My aunt emailed asking what I knew about matzoh balls with neshama, or “sweetness of the soul.” “Grandpa’s mother is the only one who ever made this, and we all loved it,” she wrote. The query found its way to contributing editor Joan Nathan’s desk, and her response follows. May your Seder have as much neshama as mine will. -Marc Tracy
Marc Tracy passed your email on to me. Thank you for sending the lovely request for stuffed kneydlakh with neshama (which refers to a sweet center or the soul). In the 18th and 19th centuries, recipes for matzoh balls in Eastern Europe began to vary by region. Called “kleis” or “knoedel” in German and “kneydlakh” in Yiddish, they were spiced with mace, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
But stuffed kneydlakh was a Lithuanian dish: Dumplings made with a filling sometimes of liver, potato, carrot, or even ground almonds, and served with chicken or beef broth, or a milk soup where appropriate. One version from South Africa calls itself “the kneydlakh with a heart” because it is filled with a cinnamon-matzoh stuffing. Dr. Dov Noy, professor of folklore at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and winner of the Israel Prize, who taught me so much about Yiddish folklore, told me many years ago that the cinnamon is crucial: “It is like the secret sweetness within the spice box at the Havdalah service that ends the Sabbath,” he said. “The cinnamon stuffing represents a wish to stretch the sweetness of the Sabbath meal (or Seder meal) for as long as possible.”
I have located many recipes for it in South African Jewish cookbooks, where many Litvaks went at the end of the 19th century, right when many more arrived in the United States. Since they lived more isolated existences in South Africa, many authentic Lithuanian recipes can easily be found in Jewish cookbooks from there. (Curiously, I also found a recipe in Mississippi for baked stuffed kneydlakh in muffin tins.)
Here is a recipe which I hope will give your Seder neshama.
South African-Lithuanian Stuffed Matzo Balls, adapted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook
1/4 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons chicken fat, softened
2 tablespoons matzo meal, approximately
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
10 teaspoon chicken fat plus fat for greasing pan
1 1/4 cups matzoh meal, approximately
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 quarts salted water, rapidly boiling
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1. To prepare the filling, saute the meat in the oil in a skillet until brown. Drain and cool and combine with the egg yolks, chicken fat, matzoh meal, salt and cinnamon. Refrigerate at least one hour.
2. Meanwhile, to prepare the matzoh balls beat the eggs well in a bowl. Add 2 cups of water and 6 teaspoons of the chicken fat and mix well. Add enough matzo meal and salt to make a soft mass. Refrigerate at least one hour.
3. Divide the matzoh meal mixture into 8-10 balls of equal size. Flatten them and put 1 teaspoon of meat filling in the center of each. Enclose the filling, pinch the edges together and form into balls.
4. Place the matzoh balls into the boiling salted water and simmer, covered for 20 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Drain the matzoh balls and place in a pan greased with chicken fat; cover with the remaining 4 teaspoons of chicken fat and sprinkle with the cinnamon. Bake 15-20 minutes or until slightly browned. Serve each matzoh ball in a soup bowl with chicken soup ladled over it.
Yield: 8 to 10.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.