Sunday, May 27, 2012

Say "Cheese" for Shavuot

Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that has both agricultural and historical significance. Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple. Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Literally known as “Weeks,” the holiday is celebrated seven weeks after Passover, as it was assumed that it took the people of Israel seven weeks to make their journey through the desert, finally reaching Mount Sinai.
As is with most Jewish holidays, there is a culinary aspect associated with Shavuot.  Many Jews eat dairy on this holiday, and there are various interpretations as to why this is done. One such explanation is that because the Israelites had not yet received the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), they had prepared foods that were not in accordance with those laws. When they received the Torah, read the new laws, and realized their meat had not been made kosher according to God’s will, they opted to eat dairy dishes only. 
While eating cheesecake and cheese blintzes is common on this holiday, we had another dairy favorite in my mom’s home. Cheese Knaidlach, called Turogomboc in Hungarian, are quenelle-type dumplings. Light and pillowy, they must be handled ever so gently while both adding them to and removing them from their pot. When rolled in sugar and cinnamon laced brown butter crumbs, they make a delicious dessert. Placing them in a pool of 
strawberry coulis will make an even more decadent treat.

Another tradition that is practiced on Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. This is a wonderful story of sacrifice and true devotion involving Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. The two are righteous women, but it is Ruth who is the star.  She is the daughter-in-law of all daughters-in-law, and a heroine in her own right. I like to think of this holiday as honoring all of my favorites, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and strong women everywhere.
1 lb. farmer’s cheese
2 eggs, separated
1/4c. farina
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2c. dry bread crumbs
1 oz. butter
1/8c. canola oil
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. sugar
Make Knaidlach: With a wooden spoon, beat together the farmer’s cheese, egg yolks, sugar, salt, and farina. Whip egg whites until the soft peak stage, and gently fold them into cheese mixture.  Chill 30 minutes to one hour. Moisten hands and form mixture into 2-inch balls. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Reduce to a simmer and gently lower knaidlach into the pot.  Cook for 20 minutes or until they rise to the top. Drain. 
Make Crumbs: Add butter and oil to a skillet and heat until butter melts. Add crumbs to skillet and cook until they are a rich reddish brown. Add sugar and cinnamon to browned crumbs. 
Once Knaidlach have cooked, drain and gently roll them in the browned crumbs.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Nearer My Mom, To Thee

The Crafty Crow

I can’t remember the last time I spent Mother’s Day with my person. She’s been gone almost ten years and before that she lived in Florida while I lived in California. The times we spent together during the Mother’s Days of that period were reduced to the length of a phone call, and there was always an undercurrent of guilt fueling that obligatory call. I felt sad that she was not with her children and grandchildren, and guilty about not making that happen.  Each year I wrestled with the determination of whether it was better to get the call over with earlier in the day or at the last possible moment.  

During those calls, Mom would say she loved whatever gift we sent, and then I would put my boys on the phone so they could wish their grandmother a happy day. She would never say, but I could tell from the tone of her voice whether it really was a happy day or not. Whether she and my dad went out for lunch or dinner (my dad, Mr. Romantic, was one of those guys who would celebrate the day before to avoid the crowds), or whether they did nothing and just stayed home alone. Invariably those phone calls did not do much to contribute to the happiness of my day (thus the hemming and hawing connected to making them). They hearkened me back to the many Mother’s Days of my youth. On those days, my dad would often come home from his morning errands with a big bunch of flowers.  I would always add my own colorful bouquets--the ones with the crepe paper blossoms and pipe cleaner stems, and handmade cards covered with hearts that had been glued on assiduously. A big fuss was made over anything I created, and as ours was a very symbiotic relationship, I was ecstatic to be able to make my mom happy. As I grew older, the homemade gifts were replaced by gifts I actually purchased. One in particular was a white cotton nightgown, delicate and thin as rice paper. A white satin ribbon zigzagged around the neckline, and also the hemline.  My mom wore that nightgown often, until the many runs through the washer made it unwearable, just to show me how special it was.
Yet as celebratory as those times seemed, there was always an undercurrent of melancholia hiding there beneath them--like a piece of fine gauze. Any joy that was experienced in our home was often followed by a loud, wistful sigh, or a remark that began, “If only.” “If only my family were here.” “If only the war had not taken your grandparents away.” I’m not sure whether it was my mother’s survivor’s guilt or merely her inherent unhappiness that caused her to destroy the mood, but she often did.  It was as if she felt obligated to always bring up the past so it wouldn’t be forgotten, and never allowed herself to revel too greatly in her joy and good fortune. It was always incumbent upon us to bring her that joy, but we could not compete with the memories of the Holocaust, and she was wont to let us know, in her own subtle ways.  It was as if the joy, as well as the air, was being sucked out of the room. I felt there was nothing I could say after such remarks to make things better, so very often my younger self would walk away, feeling dejected. Mom could never understand why that was, and quite often she would become angry. She probably didn’t even realize how her demeanor affected us, and it was obvious she didn’t try to.
The Mother’s Days I spend with my own family are some of my most cherished times. We usually try some obscure place for brunch, and often my guys indulge me and allow themselves to be taken to a chick flick if there’s one playing that day. I love sitting in the theater with them knowing we’re all in one place, together. (Even though some of us are sleeping.) Last Mother’s Day we were all together on a plane to Italy. Once we had taken off and were flying at a pretty high altitude, I felt in my own childish way, as though we were closer to heaven, and thus closer to my mom. I imagined her looking in on the plane, seeing my boys, now young men, sitting there with me and I thought of how bursting with pride she would be. She often said that the only things that gave her pleasure were her children and grandchildren. And yet her pleasure seemed so fleeting at times.Thinking of her while on that plane did not dampen my spirits, as it usually did. In some strange way I felt her presence and as a light blanket on a cool summer night it descended upon me, and I felt happy. This year, I will once again be on a plane on Mother’s Day, this time heading to Turkey. I will think of my mom on that day, hoping to sense her again. I will imagine her smiling, and send her my love.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book Review: Charlotte Au Chocolat

To a foodie, Charlotte Silver’s childhood might have seemed like a dream come true. The daughter of chefs, Charlotte grew up amongst the pots, pans, pink linen tablecloths, and sparkling chandeliers of Upstairs at the Pudding, an eclectic eatery in a Victorian building in Harvard Square. But in addition to dining on delicacies (her favorite dish was Smoked Pheasant and Roquefort Flan) and the many years spent inhaling the restaurant’s lavishness, there were the many days and nights Charlotte was left to her own devices while her workaholic mom was absorbed with the restaurant business and all its trials and tribulations.  
Ms. Silver's memoir of the decadence, the food, and the colorful characters in the front and back of the house is a delicious entree into the Harvard Square and its environs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The restaurant and its theatrical atmosphere is definitely the supporting star of this story, but the true headliner is Deborah Hughes, Charlotte’s very glamorous, very driven mother.  Nicknamed “Patton in Pumps” by a staffer, this dynamo in and out of the kitchen singlehandedly saw to every aspect of the business, and still managed to impart lessons of style, manners, and dedication to her daughter. 

 It's not exactly Kitchen Confidential--perhaps with lots more meringue, whipped cream, caramel sauce, and a cherry on top--but it is a glimpse into the world of cheffing, told from a very different perspective. Like the sweet and fanciful confections the restaurant was known for, this is a light tale of a time that really no longer exists. And it is told in a rather wistful way that makes us wish it still did.