Baking. Writing. Being a mom. Hey, it’s summer! Let’s do all three. What could go wrong?
In combining both my genealogy and writing research, I had the great idea of trying to re-create some of the recipes that 1) my family has mentioned ancestors making and 2) that I mention in Modern Girls. How cool would it be if I could show up to my book launch with some perfectly made kuchen or mandelbrodt like my character bakes? Or if I could figure out the mystery recipe my mom described her grandmother made? Get the kids involved. Make it a family affair with a fabulous treat to boot.
I decided to start this experiment with a dessert my mother described. It sounded delicious and when she described it, she had such a wistful expression. Here’s what she told me about her grandmother, who was called That Mama:
That Mama came [to visit], and she prepared her own food [because she kept kosher and the family didn’t]. The first thing [we] did when she got off the train is we went to the fish market for her to buy her fish for the trip. Then the minute she got home, the fish went in to the refrigerator and then out came the yeast because the yeast got prepared for the baking because That Mama made her own hallah and she also made something called kichel that we loved. And the kichel was basically a sweet roll. It was twisted up with cinnamon and nuts, and when we were younger, the kichel was absolutely fabulous and we loved it and we were all very excited. The yeast had to sit for twenty-four hours or something so it was always the second day she would do the baking. The problem was as she got older, she got a little sloppier and maybe her eyesight wasn’t as good, and instead of these really thin fine layers of the kichel, the kichel layers started getting fatter and fatter with less cinnamon and nuts in it so it didn’t taste as good as when she first started making it.
Okay, kichel it is! Only when I did a search on “kichel,” its nothing like my mother described. Kichel is a cookie, no yeast involved. (Although I do have a recipe from her other grandmother via a cousin for a recipe called “nothings,” which I learned are most likely kichel. Those will come on a later cooking experiment.)
I sent recipes to my mom asking, “Is this it? Is this it?” I turned to my Jewish genealogy Facebook group asking if they could tell what it was. I searched using terms like “Jewish yeast cinnamon nuts layers.” Finally, reading through my grandmother’s 1941 copy of Jewish Cook Book by Mildred Grosberg Bellin, I found a recipe for kindlech. That must be it! After all, the plural of kichel is kichlach, which could totally be confused for kindlech. Let the baking begin!
Oh, but wait. The recipe calls for one “yeast cake.” What in heaven’s name is “yeast cake”? Luckily, I recently befriended a pastry chef and writer (look for her novel, Fair Season, in 2016), Louise, who told me about yeast cakes. And after a few grocery tries, I finally found one (she also told me a yeast cake is equivalent to a package of dry yeast, but if I’m baking like That Mama, then I’m baking like That Mama, dammit!).
Yeast cake procured. Children, to the kitchen! Children? Children…? [crickets chirping]
“Is it chocolate cake?” No. “Is it chocolate chip cookies?” No. “Is there chocolate anywhere?” No.
Uh, hello? Anyone there?
So, alone, I began to make kindlech. Normally when I bake I use my trusty Kitchen Aid standing mixer, but That Mama never would have used one, so I wouldn’t either! Okay, heat milk. Hmmm. I don’t think this calls for skim milk. Trip to store. Whole milk purchased. Milk heated. Dissolve yeast. Done. Pour yeast into center of flour and wait for yeast to rise a little.
Husband: “Why are you staring into that bowl?”
Me: “Does it look like that yeast is rising? How do you tell if it’s rising?” [Does that look risen to you?]
After a bit, I convince myself it’s changed. (It hasn’t changed.) [When I went to the movies as a child with my dad, and I’d ask, “When is the movie going to start?” he’d say, “Any minute. Look at the lights. Aren’t they dimming? Stare at them and you’ll see that they’re dimming.” And I’d stare at them, finally convinced that, yes, they were slowly dimming, until the theater actually turned them off and my dad would say, “See! I told you they were dimming!”]
Time to put in the other ingredients. More milk. Butter. Eggs. Sugar. And then knead.
Knead? There are four cups of flour to 2 1/4 cups of milk, 3 eggs, and 1/4 pound of butter. There is nothing to knead. It’s liquid.
But I pour it out on a board. And I add flour. And more flour. And more flour. I think I ended up adding 4 more cups of flour. And I kneaded it and it was a good thing. Now to roll it out to 1/4 inch thickness, sprinkle with nutty goodness (and cinnamon—recipe didn’t call for cinnamon but I used it anyway and skipped the raisins because we are a raisin-hating house. Yes, that’s right. We are raisinicists). It looks good. But what about what my mom said about it taking 24 hours? This only rises for 30 minutes. I’m sure it’ll be just fine.
It wasn’t just fine. What came out wasn’t terrible. My daughter ate it. My son wouldn’t touch it: “Looks good. Wait, are those nuts?” But it was just okay. There were no thin layers. There was no fabulousness. No ecstasy upon eating. This was not it.
I will keep searching for the recipe. In the meantime, on to kichel, mandelbrodt, and kuchen. And, no! There’s no chocolate! (My daughter says, “You know, the kindlech would be really good with chocolate!” NO!)