Baking With Ghosts
Every holiday has it's traditional foods. The Passover Seder in particular is a meal where you don't want a whole lot of innovation, you want to eat the familiar, the food that you ate as a child.
My mother came into her marriage knowing how to make scrambled eggs, tuna fish salad and Jello. As I have mentioned before, my grandmother was a famously terrible cook. My mother didn't grow up with a sense of how to cook.
All that was to change because within a few weeks of their wedding my parents moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My father was the rabbi of Shaar Shalom , my mother was to teach Hebrew school. While living in the hinterlands of the Jewish world had it's disadvantages, it also had some distinct advantages.
There was nearly no Kosher for Passover packaged good available. That meant that people cooked and baked everything. If my parents had lived in Brooklyn, my mother would have just picked up a couple of Passover cakes in a local store. My mother instead learned how to bake.
|An improvised lemon sponge cake that I could make because I baked and my mother's elbows for so many years.|
Most of the Jewish community in Halifax came from Lithuania. Many of those women were superb cooks and bakers. In that pre-broadcast TV era, people threw lots of dinner parties. My parents were new to town. no one had heard their stories before, so they were frequent dinner guests in the community.
My mother may not have known how to cook, but she did know how to eat. When she would eat something particularly delicious she would ask the hostess to teach her how to make the dish. this is how my mother learned how to cook.
My mother was always an earnest student. She would often ask us to help her as she baked. As she did each task she would repeat the useful words of advice her Haligonian cooking teachers had told her in the mid 1950's.
Beat the egg yolks until they are thick and lemon colored
Beat the egg whites until they are glossy and hold a peak.
Be gentle with egg-whites.
A bit of coffee deepens the flavor of chocolate.
I realize as I bake every Passover I hear the voices not only of my mother who is no longer able to bake, but also the voices of my mother's teachers who are all long dead. Those Haligonian women are my baking bubbies.
A few years ago Shaar Shalom in Halifax celebrated it's 50th anniversary. They put together a wonderful community cookbook as part of the celebration. It is one of the best community cookbooks I have ever come across. The recipes are terrific and are truly of the place . The book is light on recipes that are copied from ladies magazines and heavy on old family recipes and Maritime specialties. An added bonus is bit of family lore, and Shaar Shalom history as well as photographs. You can probably purchase a copy here through the Shaar Shalom website.
I often use this cookbook when I do holiday cooking. My mother's recipes are there along with those of her teachers. Even though my parents only spent four years in Halifax it is the place that formed them. I love that when I want to bake my mother's Pesach cakes, this is where I have to turn.
Halifax so informs my cooking that when I served my Halifax born buddy stuffed cabbage and tzimmis she knew whose food I was cooking. I didn't know whose I was cooking, just that it was delicious. In case you are a reader from Halifax, it's the Paschal's Tzimmis and stuffed cabbage.
The cake you see here is not Haligonian, but comes from Quincy comes from Mildred Jacobs's sister in law who didn't eat gebruchts, food made with dampened matza products. Mildred was a famously good cook. She grew up on a dairy farm in Millis, Massachusetts. We always eat this cake for the first night of Pesach.
Mrs. Mael's No Gebruchts Chocolate Cake
pre heat oven to 325
9 eggs separated
beat yolks with one cup sugar until thick and the color of butter
stir in 8 oz melted bittersweet chocolate
stir in 2 cups chopped walnuts
beat egg whites until stiff ( if you add a pinch of salt they will beat up better)
gently fold egg-whites into chocolate /nut mixture
pur into a tube pan and bake for an hour
invert pan until cooked and remove cake to plate