Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

Perusing the Pesachdik Products: New Tastes for an Ancient Holiday

While all Jewish holidays seem to be food-centered, Passover is about what you can’t eat. (OK, Yom Kippur, we are not talking about you. You’re in a league of your own.) With the holiday fast approaching – it begins this Friday night, April 3 – we’re fixated on some of the new products we can and will be eating this year.

Once again, we were inspired by our pilgrimage to the amazing ShopRite supermarket in Cherry Hill, NJ, with its “Kosher Experience,” aisles loaded with Pesachdik groceries and products imported from Israel. (We wrote about it a few years ago.) This year, we trolled the Internet, read our Jewish Twitter feed, and perused the “Takeout Seder Menu” from local gourmet stores. We discovered that there are a few new tastes available for this old holiday.



What would Passover be without an oval of gefilte fish attractively placed on a bed of lettuce, on a little plate and topped with a carrot curl? We bought a few jars in the supermarket, the native habitat of gefilte fish. Gefilte fish don’t swim in any ocean; they live in a glass jar, nestled in goo. We didn’t have a choice of farm-raised or wild gefilte fish either. They are all tame, bland and captive.

We were drawn to the Rokeach brand because we saw the Yiddish word heimeshe on the label. Huh? First of all, we spell it haimish and we wrote the book. We define haimish as “unpretentious and homey, informal and friendly.” We would enjoy an appetizer that fits this description, but how exactly can gefilte fish be unpretentious? We guess they just sit there politely and wait to be eaten.

We do know a pretentious gefilte fish when we see it: the sustainably sourced, “artisanal small-batch gourmet loaf” with a layer of salmon on top marketed by the hipster chefs at Gefilteria in Brooklyn. Our mass-produced gefilte fish have no illusions that they are special. They know that they are the exact same as their jar mates.



One way to expand our Passover palate this year is to embrace our hidden Sephardic ancestry (Jews whose ancestors come from Mediterranean countries) and eat kitniyot, the rice, corn, soybeans, peas, lentils and peanuts that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally don’t eat on Passover. We’ve visited the Sephardic synagogue in Florence and enjoyed Istanbul. That’s good enough for us. We’ve read that everyone is descended from the same eight people anyway, so we’ll be putting peanut butter on our matzah this year.

Evidently, Manischewitz has some Sephardic relatives too. The venerable Jewish foods company has a new line of  Pesachdik “Kitni” products that include tahini, rice cakes, popcorn and peanut butter. Marketing to Sephardic Jews – that’s targeted segmentation! Just make sure you read the little cautionary note on the label: “Acceptable for those who consume kitniyot on Passover.”

As a side note, we’ve noticed that Sephardic recipes are in vogue, too. This year, The New York Times’ Cooking section includes Passover recipes for fried artichokes (Italian), lamb with dried fruit (Israeli/Middle East), and stuffed grape leaves (Greek/Turkey). Even Jewish cooking maven Joan Nathan, an Ashkenazic Jew, is jumping on the bandwagon. We love her recipes, and this year her haroset includes dried figs, pitted dates, apricot preserves and cardamom, all ingredients usually found in Sephardic haroset.



The ubiquitous Passover sweet is the macaroon, the flourless, chewy, ball-shaped cookie made with ground nuts, shredded coconut and egg whites. You could serve a macaron, the elegant French-accented meringue and almond sandwich cookie that’s trending right now. In fact, macarons are kosher for Passover, but you’d never confuse the two once you’ve tasted them – and there’s no food truck cruising the city selling Passover macaroons.

Each year manufacturers invent new flavors of the Passover macaroon. Last year it was Rocky Road. Ooh, Rocky Road…. We anticipated breaking the seal on the can, only to discover that it was the same old chocolate chip macaroon – with a small shred of marshmallow added in. Disappointment. For Pesach 2015, Manischewitz is touting red velvet, pistachio orange, and carrot cake macaroons as hot new flavors. We can can’t wait. Instead of wasting calories on Red Velvet macaroons, we’ll be hunting down that macaron food truck.


haroset icecream

This year, Ben & Jerry’s has introduced a new flavor for Passover – Charoset Swirl ice cream. It costs 20 shekels (about $5) because it’s only available in Israel. We can’t taste test it for you so we’ll have to rely on the description of Elli Fischer, a writer for the Times of Israel, who described it as “vanilla based with apples and cinnamon and lots of walnuts.” He added, “While it’s definitely premium ice cream and quite tasty, it’s also not very haroset-y.”  Maybe we can buy a pint of vanilla and swirl in our leftover haroset. Ben & Jerry’s is known for creative flavor concoctions, like Chubby Hubby and Pumpkin Cheesecake. Haroset is sweet and delicious. It is a good choice. We’re just happy they didn’t decide on “Chunky Gefilte Fish Swirl.”


