Unlike a photo or even a video, a treasured recipe, passed down from mother to daughter for who knows how long, summons the past with all five senses, revealing a slice of our ancestors’ life, a cuisine borne by ingenious Jewish women within the confines of both kashrut and poverty.
No food reminds me more of my grandma, Mama Hinda, than her challah. I grew up downstairs from my grandparents in our two-family home in Belle Harbor, New York. My brother and I never needed coaxing to go up and light Shabbos candles with them each Friday night. From the time we arrived home from school, the baking challahs sent intoxicating fingers through every room in our house.
I hadn’t looked at my grandmother’s challah recipe since her death in 1975 at age 91, when she had dictated it in Yiddish to my mother, at my request, during her final hospitalization. It took writing my cookbook to motivate me to try it.
This recipe just had to be included. “Add a little sugar. Mix with warm water.” Measurements, where given at all, are in glasses, not cups. But which glass?
I call Faye Levy, author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and “Jewish Cooking for Dummies.” She helps with the measurements, but cautions: “Is your grandmother’s challah gaining the rosy glow of childhood memories, impossible to duplicate? Recalling the warm family atmosphere in which your loving grandmother served you challah may have something to do with how good it tasted.”
Could Faye be right? I start baking. Challahs 1 and 2 are disasters. I’m thinking, perhaps asking for a recipe when one is on her deathbed may not be the most opportune moment to do so. Eight batches later I’m getting decent challahs, even good challahs, but still not Mama Hinda’s challah.
“Oh, Judy, why don’t you just go to Poul’s Bakery and buy a challah?” suggests my mother. No one could ever accuse my mother of being overly sentimental. But I’m on a mission.
I buy a challah from Poul’s on Tustin Avenue in Orange (now gone, alas) and tear into it. Omigod—Mama Hinda’s challah! I consult owner Fred Hyde, kicking myself for not calling on him eight batches sooner.
“My challah is too crusty,” I whine. He looks at my recipe: “Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in slow oven. Then raise heat,” instructed Mama Hinda. Hyde disagrees. “If the temperature is too cold, it takes longer to bake the inside, so it’s drying on the outside. Most home ovens are about 25 degrees off, so bake it at 375 for 20 to 25 minutes, never more than 30.”
He generously gives me his challah recipe, but it’s by weight, not cups. When I do the math, with a silent thanks to my high school algebra teacher Mr. Falkenheim, I am amazed to discover that Hyde’s recipe is very similar to the one I have been working with. So what am I doing wrong? I call him back.
“It’s really hard to make bread at home kneading by hand,” he tells me. “Use your mixer, with the paddle, if your machine can take it, or use the hook.” But Mama Hinda kneaded by hand. And trust me, she never saw the inside of a gym.
But those were the arms that in 1907 carried a 9-month-old on a ship across the Atlantic. Those arms held, dressed, fed, sewed for and cleaned up after seven children during the Depression, with no conveniences. I decide no bicep curls will ever give me her strength, and I make the pivotal decision to go for the finished product. The heck with the method.
Guiltily eyeing my KitchenAid machine, I tell myself, hey, I’m not driving around in Papa Harry’s ‘51 Pontiac. I’m sure my grandparents, who had witnessed the horse and buggy give way to Sputnik, would approve. Miraculously, after a few adjustments, there it is, lucky No. 13, Mama Hinda’s challah.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong–you can go home again. You just may have to take a different road to get there.
All of Mama Hinda’s recipes were in her head, and if not for my Aunt Sally, who laboriously wrote them down in her notebook, I would never have gotten them. Mama Hinda’s sweet potato casserole–check. Her kishka–check. Her maple walnut cake, Passover cakes and, of course, her guggel-muggel–check, check, check.
Everything from Aunt Sally’s kitchen always looked as good as it tasted. Her maxim: “When you’re cooking, you can’t do anything else at the same time.” I always think of that when I’m cooking and the phone keeps ringing and I can’t remember if I’ve added the salt.
This simple apple cake was a family favorite. When I was testing recipes for my cookbook, every one of my “tasters“ said it was just like their bubbe or tanta used to make.
Aunt Sally’s Old-Fashioned Apple Cake
Yield: 9 servings
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 medium sweet apples such as Gala or Fuji, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cup apricot jam
Juice of ½ lemon
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1) Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.
2) Stir flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl.
3) Combine apple slices, jam and lemon juice in a bowl.
4) Beat eggs well with electric mixer at medium speed. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes; add oil and vanilla, scraping bowl several times. Reduce speed to low; blend in flour mixture.
5) Spread half the batter evenly into prepared pan; cover with apple mixture. Top with remaining batter and bake on center oven rack until golden, about 1 hour. Cool cake in pan set on wire rack. Cut into squares and serve.
Mama Hinda’s Challah (well, sort of)
To bring cold eggs to room temperature in a hurry, place in warm water to cover for 5 minutes.
Yield: 1 large challah
3½ cups bread flour, divided
½ cup warm water, divided
2¾ teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus 1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ cup canola OR corn oil
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
Optional: 1/3 cup raisins
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2) Remove 2 tablespoons from flour and set aside to use if needed. Place remaining flour in large bowl of electric mixer fitted with dough hook or flat paddle. Make well in center and pour in 1/4 cup warm water (100-110 degrees). Sprinkle yeast over water, then add 1 teaspoon sugar on top. Stir water, yeast and sugar together gently, keeping it in well. It is OK if a little flour becomes incorporated. Let stand about 10 minutes until bubbly.
3) In separate bowl, beat eggs, oil, ¼ cup sugar and salt with fork. Add egg mixture to flour mixture. Add ¼ cup warm water. Beat at slow speed until incorporated, then at medium speed at least 5 minutes. Dough should feel smooth and silky, and, to quote Jeffrey Nathan – author of “Adventures in Jewish Cooking” – “like a baby’s tush.” If too sticky, add additional flour by the tablespoon and continue to mix a few more minutes.
4) Place ball of dough in large oiled bowl, turning dough so it is oiled all over. Cover and let rise in warm place at least 1 hour or until almost doubled in bulk. (I use my oven, preheated on lowest setting, then turned off.) When dough has almost doubled, punch it down and knead by hand 1-2 minutes. Separate dough into three equal parts, roll each section into strands and braid. Place on prepared baking sheet, cover with slightly dampened cloth and let rise in warm place 1 hour.
5) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
6) Brush top with egg yolk mixture and bake 25-30 minutes or until brown on top and bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.