Stories a Kosher Kitchen Can Tell

Published March, 2008

One proud Bubby has a simple recipe for teaching the family story

Inside Sally Levine’s childhood home in Cleveland, the air was rich with the aroma of home-cooked traditional Jewish food, a constant reminder of her parents’ life left behind in Eastern Europe.

Second cousins who grew up together in a little town in Romania, Mrs. Levine’s parents were survivors of the Holocaust, who were liberated from concentration camps and emigrated to America in 1949. Levine considers her parents’ ordeal “a typical immigrant story,” a tale of tragedy, survival, and hope. And it is this story that she tells her grandchildren when she teaches them the family’s Passover recipes.

To her parents, America really was the land of milk and honey, and it was fiercely important to honor the past while creating a new life for their children. To her father, Simcha Roth, this meant an unlikely career building houses. To her mother, this meant raising her three children (Levine, along with her brothers, Nathan and Ben) in the European tradition, while also helping them to become all-American. Family dinner was more old country than adopted country.

“Growing up, everything was made from scratch,” says Levine. “My mother was always good at very traditional Jewish food, including homemade chopped liver, cheese knishes, blintzes, and gefilte fish.”

Despite the abundance they enjoyed in America, the Roth family never took their table for granted. Every morsel of food was considered both a luxury and an expression of faith. There were foods that heightened the spirit of the weekly Sabbath and foods that accentuated the importance of special holidays. To Levine, latkes and jelly doughnuts signify the Hanukkah celebration; chicken soup with matzo balls, potato kugel, and a braided challah mean it is the Sabbath; cheese blintzes, a favorite of both Levine and her mother, are perfect for celebrating the gift of life any day; and soup noodles made from sliced potato-starch crepes mean Passover.

Levine says her mother, who is now 85 and still living in Cleveland, pampered her children with a constant rotation of kosher treats. Yet, despite the family’s appreciation for good food, Levine didn’t learn to cook as a child. “I was never in the kitchen growing up, ever,” she says. “Because they have gone through such turmoil and they have the good fortune to be alive, Holocaust survivors put everything into their children; they want their children to have everything they didn’t have. So, we were spoiled and we were coddled. We were given everything and we were waited on.”

Molchi Roth’s generation of women stayed at home, tending the holy domestic spot. They were, says Levine, “the Martha Stewarts of their generation,” and for their daughters who eventually did enter the workplace, they were more than a little intimidating.

Although Levine didn’t grow up helping in the kitchen and has been a working mother, she learned practical lessons from watching her mother keep house. She also learned cultural lessons. Cooking, she learned, is not only an act of cultural identity, but a means of connecting with her past while creating a future. As a result, Levine, now 51, has always been very conscious of what she considers “the perfect home.”

Balancing jobs with the work of keeping an Orthodox home was a challenge. But along the way, Levine became a culinary force to be reckoned with. Juggling various jobs in the Jewish community, both teaching and doing administrative work, while raising her daughters Hadassah, now 26, Aliza, 24, Shayna, 16 and her son, Eli, 22 she managed a traditional home, preparing every meal from scratch.

When her own daughters grew old enough to pull up chairs and help, she vowed not only to pass on her own mother’s beloved recipes, but also to pass along the cozy togetherness of the kitchen. For her children, this became a cornerstone upon which to build an observant faith. Because her daughters started so young, she says, they have already surpassed her as cooks and homemakers.

And now, one is even the mother of two young children, Rikki, 3, and Dahlia, 20 months. And Levine is a young “Bubby." Every Sunday is “Bubby Day,” and Levine’s granddaughters pull up chairs next to the counter so they can crack eggs for blintzes, sift flour for cakes, and braid challah dough. As soon as they are old enough, she will involve them with more elaborate family recipes, like her Passover noodles.

Being a grandmother, according to Levine, makes one look back as well as ahead.

“Sometimes I look at my daughter with her two little girls and I picture myself with my two oldest girls at that age. It’s like seeing myself again,” she says.

In this juxtaposition of past and the future, she remembers herself as a child, as a young mother, and now, as a grandmother, as she works to make memories for her grandchildren.

