A recipe is a list.
A recipe is a blueprint.
A recipe is a map.
The thing about an old family recipe is how it can help you reconstruct a memory and make it present. How just reading it is like reading a memoir of your own childhood, written as you lived the moment.
A recipe is an artifact.
A recipe is a thumbprint.
A recipe is a photograph.
An old family recipe is a thing. A scrap of paper, an index card, a notebook page. It was scratched out on the back of a paper bag, or on the top sheet of the pad that sat by the telephone. It was ripped out of a magazine. It bears the evidence of being handled. It’s splattered, creased, greased. It preserves your mother’s handwriting, and your grandmother’s annotation: “From Shirl.”
A recipe is a whistle.
A recipe is a signal.
A recipe is a telephone.
The recipe is a practical thing. It directs and points. If it’s a good recipe, it stands by your shoulder and tells you just how much to stir that batter, just how dark to bake that bread, just what shape those cookies should be. Have always been. It tells you when you can trust your own judgement and when you must be exact.
A recipe is a thread.
A recipe is a story.
A recipe is circle.
The old recipe is a connection between the you that was and the you that is, between the people you loved and who loved you enough to cook for you, even when they are no longer here. If you’re lucky, it draws a thread from you back to a person so distant in your past that you never knew her. But she cooked this recipe for her little girl, who maybe grew up to be your grandmother.
An old family recipe is one tale in the long manuscript of things that made you you. It’s a story you recite as you follow it. It’s a story you put into the hands of your own children and tell them, “Eat this. Taste this. Remember this. Tell this.”
My sister and I are working on a project this year. We’re collecting our favorite family recipes, along with those of our extended family, to create a bound memory of tastes. Some of these recipes (like the one on this page) are childhood favorites, and some are ones that we’ve developed as we’ve lived on our own, feeding ourselves, our friends, and our families. If you’re reading this and you’re related to us, you’ll probably be hearing from us; we want your recipe memories, too!
In the meantime, let’s start with our grandmother Martha’s Mandelbrot (also called mandel bread). Mandelbrot is Yiddish for almond bread. It’s a twice-baked cookie, pretty much the Jewish version of biscotti. It’s nutty. Not too sweet. Something you’d make to serve with coffee when the “girls” came over for mahjong. Or something you’d hand a teething toddler. Or something you, if you were me, would bake on one of your wistful days when you could have used a hug from your grandmother.
1 cup whole almonds
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Toast the almonds in your oven or in a dry skillet.* (If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry; it’s not hard. Read how to do it here.)
- When the almonds are cool, grind them in a food processor to the texture you like. I like small crumbs, not powdered but not big chunks. I like to see flecks of nut in the mandelbrot.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground almonds.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla.
- Combine the wet mixture into the dry mixture and mix gently until all of the flour is absorbed. This should form a pretty stiff dough. You need it to be stiff so that you can form logs with it. If it’s too wet, add more flour. If it’s so dry that it won’t hold together, add a bit of water.
- Divide the dough into three equal portions.
- Form each portion into a log about 6 inches long and and about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter (you don’t have to be a stickler here; use whatever length and diameter sounds good to you!).
- Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and put on a cookie sheet or sheet pan. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and as long as overnight.
- 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- Unwrap the logs, place them on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet (spaced at least 3 inches apart), and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven and slice the loaves while they are still warm. Slice to whatever thickness you like. I sliced mine about 1/2 inch thick.
- Return the slices to the cookie sheet, either on their sides or edges, for a final bake. The mandelbrot won’t rise during this second bake, so you can kind of crowd them together on the sheet, as long as they aren’t touching.
- Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until they’ve turned the shade of light golden brown you like.
- Remove from the sheet and let cool on a cooling rack.
The mandelbrot will easily stay fresh in a cookie tin for a week. They also freeze beautifully.
* Martha’s recipe makes no mention of toasting the almonds; this is how old recipes change as they travel time, I suppose.