A cross-country relocation away from family in 2011 left me, as the stay-at-home parent, suddenly responsible for replicating traditional Jewish foods for our holiday celebrations. The only problem? I… don’t like most traditional Jewish foods.
From noodle kugel to smoked lox to sweet potato tzimmes, I couldn’t stand my own people’s comfort food. I felt like an impostor. A poser. A fraud. Especially because — plot twist! — I’m a rabbi. I mean, what kind of rabbi doesn’t like matzo balls?
I know! Kneidlach (aka matzo balls) are an Ashkenazic classic that I long detested for their lackluster flavor and unyielding density. When I requested my soup sans kneidlach, the disapproving looks from my mother and grandmother were deafening. It was as if I was rejecting them and not their carefully crafted homemade matzo balls.
When we left California for the cornfields of Pennsylvania, food, especially Jewish food, became the vehicle for connecting us to a sense of home and to our people. I was determined to make tasty kneidlach from scratch.
Reader, you might be wondering why I didn’t overnight matzo balls from Zabar’s or use a boxed matzo ball mix. There’s absolutely no shame in doing so, but to me, outsourcing felt like it would only reaffirm the illegitimacy I already carried from not liking Jewish food in the first place. I wanted to feed my Jewish family Jewish food that I cooked with my own two hands. And I wanted to like eating that food.
A recipe for onion-stuffed kneidlach by Geila Hocherman got me thinking: What if it wasn’t that I hated matzo balls but that I just hadn’t eaten one flavorful enough to satisfy my palate? What if the problem was that my family’s matzo ball recipe relied solely on salt and pepper for seasoning? I found them “a little one-note,” as Tom Colicchio from “Top Chef” might say (though I’d dare him to try saying that to my mother and come out unscathed).
But Hocherman’s onion-stuffed version was a more revolutionary take on kneidlach than I was looking for. I just wanted a classic, savory matzo ball that would satiate my taste buds.
I began to experiment with flavors, pulling tips from my favorite cooking shows, magazines, and cookbooks. I discovered that shmaltz made for a richer, more flavorful matzo ball than canola oil and that a dash of ground ginger added a subtle complexity to these spherical dumplings. Seltzer water made them fluffy and light, and the addition of fresh dill and garlic powder transformed these moist, heavy lumps of matzo meal into the centerpiece of the soup course.
Who knew that a few humble spices and herbs would be the portal to my rediscovery and love of the kneidel? I certainly didn’t see it coming. But the journey was worth it for the destination. Kneidlach, as it turns out, were just the tip of the iceberg. Once I felt free to abandon my family’s recipes, I discovered a whole world of Jewish foods that I had thought I didn’t like.
I’m still not a fan of lox, though.
Makes 14–16 (2½-inch) kneidlach
Adapted from a recipe by Tina Wasserman
- 4 eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup cold plain seltzer
- 1/4 cup shmaltz (rendered chicken fat)
- 1 tablespoon finely minced parsley
- 1 tablespoon finely minced dill
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 10 grindings of black pepper, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 cup matzo meal (add an extra 1/4 cup for firmer kneidlach)
- 2 quarts water
- 1 chicken bouillon cube
- Beat egg whites vigorously with a whisk until you start to see bubbles, 15 to 20 seconds. Set aside.
- In a separate bowl, using an electric mixer, beat egg yolks and seltzer for 10 to 15 seconds, until foamy.
- Add shmaltz, parsley, dill, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and ginger to egg yolks and beat well with the electric mixer until well emulsified. (This can take 4 to 5 minutes, so be patient.)
- Add egg whites to yolk mixture and beat again with the electric mixer until combined and foamy.
- Add matzo meal and stir with a fork until thoroughly combined.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or as long as overnight) before shaping.
- When ready to cook, bring water and bouillon to a boil in a large pot. Stir to dissolve bouillon cube, then reduce heat to a simmer.
- Moisten your hands with cold water and form kneidlach mixture into balls about the size of golf balls. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them into the simmering broth, taking care to avoid splashing. Adjust heat if needed to maintain a simmer and prevent the kneidlach from falling apart.
- Cover the pot and cook for 20 minutes over medium-low heat. DO NOT LIFT THE LID. (Seriously. I mean it. You will ruin your kneidlach.)
- Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, carefully lift the kneidlach out of the pot and transfer to soup bowls.
- Serve by ladling your favorite chicken soup broth (made separately) over the kneidlach.
- I use a small bowl for the egg whites and a medium bowl for the yolks. I have this written at the top of my recipe so I don’t have to remember which is which.
- If you don’t typically make your own shmaltz, you’ll find it in the kosher frozen food section of your grocery store. You can also use duck fat, which can sometimes be found in the baking aisle.
- Using garlic powder and ground ginger allows the seasonings to distribute more evenly throughout the mixture than freshly minced garlic and ginger would.
- Let the mixture sit and hydrate for at least 2 hours. Do not skimp on time. This allows the mixture to fully incorporate. I often let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.
- Keep a small bowl of water next to the stove so you can moisten your hands when the mixture in your hands gets too sticky to form the kneidlach.
- Do not boil your matzo balls directly in your soup broth. You will end up with less soup, and what is left will be cloudy. Boil them in chicken broth for flavor, but make your actual soup separately.
Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a rabbi, author, and activist living in southeastern Pennsylvania — which is a far cry from her Southern California roots. When she’s not in the kitchen, she can be found discussing the sacred and not-yet-sacred on Twitter or TikTok.