My Ima's Shabbat Oven
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
By Eitan Stern
Back in the early sixties, Israel was a very poor country since it had absorbed 1.5 million new immigrants: refugees from the Holocaust and Arab countries that were displaced and expelled from their homes after the State of Israel was established. Israel's population tripled from 650,000 people in 1948 to near two million people in a decade. The country was poor, and standards of living were very low.
my parents, Menachem and Chana
In the early sixties, my family wasn't wealthy, but they were better off than the average Israeli family. My father had an old car which was very rare at the time. It was a symbol of relative comfort. On Saturdays in summer, my family and friends (eight people) squeezed into a small Peugeot 206 to visit the Mediterranean beach. We, the kids, needed to hide beneath the car benches every time we passed a police car on the road.
Another symbol of our relative wealth was a landline phone. Only 3-4 kids in my class (of 43 kids) had a phone at home. The government, who owned the telephone company, promised that the waiting time for getting a phone would not exceed 13 years, a promise it could not fulfill till the late sixties.
From left: my oldest sister, Nava; my sister Dorit; my mother, Chana, and my father, Menachem, who is holding me. I am about 3 years old. (1959-1960)
My youngest sister Meira (not in the picture) was born in 1968.
We lived in a relatively comfortable house: one and a half bedrooms for 5 people with a full bathroom and a kitchen. We moved there in 1961 from a rental “home” of two bedrooms with a common bath and kitchen not attached to our living area. For my mom having her own kitchen in the new house was like winning the big lottery. The kitchen was equipped with a stove, but not with an oven. My mother baked (actually cooked) cakes using “miracle pot” over the stove.
Few times a year in winter season my mother used to make the traditional Jewish dish named Cholent or Tchulent in her Bialystok Yiddish dialect.
Why is it traditional Jewish food? Cooking is forbidden on a Shabbat for observant Jews (both my parents came from traditional Jewish families, although my father left religion to atheism in his youth). According to Jewish laws, Jews are not allowed to work on the Sabbath. Making fire was considered work in ancient times.
So what does the family eat on Shabbat? The housewife prepared the food on Friday before sunset. Shabbat and all Jewish holidays start just before sunset and end after sunset the next day. My mother put the pot on a low fire before the start of Shabbat. Cholent was the main dish for Shabbat lunch after men returned from morning prayers at the synagogue.
In different Jewish diasporas, Jews had different local versions of the dish which contains local ingredients. The common denominator was the way it was prepared on Friday afternoon and cooked overnight over low temperature. There are different names for the dish in each diaspora: cholent in eastern and central Europe, schena in Morocco or dbena in North Africa, tbit in Iraq and halim among Persian Jews.
So how does one prepare cholent when there is no oven at home? The solution was very simple. We lived in downtown Petach Tiqwa, near the central vegetable and fruit market (the Shuk in Hebrew). There were two bread bakeries in Petach Tiqwa. We used Tikotzki Bakery. When I say a bakery, I do not mean trendy bakeries with French baguettes or fancy loaves of bread, like the ones we have today. In the early sixties there were only two kinds of bread in all grocery shops in Petach Tiqwa: during the weekdays, white bread and black bread; on Fridays, Challah bread.
Petach -Tiqwa shuk still exists and operates, competing successfully with the supermarket chains due to the freshness of its produce and reasonable prices. I still visit the shuk every time I go to Israel, even if I have nothing to buy. The Tikotzki Bakery has long been destroyed and a new building was built in its location. Hundreds of trendy bakeries exist in Petach-Tiqwa with a huge variety of bread and pastries. I sometime wonder how Israelis remain relatively so slim when I see bakeries packed with customers.
Petach Tiqwa, fruits and vegetables stall, 2019
The bakery did not bake on Shabbat since it contradicts Jewish laws (Jews are not supposed to work on Shabbat). To save energy, the bakery turned off the huge oven midday Friday after finishing baking Challah.
So how is my mother cholent is connected to the Tickotzi bakery? My mother would prepare the cholent in a big pot at home on Friday afternoon. She put all the ingredients in a huge pot, covered the pot with its lid, tied the pot with a rope, and put a sticker with our name on the lid. Around 3:30 to 4 p.m, just before Shabbat, my father carried the heavy pot to his Peugeot 206 car to go to the Tikotzki bakery. Often, I joined him on the trip to the Tikotzki bakery. There we met a line of husbands waiting to put their cholent pots into the turned off but still hot oven. One by one each husband laid his family pot into the oven, leaving some small change for the Tikotzki family for using their oven.
The next morning around 11 a.m, just before lunch, we came back to the bakery to pick up our dish. The aroma of dozens of cholent dishes would welcome us in the bakery.
Mom’s and Pop’s Mediterranean restaurant, serving Iraqi dishes in Petach-Tiqwa Shuk, 2019.
