I am going to start this baking post a little differently than all of the others that I have published to date.
Here is the question: How many of you in the Jewish social and internet diaspora have witnessed your mom’s or Bubbe’s baking without the use of a recipe?
Well, my mom certainly was one who never ever used a formal recipe while baking, and frankly, even though there was the Joy of Baking Cookbook on the bookshelf, my older sister, Sherrie (by four years), said mom never used that cook book, ever.
And for my mom, we are talking about at least making 50 or so different bakes.
Since learning how to bake just three years ago now, I absolutely need recipes for every one of my bakes. Without a recipe, I am a total failure. Actually, it is funny to look back and know that I first learned how to bake using the book “Baking For Dummies,” and I graduated up the baking challenge ladder to a point where I am now able to bake all of my mom’s recipes with the addition of my own twists.
Fortunately, and without prompting from me, Sherrie desperately wanted to access mom’s recipes, so a couple of years before mom passed in 2011, she had mom dictate all of those 50+ recipes. Sherrie wrote the dictation onto index cards and then scanned them into her computer.
When I started to think I could actually bake mom’s recipes, around 2018, I asked Sherrie to send me those scans. And what I received were scans that were impossible for me to follow. For instance, most recipes indicated a title and then little more than an ingredients list (no amounts) and instructions like a bissel of this, a pinch of that, and taste, and then add, and taste again. COME ON! You’ve got to be kidding mom, LOL.
Since 2018, yes, for a long time ago now, I have been wondering how my mom learned to bake and do it all basically from memory. Since unfortunately it was too late for me to ask mom, I began to question other bakers (mostly daughters of my mom’s generation) when I heard them write (on Facebook mostly) how great their mom’s baking was. I immediately would start the conversations and ask if their mom’s used recipes to bake. And when I heard no or not really, I immediately asked for a ZOOM conversation to learn more about their mom’s baking backstories.
Over the last several years and especially during 2020-21 while in COVID-19 isolation, the number of my baking friends increased exponentially. And many, many more than you would think have similar backstories to those of my mom. What’s even more amazing is how all of these women could spin out magical bakes without the use of a written recipe, notes, or even scraps of paper with ingredient and instruction reminders?
Well now in a running dialogue with many of you and through my baking columns and group posts, I have come to learn that my mom was not unique in this regard. That many of your mom’s and Bubbe’s bakes were done exactly the same way as my mom did hers. No specific written recipes followed, and all done from memory only.
More to the point, did all of us have something in common? And if so, what was that common thread that brought all of us together?
This topic and questions have stirred my curiosity and that usually means I’m getting busy trying to get to the answer.
And from here, I am going to tell you a most unusual story which happened just two months ago and sort of ties all of the questions and perhaps some answers above.
Some of you may know that I also founded the Jewish Culture and Holocaust Remembrance Group (JCHR) on Facebook a couple of months ago and I did it for several reasons:
1. To honor my Holocaust survivor parents z”l, Mom survived Auschwitz and Dad escaped Nazi Germany (Berlin) in 1935, at age 15, by getting one of the last Hadassah Aliyot Kindertransport passes out of Germany. The date of his exit was 1935. It is significant because it was then when the Nuremberg Laws were passed in Germany severely limiting the rights of all Jews. His father used his influence to get dad on this last Kindertransport. Dad then made his way with 100 other teenagers to British Palestine by ship in 1935-36. He arrived at the Port of Haifa and lived on Kibbutz Yagur. He learned a trade and fought in the War of Independence in 1948 serving in the Israeli Air Force when he was 28.
2. To learn about both of my parent’s different Shoah pathways since they both were totally silent on the Holocaust. Even until the day Mom passed she would not speak about her deportation to Auschwitz from Kosice CZ or any of her Shoah experiences. I have subsequently learned through my research she was deported with her family of three other sisters, her mom and dad. Mom’s maiden name was Friedman, or Friedmann or Friedmanova, all of the ways we have now seen it spelled on birth records and Yad Vashem documents. Mom was also only 15 in May 1944, when she arrived at Auschwitz. Mom lost her mom and baby sister Magda. When Magda was ordered to go left and my grandma, Serene Friedman wouldn’t let go of Magda’s hand. They were both gassed on day one. Mom and her two older sisters Edith and Hendi each survived the camp somehow. Also on day one upon arrival, Mom lost track of her father, Aron Friedman, because he was taken away into the men’s lager. They were then reunited upon liberation in May 1945. Mom would never speak to Sherrie or me about any of her Shoah experiences. And for us, both our parents’ silence was deafening.
