Sweet Memories

My late grandmother, Martha, of blessed memory (“Nanny Martha” to those of us who knew and loved her best) was a dynamo in the kitchen. Not unlike other Eastern European woman of her generation, Martha created meals for her family that were consistently and undeniably delicious. Moreover, her food possessed that unnameable quality– it seemed to ooze warmth, security, love, and basically make everything seem alright with the world. You know what I’m talking about: the kind of food only a grandmother can make.

As the beneficiaries of Nanny’s cooking, my parents, sisters and I were treated to her repertoire of Austro-Hungarian dishes every Thursday night for more years than I can count. There are many stand-outs that will forever be burned in my memory. Her exotic delicacies ran the gamut from tangy, orange Viennese Liptauer spread to melt-in-your mouth German rouladen (beef roll-ups–we called these “schnapper schnitzel”) to her own Americanized version of wiener schnitzel (served with a side of heavily sweetened tomato sauce). On Rosh Hashanah, we all anticipated her flaky apple strudel and Passover‘s moratorium on flour was made all the more bearable with her sticky sweet jelly roll (more on this in a minute).

Nanny Martha was that most confounding of home cooks. Her food was, in a word, spectacular. But ask her how she made any of it, and her answers were often vague.  “Oh you know, a little of this and some of that,” was the typical response. So when Nanny died in 1994, the secrets locked inside all those wonderful meals were lost as well. Many days, when I am in the kitchen, I think of Nanny and summon her memory as inspiration. Recently, I’ve begun experimenting with desserts. Nanny had a sweet tooth, for sure, and I think she would have been proud of my attempts to create sugary happiness — just like she did all those years ago.

My wedding day in 1988. Nanny is on the far left, next to my mother.

One of my favorite quotes from cookbook author and food blogger Molly Wizenberg, captures these sentiments beautifully: “When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.” (from A Homemade Life)

In the absence of any written documentation from Nanny, I searched the internet for a recipe for Jelly Roll that would hopefully do Nanny’s justice and I found this one, courtesy of Paula Deen. Interestingly, she calls this “Old South Jelly Roll Cake” but it could have just as easily originated from Nanny’s kitchen, right here in Baltimore.

Jelly Roll Cake

4 eggs, separated
3/4 c. vanilla sugar (or you can use regular granulated sugar and add 1 T. vanilla extract)
3/4 c. cake flour, sifted
3/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
Confectioner’s sugar, for rolling and dusting
1 c. jam or jelly, stirred well

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and set aside. In another bowl, beat the egg yolks until light. Gradually add the sugar and vanilla, and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the sifted flour mixture to the egg yolk mixture. Fold in the egg whites into the egg mixture and pour the batter into a 15 by 10 by 1-inch jelly roll pan lined with waxed or parchment paper. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the cake is golden.

Loosen edges of cake and invert onto a towel dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Gently peel wax paper off cake. Trim 1/4-inch of hard crust off each long side of the jelly roll cake. Begin with the narrow side and roll the cake and towel up together.

Cool cake on rack, seam side down, for 10 to 15 minutes. Once cake has cooled, gently unroll and spread cake with jam or jelly and re-roll. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and slice to serve.

Jelly Roll Cake to make Nanny proud

Rhona’s Chicken Cacciatore

If I was offered a one-day trip in a time machine and given the choice to revisit the past or peek into the future, I would choose the past. Of course, the people from my childhood who are no longer here would most certainly warrant a visit. My dad, whose presence I feel every day, despite the fact that he’s been gone for more than 23 years. My grandparents, particularly my maternal grandmother, whose sense of humor and huge heart left an indelible imprint on me. High school and college friends whose time on earth was far too short. Even pets who enriched my little-girl days. I’d love at least another 24 hours with them all.

Especially in this season of resolutions and looking forward, there is something about staying connected to the past that grounds me. And in the kitchen, more often than not, I find that the past is what inspires me.

I have so many wonderful food memories — far too many to enumerate. Some are attached to meals at special places that have long since closed their doors. Savory hot roast beef and gravy platters at the local Hot Shoppes; egg salad on cheese toast sandwiches at Hutzler’s lunch counter; pizza rolls in waxy bags from Silber’s Bakery; and sticky sweet banana splits from Howard Johnson are just a few that come to mind. I often recall food “snapshots” — moments disguised as insignificant but which somehow have resonated with me. The perfect tuna fish sandwich at my childhood friend Jane’s house, for instance, or picking crabs on the deck of the venerable Phillips Seafood.

Of course, food histories are borne out of special encounters with people as well. Recently I stumbled upon an old recipe book that once belonged to my husband’s long deceased grandmother, Rhona. Reading this 1964 collection of traditional Jewish dishes transported me to that place and time when trust, love and security were abundant and everything was somehow easier to understand. The pages of Grandma Rhona’s “Recipe Round Up” are yellowed, stained with who-knows-what, and decorated with margin notes in her fine, elegant handwriting. I read it cover to cover and smiled, thinking how far we’ve come and yet, how nice it would be to go back.

I didn’t get to spend much time with Rhona. She died when my husband and I were practically newlyweds. But I do recall one dinner, the only dinner we shared at her home. The dish was Chicken Cacciatore and — no surprise, here — it was delicious. Seated around the table in her humble but impeccably decorated apartment, the three of us enjoyed an evening of good food and a lot of laughs. Rhona was a dynamo of a woman who lived a colorful, interesting life and thus had great stories to share.  Though I didn’t know her well, her moxy, both in and out of the kitchen, has left its mark on me.

Grandma Rhona's "Recipe Round Up"

Rhona’s Chicken Cacciatore (as reinterpreted from Recipe Round Up(published 1964 by B’nai B’rith Women.)

1 large red or white onion, thinly sliced
8 oz. mushrooms (cremini or white)
Approximately 4 c. plum or roma tomatoes, coursely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 T. red wine vinegar

1 4-lb. roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Salt and pepper
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ c. dry red wine
1 14 oz. can diced roasted tomatoes, juice included
1 c. low sodium chicken stock or broth
12 oz. pasta (preferably short-cut such as penne or gemelli)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and onions with approximately 3 T olive oil, generous amount of salt and pepper and the vinegar.  Toss to combine and spread in a single layer on a rimmed sheet pan.  Roast approximately 25-30 minutes until the vegetables are brown and have begun to caramelize.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Season the chicken with the salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan and brown the chicken, approximately 6 minutes on each side. Transfer chicken to a bowl and set aside (*Note: chicken will not yet be fully cooked at this point).  With the heat on medium, add the red wine to the empty skillet and deglaze the pan until the liquid is reduced by about half. Stir in the canned tomatoes with juice, as well as the chicken broth and return to a boil.  Simmer for a few minutes to allow flavors to meld, then return the chicken to the skillet.  Place skillet in the oven and cook uncovered until juices run clear, approximately 30 minutes or more, depending on size of the chicken pieces.

Remove skillet from oven and add roasted vegetables, stir until the vegetables are heated through. Serve in a wide, shallow bowl over cooked pasta (or rice, if you prefer).