Sharing food and my favorite recipe

In my post earlier this week, I talked about the challenges and possibilities of a home-cooked meal. It prompted some wonderful conversations that made me realize I didn’t clearly address the other half of this whole issue: the importance of how we share that meal with family, friends, and community. Conveniently this dovetails nicely with one of my all-time favorite recipes.


I, we, can talk all day long about how to make homemade meals possible given all the challenges and roadblocks in our society, making fresh food accessible, everything I said on Monday. But, I think, equally important is how we share food with the people around us.

If you’ve been to any one of my mom’s summer parties in the past, oh, 15 years, you probably recognize this. It’s a party stand-by, incredible payoff for minimal effort. Salmon is brined with salt and brown sugar, spiced with ginger, allspice, and bay. It’s coated with honey, freckled with peppercorns, and smoked with applewood for a perfect combination of sweet, salty, rich, spicy, spiced, and smoky. It’s heaven.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

As good as this salmon tastes (and if I haven’t made it clear, oh my god it is good), it’s memorable because of the people I associate it with. The family friends my mom got the recipe from, friends who also shared cookie day with us for more than two decades. My best friend and I sneaking a more than ample chunk to share at my mom’s house-warming and catching up on a rare summer day when we were both in town from our respective new cities (I know we are true and life-long friends because her first question when I mention a party at my mom’s is “Will the salmon be there?” She has her priorities straight). I remember it at big family parties on the bay and casual weekend barbecues, my high school graduation party, my sisters’ 18th birthdays.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

I know this as a dish to share with friends and family when warm weather comes, which is why it was the very first thing I knew I had to make for my own house-warming party in July (and a great excuse to test my new grill). Wrapped in its own little foil plate, it’s casual and low-fuss to serve and can even be made a few days in advance. But again, it’s what it represents with the people it brings together–circles of friends new and old sharing food and drinks and music on a warm, sunny, summer day.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercornsSmoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

My parents both showed me the importance of taking time to make a good home-cooked meal, they showed me how to cook. More than the food on the table, though, they showed me that it’s how and with whom that food is shared that matters; it’s about taking time and effort to acknowledge others. It was sitting at the dinner table with my dad and sisters talking about school, laughing about my teacher who wouldn’t let me wear an Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt because she thought the buckeye looked like pot. It was naming the best thing that happened during the day around the table with my mom.

Even on the affectionately named Hell Nights, when coordinating work schedules and activities for three kids meant dinner was picked up or eaten out, we still found a way to make the meal matter. I credit those Hell Night Chinese restaurant dinners with teaching me the math skills to calculate a tip. And that paper umbrellas and Shirley Temples are underrated.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

Yes, the quality of the food on the plate is important and I stand by everything I said Monday. But what I really, truly hope is that we continue to value the connections made over a shared meal. Those connections are deep and they are vital in the most literal sense of the word; they give life as truly as the food we eat. The food doesn’t need to be elaborate (or even homemade), the occasion doesn’t need to be special; all that’s required is genuine interest in the person across the table.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

(For another really thoughtful observation on this discussion, read Erica’s post at Northwest Edible Life, which inspired my original post.)

Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
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The reality of home-cooked meals

I don’t usually pull out my soapbox here, but last week, Slate published an article titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” that addressed a study that argues “the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.” Then I read this rebuttal and I got angry.

Look, I absolutely believe to my core that we as a society need to prioritize home cooking, growing our own when and where possible, and making good, fresh, sustainable food available geographically and financially. But the way our culture is set up, that is not always easy or even possible, and those roadblocks need to be addressed.

More than a few studies show that women (even with a partner) still do a larger percentage of housework and childcare, including cooking/grocery shopping/cleaning up, even after working a full-time job. That’s not even taking into consideration single parents, parents who work multiple jobs with odd hours for low pay, food desserts, the challenges of getting those so-much-cheaper-than-chips multi-pound bags of potatoes home on a bus. The percent of people who face any one of these challenges, let alone multiple, is far more than the 2% the author in the second article cites (a number that is so wildly out of line with reality I really couldn’t take anything else he said seriously).

