The butcher, the baker…

My mom said the kindest thing to me the other day while she was listening to me gripe about a recipe that was not working out. She said I reminded her of my great-grandmother, a woman who was always experimenting in the kitchen and would just shrug and move on if something didn’t work out (or was even truly awful).

Great grandma's bread

That comment made me think about family and food and memories—and this blog, which just passed 10,000 pageviews after 7 months (excuse for a mini dance party? I think so). How do you remember the people in your life, especially ones who are gone–pictures, mementos, stories? The more I write this blog, the more I realize how inextricably my memories of people are tied to food, the making or the sharing, and that is no truer than when it comes to my great-grandmother, Stella Kisilewicz.

Great grandma's bread

Butter?

Great grandma's bread

Or jam?

A baker by trade—she and my great-grandfather owned a corner store in Cleveland—the clearest memories I have of my great-grandmother are of the things she made, especially her chrusciki (fried dough bowties, dusted with powdered sugar) and her sweet bread with streusel.

image

My great-grandfather outside their shop in Cleveland

I’m not the only one—I’ve heard my mom talk more than a few times about the soft-boiled eggs my great-grandma used to serve in tiny egg cups with tiny spoons, her beet soup, her prune paczkis. The apple pancakes I made recently prompted the sweetest comment from my grandma who remembered the apple donuts she used to make when my grandma was growing up.

2011-11-23 17.02.40

Anxious for beet soup

While I loved her chrusciki, my great-grandma’s bread was something extra special; it wasn’t super sweet, just rich enough to be counted as a treat, and it would be the lucky person who got one of the coveted end pieces with the extra sugary bits. I remember my grandma slicing me a piece and adding a healthy smear of butter as I sat at the kitchen table, listening to family chit-chat between my mom, grandparents, great-grandparents, and whichever other aunts and uncles were around.

Great grandma's bread

A few years ago I copied down her bread recipe from a notecard in my mom’s stack of clippings. It’s one of those recipes that’s so clearly from a lifelong baker, one who cooked by taste and feel rather than by a list of fixed ingredients and measurements. Some ingredients are missing amounts, ingredients are mentioned in the instructions that are nowhere in the ingredient list, some components are missing altogether. And, as is customary for my mom’s side of the family, it makes SO MUCH FOOD—three loaves to be exact.

Great grandma's breadGreat grandma's bread

The thing I love about recipes like this, though, is the conversation they create. Looking over the recipe, I called my mom to ask her a question, leading to a call to my grandma for more details. While I was kneading the dough, I considered how lucky I am to have the family I do—both my mom’s side and my dad’s side—and the traditions we share. My great-grandma has been gone for twelve years, but by making her bread, by calling my mom and my grandma for advice, I felt connected to her. I thought of her and her amazing hats, the love she clearly had for her family. And I felt sad that, quite honestly, I never really got to know her as well as I should have in hindsight, to hear her stories, to see her in action in the kitchen.

Great grandma's bread

But I could do this, now. I could mix milk, eggs, butter, flour, yeast, sugar with intention and mindfulness for the traditions I’ve inherited. And more than a little respect for the many, many (many!) years my great-grandmother put into her baking–this bread was hard! I failed completely on my first batch when it deflated like a balloon, and only counted the second as a marginal success–tasty (and oh-so-good toasted with butter or jam), but not what I remember.

Great grandma's bread

With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up in just a few weeks, I hope you all have a chance to take a moment and give thanks for your family’s unique food memories. Whether they involve from-scratch bread, a cookie that only one person in your family could ever make “right,” or even just a once-a-week treat of eating delivery pizza in front of the tv to watch Friends, these memories are special and, at least for me, are integral to the person I am now.

Great-grandparents

I imagine my great-grandmother felt much the same sense of joy as she shared her passion for food with her family, friends, neighbors, community as I feel sharing my discoveries here with all of you. I’m looking forward to sharing more.

Great grandma's bread

Grandma “Kish”s Sweet Bread
Makes 3 loaves. This is taken verbatim from the notecard I copied with a few of my notes in italics, but I still have a long way to go to have it turn out anything like my great-grandma’s. So far I’ve learned that I need more than 5 cups of flour, not to throw out the egg whites (mentioned in the instructions, but not the ingredients), and to bake one at a time for more like 40 minutes to avoid having the loaves deflate as soon as I take them out of the oven. Her notecard also didn’t include a recipe for the streusel, and I have yet to find one that was like hers—small crumbles and more flour-y than sugar-y.

4-5 cups unsifted flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 packets yeast
1 cup (milk?) plus 1 cup water
2 sticks margarine
salt
2 egg yolks (reserve whites)

In saucepan, bring milk and water to a boil then remove and add butter to melt. When cool add to flour mixture.

In mixing bowl, add 3 cups flour, sugar, yeast, and salt, then slowly add the milk mixture. Beat on speed 2 until smooth, add slowly a cup of flour, 2 egg yolks, and vanilla. Beat til smooth, add the rest of the flour on slow speed and beat until flour is taken in. Increase speed to 4 and beat 7 to 10 minutes.