Happy Passover to all our readers, friends and family!







Teach Your Parents Well
February 24, 2015, 1:30 am
Filed under: family, Jewish mothers, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

This article first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, Feb. 22.

When our children were young, we introduced them to the pleasures of our childhoods — from reading Goodnight Moon to riding a two-wheeler. We relished the chance to play with them and expand their horizons, but our horizons were limited to what we knew and could imagine.

Michael Scolnic fishing with his Pop (Stanley).

Michael Scolnic fishing with his Pop (Stanley).

What we couldn’t imagine was how much these children, who now range in age from 19 to 29, would teach us. They’ve made us more socially conscious, politically correct, and tech-smart. They’ve been persistent and patient — mostly. When they laugh at us because we still have a landline and pay bills by snail mail, we know it’s because they love us. Our children have taught us well.

Early on, we did the bulk of the teaching. Wash your hands after you use the toilet. Ask before you pet the neighbor’s dog. Remember to say please. Long before middle school, they started training us: Don’t flush the toilet every time you use it; you’re wasting water. Get a dog at a shelter, not a pet store. Never ask a boy if he has a girlfriend. He might be dating a guy. If you have to ask, ask him if he’s seeing anyone.

Ben Eisenberg sampling the local food in Kunming, China.

Ben Eisenberg sampling the local food in Kunming, China.

When our children were toddlers, we picked out their clothes and dressed them. Now our daughters give us fashion advice: They tell us it’s time to give away our “mom jeans” and show us 14 ways to tie a scarf. Their perspective opens our eyes: Purple hair just means you are creative, a tattoo is body art, and people get things other than their ears pierced.

We taught them about food: Chicken comes in other forms than nugget. You won’t know if you like vegetable curry until you try it. Who knew that just a few years later they would ask us to try the Lenni-Lenape rabbit stew at their third-grade Native American feast?

Our kids informed us that the word for people who don’t eat macaroni and cheese or scrambled eggs is vegan, not picky. They taught us that we don’t have to eat our green vegetables anymore; we can drink kale in a smoothie with beets and wheat grass; it’s served in an eco-friendly glass bottle for $9 at a trendy café. When we crave sugar at midnight, we don’t have to eat stale Oreos. We can get warm cookies delivered to our door using an app the kids downloaded for us.

Samantha Eisenberg with a baby duck, one in a long line of pets.

Samantha Eisenberg with a baby duck, one in a long line of pets.

As our children took up hobbies and brought home pets, they got us involved, too: We fed granola to pet rats and frozen mice to a pet snake. We took scuba diving lessons in a local swimming pool even though we were terrified. We cheered at robotic competitions and learned how to judge Lincoln-Douglas debates. We now know that break and lock are useful vocabulary words for both a hip-hop dancer and a high school wrestler.

Growing up, we two played the piano and clarinet. Our kids played those and more. We’ve learned that it’s easier to deliver a forgotten clarinet to school than a cello, it’s harder to find a teacher for the steel drum than the French horn, and it’s a miracle when the middle school orchestra ends on the same note at the same time.

Our music mavens have more than 30,000 songs on their playlists, and they’ve exposed us to musical genres beyond Motown and hard rock. They taught us that grunge doesn’t mean it needs to be washed, crunk is not a noise your car makes, and Euro pop is not a German soda.

Andy Scolnic with his French horn.

Andy Scolnic with his French horn.

When we grew up, travel was limited to summers at the Shore or winter getaways to Florida. Now our kids are world travelers; they’ve told us that in China you can get a $5 massage from a blind person and that the Czech language is so difficult that only thing you’ll learn how to say is “Sýrový sendvič, prosím,” which, of course, means “Cheese sandwich, please.” Most shocking? It’s possible to cram three weeks worth of clothes in a carry-on.