And it’s patently not true that “healthful ground beef from pastured cattle versus fast-food burgers” is cheaper by the pound, especially when you take into account the time, tools, and knowledge necessary to acquire, store, and cook said beef. But that’s honestly one of the problem(s) that we should be addressing, not shaming the people who aren’t cooking (or spending their time or money) the way we think they should be.

I am so incredibly lucky and privileged; I acknowledge that. I was lucky that a home-cooked family dinner was a priority for my parents at both of their houses growing up. My dad (a former farmer who had decades of know-how) had a big garden in our yard that supplied a lot of our fresh vegetables in spring, summer, fall and (frozen) throughout the winter. My mom liked food and cooking and trying new things and encouraged my sisters and I to do the same. But my parents also had jobs where they could be home for dinner at a reasonable hour, had the tools and stability to make cooking a reliable option, and knew enough to teach me and my sisters how to start dinner or fend for ourselves if, and when, needed.

I am also lucky in that I love to cook, I reliably get home before 6 p.m. every night, I don’t have kids to care for or cart around to activities, I have the money to spend on the organic pastured local chicken (which, by the way, $26 for two 3.5 pound birds at the farmers market this weekend, four times what a regular chicken would be at the grocery store) or the produce at the farmer’s market (which is rarely less expensive than the grocery store–a whole other frustrating myth–even if it might be fresher, tastier, or more healthful). And even I sometimes find cooking an obnoxious chore.

Idealizing a home-cooked family meal is as much of a problem as idealizing the stay-at-home mom from decades past (a whole other rant for another time, because many, many women did have to work outside the home in some capacity to make ends meet). It’s not always cheap, easy, fast, or pretty, though it most certainly can be all those things. We should not give people excuses so they don’t have to try, which is a fundamental problem of the original Slate article. But we also cannot, I repeat cannot, shame them when we don’t think they’re trying hard enough.

Do I think it would be great if we could all sit down for an hour for every meal, food made from scratch, with good conversation and no electronics? Of course. But everyone has their threshold. Who am I to say that a parent is wrong if they’d rather spend time reading with their kid, taking them to a sport, or helping with homework when they get home exhausted at 8 p.m. instead of spending that time in the kitchen (and yes, kids should be helping in the kitchen too, but “I was making dinner” isn’t going to fly when homework isn’t ready for class the next day).

You know what the fastest way is to get someone to tune you out? Start telling them how wrong they’re doing things. No matter how much you have to say about building a better food culture and community, how much knowledge you might want to share about growing or cooking healthful food on a budget or with limited time or resources, none of it will be heard when it starts with “You’re doing it wrong.”

Instead of blaming, let’s encourage; instead of judging, let’s help. Let’s challenge ourselves to start changing what we can, even if it’s one thing, even if it feels small–one night without tv; trying once a week, even once a month, to switch out a boxed meal with something more healthful. Let’s share the knowledge and tools we have with our community. We all have something to contribute to make this ideal of a home-cooked meal more of a reality.

Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies

Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)

Biscotti three ways

Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)

Fig-date swirls

Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)

Rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.

Spice cookeis

Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…

Suprise Insides

Surprise Insides (from my mom)

The surprise

The surprise

Raspberry almond meringues

Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)

Thumbprints

Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam

Peanut butter blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)

Snowcaps

Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)

Chocolate crinkles

Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Strawberry shortcake for my dad

Really, the ten quarts of strawberries that have taken over my kitchen are all my dad’s fault.

Bowl of berries

I think I was an exhausting child

“Wake up Dad, let’s go DO something!”

If he didn’t plant a garden when my sisters and I were growing up, if he didn’t take us strawberry/cherry/apple picking at the U-pick orchards and fields around our town, if he didn’t spend nearly every week in summer making a fruit pie or shortcake of some kind, if he didn’t teach me how much better tomatoes and corn and strawberries taste when they’re fresh and warm from the sun, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Flowers!

My dad will shake his head (I can tell, even over the phone) and laugh at me when I tell him about the stash I brought home, but I think behind that he understands. He grew up on a farm (ask him about tractors and combines some time), he lived the whole “farm to table” “snout to tail” thing about 50 years before it was trendy. For my dad, that was just…how it was.

