Chremslach: One Family’s Little-known Food That Won a National Spelling Bee

Long before this Yiddish dish got its 15 minutes of fame in one of the final rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, it was a much-loved family holiday tradition.

Vered Guttman

“I need your family’s chremslach recipe,” I told my friend Dana Peer. “You’ll never guess why.”

For Peer, the call was certainly a surprise. For years, her friends would tease her that she was making up the name of her family’s favorite Passover food. Even among a circle of predominantly Ashkenazi Israelis, it was an unknown.

Now, however, the food has been propelled to fame in the United States - on at least a very nominal level. The word appeared in one of the final rounds of  the United States’ most prestigious spelling bee, broadcast live on ESPN last week before some 1.1 million viewers.

Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist Jairam Hathwar, a 13-year-old from Corning, New York, spelled the word correctly and went on to be crowned co-champion, along with 11-year-old Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas. Other words in the round included gyttja, taoiseach, uintjie and promyshlennik. (My spellcheck, it seems, would not have advanced to the spelling bee final.)

Admittedly not the most common of Jewish foods, chremslach are flat, fried fritters made by some Ashkenazi Jews for Passover or Hanukkah. The name refers to the well in the pan traditionally used to form them, Jewish food expert Joan Nathan writes. Jews from other parts of the world make similar foods, but call them by different names: Take for instance Balkan Jews’ bimuelos, a catch-all term for dumplings in Judeo-Spanish.

One version, potato chremslach, is similar to the better-known latke and served at Hanukkah, according to Nathan’s “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” A modernized version stuffed with nuts and dried fruit appears in Nathan’s “Jewish Cooking in America,” and is served as a Passover dessert.

Peer describes her family’s version as a decent substitute for bread on Passover. The family actually has several different sources for its chremslach; one recipe came from Peer's grandmother Bracha Samovar Peer, who was born in Szarkowszczyzna, Poland (now Belarus). Nowadays the family tradition is kept alive by Peer's aunt Mira Peer in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, whose recipe came from her mother, Lea (Liza) Shine from Lvov, Poland (now Ukraine). That version of the dish is a close relative of the bubbaleh, another Passover pancake made by some Ashkenazi Jews.

Bracha Samovar Peer
Courtesy the Peer family

This isn’t the first time the Scripps National Spelling Bee has used Yiddish words to try to stump participants. In 2013, the winning word was knaidel, as in knaidlach, more commonly known as matzo balls. Words including hesped (eulogy), kichel (cookie) and hechsher (kashrut certification) have also appeared.

But the matter is a subject of some controversy - as transliterations, the spelling of these words isn’t set in stone. In the case of knaidel, for instance, the New-York based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research claimed the correct spelling was actually “kneydl,” JTA reported. Regarding hechsher in 2006, contestant Saryn Hooks spelled the word correctly, but the judges got the spelling wrong and eliminated her, until the brother of another contestant pointed out the judges’ mistake.

Indeed, it seems like no one has pointed out to the spelling bee judges that chremslach is also sometimes spelled grimslech, as Nathan states in her books.

Peer, for her part, couldn’t stop laughing at the news. While it’s fair to say that most Israelis were not watching during chremslach’s 15 minutes of fame during the U.S. spelling bee, the news was a sort of vindication.

“I didn’t make up this food,” she responded. “Now I have official proof.”

Mira Peer's chremslach recipe

Ingredients 

2 cups matzo meal
4 eggs
salt
pepper
oil

Directions

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form.

Fold in the egg yolks, the matzo meal, salt and pepper to taste, and an optional tablespoon of oil. The resulting batter should be not solid but not entirely liquid.

Heat oil in a frying pan over low heat. Add spoonfuls of batter to the pan, and flatten them out with a spoon. Fry until golden on both sides.

Repeat until the batter is finished.