My cholent (or tshoolnt) recipe from Vienna.
In his youth, Sigmund Freud enjoyed many traditional Jewish foods, including challah, gefilte fish, and above all, cholent (tshoolnt in Southeastern Yiddish), the bean stew traditionally served on the Sabbath. Cholent is the Jews’ version of baked beans, a Jewish kind of French cassoulet.
The dish is such a staple of classic Jewish cuisine that a person who doesn’t eat cholent on Shabbos may have been suspected of religious heresy per Rabbi Yehuda ben Barzilai Habarceloni’s claim from the 12th century “Book of the Times”:
“וכל מי שאינו אכל המין בשבת בר נידוי הו ודרך מינות יש בו”
“And everyone that doesn’t eat hamin [cholent] on shabbat is a renegade, the ways of the heretics are in him.”
Even the great Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) composed a hymn to it in a famous parody on Schiller’s text for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy:”
Holy cholent, dish celestial,
Daughter of Elysium:
If he’d only tasted cholent,
Schiller would have changed his hymn.
God devised and God delivered
Unto Moses from on high,
And commanded us to savor
Cholent for eternity.
Cholent is a tried and true shibboleth, a distinctly Jewish custom of Jewish food culture. Every Jewish website dedicated to food features a cholent recipe—and everyone has their own variant, each claiming that they have the best!
Though most of them just use a plain water base (we use a flavorful stock instead), each one uses different varieties and amounts of beans, barley, potatoes, fat, meat and so on, according to the whims of the cooks and their geographic location.
Cholent may be vegetarian, vegan—to be precise this would not be a cholent any longer but a simple bean stew—or meat-based, and may be made with potato and/or barley.
Similar dishes exist in various cultures under various names, but the basic cooking technique remains the same. The Ashkenazi and Yiddish speaking Jews call it cholent, tshoolnt, shalet or sholet. Sephardic Jews call it hamin, from the Hebrew word ham or warm, haminado, matphonia, shahina, daffina, haris or tabit, each of which refers to a cooking technique.
All of these variants belong to a much broader group of dishes which encompasses baked beans, cassoulet and many others around the globe.
Family recipes for cholent evolve over generations, with each successive cook appropriating and adapting the dish to the relevant time and place. These days, even trendy chefs and popular venues in secular Tel Aviv have rediscovered this traditional delight of the Jewish Shabbos lunch table.
But my recipe comes to you from the place where old-world European cholent stems from—at least that’s what we assume based on the dish’s Ashkenazi name and its particularly stringent interpretation of Jewish law regarding the overnight cooking technique, which was typical of the Central and Eastern European world.
Just wait and see!
The dish originates in ancient Jewish traditions, but the origin of the name itself, cholent, or tshoolnt in Hasidic Yiddish, was coined by a Viennese rabbi—who may have been mishearing a French phrase (more on this later).
The religious custom of cooking the dish slowly overnight from Friday sundown to Shabbos lunchtime but without putting it any closer to an existing or rekindled fire the next morning was prescribed by the Maharil (ca. 1360-1427). This was contrary to what had been common practice until then. Southern German and Austrian rabbis imposed this new rule based on a new tightening of prohibitions on the use of fire and on reheating cooked food on Shabbos.
So, cholent too, just like challah (see this post), has an important connection to Vienna, a place the Jews were murdered and chased out of during World-War II, and where they’ve since made a proud comeback.
One could go as far as saying that cholent is a Viennese tradition, considering that the dish was first referred to as “cholent” in a document by a Viennese rabbi in 1217. All this is according to John Cooper’s major publication on the subject under the title Eat And Be Satisfied – A Social History of Jewish Food.
Precisely, it is in the so-called Or Zarua, as Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (1180-1250) is referred to after his best-known book, where the first known use of the word cholent, or tshoolnt, appears.