Dad and pumpkin

Nothing says love (or trust) like letting your kid hold your hand with a knife in it as you carve a pumpkin.

He gave me a taste of that life growing up with our garden. Each year, he would till a 30’x15’ plot (my dad just corrected me–it was at least twice that size, enough space for 3 rows each of 3 to 4 varieties of corn) behind our house before walking along the rows with my sisters and me, helping us plant corn, squash, tomatoes, beans, just about anything you can think of.

Bowl of berries Bowl of berries Berries in the sun

I want to say we would eagerly watch and wait for the little green sprouts to peek through the dirt, tending and caring for them, but I don’t think it ever occurred to us that this was something special. My sisters and I didn’t know that most people didn’t run out back for broccoli or spend Sunday picking dozens of ears of corn off their stalks. We thought it was fun to watch our dad simmer and slice “caterpillars” off the corn or mash tomatoes through the food mill, and being a good helper by funneling it all into bags for the freezer and dinner in December.

BerriesSugared berries Cornered berries

At the beginning of this year, less than two weeks after his 65th birthday (and only a few days after my 30th) my dad ended up in the hospital from a heart attack. Knowing that my dad came that close to not being around, that I came that close to not hearing his amused, incredulous “Christina!” when I tell him how many strawberries I bought or calling him to ask what a misfire in cylinder 4 on my car means was the most terrifying moment in my life, to be sure, and I have no doubt that it was a less than a treat for him. Want to really appreciate your dad? That’ll do it.

Creamed and sugared Creamed and sugared Shortcake

Dad, we have a 5K to walk in a few weeks (the only time I’ll be able to keep up with you), and you need to be around to say “I told you so” on that far-off day that I have kids who gripe that they like chicken nuggets better than my homemade whatever. I guess, given all the complaints a kid could have about their dad, the fact that I’m pretty much unable to buy tomatoes or strawberries or corn off-season and that I appreciate the finer points of a perfect strawberry shortcake means you did something right.

Strawberry shortcake Strawberry shortcake

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you and I’m really glad you’re around.

Proud dad

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Happy Mother’s Day!

First picture of Mom and me

The very first picture of my mom and me

How do you tell your mom how awesome she is? It doesn’t seem enough to just say it. A card, or flowers, or brunch…none of those things is really my mom (also, being four states away makes brunch plans difficult). So for my mom on Mother’s Day, here’s how to make a soft-boiled egg.
Soft-boiled egg

Lest that sound completely random (more random than anything else I write? Probably not), there’s a story. Two years ago, my mom and I went to Italy (luckily my mom happens to think I’m a good travel buddy). On our first morning at the hotel, she spotted some contraption with simmering water and a bowl of eggs among the rest of the breakfast treats–how very European, we thought! My mom’s near-immediate response was to tell me how she used to love when my great-grandmother would make soft-boiled eggs when she was little, served in tiny egg cups with tiny spoons.
EggsGetting readySimmering
One egg and a few minutes later, my mom tap, tap, tapped the top of the shell open…to a nearly raw egg. Unfortunately there was no sign or anything about how long to leave the eggs for the desired doneness, so oops. We laughed and tried to figure out how to hide the fact that we clearly failed at apparently the most basic of cooking tasks. Ah well, we would get it right the next morning… and of course the next day ended up with a solid hard boiled egg.
I think we tried different variations nearly every morning of our trip and it became a running joke, but in my mind it was also a testament to just how memorable the women in my family are.

Mom and me

My mom and me, then

CrackedSunny soft-boiled eggPerfect egg

There was a lot about that trip–a lot about my mom in general–I could point out as a reason she’s amazing and inspiring. Her confidence in me–my ability to hike nine miles a day and more recently her confidence that I can do a 10k with her–makes me feel like I can do anything. I aspire to be in as good a shape as she is!

Mom and me in Italy

Mom and me, now. My mom’s arms would put Michelle Obama’s to shame.

She got me into cooking and showed me how good it feels to share good food with good people; she’s (nearly) a certified master gardener, I’m proud when I don’t kill my houseplants and love growing my little pots of flowers every year. My mom got her executive MBA while working full time with three kids under 13, and was a senior executive at a Fortune 1000 company until she decided to leave on her terms and go after her passions. She inspired me to get my Masters degree and while I may not aspire to her level career-wise, damn it, my mom kicks ass (sorry Mom) and I love bragging about her.

