RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, starts at sundown tonight. Typically before this day of atonement begins, friends and family gather for one final pre-fast meal, a meal that traditionally includes a delicacy called kreplach. Deena Prichep has the story of the religious significance - and fond memories of this little dish.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Kreplach are sometimes called Jewish wontons. And you can see why - they're little dumplings, usually filled with meat, wrapped in dough and floated in soup.
SHELLY PETCHER: I don't think I ever had a bad kreplach.
MURIEL SILVERSTEIN: It's delicious just to talk about.
PRICHEP: Shelly Petcher and Muriel Silverstein live at the Rose Schnitzer Manor, a retirement community in Portland, Oregon. And like many of the residents, they grew up eating kreplach. Some Jewish scholars say the dumplings are especially meaningful for Yom Kippur. The filling and its wrapper together serve as a sort of meditation on our inner and outer selves as we approach a sacred holiday. But others find a simpler explanation.
ANNE WEISS: My mother made them.
PRICHEP: That's Anne Weiss, another resident.
WEISS: My mother came from Russia, and she was the cook. But I never learned how to make it, unfortunately.
PRICHEP: Anne's neighbor, Edith Thomas, has similar memories.
EDITH THOMAS: I remember it was delicious - my mother made such great noodle dough. But I'm not a maker of kreplach. I'm just an eater.
PRICHEP: And there's a reason this kreplach-making didn't get passed on to the next generation. It's a lot of work. Muriel Silverstein remembers.
SILVERSTEIN: My mother worked forever - hard labor.
PRICHEP: Silverstein's mom would grind the chicken herself.
SILVERSTEIN: And stuff the little pieces of dough, and then she cooked them and put them into the soup.
PRICHEP: Kreplach undeniably take effort. But it's worth it.
SILVERSTEIN: It was a real treat.
PRICHEP: And this treat starts the same simple way so much Jewish food starts - by browning an onion.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING, FRYING)
NICK ZUKIN: I think any peasant culture needs to find flavor where it can.
PRICHEP: Nick Zukin is the author of the new cookbook "The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home." He pulled together recipes from around the country - from cooks who sneak sririacha to the Russian dressing on that Reuben, to those who still make the classics the way their grandmothers taught them.
To make kreplach, he's frying onions in chicken fat - schmaltz. And he cooks them until they're just at the edge of burnt, to get that really deep flavor.
ZUKIN: It smells earthy, almost like sweet dirt.
PRICHEP: Zukin says you can use leftover brisket, or the tough chicken at the bottom of the soup pot - whatever you've got, really. Then you mix in the caramelized onions, a few vegetables, maybe some liver. It helps stretch the meat, and also adds back in moisture and flavor. It's how you make a special holiday dish out of what is, essentially, leftovers.
SILVERSTEIN: The chicken schmaltz is the high note, or the treble, the liver is the bass, and the beef is the tenor. Yes, kreplach symphony number one.
PRICHEP: But of course, the theory of kreplach harmony only goes so far. So we brought Zukin's kreplach back to the experts at Rose Schnitzer Manor for the real test.
SILVERSTEIN: These are very good.
MARION GANS: Mmm, tasty.
THOMAS: The wrap is very good.
CHARLOTTE WEINER: The dough is very nice, but I have to say I would like more texture to the filling.
PRICHEP: But kreplach aren't just about how finely you've chopped the filling, or how thin you've rolled the dough. They're also about it being a special occasion. And, as Shelly Petcher explains, knowing someone special made them for you.
PETCHER: That was a way a lot of grandmothers showed their love for the family.
PRICHEP: And that love - and those kreplach - can sustain you, until the Yom Kippur fast ends when the sun sets tomorrow night.
PETCHER: OK. Enough talking. Let's eat.
PRICHEP: For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep, in Portland, Oregon.
MONTAGNE: It's NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)