We look forward to the next stage of our kids’ lives, by which we mean weddings and babies. Except that none of our kids are there yet. Still, we’re eager for them to teach us about digital wedding favors, having your best guy friend be your maid of honor, and the proper way to put baby Hudson or baby Harper to bed in an organic cotton sleep pod.

Jessie Scolnic with her dad, David, in Barcelona.

Jessie Scolnic with her dad, David, in Barcelona.

What’s for Dinner? Ibbigublibbin
February 5, 2015, 12:05 pm
Filed under: family, jewish food | Tags: , , , , , ,

Ibbigublibbin (say: ibby-guh-blibben) is the Yiddish word for leftovers – we think. We can’t remember who told us this, and we’re not sure how to spell it. It’s not in our dictionary and we can’t find it online. It’s likely a nonsense word, but we like it. So does Ellen’s husband, David; he often asks if they are having “ibbi” again for dinner.

In fact, this man is quite fond of leftovers: When Ellen and David got a last-minute invitation to watch the Super Bowl at a friend’s house, they knew they had to bring some snacks. In their refrigerator was a half-tub of leftover vegetarian chili. They had eaten it two nights in a row and then forgotten about it – till now. It was already more than a week old

“Should we take the leftover chili?” asked David.

“No, that’s disgusting,” Ellen answered.

“What if we heat it up and put it on chips, like nachos?” David countered.

Sanity prevailed. Ellen put the chili back in the refrigerator (to be thrown out the next morning) and baked a batch of brownies for the hosts.

Joyce works from home and likes to have a hot lunch to stick in the microwave the next day, so she often makes extra portions for dinner. At their cozy dinner for two, when Ted reaches for the third helping, Joyce has been known to look at him sideways and at the potential leftovers longingly. She’s reluctant to deprive Ted of food; after all she is a Jewish mother. But he’s a good guy, and he has learned how to share.

When Joyce’s son, Ben, was younger, he would bring home doggie bags from restaurants and let them collect in the refrigerator. This was a boy who could save his Halloween candy from year to year. The family knew not to touch his stuff.

doggy bagswan


But Ted, who grew up in a household where you didn’t waste food, would be bothered as the left-overs sat uneaten. The solution? Ben would mark a date on the container after which the food was up for grabs. Ted was the mostly likely to grab it.

People who don’t even live in our house look forward to our leftovers. Luckily, we both have access to lunchrooms where the staff is grateful for any freebie – from a box of donuts (with the chocolate ones missing) to a half crate of Clementines to a tin of drugstore Christmas cookies a month after Christmas. After we’ve eaten too many slices of cake, it’s nice to have a place to re-gift the rest of it. We pretend we’re being generous when we really just want to get it out of the house before we eat it all.


When our kids were at home, we would cook for a crowd. Leftovers are scarce in a house with teen-agers. But now that we are cooking for two, we still buy the family pack of chicken legs. The we realize that we bought too much, put half in the freezer, and forget about the frozen lump of chicken until months later.

frozen chicken

Or we cook all the chicken, thinking, “Good, we’ll have leftovers.” Which is how we got to this leftover mishegoss (the Yiddish word for nonsense, foolishness) in the first place.

Where there’s leftovers, there must be discards. How come we’re the only ones who ever clean out the refrigerator? Why is a moldy cucumber solely a mother’s responsibility? When the potatoes have so many eyes they are looking back at you, why doesn’t anyone else see them?

Other members of the family have been known to the take the lid off the cream cheese, see green penicillin growing, put the lid back on, and put it right back in the fridge. They are not waiting for a second opinion; they just don’t want the responsibility. And yet these are the same people who are so strict about expiration dates.

Our kids are sticklers for that date of demise; they’ll point out that the date on the lid was two weeks ago; why are we trying to get them to eat that? We’ve tried to convince them that the hummus looks fine, but they don’t believe us. So it’s no surprise that they are suspicious of our leftovers. Who knows how long that baked chicken has been sitting around?

When we want to eat a yogurt, we choose from among the cartons with expired dates because we know our kids will only eat the “good” ones. It’s okay. See, it’s delicious. It tastes fine. Aren’t we good moms?