My mom is the funniest person I know, and knows that sometimes you just have to take the crap life hands you and laugh (Fine! Fiiiiinnnneee!). She has the best taste in movies, taught me how important a good hug and a good handshake are, always has my back (and has no problem telling me when I’m being an idiot), and is the reason I love to travel and be outside and can’t imagine moving too far from the water. Her home is my aspiration and inspiration.
Nice spreadEgg, salmon, toast
This kind of derailed from my original story but I guess the point I’m trying to make is simply this–Mom, you’re awesome. And I finally figured out how to make soft-boiled eggs so we don’t embarrass ourselves the next time we’re in Italy.

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Everyone wins at egg wars (and happy birthday sisters!)

The last time I remember my sisters’ birthdays coinciding with Easter, we were kids and Easter baskets, dying eggs, and scrounging under sofas for plastic eggs full of pastel-colored malted milk balls was still fun in an un-ironic, I’m-totally-not-just-reliving-my-childhood type way.

Sisters and our bears (and one stuffed dog)

Happy birthday blondies!

Deviled eggs

As my sisters and I were raised good Catholic children (five years of Catholic school cured me of that PDQ, ask my mom sometime about my eight grade teacher calling home to ask if my mom knew I said I was an atheist), Easter was a Big Family Thing. And big family things usually meant trips to Cleveland to celebrate (aka feast) with either of our parents’ extended families.

CCI03302013_0005

Most memorable were the Easter egg hunts at our Aunt Sandy and Uncle Greg’s house with our cousins. There was always an egg in the mailbox and probably one on top of the ceiling fan in addition to the usual under chairs and in flowerpots. And we each had to find our own hidden basket–no hinting if you found someone else’s.

Eggs, ready to boilCooled

After the egg hunt were the egg wars. Much like the current March Madness, egg wars were based on a bracket system: pick one of the hard boiled eggs we had decorated the day before and pick your opponent. Small end to small end (we would have made Jonathan Swift proud), we’d smash our eggs together. Whichever egg was unscathed went on to compete against the other intact eggs–yes, my family is big enough they there were usually more than three rounds of this. My Uncle Greg and cousin Danny were the master at egg wars while the rest of us just waited for our wounded eggs to make a reappearance later in the day in the form of deviled eggs, usually courtesy of my Uncle Dave.

Naked eggPerfect yolk, slightly less perfect peeling jobHole in the egg (instead of egg in the hole)Fluffy yolks

Once an egg champion was declared, it was off to church then on to my grandparents for lunch/dinner with an impossible number of people squeezed into their basement. And there was always lamb-shaped butter. I loved the lamb-shaped butter. The cousins would congregate upstairs around the Nintendo and the do-do-do-do-do-do of Mario Brothers and would only bug the adults to ask where the frozen strawberry dessert was…or maybe that was just me (that recipe to come soon).

Filled and dusted

I say all that to say this: Happy Easter everyone, and more importantly happy happy 27th birthday(s) Erica and Laura. I wish you success in all things, from your current creative endeavors to the next time you face off against someone with only a blue hard boiled egg on your side. If nothing else, you can always make deviled eggs.

Sisters, now

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All hail the glorious paczki

Poonchkey. Punchki. Paczki. However you want to spell it, it’s impossible to say without smiling. Just try it. I’ll wait.

DesCutest little paczki!
The only word of Polish I know*, it’s what my mom called–and still calls–my sisters and me, her little punchkis. Growing up, I vaguely knew she didn’t make the word up, that they were kinda-sorta Polish doughnuts, but until I moved to Chicago I didn’t truly understand the cult of the paczki.

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Cookie Day!

Here’s a really easy riddle for you: what can you make with 6 1/2 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of flour, 29 eggs, and 3 pounds of sugar? Answer: A hell of a lot of cookies and a lot of happy friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Who wants a cookie?