Grease bowl and top of dough with melted margarine and let dough stand covered with plastic wrap for about 1 hour until doubled. Punch down and let rise again til doubled. Punch down and let rest about 5 minutes.

Grease and flour three bread pans and fill with dough. Brush with lightly beaten egg whites and crumb topping, let stand 20 minutes covered. Bake in 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes (more like 40-45). Take out of pans and cool on racks.

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31 thoughts on “The butcher, the baker…

  1. What a sweet memory to have, thank you for sharing it with us. I have similar memories of my grandmothers, certain recipes that I can never get just right but the joy comes from trying I guess.

  2. the fun thing about grandma busza, was that all of her recipes were written on old cards, christmas cards, birthday cards, thank you cards… and some of these cards are so beautiful and vintage you would hate to do anything but frame them :) i remember “trying” rather unsuccessfully once to help her roll out chrusciki dough. if you want a great upper body work out, roll out chrusciki dough. for such a tiny woman, the strength was incredible! you had to roll it out until you could see the pattern on the pillowcase, then roll it out some more. it was like trying to roll out a rubber band! but it made the lightest flakiest chrusciki ive ever eaten. (my inlaws call them “angel wings”). and just sitting in her kitchen as a little kid, playing with the grape and strawberry bowls. or going through the super creepy basement to go through the back door to the store without going outside to get candy from the candy counter. i treasure the 18 years i had to get to know them, as i do the 30 (and counting!) i have to know my grandparents. i count myself lucky when most of the people i know and never known their grandparents short of their younger years. but you are so right! our family does not know how to cook in small quantities! but that is more to share! (and when aunt sandy makes the bread for parties, i sneak the ends ;) favorite part!)

    • I remember Laura and my mom tried to make chruschki one time, and all I remember about that was that booze is involved in the dough, and she said just to keep the bottle handy. And really, I just love directions like what you said,-roll until you can see the pattern of the pillowcase (another tradition that’s been passed down). I know recipe-writing is all about consistent results, but that’s such an awesome description.

  3. YOU SHOULD GET AHOLD OF AUNT SANDRA, UNCLE DREW’S WIFE, SHE HAS ACED THE SWEET BREAD A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO. YOU KNOW, I GET THESE AT WORK AND JUST AFTER LUNCH, NOW I’M HUNGRY, THANKS

    • Oh cool, I will! And you get hungry–I don’t end up posting these recipes until a week after I make then usually, so I’m all out of whatever it is I’m writing about, and then I want to make it again!

  4. Yes, food and family so wrapped up together in memory. I’ve found out first hand as a smell transports me to a place in childhood, or I wonder if I would like a certain dish if it weren’t for the nostalgia that accompanies it. I think the hardest thing for me right now is the staples of my diet growing up (gluten, dairy, eggs, tomatoes, oranges) are now off limits. While these ingredients wreak havoc on my health (hello, IBS, eczema & possible celiac disease), it’s not just giving up foods and replacing them with alternatives, it’s wrenching myself away from those bakers and cooks and grandmas and aunts and kitchens of my past. And so I cling even more tightly to my oatmeal, my meat and my potatoes. :)

    • Katherine, I can just imagine how hard that must be! And even sometimes when you get the recipe right, it just isn’t what you remembered because it’s not the same people, or the time, or the place.

  5. Child, you make a mother proud. Your story and written memories of my grandma made me cry. Just look at the comments and the memories you’ve given us all.

  6. Christina you write so beautifully! This made me cry. I miss Busha so much. I think of her quite often with the fondest memories! We are very lucky to gotten the chance to know her and to still have Grandma and Grandpa. As I wipe away my sappy tears….Aunt Sandra does an awesome job. I can send you her e mail address if you’d like. She also has a recipe for AMAZING Italian wedding soup!

    • Oh man, I’m making everyone cry! Your comment is so sweet though Ashley, thank you. I agree on how lucky we are to have the awesome grandparents we do. And yes, Aunt Sandra’s email would be great (or send her a link here, she’s getting Internet-famous!).

  7. Christina, you’ve been bringing back so many memories of my mom it made me cry too. You do us all proud and we love reading your blogs. The pictures of the bread look really good, I’m going to have to try again also.

    • Your comments always make me feel so good Grandma, and I really love, and feel lucky, to get to talk through these recipes with you (the oxtail soup was fantastic, by the way). I definitely come by my cooking genes honest, that’s for sure!

  8. What a great article Christina. I could just picture my mom as I read your story. I have to say, I too, to this day roll out my pie dough until I see the pattern in the dishcloth. And yes clucheke (didn’t feel like going back to see the correct spelling) dough is like a rubber band. I must add that cutting the cookies with the rippled cutter was a treat as was putting that cut in the small cutouts in order to turn them. Covering the dough as they waited to be put into the hot oil was important too. Then there was the old frying pan with no handle. If I remember correctly, there was a screw sticking out of the area where the handle was. Or was that one of mine I’m thinking of. Anyhow thanks for a well written article that took me back in time.