It was in 13th century France that his teacher, the Tosafos Judah ben Isaac Messer Leon, a medieval commentator on the Talmud, prepared a dish he describes as “cholent” that he placed in an oven for Shabbos. According to linguist Max Weinreich, the word must derive from the Old French word chalant for hot and warm—and not from the combination of the modern French words “chaud” (hot) and “lent” (slow), as anachronistically purported in many places.
One is compelled at this point to mention Oded Schwarz in his In Search of Plenty — A History of Jewish Food who adds the widely circulated,
“…charming if unlikely theory that the word cholent comes from the Yiddish shul (synagogue) ende (end)—indicating the time the dish was served, at the end of the synagogue service of Saturday lunch.”
A tempting but improbable explanation.
So it seems that the word is actually not the name of the dish in French, but a description of the cooking process, an adjective, “chalant.”
Now, just imagine this Viennese rabbi at the table with his French teacher. The latter starts to explain the religious laws regarding the preparation of warm food for Shabbos lunch and describes the dish in French as “chalant,” hot and warm.
But, our Viennese rabbi, even if he understands French, transliterates this adjective as the new name for the dish, and this just as he hears it, right into Yiddish and Hebrew: cholent, or tshoolnt. Which, if I would have to write it in German would be scholent, or sólent in Hungarian.
Incidentally, the German word in Vienna is scholet and the Hungarian is sólet. This theory makes perfect sense.
It also appears that this dish served by the French rabbi must have been a kosher relative of the French’s cassoulet served in France (and Hungary) with delicious goose confit, smoked or cured in honor of Shabbos.
It’s a bit like Hungary’s sólet (or the German language scholet) or the Austrian ritschert (or Slovenia’s ričet), which, just like Hungary’s sólet is eaten by gentiles and Jews alike. Or we should say that ritschert was eaten by the Jews before they were all killed and chased in World War II.
The Jewish ritschert tradition has almost completely disappeared, though you can still find a couple of enthusiasts in Israel—that is, if you hurry up and get there before these survivors and witnesses of the past die of old age. The Jewish variants of these dishes always used kosher smoked or cured meat, which in this dish most often was goose.
Paprika is the other element which offers a geographical distinction, and separates the Hungarian variant from other.
The basic Jewish idea of the dish—to keep it warm for the day of rest—goes back to biblical times (at least). Indeed, on Shabbos, the day of rest, the Torah forbids any work, even the kindling of fire. Making a fire, along with a number of other things considered “work,” are prohibited on Shabbos.
This rule is based on one of the ten commandments: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The Jewish tradition states that one should rest and not cook on Shabbos. But the same tradition still requires the pious to eat a hot meal on this holy day of the week.
Doing so is considered a religious obligation.
So, how do you make a hot meal on Shabbos without kindling a fire?
Ancient Jewish texts offer a few clues. The rabbis taught, in what is called the Mischna, and further explained and discussed in the Talmud, how the cooked food should be covered and or buried in hot sand before Shabbos begins late Friday.
Later, people would use the hot oven of a communal bakery that would slowly cool off through Shabbos. They brought their pots (or tup in Yiddish), often sealed with a simple water and flour dough around the rim to the baker each Friday before sundown. They would retrieve them on their way home from the synagogue on Saturday, just in time for lunch, at which moment everybody would eagerly await for the lid to be opened and for the smell to fill the house.
Today religious Jews use their own oven, or, more traditionally, a so-called blech, which is a sheet of metal placed on top of the stove, over a low flame for the duration of Shabbos.
Nowadays there’s an even easier method of course. Electric crock pots are perfect for keeping cholent warm for Shabbos lunch. And guess what? The inventor of the slow cooker was an American Jew, Irving Naxon (ne Nachumsohn), who applied for the patent in 1936.
Tshoolnt is such an integral part of Central- and Eastern European Judaism, that Sigmund Freud’s traditionally raised parents would have most certainly grown up eating it regularly.
