Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Got Schmaltz?

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
The theme of this week’s kitchen dispatch is Schmaltz. Yes schmaltz. As in chicken fat; as in gribenes’ sleeker partner; as in the not-so-secret ingredient in Bubbie’s matzah ball soup. But also as in schmaltzy: as in over-the-top sappy and saccharine; as in candle-lit images of Mottel and Tzeitl’s wedding in Fiddler on the Roof; as in sun-kissed smiling children linking arms to sing “We are the World” on a pristine mountaintop. Brace yourself.

Most of the universe is aware by now that Passover is upon us. This means that Jews worldwide are turning their attention to all things schmaltz(y). It begins with the matzah ball soup that is traditionally served as the first course at the Passover seder. When done right, the chicken soup will have been made with a nice fatty whole chicken, adding a deep, oily flavor to the broth. After the broth is refrigerated, most of this fat will float to the top of the pot. Once skimmed, the fat becomes the liquid gold that can be used in place of almost any oil to elevate the flavor and fat content of matzah balls, potato kugel, toast and a number of other stick-to-your-thighs dishes. Here’s a blog showing another way to render chicken fat into schmaltz.

As for the chicken broth itself, some people also add dill or other fancy ingredients to intensify its richness. This can be a nice touch, but I contend that as long as you’ve got a little schmaltz and a lot of salt, you’ve got a great soup. And a great matzah ball to go in it. (Note that I am not providing specific recipes here, because I'm assuming that if you understood the title of this entry, you have some clue about where you could score a good Jewish recipe or two. If not, I'll hook you up with the family elders.)

Of course matzah ball soup is not strictly a Passover thing. Jewish mothers (including me) will find any excuse to make matzah ball soup:
  • Got a sniffle? Let’s make soup to clear you up.
  • Yes, it’s 90 degrees outside, but winter’s only 4 months away! Let’s make soup to stock the freezer.
  • Chaim Topol is still alive? Let’s make soup to celebrate!
Still, matzah ball soup remains a critical component of the Ashkenazi seder, and it’s ability to survive through the ages is a testament to the persistent heavy-duty kick of real chicken schmaltz.

Schmaltzy, by contrast, is the inevitable emotional reaction one gets from the telling of the Passover story to the younger generation. If you are lucky enough to attend a seder with small children who’ve just learned to read, I dare you not to get misty-eyed as the youngest child present stumbles his or her way through the traditional four questions. 

At our meal, this meant the Pie Guy was the child of honor. He is, let’s just submit it for the official record, the most adorable child ever to read from a Haggadah. He had his few minutes in the seder sun this week, and I couldn’t have been prouder. 

And the Bean, well, not only can she tell you the full story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, but she can tell you all about those pesky Egyptians’ daily lives too. She is the family expert on all things ancient. The Greco-Roman empires are alive and well and acting out their epic battles in her little noggin. The Bean was so pleased with her knowledge, in fact, that she wrangled her (public school) teacher into letting her read and perform the Passover story for her third-grade class.

The week was full of schmaltzy moments: First the kids made afikomen bags, one of which featured a comic strip retelling of the exodus story and a heated bubble dialogue between Moses and Pharoah. Then they enacted the plagues for their friends by hopping around the kitchen like frogs. (When did frogs become cute?)  

Just when we were starting to have fun, there was the spontaneous tearful discussion about the lessons of Anne Frank and the holocaust (at nearly 9 years old, the Bean had never heard of either). It’s intense. The holidays are pretty much designed to take parents on a treacherous journey of emotional extremes.

I found my eyes welling up every time I even glanced at the Bean or the Pie Guy in the days leading up to the seder. How did I get to be so lucky, that I should be blessed with not one, but two beautiful, kind, clever, and fun children? Children who are now old enough to take on the responsibility of re-telling this fascinating part of their history? Children who can recite the Hebrew blessings over the wine, the candles and the matzah? Children who I can count on to actually remain seated at the table (not under it) for the duration of the service? These are miracles indeed.

As at all major holidays, we were surrounded by family, both literally and figuratively. The Hebrew phrase “L’Dor’ Vador” (from Generation to Generation) was constantly with me: when I set the table with my grandmother’s china; as I soaked the matzah for my mother’s apple–matzah kugel; as we sang Dayenu for the millionth year in a row...

So while it was great fun to watch the kids play Uno with their cousins before the seder and to catch up on family gossip over a good macaroon afterward, there remains a wistfulness and wonder about the entire holiday. And this is the point, really. The Passover season is an ongoing reminder of the blessings and obligations that we as parents and children carry with us. It is a time to reflect on all the joys and sorrows in our lives, and to think about how we as individuals can make the world a better place. It is a time when we allow ourselves the luxury of getting a little nostalgic (particularly after those requisite four glasses of wine), and I for one am grateful for it. Sometimes we all just need a little schmaltz.


  1. I had the delight of sitting next to your parents on a recent flight from Las Vegas to Buffalo. She told me about your blog and I must tell you, this post gave me a new appreciation for chicken fat :) I roasted several bone in breasts yesterday and the soup I made today was much better than usual thanks to you, and a golden spoonful of chicken goodness that would normally have been discarded. Please send my regards to your mom, I really enjoyed talking with her!

    1. I'm touched. Thank you. I checked out your blog and Facebook page, and I must say that I'm very impressed with all your accomplishments.

      I'm sure my mother shared most of my life story during that long flight, and I can only say I'm sorry. :) But honestly, I really enjoy my parents too, so I'm betting that flight was kind of fun for both of you (unless you were hoping to sleep. or read. Or...)

      I have yet to write about how being a fitness instructor (Jazzercise) has changed me, but I think you've inspired me. Keep on dancing!


If you're having trouble leaving a comment, send me an email at tammyjkleinman [at] to let me know.