My bubby never let anyone in the kitchen while she was cooking. If you asked her about how she made her kreplach, strudel or breakfast cake, she would inevitably respond with some variation on “a little of this, a little of that, until it is right.” You were lucky if this explanation was even provided in English. When she was eventually prevailed upon to allow my mother and her sister to take down her recipes, they could only provide measurements in yarzheit glasses. Even so, these are treasured recipes.
A Baking Odyssey, by Greg Patent, is essentially a compilation of treasured baking recipes translated from the homes of Americans of various ethnicities and nationalities, including Indian, Russian, Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Chinese and many others. Every recipe includes an introduction that attempts to capture some of the story and personalities behind a particular recipe. Although there are a number of trickier recipes, like strudel, the recipes are described with careful detail and a DVD demonstrating some of the methods is included. (Although I appreciated the effort put into creating the DVD, which was somewhat helpful, I didn't understand going to this effort but not providing alternative measurements for recipes by weight.)
The sweet recipes that I tried were, hands down, some of the most astonishingly delicious and soul-cheering sweets that I have ever made. The Swedish Cardamom Coffee Rolls, yeasted rolls flecked with freshly ground cardamom and sprinkled with a toasty topping of sugar, chopped almonds and cardamom, were the most sparkly little rolls when eaten piping hot from the oven. The next day, they were slightly less charismatic but still delicious and a little magical. Potica, a Polish coffee cake that involved a traumatizing session rolling out the dough paper thin on my kitchen table, was even more exceptional. Potica is a tall ring of thin layers of yeasted dough that have been brushed with an egg wash, spread with a meringue of nuts and honey, and coiled to form many, many delightful little layers of dough and nuts. It is the type of cake that still feels unbelievably special days later, when the last crumbs are retrieved from the bread box for a midnight snack. A labor of love, we greedily ate it, with the knowledge that I may not be able to bring myself to make it again.
The savory baked goods that I tried were nice but certainly less impressive. The Turkish Feta Turnovers were a bit doughy and dry. The Kachauri, a puri-type Indian bread stuffed with a puree of barely-cooked split peas and spices, was the tiniest bit bitter and off-tasting. Still, both were unusual, homey and satisfying. Also, his savory doughs seemed to be easier to make and roll out than many others I have tried.
This is hardly a comprehensive book of American ethnic baking, baking techniques, or the baking recipes of any particular nationality. It is not that useful, therefore, as a reference or a tool for acquiring baking skills. Also, although Patent has adapted the recipes slightly with his professional touch, they are not pastry chef’s recipes. But, these are special recipes. Baking from them, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit guilty, like maybe I was circumventing the jealous and idiosyncratic methods through which these types of recipes are typically transmitted. My bubby, after all, would probably never have let a cookbook author into her kitchen, nor been able to explain to him how to make her recipes, even if she wanted to. But, these recipes did remind me of the type of treasured family recipes that a few aunts and close friends have shared with me over the years.
In that spirit, I thought I might post one or two of my family’s homey and beloved baking recipes. I am still trying to procure my bubby’s coffee cake recipe, and hope to post it eventually. In the meantime, here is our family recipe for a very sweet, yeasty and doughy challah, the type never sold in stores or bakeries but eaten in thousands of households every Friday night. I hope you enjoy it (but I also secretly hope that you will not pass it on).
Aunt Dvo's Challah
Note: This recipe makes a massive amount of challah.
2 cakes compressed yeast
12 cups bread flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
Mix the yeast with 1 cup of warm water in a large bowl. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for five minutes. Mix in the remaining ingredients and 2 cups of room temperature water. Knead the resulting dough until smooth and elastic. Spray a clean bowl with cooking spray, put the dough in and then turn it over to slightly coat the other side of the dough with the cooking spray. Cover the bowl with a slightly damp kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Punch it down and let it rest for 10 minutes. Shape the dough into challahs. Let the challahs rise again for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 350. Brush the challahs with egg wash and place in greased baking trays. Bake for 35 minutes, or until browned. I recommend making one or two very large and impressive-looking challahs, and a few smaller little knots or rolls to eat for breakfast or midnight snack.