The Chremsl Is Sublime With Strawberries, Despite Worms Link
Many a child has refused to eat spaghetti on the grounds that it looked “just like worms.” (There’s even an old joke in which a baby bird refuses to eat his worms because to him they look like spaghetti.) Appearances aside, there is actually a closer relationship between the two — at least etymologically — than one might have guessed. As it happens, the name of the pasta vermicelli is actually derived from the Latin vermis, meaning worms. What’s even more surprising is that there is also a connection here with, of all things, the venerable Passover dish chremslach — but for that we have to go back to the beginning, to the illustrious Roman gourmet Apicius (or perhaps more precisely, gourmets, for “Apicius” was likely a composite of more than one author).
In his cookbook “De re coquinaria” (“On Cooking”), Apicius includes a recipe for a dish called vermiculos. According to his directions, to make vermiculos one should cook flour in milk to make a paste, then spread this paste out on a dish, cut it into pieces and fry it in oil. The fried strips of dough should be topped with either pepper and honey or with the pungent Roman sauce called garum, the foundation of which was fish that had been left in the sun for several days to ferment. (The idea of garum seems odious to the modern American palate — though it bears a strong resemblance to Southeast Asian fish sauces — but during Roman times it was considered exceedingly delicious. Garum was so popular, in fact, that a kosher version was produced so that the Jews of Rome would not have to go without it.) From vermiculos it’s only a short step, etymologically, to vermicelli (“little worms”), which by the 13th century evolved into more or less the dish we know today: long, thin strands of pasta that are cooked by being boiled in water.
As has been noted by John Cooper in his invaluable “Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food,” Jewish merchants and rabbinic families during the Middle Ages brought a dish called grimseli to Germany from Italy. From what we can surmise, grimseli appears to have been much like Apicius’s vermiculos, consisting of thin strips of dough that were baked in an oven and then doused with honey. This makes sense, as the name is a Yiddish derivation of the Italian vermicelli; in other, nearer variations the dish was known as verimselish or vermslish. From these latter words, Max Weinreich wrote in his “History of the Yiddish Language,” came the Western Yiddish word frimsl, meaning noodles (which in Eastern Yiddish are called lokshn). Among the Jews who moved eastward, grimseli eventually turned into chremsl, the plural of which is chremslach.
As the name evolved, so too did the dish itself. No longer did it refer to thin strips of dough baked in an oven; now it had become pancakes, which, significantly, were made with matzo meal — for chremslach had by now developed into a Passover staple.
The chremslach could be savory, but most often were sweet. Generally the pancakes were, in the long-standing tradition, doused with honey; in later years the chremslach might instead be sprinkled with sugar, as it became more widely available in Europe. Raisins, currants or chopped nuts might also be added to the batter, which was commonly flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon or lemon juice.
Much of the above is on abundant display in the recipe for a dish called “grimslechs” provided by Esther Levy in her 1871 “Jewish Cookery Book,” promoted as the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States. Levy instructs the home cook to “Chop up half a pound of stoned raisins and almonds, with half a dozen apples and half a pound of currants.” To this should be added nutmeg and cinnamon, the rind of a lemon, two soaked matzos, four well-beaten eggs and no less than half a pound of brown sugar and half a pound of fat (the specific type of which is left unstated).
I have never tested this recipe, and would do so only in the interest of anthropological curiosity; I leave to the reader’s imagination the taste and texture of a dish with a ratio of two matzos to half a pound of sugar and half a pound of fat. Needless to say, a century and a quarter after Levy published her book, today’s chremslach are a good deal lighter. They are also a good deal more varied: Oftentimes the chremslach are not even pancakes but fritters, tablespoons of batter dropped into hot oil for deep-frying. Whether fritters or pancakes, the chremslach may be topped with honey, sugar, cinnamon sugar or fresh fruit; somewhat more elaborately, the batter may also be filled with a mixture of dried fruit such as prunes and apricots as well as chopped nuts. And for the fat-conscious among us, chremslach pancakes can be baked rather than fried — in so doing, returning them at least partway to their medieval roots, especially when they are dipped in honey.
In all of these cases, chremslach is meant as a Passover dish, but there is no particular reason why it should be confined to those few days alone, just as latkes need not be served only on Chanukah or cheesecake only on Shavuot. Indeed, if you find a chremslach recipe that really suits you (the one below, for instance), you might even seek to revive the practice of eating it every Friday night, as was done during the 13th century by no less eminent a personage than Eleazar ben Judah ben Kalonymos, the distinguished talmudist and kabbalist, and the rabbi of the Rhine town of — yes — Worms.
* * *|
This very light and delicious version of chremslach is made by Selma Cherkas of Worcester, Mass., to whom it had been passed down from family members who emigrated from Riga, Latvia.
The chremslach are especially good when topped with warm strawberry compote, and if you like, you can drizzle a little honey on as well.
Cottage Cheese Chremslach (Matzo Meal Pancakes) with Strawberry Compote
3 cups coarsely chopped strawberries (fresh or thawed frozen)
1/3 cup water
1 tbsp. Cointreau or other liqueur (optional)
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
2 cups cottage cheese
2 cups matzo meal
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups milk
Butter for frying
|Make the compote: Combine the strawberries, water, liqueur (if using) and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
|Make the batter: Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk until a uniformly textured batter is created.
|Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
|Make the chremslach: Butter a large nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat. Pour 1/4 cup of the batter onto the hot skillet or griddle, making a pancake about 4 inches in diameter. Fry until golden-brown on both sides. Place on a baking sheet in the oven.
|Repeat until all of the batter has been used, re-buttering the frying surface as necessary to keep the chremslach from sticking.
Serve hot, drizzled with the warm strawberry compote.
Serves 4 to 6.