“’Freud’s disenchantment with his religious heritage was a gradual and progressive one.’ Although the atmosphere in the home was dripping in Yiddishkeit…”
This “dripping Yiddishkeit” also refers to iconic Jewish food dishes and how they would evoke a certain haimishe (or “homey” in Yiddish) atmosphere in Jewish family homes.
Even though Freud’s father was slowly but surely turning away from orthodox tradition, and probably from Hassidic Judaism, towards a more enlightened variant of his religion, culinary traditions were much more resistant to change than any other cultural marker.
Also resisting this change was language itself. Indeed, notwithstanding her husband’s slow and gradual transformation, Freud’s mother never spoke anything but Yiddish, despite living in Vienna since her “golden Sigi”’s childhood. Presumably, her eating habits were equally resistant to change.
The Freud family remained very much culturally Jewish, and thus very likely attached to their culinary traditions featuring Jewish cuisine originating in Galicia. But they most certainly also picked up a recipe or two from Bohemia, where the Freuds lived when Sigmund was born. In Vienna, like most immigrants, they must have been eating what they knew how to cook and prepare from back home, even though, pushed by the father’s emancipatory ideals, they probably also ventured into more unknown fields of Viennese cuisine.
As the son of two Galician Jews, Sigmund Freud assuredly grew up on a weekly Yiddish speaking cholent. Whether he still had cholent as an adult, when he had built his persona as an atheist—and thus very likely culinary—Jew, is up for question. Writer Heinrich Heine says that cholent “alone unites them [the Maskilim and other secular and cultural Jews] still in their covenant“!
In spite of all secularism and apostasy, Freud, the iconoclast, always claimed to be a Jew nonetheless, the most Jewish of all Jews, even, a “godless Jew,” with psychoanalysis as a godless form of Judaism, and therefore representing the essence of Judaism.
The fact that Freud’s Yiddish speaking mother and father were both from a pious Galician Hassidic (or orthodox—the exact details are unclear) backgrounds would lead us to speculate that he probably ate cholent weekly on Shabbos, at least during his early childhood.
(Mind you, we are about as sure of this as we are that his father knew Hebrew and about the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph I of Austria.)
Freud must have had this traditional Jewish stew every week at least as a child and probably sometimes as an adult, if even in a less traditional format.
It’s along these lines that James Hillman and Charles Boer’s Freud’s Own Cookbook, assumed that the Freuds consumed a bean stew with lard from downstairs Siegmund Kornmehl’s butcher shop also situated at Berggasse 19. Their hilarious cookbook features the recipe under the name “Berggasse beans with bacon.”
But there’s another cookbook, one that Sigmund Freud himself knew, that we have to consider here. The fact that Freud bought Prague’s “German Cooking School” cookbook for his young wife in order for her to have recipes from mainstream Viennese cuisine, tells us that they were most likely lacking such information and heritage and that they wanted to eat less Jewish fair.
Later, once they could afford it, the Freuds, like any Viennese middle-class family from that period, hired personnel, and this personnel was exclusively gentile, including the cook. As with most gentiles, they were likely unaware of Jewish culinary customs.
As a freshly married man, Freud bought a copy of Deutsche Kochschule (Prague’s German cooking school’s cookbook) for Martha, his wife. Why would he do that, if not for preparing a much more gentile and assimilated diet?
Regardless of this fact, we can do a sort of reverse deduction that they still would have been eating Jewish cuisine now and then, simply because that’s what his wife knew how to cook. And, for all we can gather from their correspondence, she opposed this drastic assimilation forced upon her by her husband, and thus probably tried to slip a few classic Jewish dishes now and then, whether under a disguise or not.
It may have been that she went as far as secretly buying kosher meat from the kosher branch of the non-kosher Kornmehl butcher shop downstairs.
But these are only speculations.
In Freud’s Moses, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi insists on Freud’s Jewish background. His conclusion is based on a couple of points: that Freud could speak and understand the language of the Thora, the Jewish Bibel, as well as Jewish lingua franca Yiddish, and that he at the same time feared anti-Semitism because psychoanalysis could be perceived as being too “Jewish.”
