January 20, 2019

The Word of the Day Is Knaidel

How do you spell knaidel?  M-a-t-z-o-h B-a-l-l.

The word that 13 year-old Arvind Mahankali from Queens, NY spelled to clinch the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship last night is German for a small mass of dough.  But its most common meaning in America is matzo ball.

Normally the word, which is German and Yiddish, is used in its plural form, knaidlach—because who can eat just one matzo ball?

From Los Angeles to Queens, the only place you’ll see the word is on deli menus. And not just in America: the menu at the venerable Harry Morgans deli – branches in London and Latvia—features Chicken Knaidlach Soup for £5.95.

I feel for the kids who lost out to Mahankali.  They’re home Googling knaidel, finding that it’s spelled in English many different ways: knaidel, kneidel, kneydl. 

There’s just as many ways to make knaidlach as there are spellings.  You use matzo meal, of course, and eggs, liquid, along with a fat and salt.  The liquid can be water or chicken broth or even seltzer.  The fat can be schmaltz—solidified chicken fat—or oil. If you use lard you’re in the wrong cookbook.

You can eat turkey outside of Thanksgiving, and you can eat matzo balls when it’s not Passover.  But the spring holiday that marks the deliverance of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt is the time when most matzo balls get made and eaten.  Jews had to flee Egypt before their bread had time to rise, so they are commanded to observe Passover by eating matzo, which is made only with flour and water.  Those matzos, ground fine, become a meal that can be used to make dumplings—which is all knaidlach are.

You might wonder why we eat matzo to remind us how we had to hurry out of Egypt, then make matzo balls, which take a almost two hours to mix, rest and simmer.  You could knock off a few loaves of quick bread, or even some pita, in that time.  The deep theological answer is this: matzo balls taste really good.  

You mix the ingredients, simmer them in soup or water, and the dry, unforgiving shirt cardboard that is matzo transforms into a small, warm bosom, tender and soft.  A knaidel is our small miracle of transubstantiation—maybe that’s why we eat them in Spring.

Great matzo balls should be as soft to eat as knaidel is hard to spell.  There are certain Jews who claim to prefer the kind their mothers made, the ones with a dense core of unfluffed dough.  These sinkers can require a steak knife to cut and a load of seltzer to digest.  I suppose you can get used to them, even come to think they’re delicious, in the same way the Romneys convinced themselves Karl Rove was telling the truth about the Ohio results.  People we trust can feed us crap and we’ll think it tastes like truffles.

As with most simple foods, the important variations are in technique, not ingredients.  If you’ve been blessed to learn how to make matzo balls by watching your grandmother, mother or mother-in-law, and she knew what she was doing, you’re fortunate: it’s all in the details:  Mix the batter lightly, don’t beat it.  Let the dough sit in the refrigerator until it is well-chilled.  Give those matzo particles time to absorb liquid and fat deep into their stiff-necked cells.  Form the dough again with a very light, but confident touch.   Roll pieces the size of a large walnut between your palms, quickly, but don’t rush it.  The rounder the ball, the more attractive—a misshapen ball floating in soup looks disturbingly like brain.  But don’t obsess: you don’t want to press the air out. You’ll get the hang of it.

Finally, once your balls are simmering, DO NOT lift the lid to peak. There are many commandments in the Jewish religion. This is the one I’m most scrupulous about following.

The knaidel maker at the Passover seder is the central object of scorn or praise.  At our seders, where my wife, the rabbi, leads the service, beautifully, I notice that few people will judge her either way.  But that moment when the chicken soup with matzo balls finally arrives, and people pick up their spoons and cleave a knaidel in two, and lift a portion to their mouths, and swallow— that moment is an eternity.  If the soup is hot and the balls are light, and well-salted, the entire table erupts in a semi-orgasmic chorus of ahhs, like the Children of Israel have been delivered all over again.  It is a moment of sheer joy, and relief, and for the cook, a feeling of utter victory and vindication.  

Arvind Mahankali would understand.


[RECIPE] Rob Eshman's Matzo Balls

4 eggs

1/4 cup schmaltz (chicken fat) or vegetable oil

1/4 cup chicken stock or water or seltzer

1 cup matzo meal

1 teaspoon salt

1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients. Do not overbeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled–  two hours or more.  

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.  Wet your hands. Take a lump the size of a large walnut and using your palms, form into a round shape. Drop into the water, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 40 minutes.  

Remove the balls with a slotted spoon.  Taste one to make sure they're cooked through– they probably will be.  Serve in hot soup, sprinkled with fresh parsley and dill.