Anatomy of a Recipe

by Mimi Hiller

Smells are powerful triggers.  The odor of disinfectant reminds me of my first hospital experience when I broke my arm.  The scent of roses brings to mind my wedding day.  And the aroma of wonderful foods recalls some of the warmth of my childhood.  So it's always been a pleasure recapturing the comfort of those early years by reproducing old family recipes.

I have been fascinated by matters of the kitchen for as long as I can remember.  My love for food extends way beyond the mere consumption of it.  Bedtime reading more often than not involves an array of cookbooks (my collection includes several hundred) or the myriad cooking magazines to which I subscribe.  Perhaps it's some sort of obsession, but I consider it harmless as well as productive.

My affair with culinary arts goes all the way back to the days when I used to hang around my grandmother's kitchen while she made all kinds of wonderful foods.  I remember asking her once how she learned to cook so well.  She told me her mother-in-law, who was a caterer, taught her everything she knew.  I never met my great-grandmother, but I often feel both of these wonderful women are with me every time I step into the kitchen.

Who hasn't requested that a favorite dish be made by that special cook in the family?  But in so many families, the recipes were never written down.  Fear that they might be lost forever, my aunt and I sat down with my grandmother one day to retrieve those treasures from her mind and put them to paper, conclusively.

It didn't take long for us to realize that Bubbe's mind worked better while she was actually in the!  And how does one translate the dear lady's measurements?  It was a challenge.  For instance, exactly how much is in a glass?  And what if my hands are larger than hers (which they were)?  Does that throw off the handful of whatever?

And what about methodology.  When I used to help her make gefilte for Passover, Bubbe told me that she had made it for every Shabbat dinner when her own children were growing up.  I felt a bit guilty complaining about all the work when she commented on how much easier it would have been had she had my Cuisinart food processor and KitchenAid mixer rather than the old-fashioned way, with the chopping blade in the large wooden bowl.

So many recipes were saved before she died in 1984, but none tastes as good as when she made them.  I suppose her special brand of love added that little extra measure.  Perhaps my own children will back on my own efforts in a similar way after I'm gone.  One can only hope.

When my friend Leah had a recipe that required some work, I was flattered that she thought of me as the one who could "rescue" it.  Leah always knows how to make me feel good.  When she called to say her father's birthday was coming up, I was wondering how I fit into that picture.  I had met her parents a few times and though we knew each other by sight, we had seldom spoken, and then only briefly.  (This was several years ago, and we know each other much better now.)

It seems that Leah's grandmother had died several years back, leaving her prize recipe for Teiglach (pronounced TEG'-lakh).  Leah is a pretty good cook herself, so I was still puzzled by the call.  It soon became apparent that my grandmother was not the only one whose recipes included handfuls of this or that.  Add to this the fact that no one in Leah's family wanted to take on the time-consuming task of making this confection.

A few days later, Leah gave me a photocopy of the recipe and I saw the challenge ahead of us.  "Give me a few days to study this," I told her.  Typically, experienced cooks leave things out of recipes, especially when it's something that they have made many times.  After all, the purpose of writing it down in the first place is to have a record of quantities of ingredients for others to follow.

The first thing I did was try to figure out if the recipe would actually work.  This required calling on my experience with foods and how they fit together.  Then I had to make some educated guesses as to how much her grandmother's glass held.  The last part of this culinary puzzle involved working out the logistics of its preparation (sizes of pans, whether to grease utensils, etc.).

When I felt I had worked out as much as I could without actually trying to make it, I invited Leah over to help.  It's not that I needed help, but I thought she would really enjoy reliving the memory of her grandmother's treasure.  Naturally, I was right.

We made the Teiglach that day and it was wonderful.  When I tasted the end result, I was suddenly taken back in time to when my own grandmother made it.  A flood of memories poured forth, including relatives talking about how much work it was and how, in her later years, Bubbe actually made the same comment.  Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was definitely worth the effort.

The next day, Leah called to give me the ratings.  On a scale of 10, I got a 9.9.  I didn't react audibly, but I was a bit hurt.  What had I done even slightly wrong?  Leah quickly set my mind to rest by informing me that her father automatically deducted that tenth of a point so as to give his own mother the edge.

Leah and her husband Scott always join us for the second seder on Passover.  I told her that we could convert the Teiglach recipe for the holiday by substituting matzo farfel for the pastry, which was actually the part of the recipe that required the most time and effort anyway.  We doubled the recipe, thinking we were doing a good thing, but it was actually quite disappointing.  Leah's father was kind in his evaluation, but no one needed to tell me what I already knew---we'd never make it with farfel again.

I vowed to try it again the following year.  This time I merely substituted matzo cake meal for the flour...and it was perfect.

A year after Leah and I first worked out the recipe, she engaged me to make it for her father again.  After nearly three hours in the kitchen, we turned out another near-perfect product.

What a shame it took so long to prepare, but I was skeptical about shortcuts, especially after my experience with the farfel.  I was reflecting on the afternoon's events over dinner with my family when it hit me:  the step that took the longest was cutting the dough into the thin strips in preparation for baking.  So without changing the ingredients or quantities, why not change the process by utilizing something I already had in my kitchen: a crank-type pasta maker.  Not only is the end result sufficiently thin and uniform, but it takes only a fraction of the time to make it this way.

I'm hoping that one day Leah's father will grant me the perfect "10," but in the meantime, I will continue to make and enjoy Grandma Sackheim's Teiglach.  I can imagine that somewhere above, she and Bubbe are patting each other on the back for the way their granddaughters are preserving their blessed memory.

Go to Teiglach Recipe

[Copyright 1997 Mimi Hiller - All rights reserved]