It seems that it would be possible to add a culinary dimension to this picture: Freud was an apostate and secular Jew, but in private he was probably a bit of a culinary Jew.
Because Freud was very much opposed to kosher food—which he characterized as unhealthy, thus probably meaning the Jewish Ashkenazi diet he knew from his mother rather than the religious prescriptions—, and vividly expressed this opinion right from the beginning in his letters to his fiancé Martha, we can only guess how much Jewish food actually ended up on his table once he had bought this German Cookbook.
But even then, one of Freud’s favorite dishes, the tafelspitz, could be seen as a Jewish holiday beef with a potato kugel in disguise (but hardly a disguise, really). Eating tafelspitz in Habsburg Austria was also seen as a sign of allegiance towards the emperor, as it was his favorite dish. At any rate, Freud had it both ways with tafelspitz, secular and traditional, and it was, for him, a real culinary Jewish dish (See my post on the importance of tafelspitz for Freud).
Very much in the same vein, the Freuds could have had a Viennese ritschert or a bean goulash.
In some form or another, Hillman and Boer’s “Berggasse beans with bacon” is thus indeed a very likely Freudian fair, too. Furthermore, in the 1938 photo below featuring the outside of Berggasse 19 and its butcher shop, one can clearly distinguish shanks of ham hanging in the showcase.
However enticing a regular “Berggasse Beans with Bacon” might sound, we’ll have a more classic cholent closer to what Freud had during his childhood days. But you can call it whatever suits your mood: cholent/tshoolnt, ritschert, bean goulash etc.
Recipe: Cholent or Tshoolnt (My Viennese Scholet)
Beans and Barley
“The closer you came to Vienna the more barley you would find in the cholent until there was much more barley than beans left,” states Hungarian restaurateur George Lang in his “Cuisine of Hungary“. Apparently, by the time you got to Vienna, there was sometimes only barley left, in a concoction that was then often called Ritscher(t).
Viennese cookbook author Franz Maier-Bruck references a kosher Ritschert in his legendary “Das Große Sacher Kochbuch” but states the proportions of beans to barley as high as 50:50.
Potatoes or not?
Some Hungarians would never put potatoes inside their cholent and some in Lithuania would, on the contrary, put nothing but potatoes in their cholent, just as others would do on Pessach (Passover).
Water, stock or instant?
Use chicken stock instead of water. It makes a world of a difference. In Israel, people often use instant consommé (the famous Israeli brand OSEM). But homemade or high quality store bought stock is largely superior and preferable if you are looking for an extra succulent result in honor of your guests and possibly Shabbos.
Ganef, Kishke, Helzel, Cholent Kugel & Co.
Real kishke is derma (intestine) stuffed with a combination of meat and meal, and sometimes a grain. “Falshe” kishke is a mock or vegetarian kishke. Helzle means neck, so it’s a similarly stuffed goose or chicken neck.
A cholent kugel or ganef (meaning “thief”), is just the stuffing formed into a ball, and “stealing the flavors of the pot.” The Haimishe Kitchen from the Ladies Auxiliary of Nitra, Mount Kisco, New York states for their “Chulent Kugel with Character” that a good chulent kugel should have the following characteristics: Cries like Leah (shmaltzy); Beautiful like Ruchel; Good like Yaakov; Red like Eisov (spicy). See their easy cholent kugel recipe below.
Freud’s and the Shtetl’s Secret Ingredient
The founder of psychoanalysis loved to go foraging for mushrooms every weekend in the woods around Vienna, with both his children and himself dressed in traditional Austrian garb. Dried porcini mushrooms were the secret shtetl umami ingredient for all stews and soups, and, according to Shmiel Holland’s Schmaltz, for cholent too. It was likely the Freud families’ secret ingredient, too.