Hanukkah Yays and Boos

Hanukkah begins on Tuesday evening, Dec. 16 – and this year, it’s where it should be on the calendar, a whole three weeks after Thanksgiving and a little bit before Christmas. Everyone remembers last year’s Thanksgivukkah debacle.


That got us thinking about what we love and don’t love so much about the holiday season.

Yay: Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are our two favorite holidays, and we like to keep them separate. We won’t have to serve potato latkes with our turkey again for about 80,000 years, according to the number crunchers.

Boo: Last year, this celestial calendar convergence allowed us to celebrate Hanukkah on its actual date. This year our kids might not make it home until the eighth night.


Yay: Target has a big aisle loaded with Hanukkah chazerai – gift wrap, napkins, menorot, and mugs decorated with the all purpose Jewish expression “Oy vey!” Way to represent the Tribe.

Boo: We don’t need another menorah. We have classy ones, artistic ones, and all the ones our kids made through the years, from a block of wood with nine metal bolts to one we made together at a Paint Your Own studio.


Yay: We love buying presents for our kids.

Boo: They’re not satisfied with Fisher Price toys anymore, and we don’t have any grandchildren yet to justify our making a trip to Toys “R” Us .


Yay: Like sneakers and coffee, there used to be only one choice for Hanukkah candles – the blue box in the supermarket with the pale candles in washed out yellow and almost red.


Now there are so many choices – beeswax in vibrant colors, tie-dyed stripey ones, and artistic ones from the candle factory in Safed, Israel.

Boo: How many Hanukkah candles do we really need? Why are we stockpiling six boxes? Because they’re pretty, and it’s handy to have a few in the kitchen drawer to use for birthday candles.


Yay: It’s latke time. We love reading recipes for parsnip carrot zucchini latkes, but we’ll be sticking with original potato ones to please our families.

Boo: Why did we start a diet after Thanksgiving? Get out the oil.


Yay: Our kids are grown. We no longer have to explain why we don’t have a Christmas tree.

Boo: But how do we tell them we weren’t home when they called because we were driving through South Philly looking at the houses with Christmas lights?


Yay: Our husbands don’t have to risk life and limb getting on a ladder to string lights from the gutters.

Boo: Our houses look so bare without twinkly lights.


Yay: No lights for us, but we want to decorate with something. We were happy to find a “tasteful winter-themed” door decoration with ribbons and pinecones.

Boo: It took one minute for one of our husbands to say, “What’s that wreath doing on the front door?


Yay: We were impressed that Kohl’s had a big Hanukkah selection, including blue and white rope cufflinks, a glass dreidel you’d never let the kids spin, a Peace Love Hanukkah throw pillow, and a Star of David bundt cake pan.

Boo: They lose points for offering a “4-piece Hanukkah ornament set.” (See the third to the last item: $71.99…oy) We aren’t hanging a blue glass dreidel on a tree.


Yay: We look forward to family Hanukkah parties, holiday staff dinners, and having time with our kids and our friends who like to get together and celebrate over the holidays.

Boo: Before we know it, the holidays will be done. It’ll be 2015 and we’ll be kvetching about the snow forecast for February and counting the days until Passover.


We wish you a Happy Hanukkah!



We’re Suspicious About Social Media

We’ve been Word Maven-ing for almost 15 years. When our first edition of The Dictionary of Jewish Words was published in 2001, Mark Zuckerberg was in high school and tweeting was for the birds.

We’ve had to learn how to share our thoughts with the world using social media. So we tweet, post, follow and friend as fast as we can. In the beginning we got it wrong sometimes, like when we sent one of our daughters a Facebook post asking if her sloppy roommate was still leaving dishes in the sink. “Mom,” this daughter said, “I need to teach you how to send a private message on Facebook.”

Sometimes we get it right, like when one of our sons complimented us in a direct tweet: “Hi mom. Nice use of the trending hashtag. You might also want to add #Yiddish or #Jewish.”

Thanks, sweetie. Now we know to use hashtags for all our important messages: #Supermoms #IJustPutMoneyInYourAccount #CallGrandmomOnSunday.


On our personal Facebook pages we have a respectable number of friends,  but we know most of them. They are our actual, living friends in real life (or “real time” as they say). But on our Word Mavens page, it’s a “business page” according to Facebook standards, we have followers who claim to “like” us – – even though we don’t actually know most of them.