Homemade Passover Noodles
Traditional noodles: perfect for the holidays and any day

This is a unique recipe passed down through generations and is rarely made by modern kosher cooks. Store-bought noodles do not hold a candle to the homemade noodles’ taste and texture. Sally Levine says the recipe connects her to her ancestry: Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all made these noodles from slices of potato-starch crepes.

The dish calls for two "bubby cups" of potato starch, meaning a full, rounded cup. Levine makes the dish on "regular" nights, too, filling the cups with cooked chicken left over from a big pot of traditional chicken soup. Share the noodle "ends" with the grandkids as Levine does with hers.

10 eggs
1 full, rounded "bubby cup" of potato starch
1 teaspoon of salt
2 full cups cold water
Vegetable oil for frying

1. In a large shallow bowl, whisk together first 4 ingredients.
2. Heat 1/2 teaspoon of oil in a 9 inch frying pan over medium-high heat. Using a half measure of a 4-ounce soup ladle per crepe, pour the mixture into the frying pan, using the handle to angle the pan’s base so that the entire batter covers the frying surface.
3. When the crepe starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, lift it up slowly with a spatula and flip it. Do not overbrown. These fry up quickly, so keep an eye on them so they don't burn.
4. Transfer cooked crepe to a plate.
5. Remix the batter well prior to pouring each crêpe, as the starch tends to settle at the bottom of the mixture. Before pouring the batter for each crêpe add 1/2 teaspoon of oil to the pan. Reheat the pan and repeat cooking process.
6. Stack the crepes on the plate as they are cooked.
7. Refrigerate overnight if using the crepes as noodles. When ready to serve, take 2 or 3 noodles at a time, roll them up tightly like a cigar, cut them into one-inch-wide segments, and add them to a pot of your favorite chicken broth. Don’t forget to give the ends of the noodles to your little ones to eat! If serving as filled crepes, serve at room temperature.

Yield: Makes about 22 crepes.

Mushroom Sauce for Chicken Crepes
Earthy mushroom sauce adds zing to chicken crepes

This is not a traditional Passover recipe, as it includes flour, which cannot be used during the holiday. Sally Levine makes her Passover crepes year-round and uses this sauce recipe when it is not Passover.

3 tablespoons margarine
1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon soy sauce
3/4 cup non-dairy creamer

1. Bring about 4 cups of water to boil in a sauce pot. Add mushroom pieces and cook until tender, about five minutes. Drain, wash under warm water, and slice mushrooms, or chop into small pieces while still warm.
2. Heat a saucepan over medium-low heat and add margarine. Once melted, add mushrooms, soy sauce and non-dairy creamer. Once heated, add flour and whisk until slightly thickened.
3. Serve over chicken-filled crepes.

Yield: Serves about 5.

Cheese Blintzes
Cheese-filled golden delicious packets

Blintzes are a traditional Jewish food also made for Shavuot in May, during which the focus is on dairy foods. Sally Levine says her mother's recipe, below, is just perfect in texture, color, and flavor. “I've tasted others, both homemade and bought frozen, and there is just no comparison!”

7 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 cup water
2 1/2 cups flour
Approximately 1/2 cup seltzer
Vegetable oil for frying

5 4-ounce packages farmer cheese
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar (7 rounded serving spoons)
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar (1 package)

1. Whisk eggs with sugar and salt thoroughly. Add milk and flour gradually. Mix all ingredients well.
2. Heat 1/2 teaspoon of oil in a 7-inch frying pan over medium-high. Using a half measure of a 4-ounce soup ladle per crepe, pour mixture into the frying pan, using the handle to angle the pan’s base so that the batter covers the frying surface entirely.
3. When the crepe starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, lift it up slowly with a spatula and flip it. Do not overbrown. These fry up quickly, so you really need to keep an eye on them so they don't burn.
4. Transfer cooked crepes to a plate and allow to cool thoroughly.
5. Make filling by mixing ingredients together until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
6. When crepes are cool, fill with about 4 to 5 tablespoons of filling and fold in four sides of crepe to make a square.
7. Fry the little packages lightly in butter or vegetable oil, browning the crepes on each side. Serve with sour cream or blueberry preserves.

Yield: Makes 16 blintzes.