Today, people have a wide variety of secret ingredients for their cholent, ranging from coke and beer, to ketchup, and all way to… well, what I would call unspeakable things! But the traditional secret ingredient is something completely different: “My tshoolnt never tastes as good as yours!” said the gallach [priest] to the rabbi. “Didn’t you know,” asked the rabbi “that Shabbos is the tshoolnt’s secret ingredient?”
Yields 8-10 servings
250g / 1/2 pound uncooked dried cannellini beans (common white beans)
250g / 1/2 pound uncooked dried borlotti beans (cranberry beans, but pinto will work in a pinch)
1/2 cup pearl barley
2 Tbsp goose or chicken schmaltz (fat) or olive oil
500g / 1.1 pound of beef shoulder clod (“Rindskamm” in Vienna), chuck, short rib, brisket or any stew meat preferably cured or smoked
275g / 9.7oz or one very large onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 head of garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp sweet paprika
1 Tbsp hot paprika
1 Tbsp flour
1/2l / 1/2 quart chicken stock (or water)
a couple of dried porcini mushrooms (the secret shtetl ingredient)
1/2 hindquarter of smoked or fresh goose or chicken (optional)
1 kishke, ganef, cholent or flour kugel, see recipe below (optional)
4-5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in halves (optional)
5 unbroken eggs, in their washed shell
1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
salt (iodine free)
- The evening before you plan to serve the cholent, soak the washed beans and pearl barley in 1 1/2 liters / 1 3/4 quarts of water.
- Preheat the oven to 120°C/250°F.
- In a 5 to 6 liter/quart large cast-iron cocotte, Dutch oven or electric crockpot (you will need a lid!) melt the schmaltz (or oil).
- If using raw meat, nicely brown the meat on all sides in the melted schmaltz (or oil) over medium-high heat. Take the meat out of the pot and reserve for later.
- Over low heat, sauté and slightly brown the onion with a pinch of salt in the same pot and the same fat for approximately five minutes.
- Optional: Add tomato paste and stir for a couple of minutes until it slightly darkens.
- Add the crushed garlic and stir until the aroma develops.
- Add flour and stir well.
Season with the two paprikas and the pepper, stir and immediately start to add bit by bit 2 cups of cold water. Continue to stir well until there are no lumps.
- Mix in the chicken stock and the dried porcini mushrooms.
- Pour in the soaked beans and the pearl barley together with the soaking liquid and bring to a boil.
- Add the meat and potatoes, the goose (if using), and bring to a boil again. If necessary, add more water to cover everything.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add a pinch or two of extra salt for the potatoes.
- Place the eggs in their shells on top, together with the kishke, ganef or cholent kugel (see recipe below).
- Cover and place in the oven for 6 hours at 120°C/250°F or overnight for at least 10 to 15 hours at 95°C/200°F until the meat is perfectly fork-tender. In a hurry you can get away with 3 hours at 150°C/300°F but things wont be the same. If you think it needs more water, add some, but no more than 1/2 cup at a time. (The consistency of the dish is a matter of personal preference, and can range from soupy to really dry).
- When ready to serve, slice the meat and the kishke. Shell and halve the eggs. Serve placing the meat, the kishke and the egg halves on top of the beans and the potatoes.
- Accompany with gherkins and/or other pickles.
Ganef Knaidel, Cholent or Flour Kugel (for the Cholent):
A flour kugel from the Ladies Auxiliary of Nitra’s “The Haimishe Kitchen“
One cholent kugel with character for the tshoolnt (see above)
4 Tbsp water
4 Tbsp neutral vegetable oil
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp salt (iodine-free)
2 tsp paprika
3/4 to 1 cup of flour (or as much as needed)
- Mix all the ingredients to make a soft dough.
- Form a ball.
- Add to the cholent.
Potato knaidel recipe from Shmiel Holland’s book “Shmaltz“
2 potatoes, coarsely grated, salted and with liquid squeezed out
2 cups self-rising flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 onion, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 cup schmaltz
1 tsp salt (iodine free)
- Mix all the ingredients.
- Form large balls.
- Add to the cholent.