When we clicked on the statistics to see where our fans come from, we were surprised that 179 of them hail from Turkey. Ellen took a family trip to Istanbul last summer but only talked about The Word Mavens to the hotel desk clerks. Even more surprising are our fans in the Middle East – 24 in Saudi Arabia, 20 in Iraq, and 4 in Gaza. (Facebook lists it as Gaza, Palestine). We can’t imagine that those 4 people are interested in our hamantashen recipe. And what about the 2 fans we have in Bosnia & Herzegovina; we had to consult the map to figure out where that even is.


We aren’t surprised to have 7 fans in Israel. We probably know them. On the other hand, only 4 people in Wynnewood like us – guess that’s Ellen’s husband, daughter and two sons. But what about our friend Gary who lives in Wynnewood? We know he likes us!

There’s something fishy about these statistics.

Twitter numbers are equally confounding. Celebrities have millions of followers but they only follow 3 people – their agent, their yoga teacher and the sushi  restaurant that delivers. That’s what makes them famous. If that numerical equation is true, then we’re a little bit famous – because we also have more followers (1,285) than people we are following (454). But who are these 1200-plus people? That kind of puts the pressure on us, when we think that there are more than a thousand people breathlessly awaiting our next words….

When Twitter recently sent us a link to our demographics, we were surprised. According to their stats, the top cities for readers of the Word Mavens are:

Kiev, Ukraine: 53%

Minsk, Belarus: 26%

Philadelphia, U.S.: 4%

New York City, U.S.: 3%

Los Angeles, US: 1%

Who are all these followers from Kiev and Minsk? If it were 100 years ago, they’d include our great grandparents and their whole mishpachah – members of the tribe who are actually interested in knishes and bagels and the holiday doings of the Word Mavens.socialmedia


We cannot explain our current popularity in the Soviet bloc. Perhaps it has something to do with the global conspiracy to hack into American computers. Maybe it’s because we used a credit card to pay for a jar of borscht at Petrovsky Market in Northeast Philadelphia.

When we perused our list of followers, we understood why @EstherK, a writer who describes herself as “pretty darned Jewy”; @HebrewWithNaomi, a Bar Mitzvah tutor in Ontario; and @KosherEye, a guide to all things kosher, would follow us.

Buy why does someone who describes himself as a “fly fishing maniac from Iceland,” or a pizza parlor we’ve never been to, follow us? They must have been farblonget and clicked on the wrong button.

Even if we wouldn’t recognize our fans in the supermarket, we are happy to have them. It’s always gratifying when the “likes” for one of our funny Facebook posts hits triple digits. The statistics tell us that our posts about food are the most popular – musings about the great shnecken vs. rugelach debate, our road trip to Economy Candy  on the Lower East Side, and Giant supermarket’s parve holiday cakes all reached more than 1,000 people.

That’s the advantage of the Internet – connecting to people all over the globe through their computer. We would have to present our Shmoozing with the Word Mavens  program to a lot of sisterhoods and senior groups to get a thousand people reminiscing about chocolate Hanukkah gelt.dreidel

But Twitter is the exact opposite of our book talk, where we speak for 50 minutes about holidays, traditions and Jewish food and audience members share their childhood memories and favorite Yiddish words. We often shmooze and chat with our audiences for over an hour. Imagine limiting that to 140 characters.


Jarred by Jargon: We’ve Done Our Due Diligence
October 30, 2014, 4:18 pm
Filed under: culture, technology | Tags: , , , , ,

Every profession has its own jargon, words that turn the workplace into a super secret society.

Baristas know what  “venti, skinny, half-caf, extra whip” means and then they serve it to you. Doctors say, “Code blue stat” to mean, “Hurry up, someone’s dying,” not “The copy machine is jammed.” But for us writers, most days find us sitting at our desk writing, snug in our own little world.  We write articles and essays with a Jewish accent, so we are guilty of using some Yiddish jargon – – but it’s usually stuff like, “I need another shmeer on my bagel with this cup of coffee” or “Get the shmutz off the desk so we can get to work.”

Apparently, we are also guilty of using “old people jargon.” We discovered this when our kids didn’t know what we meant when we asked them to find us “a little box the size of a cassette tape” and the time we inquired if they had written and mailed a check yet for their rent bill.

