We do not cook on Shabbos. Food must be ready before sundown on Friday, and nothing could be cooked or even reheated until after sundown on Saturday. Yet the tradition demands hot food to be served both on Friday night and on Saturday afternoon. Friday night is relatively easy as you finish cooking or heating things up right before lighting Shabbos candles, and hot dinner is ready to be served. But how do you keep it hot for Saturday afternoon?
In a “kleine shteitl” (little Eastern European villages within the Pale of Settlement), poor families could not afford their own brick ovens – and most of them were extremely poor. There was one huge communal oven where most women would put their clay pots with chaulent (traditional Shabbos meat stew) on Friday afternoon, to be picked up and carried home after Shabbos morning services. As most clay pots looked the same, to distinguish their own delicious chaulent from their neighbors’ (“What does SHE know from cooking?”), they would mix a bit of flour with water into a thin flat cake, seal the pot and scribble a letter or a symbol on it. Since those flat cakes, imbued with the flavors of the stew, were undisputed kids’ favorites, mothers also made some extras and stuck them to the walls of the oven. Those were called popalik. Children used to fight for them, so smart mothers made sure that each one enjoyed his or her own popalik, to dip into their own bowls of hot chaulent.
Once upon the time, a widower with one son married a widow who had eight children. For their first Shabbos together, she went out of her way to prepare the best meal their meager resources allowed. Anxiously rushing around, she forgot to count her new stepson and automatically made only eight popaliks, as she has always done. And as they have always done, her children grabbed a popalik each, as soon as the meal started.
“Oy-vavoy Moishele! – exclaimed the stepmother,- I forgot all about you! What should we do?”
“No problem,- said Moishele,- I am just a poor orphan, I don’t need much. If everyone of your children just spares half a popalik, it’ll be more than enough for me.”
Obviously, the poor orphan Moishele knew his fractions!
Even though I grew up in a large metropolitan city, my grandmother had been a product of a shteitl upbringing. And even though we never lacked for an extra piece of meat in a chaulent or the best flour for delicious challahs, she often made popaliks as a special Shabbos treat for kids. To honor her memory, I made them as a treat for my husband.
Basically, it is just flatbread made of flour and water with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. I used spelt flour. For our purposes, I consider spelt gluten free, but if you are allergic or have a celiac disease, please consult your doctor. Gluten free flour will be just fine. I also used a splash of agave instead of sugar and a bit of baking powder. A sprinkle of sesame seeds is added later.
I make this dough pretty thin so that it can be poured, rather than shaped, on a well oiled baking sheet. As I am a stickler about researching everything I publish, while it was baking on one side, I googled popalik. I always thought that it came from Russian palit’ (burn), as they do get well done on one side. Imagine my surprise when I found a Marathi Indian word popali which means “A tiny cake (of fine flour and milk) baked on live coals (esp. for children)” (http://www.marathidictionary.org/meaning.php?id=37587&lang=Marathi). Substitute water for milk because of meat in the chaulent, and you have our popalik! How is that for cross-cultural influences?
Tradition! While you are enjoying the inimitable Topol as Tevye the Milkman, don’t forget to flip your popaliks, sprinkle them with sesame seeds, and send them to the oven for another 10 -15 minutes.
As I made the required size and volume, we are actually going to have these beauties instead of challahs tonight. Schmeared with my Herbed and Spiced NOT Butter (to see the recipe, please click here), it will definitely be a treat! Good Shabbos!
- 2 cups spelt flour
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup agave
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Sesame seeds to sprinkle
- Preheat oven to 450 F.
- Whisk dry ingredients, add water and agave, whisk until smooth. Put aside.
- Oil shallow baking pan, put into preheated oven until hot, about 5 minutes.
- Poor batter into heated pan, flatten, spread, divide into desired size portions.
- Bake for 10 minutes, remove and turn over. Puncture with fork, sprinkle sesame seeds, bake for 10 – 15 minutes until browned.