Feeling schmaltzy for rendered chicken fat

By Charles J. Johnson,

Tribune Newspapers

October 9, 2013


For most, the word "schmaltz" brings to mind gimmicky books and films, the artistically shallow sort that drip with sickly-sweet levels of sentimentality. That rom-com's eye-roll-inducing helicopter shot of the final kiss on the Brooklyn Bridge? That's schmaltz.

But for Michael Ruhlman and Lois Baron, schmaltz, while sentimental, is hardly shallow. It is rich in tradition and friendship.

"The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat" is the latest offering from Ruhlman, the James Beard winner behind the cookbook "Ruhlman's Twenty." The new book focuses on the creation and use of schmaltz, an ancient but now little-known rendering of chicken fat and skin seasoned with onions.

Ruhlman took inspiration from Baron, his septuagenarian Cleveland neighbor, whom he heard lamenting the decline of her beloved schmaltz, what she calls "a thread that runs through the great tapestry" of Jewish cuisine. Deep in flavor and bursting with aromatic savoriness, schmaltz was once common with Ashkenazi Jews in regions where olive oil was not available and porcine fat was banned under kosher law. But over the years, schmaltz's role in Jewish kitchens has faded.

Intrigued by her passionate lamentations about the depth of flavor and complexity schmaltz offers, Ruhlman asked his neighbor to help him share the secret to her beloved ingredient.

Baron's recipe for making schmaltz serves as the cornerstone of the "primer on schmaltz," which details uses for the savory stuff in Jewish staples like matzo ball soup, knish and chopped liver, along with other dishes, including cookies and gnocchi.

Not being Jewish himself, Ruhlman writes as an outsider peering through the prism of the Baron family history, making the readers feel they're learning right alongside Ruhlman. That his wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, contributed the photos boosts the sense of standing in the family kitchen, watching Baron smack Ruhlman's hand away from the kreplach she has not quite finished.

— Charles J. Johnson, Tribune Newspapers