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I remember my grandmother’s kreplach, little pasta dumplings filled with beef and onions. They could turn an ordinary bowl of chicken soup into something ambrosial. They were something way beyond my mother’s limited cooking talents, so we enjoyed them only on infrequent trips from Philadelphia, where we lived, to Brooklyn, where my grandparents lived. I’m determined to remedy this deficit. I recently learned how to make kreplach from my friend Ruth Marcus, who invited me to her house for her family’s annual kreplach-making marathon.
(Kreplach, by the way, a Yiddish word, is plural. The singular is “krepl” — but no one ever eats just one!)
Every culture has something similar
Almost every culture has something similar to kreplach. You’re probably familiar with Italian ravioli, Polish pierogi and Chinese wontons. There’s also buuz (Mongolian), manti (Turkish), momo (Nepali), pelmeni (Russian) and many more ethnic permutations. Kreplach are usually triangular. Some say the three sides represent Judiasm’s three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but I think that’s what we generously call a “bubba meise” – an old wives’ tale.
Ruth, on the other hand, is an inspiration. Every year for more than 35 years, she has been gathering her family – first her own three children, now her daughter and the three granddaughters who live nearby – to make hundreds of kreplach in a single afternoon.
Transmitting family recipes—and values
Ruth is living proof that cooking with children and grandchildren is one of the best ways to transmit family values and lore. She grew up in Baltimore, eating kreplach made by her grandmother, Lillian Miller. Now she uses the recipe from Lillian – known to Ruth’s children and grandchildren as Mema – along with several family objects that have taken on almost ritual significance.
There’s a tablecloth Mema gave to Ruth as a shower gift, now used only for rolling out kreplach. There’s Mema’s old wooden rolling pin, and a pretty china plate that once belonged to Mema, where the kreplach rest before going into the pot.
As toddlers, granddaughters Isabel Johnson, 7, and Olivia Johnson, 5, played with small portions of kreplach dough while the grownups worked. Ruth gently teases them about how they used to sit in their highchairs and say, “Roll it, roll it, roll it.”
Now Isabel is experienced enough to roll and cut the dough, and Olivia can portion out bits of ground beef for the filling. Both can fold the square pieces of dough into triangles and crimp the edges. Ruth’s oldest grandchild, Sydney Marcus, 18, goes to college in Colorado but timed her summer visit back home to Michigan to coincide with Kreplach Day.
Ruth and the girls knead, roll and cut the dough, and fill, fold and crimp the dumplings. Ruth’s daughter, Lauren Marcus Johnson, mans the stove; each burner holds a big pot of boiling water. Ruth’s husband, David, is in charge of packaging: 12 kreplach go into a zip-closed sandwich bag, then the filled sandwich bags go into a gallon-sized freezer bag.
A few small bags will go to friends, but most will be frozen and enjoyed later at the Marcus’ Sabbath and festival dinners. They’ll start eating this year’s batch at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September and finish the last kreplach next spring before Passover, when everything made with flour has to be tossed or locked away.
The secret ingredients
There’s more to kreplach than flour, egg, water, beef, parsley and onion. “What are the secret ingredients?” asks Ruth. “Love!” says Isabel. “And telling the stories.”
The little girls never met Mema, their great-great-grandmother. But they can tell the story about how she came to America from a farm in a little village in Russia. Mema was 8 and her sister was 4. Her father had already left. Her mother hired a wagon to take them to the train, and Mema’s little legs dangled off the back of the wagon. She waved goodbye to her grandmother and grandfather, knowing she would never see them again.
Ruth says the one pound of meat in this recipe will make between 80 and 100 kreplach. “You can stop when you have used up the dough, or you can make another batch of dough. It never comes out even! If you have a little meat left over, shape and cook a hamburger!”