We returned home, salivating from the unique and strong aroma that hovered around and couldn't wait to unfold the ropes to get to the delicious brown-colored cholent. The long cooking turned everything in the pot to brown, making it difficult to identify its different ingredients. This is a good incentive to remember how you arrange your pot when you make cholent.
Nowadays, I prepare cholent once or twice a year. For this special occasion, I usually invite at least 15 guests. We used to host up to 30 people in our home in Israel, all fed from one big red pot that we had been given by friends who left Israel to the USA in the eighties. The plastic pot handles were long burnt in the oven. The pot wandered with us to America from Israel, just to be used once or twice a year.
Why do I need so many guests for a cholent? Since there are so many ingredients in the cholent, even the smallest quantity of each ingredient creates a huge amount of food. The large pot can feed a small regiment!
I never follow recipes: cholent is for free spirit cooks. l try to do my best to deliver as much as I can an exact recipe. If it does not work for you, you can always contact me and complain. I can try to help you.
2-4 lbs beef meat, suitable for stew, can be fatty and/ or 2-4 pounds of boneless chicken (boneless: to save the space for the rest of the ingredients)
1 Ib cow feet (gives flavor and fat, though it is not a must)
6 lbs potatoes
2 lbs white onions
1 lb dry white beans (any kind)
1 lb barely
1 lb wheat grains or furikake (green crushed wheat grains)
10 eggs. (Chaminads in ladino, the language Jews originated from Spain used)
Salt, pepper, paprika
There are two other dishes I make to put in the cholent: Kigel (or Kugel or Kugale) and (fake) Kishke (explanation below)
Kishke: A real Kishke is a stuffed goose neck skin (Elzale) or cow intestines (Kishke). The stuffing is very basic: based on flour and oil or margarine. It sounds weird! Yes! There is a reason why Jews ate these parts of the animal (and others like liver, kidneys, spleen, and other internal parts). Most Jews in eastern Europe were very poor and could not effort buying the more expensive parts of the cow. So they had to be creative and find ways to use many parts of animals.
I do not like to mess with goose skin or intestines. I found a great solution for a lazy modern life. I use a cooking bag. It does not have the flavor of the animal skin fat, but it is still tasty.
1 cooking bag
2 c white flour
1 c oil
Chicken soup flavor powder, or mushroom or onion soup powder (you make it without the soup powder)
Salt, pepper according to your preference.
Mix flour, oil, and soup powder, salt and pepper inside the cooking bag. Add water slowly and mix until the dough has the texture of glue or porridge. Tie the cooking bag after taking the extra air from the bag. Leave it aside.
2 big onions
5-6 medium-size potatoes ( adjust the quantities if you have small or big potatoes)
1/2 c flour
Salt, pepper according to your personal preference ( I like the Kugel spicy so I put more paper)
Cut 2 onions to 0.2-inch squares
Grate 6 medium potatoes. You may skin them or wash them well and grade them unskinned.
Put chopped onions and grated potatoes in a bowl, add salt, pepper, flour.
Mix all ingredients and put aside.
Arranging the Cholent pot:
Slightly oil the pot to cover the button. Slice 2 big onions from the top of the onion to its bottom: one-fifth of an inch width. Lay one layer of sliced onion covering the pot’s bottom. The onions protect the next layer from being burnt.
Slice 3-4 potatoes and lay them as a second layer (0.2- inch width). Add salt and pepper ( add salt and pepper according to your preference to each layer).
Above the potatoes arrange the meat/ chicken/ cow feet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, paprika.
The next layer is the Kugel: shape the batter in a meatloaf shape and lay in the pot; add beans/ wheat grains/ barely/ furikake (add salt, pepper, paprika).
Arrange the eggs on top, put the kishke in the cooking bag, you can put another layer of sliced potatoes and onions if there is still space in your pot.
If you do not have enough space in one pot, you can divide the cholent into 2 pots. I recommend putting the eggs and kishke in the second pot since they do not absorb the aroma of the other ingredients.
Add water to the pot to cover all ingredients in the pot.
The dish is cooked overnight. Put it in the oven for an hour before you go to bed. I usually put it on high temperature (400 degrees Fahrenheit) for 45 minutes to get it hot. Then I reduce the temperature to 200 degrees to be slow-cooked overnight.
In the morning you will be awakened to the aroma of cholent in your house. The smell will tempt you to go to the kitchen to taste the cholent.
Cholent is heavy food; do not be surprised if after lunch your body will ask you for a long nap. It also happens to your guests. It will ensure they are not staying too long at your house. Now you are ready for a nap: what a great idea for a cold rainy Shabbat!
A traditional coffee shop in Petach-Tiqwa Shuk , 2019