My mother, Serilla, an artist and scholar, didn’t know how to boil the proverbial pot of water, let alone make delicious chicken soup, when she married my father, Ben, and moved from Israel to California. The youngest of four girls, she had had no need to learn to cook. Her older sisters helped their mother, while she roamed the house, reading.
But, as is so often the case in the Diaspora, memories proved a powerful teacher. My mother never attempted the exquisite baking that her mother and sister managed on the family’s meager income, but she did remember how certain dishes tasted—chopped liver, braised chicken, re-roasted eggplant, a good hummus—and recaptured the flavors of her childhood for us. This was especially true of her chicken soup.
Recently, my mother switched to kosher chicken parts for her soup, not because my parents are observant, but because the brined avors remind her more of her own mother’s soup. I prefer to use chickens from small local producers, removing the breast meat from two or three birds for another use and making soup from the bony parts and dark meat. Either way, this soup is a rich gold color, infused with the many vegetables my mother likes to use. There’s added meaning making chicken soup in spring, when young carrots, parsnips, and herbs are newly abundant.
When it comes to matzo balls, kneidlach in Yiddish, the break in the food chain when my parents left their families again forced my mother to start “from scratch.” Her teacher was the recipe printed on the Manischewitz matzo meal box. The century-old company captures the traditional essentials: perfect, straightforward texture and buoyancy. The original recipe called for schmaltz; today it asks for oil. Fat that congeals works best, so we use a bit of the tasty chicken fat that hardens on top of our soup.
Many cooks suffer from “matzo-ball anxiety”—kneidlach that sink like stones or disintegrate in the pot. That wasn’t an issue in our house; I have to conclude this is because my mother, a sculptor, has always had an innate feel for the dough. She uses a light but thorough touch to roll perfectly round balls that cook to perfection, without the need for added seltzer or whipped egg whites to lighten the mixture. I watched my mother make matzo balls, and my three children in turn learned by watching me. Three generations are now known for our tender kneidlach, and here I share the secrets with you.