When it comes to modern corporate-speak, we are strangers to interfacing, leaning in and reaching out. When we venture out of our home office cocoons into the business world to meet with an agent or do an interview, we are confronted with indecipherable bureaucrat-ease. When the secretary asks if we have our ducks in the row, we turn around to see who’s quacking.


We asked some corporate types we know to send us examples of the jargon they use every day, and before we knew it, our in-box was overflowing.

When we “crunched the numbers,” we realized that a bunch of terms fell into the category of sports metaphors, like “Tee it up,” “We need a big win on this one,” “We need to be defensive on this,” and “We have to punt this one.” We know that you punt in football when it’s fourth down and your team is doing stinky, but these terms all come from a man’s world – the world of sports.  In fact, we know a female executive who hears these terms at meetings and can’t relate. She thinks they are exclusionary, so we thought up an option for her: Next time an employee says that he is having trouble choosing the best supplier, she can tell him to “Pick a color” already.



We soon realized that some of these business expressions have nothing to do what you think they mean:

Run it up the flagpole. In business this means, “Let’s test this idea and see what everyone thinks.” To us it means, “It’s time to take in the American flag. Labor Day was two months ago.”

No white smoke yet. Around the conference table, this means that the deal isn’t finalized yet. In real life, it means that the Cardinals are still shmoozing about who they want to be the next Pope.

 I’m going off the grid. At the office this is shorthand for, “I’m going on vacation. I won’t be reachable by cell phone or computer.” When we go off the grid, we don’t know where we left our cell phone, and when we walk around the house calling our own number we don’t hear the theme song from Broadway’s Rent.

Can you hook me up? At work this means, “Can you include me in that meeting?” In our world, if we asked friends to hook us up, they’d be surprised to say the least. They know our husbands, and didn’t we all have dinner together last week?

Let’s not get into the weeds. In a corporate setting, it means, “Let’s not discuss the details yet.” From Food TV, we learned that in a restaurant being “in the weeds” means that you are behind on filling the orders. In Colorado it means, “Let’s wait until later to smoke.”

I’ve been putting out fires all day. At the office, this explains that you didn’t get back to someone because you had to deal with so many emergencies. At home, maybe it can mean the same. We’re going to use this last one to justify why we haven’t posted a blog in a whole month. We’ve been going on high-priority trips to see our kids, working on other projects to bring home the bacon, and taste-testing all the mini-sized candy bars before Halloween. We’ve been putting out fires all month.


But now we’re back on the grid. We’re teeing it up, and we have our ducks all in a row.

Happy Halloween.


jack olan


Schnecken or Rugelach? It’s a Yummy Nosh by Any Name

When we declare that we are going on a diet, all we can think about is pizza and ice cream. So you shouldn’t be surprised that when we contemplate fasting on Yom Kippur, we imagine diving into a fish tray – and finishing up with something sweet. This year, we have rugelach and schnecken on our minds.

We joke that when we were writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words, we came up with the definition of Torah in 10 minutes, but we pondered the difference between rugelach and schnecken for hours. We did enough research to write the definitions. We declared that these two pastries are similar – but not exactly the same. Cousins, you might say.

They call it rugelach at Lipkin's Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia.

They call it rugelach at Lipkin’s Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia.

Since then, we’ve been in delis where they label any bite-sized cinnamon sugar pastry a   rugelach and in others that call them schnecken. When we do our book talk and ask our  audiences – filled with bubbies that love to bake and everyone else who loves to nosh – to tell us the difference between the two pastries, they are stymied. They happily share bits of information like,“You should taste my sister’s cinnamon rugelach” or “My husband hates it when I put nuts in the schnecken,” but no one can tell us exactly what makes the two noshes different.

A few weeks ago, we decided to revisit the debate. (After all, someone had to take on this delicious investigation.) We did our due diligence by closely examining (and tasting) as many rugelach and schnecken as humanly possible.

It must have been bashert that we came upon a car decorated with photographs of schnecken. We knew it was schnecken, not rugelach, because the words “The Schnecken Lady” were printed beneath the photos. The Word Mavens decided to give The Schnecken Lady a call, hoping she could referee the controversy.