In case that wasn’t clue enough, this past weekend was Cookie Day (or really, Cookie Weekend), which has been an annual tradition since before I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom and her friend Connie would pick a day in December and there would be Baking-with-a-capital-B. Over the past 20 years, Cookie Day has seen 6 homes and pretty much every major life milestone–and I couldn’t be happier that I brought at least a small part of it with me when I moved to Chicago.

Recipes and lists

Lists are essential

Now, let me be clear: this is no two- or three-hour deal with one or two batches of your holiday cookie standards. I don’t say that out of some kind of misplaced pride or egotism, but to set the stage for the sheer amount of baking that is involved. During Cookie Day’s heyday, there had to have been more than 3 dozen kinds (that’s not 36 cookies, but 36 kinds of cookies) at the end of the day. And since nearly every recipe was at least doubled, if not tripled…I can’t even guess how many cookies that would be.

Fig-date swirlsPistachio-orange crescents

But oh, does it make for the best memories. There was the time trays of cookies were being shoved, hot, into trunks of cars because a) there was probably no other flat surface on which to cool them, and b) it was so late and everyone was so tired that it was unimaginable to do more than that. There was the year that we opened tins to start boxing up cooled cookies only to discover cookies leftover from the year before (thankfully well-preserved, if very stale). Or the year of the unfortunate reindeer turd cookies–at least they tasted good!–or the year of the florentine mishap.

Cookies

Some things have never changed with Cookie Day with my mom and Connie: mimosas always start the day, with a break for sandwiches and chips for lunch. Someone will always choose an overly-complicated new cookie recipe for the end of the day and end up swearing up a storm. Someone will inevitably put a dough in the refrigerator to chill, thinking “Oh, I’ll remember what cookie that’s for” and will have no idea three hours later which of the now five chilled doughs belonged to which cookie.

My mom will always make butter horns, Connie will always make rugelach, my sister Laura will always decorate the “pizza” cookies, and my sister Erica will show up at the end of the day to eat the butter horns and ask what she can take (but we love her anyways). And I will always be the pecan-tassie-maker and the unwrapper of Hersey’s Kisses and chocolate balls for peanut butter blossoms and “surprise inside”s–three tasks that I now happily pass off to my unwitting, yet very patient, friends. There have to be perks to hosting my own Cookie Day, you know.

Helping hands are essential

Helping hands are essential

But beyond the masses and masses of sugar and flour and butter and chocolate and nuts, I love my friends who have joined me over the past few years for the baking extravanganza, and helped me create my own version of this tradition.

Treat box

Mulled wine or glogg has been the beverage of choice for the past three years, cheese and crackers for snacks. I still choose at least one overly complicated recipe, forget which cookie dough is which, and swear at midnight on Sunday that next year I’ll make two cookies and that’s all! (I’ve said that for 6 years, hasn’t happened yet.)

Boxed and ready to give away

What are your holiday baking traditions? Any other baking over-achievers–do we need to start a support group?

Cookie Day 2012 Recap

Types of cookies: 14, plus hot chocolate mix and marshmallows

  • Anise-almond biscotti
  • Fig-walnut biscotti
  • Peanut butter blossoms
  • Thumbprints (raspberry, grape, and apple-lemon)
  • Pecan tassies (a double-batch, god help me)
  • Chocolate-espresso crinkles
  • Rugelach
  • Raspberry meringue bars
  • Grasshopper bars

New this year:

  • Fig-date swirls
  • Pistachio-orange crescents (Cut-outs, filling, AND fussy timing? What was I thinking? They were delicious and quite popular though)
  • Chocolate-orange biscotti
  • Spice buttons (Never would have done the frosting and sprinkles, thank god for friends and co-bakers!)

Total number of cookies: 660, not including bar cookies or ones sacrificed for “taste-testing”

Best new recipe: Tie between adding espresso powder to my usual standard snowcap/crinkle recipe and a totally new pistachio-orange crescent (which I will never again make for Cookie Day, as they broke several of my cardinal rules, not least of which is no cutouts, complicated fillings, or overly fussy timing).

Happy Thanksgiving!

For everything I am grateful for today (and a reminder to myself to be thankful for all those things more often) I want to share a happy Thanksgiving with all of you. I hope you all found yourself with good food and in good company today!

image

My contribution to today’s meal, delicious bread that weighs 10 pounds.

 

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

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