We all talk about wanting to cook like Bubbe, but you know what? Sometimes we really don’t. Or we do, until we find out what her secret ingredients were.
Here’s what I mean: Of all the amazing, delicious concoctions my grandma Rosie made, the one we requested the most – and miss the most – was this incredible, outstanding, lick-your-lips cabbage soup. I know: Cabbage soup? Bist meshugah? But this had a borscht base, contained a cooked-till-it-melts brisket, and was oddly sweet in a way nothing else was.
Before she took her little snooze on outer Long Island, Grandma Rosie imparted the recipe to me, her favorite granddaughter. (Fine, I happened to be the only one who asked. I’m also the only one writing this article, so until you read the comments, I’m the favorite!) When I made the soup a couple years ago, I verified the ingredients with my mom, who added a few I really couldn’t believe.
The first steps were predictable: Brown the brisket with onions. Dump in a jar of Mrs. Adler’s Borscht. Fill the rest of the pot with chicken stock. Throw in the vegetables you have, most likely rounds of carrots, diced celery, and chunks of potatoes. Handfuls of raisins, which plump up into sweet, delicious delights. Add a bit of tomato puree, some vinegar, a bay leaf (of course but DON’T EAT IT, every version of the recipe reminds me, because otherwise I surely would).
And then? The secret ingredients: brown sugar and ginger snaps. Not only that. “I hate to admit it, but if she didn’t have ginger snaps, she’d just pour in some ginger ale,” my mom told me on the phone, because no way was she going to admit such a thing in print.
Welp, who am I to argue? I threw in some minced fresh ginger, and then threw in some ginger snaps, just to see what would happen. After hours of simmering, there was no sign of them except that the broth was thick and luscious, just like Grandma used to make.
“This is absolutely amazing,” my husband’s son Grayson told me. “But calling it cabbage soup is like referring to a prime rib as ‘something that goes with creamed spinach.’” I could see what he meant: This soup had nothing to do with cabbage besides the name.
But when my sister Liz asked me how to make it, and I told her, her face wrinkled with disgust.
“Blurgh!” she yelled.
“You ate it. You loved it. That’s what it was,” I told her.
She looked stricken. I didn’t have the heart to add that the chicken stock was also loaded with MSG from the Herb-Ox bouillon cubes. Mmm.
See? This is why people keep recipes secret. Not because they’re so good. Because they’re often so naughty. Grandma wasn’t about to throttle and pluck a chicken, as her mother did. She didn’t know from organic, and she was happy to use whatever time-savers Waldbaum’s would sell her. “Baloney” was both a beloved lunch meat, and her favorite rejoinder when one of us said we were going vegetarian or trying to be more natural.
Grandma also made something called “vegetarian chopped liver,” a brownish-greenish concoction that spread like butter onto toast. Its secret ingredient? Canned string beans, mashed with hard-boiled eggs and (you guessed it) cooked onions. Bet you there was also a little schmaltz in there. Vegetarian. Baaa-loney.
I’ve recently tried to re-create the ingredients in Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix, because that was a staple in so many things that were so, so, so delicious – most notably dip and hamburgers. As you might imagine, MSG is, again, the main draw here. But I’ve managed to come up with a reasonable facsimile: dried onion flakes, garlic powder, and a spoonful of Better than Bouillon.
It’s not perfect, but here’s what we have to finally admit: neither was Bubbe’s kitchen.