3. With no Shoah family facts, stories, or anyone to ask, I decided in 2019 to begin my quest to learn about my parents’ Holocaust past? I started along my own genealogy journey. Without using any of the genealogy kits and using several different Holocaust connections, I began to learn from those who I found online whose parents or grandparents traveled a similar path one or both of my parents traveled during and after the Shoah. And frankly, what was once a very difficult challenge is now becoming somewhat easier as I post my family history and memories. These stories stimulate others to connect with me and they share their similar stories on ZOOM or by email. And it’s from these stories that I have learned a lot about my parent’s Shoah past.
4. To assist in my learning, I have watched over 450 Holocaust dramas and documentaries and from each of them, I continue to do more primary online research to uncover more of my parents’ past. A name or date or law enacted or WWll conference held leads me to more links of my parents’ past.
5. And finally, I curate and produce the programming for the Jewish Culture and Holocaust Remembrance Group and that opens up the opportunity for me to work with creative individuals who have done years of research on their Holocaust family stories. You simply can’t imagine the intimate details and learning I have uncovered from these many directors, actors, authors, screenplay writers, maestros, historians, rabbis, and Jewish and non-Jewish executive directors of non-profit organizations whom I have curated programming with.
So why am I sharing all of the above and how is this relevant to my initial premise about how my mom could bake more than 50 recipes solely from memory?
Well, keep reading and I know you will enjoy the rest of my story.
Recently I was producing a baking program for the JCHR. I invited Eva Moreimi. the author of Hidden Recipes: A Holocaust Memoir (you can find her book on Amazon) and Donna Steinhorn, who is an executive coach and the founder of The COOKBOOK FOR CHILDREN OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS: Foods of Our Heritage Facebook Group, to join me for a cooking/baking ZOOM program for the JCHR.
In our very first planning sessions on ZOOM, the following amazing learning happened. And none of us knew details or backstories about each other prior to this ZOOM meeting.
Eva, Donna, and I got together on ZOOM, and I started the conversation by introducing myself and providing a brief backstory about my mom Eva Giesener (maiden name Friedman). The conversation started something like this.
Well, my mom Eva Friedman never wrote down any of her recipes, did your moms have recipes written down? I also said my mom was deported from Kosice CZ in May of 1944 to Auschwitz. Donna was next to speak and said Jeffery, “I am amazed at your mom’s history because my mom was also from Kosice, and she was very young perhaps 15 or so when she was deported from a deportation site in Kosice which what my mom told me was a brick factory next to railroad tracks.” Right then and there I started getting chills and goosebumps as I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
This was totally unexpected and then Eva Moreimi (pronounced Ava) said that her mom was a terrific baker, and she was also from Kosice, and she too was deported in May 1944. She was around 16 when she was deported.
Could it be that all three of our moms may have traveled together on those packed cattle cars on their way to Auschwitz from Kosice in May 1944?
It is a sheer coincidence that we have been brought together on a ZOOM call and each of our parents was deported from the same city Kosice to Auschwitz in May 1944?
Could there be a possibility that each of our parents may have known each other while in Auschwitz? They were all close in age. Is this beshert or what?
And what is even more incredible is when I close my eyes and I listen to Eva Moreimi’s voice, I feel my mom’s presence since Eva voice is my mom’s voice.
Now what will make this even more chilling and quite remarkable is this additional following story which has been confirmed by my research. I told Ava and Donna that the brick factory that each of our moms was rounded up and deported from was owned by my grandfather’s father Benjamin Friedman. The factory was named GUPA, and my grandfather Aron Friedman inherited his father’s factory.
Then in the early spring of February-March 1944, the Nazis seized the GUPA factory and used it to round up the Jews of Kosice, CZ, and deport all of them to Auschwitz from March – May 1944.
Just imagine the unnerving realization of the Friedman family being deported with all of the other Jews of Kosice from a factory you once owned. But there is so much more to this story.
Eva’s Moreimi’s mother’s story is an amazing one and I promised Eva that I would not give away the premise of Eva’s book Hidden Recipes, but if the above at all is of interest to you, Eva’s book provides part of the answer of baking without recipes. (No more spoilers here.)
