If you are fortunate to have a grandmother, treasure the moments you have together as they won’t last. They will become, as mine have, golden memories of love, learning and life lessons.
Throughout my blog there will be stories about Rebecca, my grandmother. She had an interesting ninety-seven years on this planet, but this story is about her kitchen.
When she was very young around 1910, she began observing her mother in my great grandmother’s New York apartment kitchen. She told me all the other kids would go out to play and she would stay behind with her mother to bake. My great-grandfather sold fruits and dried goods from his horse driven cart. For a family of 12 there was baking everyday. All the experience she handed down to me is from one kitchen to another. In my opinion, the best way to learn is hands on…literally. Let the flour fly!
The first kitchen I remember as a child was my grandmothers. You would think it would be my mother’s, as she was an amazing cook. She could cook, but bake…ahhh nope. She would be the first to say she wasn’t a “baker”. Needless to say all my school cupcakes and treats were purchased, I didn’t mind.
Nan as I called my grandmother, was a short woman, a bit on the stocky side and had strong hands. Being a baker all her life, that would make sense. She always wore a cotton apron with pockets in the front and tied in the back. Her sister Jean made them for her. She only had vision in one eye as she had an eye surgery go terribly wrong and the physician blinded her ( No one sued in those days). She wore glasses and always had a soft cloth in between her glasses and her right eyelid.
Nans first kitchen (that I remember) was located towards the back of the old Victorian house they lived in when I was very young. There were square transom windows at the top of a giant glass window framing the trees in the backyard. The side windows opened for fresh air and a possible breeze from the ocean one block away. The table always had a table cloth on it and was directly under that beautiful window. The cabinets were wood painted white. The stove was gas and the sink was white porcelain. It was always clean and tidy.
The kitchen wasn’t big, but it was a magical place where I loved to be. There were old Yellowware pottery bowls, old green pottery bowls, vintage pyrex nesting sets, tools with wooden red and green handles, wooden rolling pins in all sizes. An old tin percolator coffee pot was always on the stove, left back corner when not in use. The baking pans were some of her mothers and some she had stored in the pantry all of my life. It was a maze of baking heaven for me. I instinctively knew when a certain pan had been taken out, exactly what treat we would be having that afternoon or for dessert that evening. The excitement was palpable.
The lingering aromas of cinnamon and fresh yeast wafted through the air in my Nan’s house. You knew it was going to be a great day when cinnamon was the first aroma you smelled as you walked through her front door. What astounded me was the variety of baked goods my grandmother could produce. One little lady making bagels, onion rolls, butter horns ( a form of cinnamon roll with or without raisins), hamantaschen ( a triangular shaped filled delight), regular cookies, blitzes, cakes and pastries. Her cheese danish were like heaven on a plate.
She also made speciality treats, she was Jewish and when the holidays rolled around so did the rugelach, babka, teiglach, honey cake, sponge cake, mandelbrot and the best fresh apple cinnamon cake ever.
I don’t think I ever saw her use granulated yeast. A luxury we bakers use today for its convenience. It was always fresh block yeast she got from a local bakery. She would walk, she never drove a vehicle her entire life. When she started to prepare for the delicacy “we” would making, she would gather all the ingredients first, then after her morning coffee, we would begin. If it were rolls or bread we were making I knew it was going to be a long day in the kitchen. That was fine with me, we were happy and it was fun being together. Just us, my grandfather was working and we had the entire day to bake! With all the experience she had, she knew the outcome she wanted. She baked until she was ninety-six, so it was a total of about ninety-one years of getting it just right.
As I helped get the ingredients ready, she would guide me along, as if I were taking on the process myself. In a kosher kitchen it’s a bit more difficult to navigate as items are separate from each other according to jewish orthodox law. In this kitchen the dairy and meat were kept apart from each other. Separate everything, similar to having two kitchens within one. I would make mistakes all the time. She would gently correct me, never raising her voice. Even when I became an adult, I still at times used the wrong fork or pot, she would again correct me some forty years later. I smile now thinking about it. What I would give to go over to her kitchen now and make a “mistake”.
For bread or rolls we would make the dough, put it in an old pottery bowl place a clean dishcloth on top and let it rise. The smell of the yeast was delicious. The process of making breads, onion rolls, “hard” rolls was not an easy one. Patience and strength were needed. I learned to kneed fresh dough on that kitchen table with my Nan beside me. She would step in for a “feel”. I used flour on the long wooden rolling pin so the dough wouldn’t stick and worked the dough just as she instructed me to. I was learning how to get the dough right in terms of consistency, elasticity and texture.
We would shape the dough into certain pans, or single pieces for rolls, etc. It sat to rise again, egg wash after, sprinkle with whatever she wanted, then bake. The result would always be terrific. They say it is science to bake properly. To cook one can “a little this and a little that”, but baking is a craft that demands precision. She had it and taught me how to get it.
When we made sweet things, I think the family had more anticipation for the goodies. They took the rolls and breads for granted. After a while it was exhausting for my gram, but she still produced the goods when needed throughout the years.
The sugar was stored in a tin canister with a black lid and a scoop inside. Always white granulated sugar, I think it was Domino brand. One thing about my gram was she always used the best ingredients. She did not have much money, and if she couldn’t get what she needed she would wait until she could. The raspberry and apricot jams for the hamantaschen would be homemade or if she didn’t have any she would occasionally used jarred. She would make fillings of poppy seeds and sweet honey. My personal favorite lekvar, a prune filling she would sometimes mix with red raspberries and walnuts. Pitted prunes were stewed first then mixed with raspberries..sometimes walnuts were thrown in for fun.
This simple dough of eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla, baking powder, vegetable oil and the rind of an orange this was absolute best. A quite versatile dough, as it stood up to mistakes and small girls learning how to roll it out properly! The scraps were used to make my father ( her son) hardtac cookies. They were a plain cookie, round in shape sometimes sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and baked off. He loved them and Nan always seemed to make a few for dad every time we made that dough.
The cheese, cherry, blueberry danish, crumb cakes, babka, cinnamon rolls, honey cake, blintzes and holiday specialities were all lovingly created one by one. They were not made in the biggest kitchens, but the most magical ones because she was the baker. The pantries were filled with everything she needed to create anything she wanted on a given day. Always an early morning start. Her passion for baking came from her mother’s guidance, patience and love for the process and the delectable end result.
What I learned from her kitchen was that if someone has passion for what they are doing anyone can learn, or be taught from that passion. Some of my best days were spent with my grandmother in her kitchen. Laughing over (me) spilling something or getting flour all over the floor, all over us! Smelling the fresh coffee percolating in anticipation of it being joined with a butter horn made from fresh yeast dough we created together. Warm cinnamon buns dripping with icing just waiting to be dug into with glee. Rolls that were crisp on the outside and fluffy soft on the inside. Braided challah bread slathered with butter for breakfast, then used for amazing French toast the next day was a norm.
There is nothing that could replace those baked goods today. There were no chemicals or additives, simply fresh ingredients and the love of baking. That taste or smell can’t be recreated. I try, but it never tastes the same as Nan’s. When I bake, I get a hint of scent that brings me back to her kitchen and that makes me happy.
How fortunate I was to have her. To learn from her experience and wisdom. That kitchen was my classroom not only for learning how to bake, but for learning life lessons. She taught me much more than baking in her kitchen.
The remains of Nan’s cutting board that hung on the wall in the kitchen and her favorite wooden rolling pin, that sits in my baking pantry today.