    • Haha, I admit I copied and pasted every time I used the Polish spelling, it’s not exactly intuitive.

      I love that memory about the pan, too, whether it was yours or hers! That’s like people who pass down cast iron pans through generations, it’s the love in every bit of the process :-)

  9. Uncle. Ed. I get a call from Ma( ed i’vegot an a Apple pie for you(my favorite) While driving to her house i’m literally eating the pie before i have it in my hand. I pick it up go home and eat pie for two days (that long?) i love it, great memorries .miss you ma.

    • I love your comment Uncle Ed (and I love how this is apparently making the rounds of our family)! Who could possibly find fault with eating apple pie for two days, sounds perfectly reasonable to me!

  10. Christina, I forgot to add to my reply that grandma made a lot of mistakes also. She didn’t waste them though, she would toss the ones that didn’t work out on the roof of the garage and the birds and squirrels loved her. The birds used to sit and wait for her treats.

  11. Christina, what a wonderful testimony to a woman “ahead of her time” and still miss very much! I will “try” to stay on topic (baking). Regarding my Mom’s reply… Gram always said, “if you take care of the birds (animals), they will take care of you.” I never understood what this meant until I started feeding the birds/animals. It was also interesting seeing the funky colors they left on my car (after she fed them her bakery). She always baked and cooked w/what was in season. I remember the excitement when Gram/Grandpa would come over on Saturday’s bringing the grocery order in a box (kielbasa, meats, fruits, her bread, bakery, and candy). I loved the fall because we would get a pomegranate in the box. This brings me to her concord grape kuchen. I didn’t like the seeds but boy what I would do for a piece right now.
    I feel blessed that I lived w/her after Grandpa died. Anytime you walked in the house you would smell bakery. I swear it permeated from the walls and my clothes. I helped her w/paczki the day before lent (Fat Tuesday) – deep fried jelly donuts, lightly dusted w/powdered sugar, in a brown paper bag. I remember dating Kevin (husband) and she would yell downstairs, giving me bakery for him. Many times it was her yummy crescents. I often thought he was coming around for the bakery and not me. It could be she knew very well that a way to a man’s heart is through the stomach.  I could go on/on about her. To me, she always made bakery or food that comforted your soul.

    • Oh man! I just threw out a bunch of concord grapes because I didn’t know what to do with them (I was grape-jam-ed out). I tried to make a grape foccaccia with them, but that was actually the recipe I was griping to my mom about that turned out terribly. Kuchen sounds amazing. I need to get all these recipes together!

      That’s so cool about the box of groceries and the pomegranate–and I know the kielbasa is a big deal in our family :-)

      I love the paper bag for dusting the pazcki too, that’s just so…well, “homespun” is about the best word I can think of to describe it. I could imagine, for as long as she was baking and cooking, how much the scent just made their home what it was.

  12. Christina, kudos to you on your writing technique! You have the ability to take the reader right into your story and have us feel or taste what you’re describing. This particular post, which for obvious reasons, is my favorite. It has taken so many of us right back into my grandparents home (even to the bottom of the steps and figuring out how fast to run across the scary sub basement). I can just see myself sitting at that kitchen table while Gram was baking/cooking, or going into the dining room to sneak those pastel mints that seemed to always be in a bowl there.Thanks for sharing your trials with Grams bread and taking me back. By the way, your bread looked great !

    • Thanks so much Aunt Nat! This post clearly struck a chord :-) And apparently the basement was a common fear across generations (see Kelly’s comment). What’s really nice for me is that I don’t personally have a lot of these memories of her, but I’ve absolutely loved hearing everyone else’s. I wish I had had a picture of her to put in this post too!

  13. Christina,
    One thing that no one has mentioned yet is that someone got really lucky with Grandma’s bread. She lost her diamond in the bread and it probably ended up with one of her weekly customers. We had to eat our loaves gingerly only to find out it was lost for good. This was a great blog……it got shared among more family and created a lot of conversation……

  14. Christina,
    Very wonderful article. Here are my memories and one key step you forgot to include in your recipee…..

    I went to Grammy’s 3 times to learn how to make this bread on Saturday morning. I sat pen and paper in hand waiting for her to call our the ingredients. She would say :”that will be 4 cups of flour.” so i would write down 4 cups of flour. By the time she walked to the flour container to put the flour in the bowl the amount would change. She would say, “that will be 3 1/2:” cups of flour.” What I ended up with was 3 very different recipees. The first time I made the bread I layed them all out on the counter and they made no sense so I called Aunt Connie for help. My first batch was meant for my Dad and it failed. The dough would not rise and it fit in one bread pan. I baked in anyway and it was harder than a brick but I gave it to him anyway so he could at least smell it. Then I remembered the missing step Grammy did but I failed to write down. You MUST step back from the oven once the bread is in and make the sign of the Cross to bless the bread. Ever since then, my bread turns out just and I remember it.

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