Eva Moreimi will be presenting Hidden Recipes to the JCHR in January 2022. Also joining us for another JCHR author presentation on November 7 at 10 a.m. PST is Cara de Silva, presenting her work In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.
You may think I am being cheeky by not revealing the secrets of my research or Eva’s or Cara’s stories. Well, I promised both Eva and Cara I would not share their compelling stories — not today anyway. But I guarantee you won’t be disappointed to learn what I learned from reading each of their fabulous Holocaust stories.
And now to this week’s bake from my mom — with my twist.
Mom loved to make challah, and I loved when she made her wonderful Babka. I too love to make both and when the kitchen fills up with those beautiful smells, I often feel my mom’s presence is with me in my kitchen. So, what better way for me to spin up my twist this week than to make mom’s Babkallah?
That’s right — the best of the two sweetbreads combined into one awesome dessert. And of course, with these recipes and twists, you can let your own baking imagination run wild, as the fillings can be anything you want them to be. I have given you two filing choices below.
1/2 cup whole milk, lukewarm (105°F)
2 1/4 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast (tip make sure your yeast activates or your dough will not appropriately rise)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/4 cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, plus more for kneading
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2″ pieces, plus more for the bowl
1 cup semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg, beaten
Granulated sugar, for sprinkling on top
1. To make the dough: heat the milk in a microwave for about 10-15 seconds until you heat the milk to 105°F.
2. Mix the yeast, sugar and milk together and let rest for about 10 minutes. The mixture will start to foam. It is critical that the yeast foams. If it does not foam it is most likely dead and you need to make another batch with fresh yeast.
3. In a large bowl, stir together the milk, yeast, sugar mixture with the egg yolks, and vanilla.
4. Add the flour, salt, and butter and mix with a sturdy spoon or your hands to form a shaggy dough.
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding a bit more flour as necessary to prevent sticking, until the dough is smooth, supple, and no longer shiny, 8 to 10 minutes.
6. Alternatively, you can knead using your stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, mixing on medium speed for 5 to 8 minutes.
7. Lightly butter the inside of a large clean bowl, then gather the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl.
8. Cover the bowl with cling-wrap or linen towel and let the dough rise in a warm place until it’s puffy, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.
9. To make the filling: In a small bowl, toss together the chocolate, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt; set aside.
10. To assemble the Babkallah: Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and divide it into three equal portions.
11. Flatten each portion with the heel of your hand, then use a rolling pin to roll each piece into a 12” × 6″ rectangle (you should use a dusting of flour to prevent sticking).
12. Brush the surface of each rectangle with the melted butter and sprinkle with the chocolate mixture, dividing it evenly among the three pieces and leaving a 1/2″ border uncovered along one long edge of each piece of dough.
13. Starting on the filling-covered long side, roll each rectangle into a spiraled log and pinch along the length of the seams to seal; it’s important to seal the logs very well so they don’t unravel as you braid, which could compromise the spiral of filling in the finished Babkallah.
14. Place the logs seam-side down and side by side on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Pinch the logs together at one end and braid them, leaving a little slack in the braid as you go to allow for expansion.
15. Pinch the opposite ends of the braid together and tuck both ends underneath the braid.
16. Cover the Babkallah loosely and set it aside in a warm place until it’s expanded to about 1 1/2 times its original size, 1 to 2 hours.
17. Toward the end of the rise time, place an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.
18. Brush the Babkallah with the beaten egg, then sprinkle generously with sugar.
19. To bake the Babkallah: Bake the Babkallah until the crust is deeply browned, 35 to 45 minutes; a digital thermometer inserted into the center will read 190°F. Remove it from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool completely.
20. The Babkallah, well wrapped and stored at room temperature, will keep up to four days, but it’s best served on the first or second day.
As an alternative filling, try one of my chocoholic fillings: salted peanut butter, chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Butterfingers and grape jelly filling.
- 1/2 cup (128 g) natural peanut butter or other natural nut or seed butter
- 1/3 cup Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (coarse chop)
- 1/3 cup Butterfingers (coarse chop)
- 1/3 cup grape jelly (preferably Bonne Maman) or other jelly, jam, or compote
Replace step 12 above with the above ingredient mix, then continue on to step 13. Enjoy!
Jeffery Giesener, former CEO of SourceMob, has both public and private company experience. Today, retired and enjoying life in San Diego, he’s a freelance writer who has a passion for both cinema and baking his Mom’s (Of Blessed Memory) European recipes.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World