You call them stuffed cabbage. Our family called them holiptches, one of several Yiddish terms for this Middle European dish. When I was growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, no holiptches came close to equaling those made by my beloved maternal grandmother, Jennie, whom I called Bobe Bopsy. Back then, Jewish grandmas were called bubbe. However, I’m told that when I began talking, I pronounced it “bahbee.” Jokingly, my mother added “bopsy,” and the name stuck.
Left to Right: Aunt S., Bobe, and Mom – Circa 1940’s
Like most Jewish grandmothers who came here from Europe, Bobe Bopsy, who was born in Poland, was a wonderful cook. And while she made many other delicious foods, her holiptches became what today would be called her signature dish. When she was making them, the aroma emanating from the kitchen was intoxicating. And every forkful was heavenly.
She died when I was nineteen. Aside from being crushed that she was gone forever, I was totally forlorn at the thought that I would never again be able to eat her holiptches. As it turned out, this wasn’t completely true. My uncle and his wife had lived with my grandparents for the first six years of my uncle and aunt’s marriage. And while my grandmother had never written down the recipe – those bubbes never did — my aunt had seen her make the holiptches many times and took notes. So, my aunt continued to make them – they were the traditional forshpeiz during the seder meal at my aunt and uncles’s apartment — and when I got married, she handed down the recipe to me. Every time I make them, I feel as though Bobe Bopsy is standing next to me and smiling. Actually, since she was the personification of a “Mrs. Takeover,” she’d be pushing me aside and saying, “Let me do it!”
Begin by filling a very large pot with water. Set it on the stove, covered, and bring the water to a boil.
Assemble the ingredients.
Chop Meat – About 1-1/2 to 2 lbs. I use kosher neck and tenderloin.
Green Cabbage – Buy two heads because there’s no way of knowing how many leaves you will end up with from just one head, so it’s good to have an extra head in case more are needed.
Ground Black Pepper
1 Medium Onion
Tomato Sauce – 3 8-oz cans
Take the cabbage leaves apart and shred what remains of the head.
When the water has come to a boil, put the leaves into the pot and cook until they are pliable, then remove them to a plate to cool.
(Don’t dump out the water just yet because it might be needed to cook additional leaves if some fall apart during the filling process.)
In a bowl, combine the meat with the egg, about half the onion finely chopped, a good sprinkling of matzo meal, a little lemon juice, a little tomato sauce, and some freshly ground pepper.
Lay the cabbage leaf flat, place some meat mixture on it, and fold the leaf to make a package. This is not an exact science, so a larger amount of meat for the bigger leaves, less for smaller ones.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, make a bed of the the shredded cabbage. Slice the other half of the onion and spread over the cabbage. Sprinkle on some lemon juice and brown sugar, then pour half a can of tomato juice over the bed.
Arrange the cabbage packages, tightly-spaced, on the bed. Depending on how many packages you have, you may need a second layer.
Pour all the rest of the tomato sauce over the cabbage, add half a can of water, sprinkle some lemon juice and brown sugar, cover the pot, and bring the sauce to a boil.
Turn down the flame to simmer, and cooks the cabbage for about 4 hours. During that time, taste the sauce frequently and adjust the lemon and sugar. I prefer it sweet, so I add a lot more sugar.
Serve the holiptches with plain boiled potatoes and lots of sauce.