I have a vivid memory of preparing the first Christmas dinner of our married life — forty-something years ago now. Helen had prepared Fanny Craddock’s Christmas pudding, whereas I had been put in charge of stuffing the ‘animal’. The helzel was made and I duly began to cram it into the turkey. At that moment, my recently widowed mother, who was staying with us for the holidays, bowled into the kitchen and immediately burst into gales of laughter. She’d caught sight of me ramming the helzel into the turkey with the end of a big wooden rolling pin,  in the manner of a gunner forcing wadding down the barrel of a cannon.

Once her tears of hilarity had subsided, she explained that the helzel had to be loosely packed so that it would cook properly and be nice and light (an unusual concept in Jewish cookery) to absorb plenty of the mushroom gravy.

The recipe for helzel is a family heirloom, having been passed from my grandmother to my mother and on to us. Despite me occasionally pretending that it is a closely guarded secret, I am more than happy to share this most precious dish in the hope that more people will make it and love it as much as we do.

Roast Chicken with Helzel

  • For the chicken
  • 1 large chicken, about 2.25 kg
  • 1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup of cold water
  • For the helzel
  • 100 g medium matzo meal
  • 100 g plain flour
  • 75 g hard margarine, cut into small cubes
  • 1 onion, grated, with most of the juice squeezed out
  • 1½ teaspoons of salt
  • ½ teaspoon of white pepper
  • For the gravy
  • 250 g thinly sliced chestnut or button mushrooms
  • Chicken stock from the roasting tin or cubes as required
  • 1 tablespoon of plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon of cornflour mixed with 25 ml cold water (optional)
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Salt and white pepper

  • Preheat your oven to 180°C / 350°F / gas mark 4.
  • In a bowl, loosely work together all of the helzel ingredients to form a coarse, crumble-like mixture.
  • For ease, I stand the bird in the sink and spoon the helzel mix into the body cavity. The cavity should be loosely packed but well filled. You can secure the skin with wooden cocktail sticks or a skewer.
  • If there is sufficient skin around the neck of the bird, you can also fill this cavity with helzel and sew it up with a needle and thread, otherwise cover with tinfoil. (In our house it is a treat to get the well-roasted, crispy skin with the cotton attached.) Any excess helzel can be cooked as below.
  • Weigh the stuffed bird and use this cooking guide:
    1.0 – 1.3kg      1½ – 1¾ hours
    1.3 – 1.8kg      1¾ – 2 hours
    1.8 – 2.7kg      2 – 2¼ hours
  • Rub the outside of the bird with oil and salt.
  • Sit it on a wire rack, breast side down, over a roasting tin containing the cup of water and chopped onion.
  • Roast for one hour, then turn it over and finish the cooking breast side up.
  • While it’s roasting, make the gravy: fry the mushrooms in oil until they start to brown then combine them with a tablespoon of plain flour.
  • Add the juices from the roasting tin, top up with chicken stock if necessary, and stir well.
  • Bring to a boil. Thicken with the cornflour and water if you wish. Check the seasoning.
  • Allow it to simmer, covered, for 15 – 20 minutes.
  • After roasting, the bird should be golden brown. If the skin has not yet crisped, give it another 10 – 15 minutes at 200°C / 390°F / gas mark 6.
  • Serve the chicken with a spoonful of helzel, plenty of mushroom gravy, and vegetables. Helen’s roast potatoes and/or potato kugel are essential.
  • If you are cooking chicken portions (with nothing to stuff) and you’d like helzel alongside, wrap the mixture in a loose tinfoil parcel, secure the edges, and place in an oven dish half-filled with hot water.
  • Cook at 180°C / 350°F / gas mark 4 for about 1½ hours, topping up the water as necessary.
  • Remove from the oven, carefully drain off the water, open the parcel and serve as above.

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