Myrna Freedman lives in Northeast Philadelphia and provides her home-baked schnecken to stores all over the region. She told us that she’s been baking schnecken since 1977; she uses her Aunt Minnie Eisman’s traditional recipe, which has cinnamon sugar, walnuts, raisin and orange marmalade (this makes the pastries sticky). She also makes novel versions, including Nutella, lemon curd, and chocolate raspberry.

Myrna declined to take sides. “Call it what you want to. The ingredients are basically the same. It depends on where you live, what your family calls it – some people say kigel and others say kugel – and how you cut it. In New York, everything’s a rugelach.”

Thanks, Myrna, but you’ve clearly taken a side – schnecken is emblazoned on your van, business card, website and bakery boxes.

Clearly, we needed to do more research. We’re old school, so we turned to our cookbook collection for clarity, hoping to find out whether it’s the dough, the shape or the fillings that distinguish these two sweets.

THE DOUGH: Schnecken dough is usually composed of butter, flour, egg yolks and yeast. We learned that kuchen (German for cake) is a precursor to schnecken; the yeast-containing dough can be used for cinnamon buns and coffee cakes. This might give us a clue as to why schnecken is sometimes gooey – like a cinnamon bun.

Back in the day in Europe, schnecken dough and rugelach dough were similar. When these pastries both came to America, someone had the bright idea to add cream cheese to rugelach. In fact, venerable cookbook author Joan Nathan calls rugelach “cream cheese cookies.”

At Lipkin’s, a kosher bakery in Northeast Philadelphia that been in business for four-generations, the bakery lady behind the counter told us, “Of course, Mitch [Lipkin] puts cream cheese in the dough.” At Lipkin’s – which sells chocolate, raspberry and cinnamon sugar varieties – they call them rugelach. “I’ve never heard the word schnecken,” the clerk told us.

THE SHAPE: New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton is the author of From My Mother’s Kitchen and a member of the tribe. She calls schnecken “cinnamon nut snails.” That’s a good choice because the word schnecken comes from the Yiddish word for snail. To get that snail shape, you roll out the dough into a rectangle, spread the filling on top, roll it up jellyroll style, cut it into small slices, and bake.

028448003001What’s the shape of rugelach? In an essay in TabletJoan Nathan wrote, “Rug means spiral or crescent-shaped in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; a miniature spiral-shaped dough was, therefore, a rugelach.

To get the crescent shape, you roll out the dough into a circle, cut it into pie-shaped wedges, spread the filling on each wedge and, beginning at the wide edge, roll it up to the point, like a crescent roll.

We checked out Green’s Rugelach Chocolate Original from the supermarket. It comes in a plastic bag and has enough preservatives to last a month on the counter. We were pleased to see, however, that Green’s got the shape right. Their rugelach are parve so they left out the cream cheese.

THE FILLINGS: The basic filling for either is a combination of sugar, cinnamon and nuts. Raisins are the next most popular add-in. Then there’s chocolate and apricot jam. After that, the sky’s the limit, like the Schnecken Lady’s Nutella or Abe Fisher’s newfangled savory version filled chicken and schmaltz or salmon, boursin and kimmel seeds.

photoAbe isn’t our uncle; it’s a new Philadelphia restaurant featuring “food of the Jewish diaspora.” The Israel-born manager brought these savory pastries to our table in place of bread. “Have some rugelach,” he announced. We asked him why they weren’t called schnecken; he told us he had never heard that word. They were delicious.

So it seems that what you call this nosh depends on where your ancestors came from. Since schnecken is a German word, unless you are a direct descendant of German Jews you probably didn’t grow up with schnecken. The vast majority of American Jews are children of immigrants from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, where rugelach ruled.

For a final opinion, we turn one last time to Joan Nathan to weigh in on the great schnecken/rugelach debate. She talked about cream cheese vs. yeast, spirals vs. snails and how the best schnecken are sticky like a cinnamon bun. Her conclusion: “Sometimes the pastries seem to only be different in name. If nothing else, the different names offer the perfect excuse to start the day with a schnecken and end it with a rugelach—what could be better than that?”

That’s good advice, Joan. So when we place the order for our break-fast fish trays, we’ll order a pound of each. Assorted, but throw a few more chocolate ones in the box.


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