat today,” said Silberman. “I’m not a vegetarian, but a lot of my friends are, and I thought I could fuse the tradition of the matza ball with vegetarian cooking.” The soup, he added, “is simple, tastes great, and offers a modern connection to the Jewish food tradition.”
When he learned he had earned the fifth finalist spot through on-line voting, he was thrilled. “It’s really exciting and so different from all the things I do at school, both academic and extracurricular,” he said.
He acknowledged that when he makes knaidlach, he generally uses the Manischewitz mix rather than start from scratch. But his recipe does have a “Goldilocks” twist to it. If you separate the egg and the yolk, “the matza balls are too fluffy,” he said, “but if you don’t separate them at all, the matza balls are too dense.” How to make them just right? After some experimenting, he found the solution. “I crack them in one bowl but beat the whites and avoid the yolks until they are a little fluffy — but not too fluffy.” Then he adds in the yolks.
The molecular biology major plans to go to medical school. But if, say, the Food Network were to offer him a Jewish cooking show — or even just a feature spot on another show showcasing Jewish holiday cooking — well, he said, “That’s my dream! I’m crossing my fingers that I get noticed.”
In the meantime, he’s ready for the contest, prepped through years of fun competitions with his brothers that were judged by their parents. “As a family, we love to cook together and find fun ways that get us all together.”
When Silberman is home, he and his family attend the Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation. But his ties to the Garden State are strong: His father grew up in Elizabeth, he has cousins who live in Springfield, and his family spent plenty of time here before starting Princeton. “We spent all our family vacations in New Jersey. It’s kind of like a second home to me,” he said.
Even if he doesn’t win the official competition, he’s enjoying some celebrity status on campus. The university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel has invited him to make his “mod” matza ball soup for a Friday night Shabbat dinner, and, ever since an article about him was published in the school newspaper, he said, people have been calling him “the matza ball guy.”
Silberman is not the only finalist with Jersey ties. Andrew Dorsch of Scotch Plains won a slot with his Torte Vegetali. The other finalists are Jennifer Daskevich of Los Angeles; Jacquie Serebrani-Kesner of Lexington, Mass.; and Ronna Farley of Rockville, Md.