Cholent is a stew that is prepared by observant Jews to have a hot meal on Shabbat, when cooking isn’t permitted. It’s cooked beforehand, then kept warm to have for lunch after coming home from shul on Saturday. Nowadays, most people make it in a crockpot. A lot of people make it on a stovetop, which is covered with metal to keep the controls from being adjusted. (For an electric stove, foil works for this.) But what is actually traditional is to bake it in an oven.
My mother’s cholent started with soaking kidney beans overnight. They were combined in a heavy pot (a Dutch oven, I guess) with fatty brisket, potatoes, onions, barley, and carrots. The most important thing that went into the pot was kneidlach – dumpling dough, essentially the same thing as turns into matzoh balls when you cook it in broth. The kneidlach act as a gonif (Yiddish for "thief"), soaking up the flavors. As far as I was concerned, that was the only edible part of Mom’s cholent.
My family was not actually religious enough to have cholent for Saturday lunch. Our occasion for it was my father’s periodic invitations to his friends from work, Roland and Lester. Unlike me, they loved cholent. I think they also liked stuffed cabbage, another traditional dish my mother made and I disliked. The saving grace was that, on the way from the train station to our house, they stopped at Custom Bakers, a fabulous bakery that everybody from Island Park drools over the merest memory of. Sometimes they brought seven-layer cake, sometimes nesselrode pie, but it didn’t matter what it was. Custom Bakers was uniformly wonderful.
Dad described Mom’s cholent as "almost authentic." For him, authentic meant a Friday trip to his grandmother’s brother’s butcher shop to get the meat. Before going with his grandfather to shul on Friday night, he brought the pot of cholent to the communal oven. There was some sort of token each family had to identify their pot of cholent, which they collected on the way home from services on Saturday. You can’t duplicate that in a suburban Long Island kitchen.
I learned to make my own cholent when I was in college. I do a vegetarian version, which eliminates the bland and fatty meat I so detested as a child. I season it with more pepper than Mom would have used, along with bay leaf and paprika. I cook it on the stovetop, not in the oven. I do make sure to include kneidlach, which are still the best part of it as far as I’m concerned. For that, I use our family’s traditional recipe, which is the matzoh ball recipe on the side of the Goodman’s matzoh meal box.
I can’t duplicate the products of Custom Bakers. Nor can I duplicate the conversations at our table. But at least I can manage this much noshtalgia.
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