Mandelbrot is just part of the story

Mandelbrot - cooling

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.

Mandelbrot - chilled overnight

Mandelbrot - after first bake

Mandelbrot - sliced after first bake

Mandelbrot - ready for second bake

Mandelbrot - cooling


In process

Martha’s Mandelbrot


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

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground almonds.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla.
  5. 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.
  6. Divide the dough into three equal portions.
  7. 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!).
  8. 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.
  9. 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350ºF.
  10. Unwrap the logs, place them on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet (spaced at least 3 inches apart), and bake for 30 minutes.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until they’ve turned the shade of light golden brown you like.
  14. 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.

52 Weeks ~ Feeling Nostalgic (47/52)

RSiegel_Week47 - One Dot

In my memory, it’s a Saturday, but it probably was a Wednesday or Thursday.

Grandma would have cleaned the house earlier week, working alongside the hired house cleaner, Maria, to wash the floors, dust, vacuum, and clean every crevice of the kitchen and bathroom. Maria, who always wears a flower-print, sleeveless cotton dress that exposes the length of her brown, muscular arms. Maria, with her strange, gruff voice, her foreign-tinted accent, her kind smile when she directed it at us.

The real preparation begin in the afternoon.

My sister and I are told to clear away the toys (cars, marbles, plastic animals, the old metal View Master) we’d spread on the living room broadloom that morning while watching cartoons and Mr. Dressup on the big console television.

When the floor is clean, grandma pulls the card table out of the closet and we help set it up, swinging each folded leg out until it clicks into place. Then we dress the table with its plastic-coated, quilted cover, securing each corner to its corresponding table leg with little metal snaps.

Next, we drag four chairs from the dining room to their places at the table, and then carry Grandma’s mah jong set in from her bedroom closet. The case looks like a small brief case that you open by pressing its the two locks on its front edge with your thumbs. I usually need to combine the muscle power of two thumbs on a single lock at a time.

Mah Jong Set

We lift the lid and remove the five colored plastic trays that will hold the mahjong tiles, then position four of the trays as if we’re setting the table, centering each as exactly as we can in front of each chair, making sure there is an even number of colored betting chips in each of the little metal chip holders attached to each tray. We set aside the fifth tray aside for the fifth player.

Finally, we dump out the smooth tiles into a pile in the center of the table. They fall with a muted thud on the quilted cover. We turn then face down and “mix” them with our hands. When we were satisfied that we’ve stirred enough randomness into the tiles, we build short walls of tiles along the back of each tray, two tiles wide, two tiles deep, until three of the trays are protected by a full wall, and one has only a partial wall.


Late in the afternoon, Grandma assembles snacks for the evening. There is always an array of the “slimming” variety: scoops of tuna salad and cottage cheese, a pile of sliced vegetables and fruit, and a packet of melba toast, splayed out like a hand of cards. And then a dish or two of mandelbrot, or arrowroot biscuits, or moon cookies. And on the low table by the chesterfield, a bowl of fruit-flavored hard candies that have sweet, soft fruity centers: strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, lemon.

Then… we wait.

Grandpa has left the house for the evening, to where I’m not sure, but I assume he’s gone bowling or to some similar male past time with his friends. This is a women-only evening. I don’t know what Grandma would have done if we’d been grandsons and not granddaughters. Maybe we would have still been honorary “mahj”ladies?

Grandma has changed into a nicer outfit. Nothing too fancy, but out of the cleaning clothes she’d been wearing all day.

The summer sun begins its dip toward the horizon. My sister and I watch the front driveway through the long, pleated drapes in the living room until the first car arrives. Then there’s all the excitement as the first of grandma’s friends bursts through the front door, ringing the little bells as the door swings open, then shuts, takes off her jacket to hang in the front closet, checks her hair in the hall mirror, strides into the kitchen or living room, kisses my grandmother, stops to appraise us two girls quickly, then exclaims:

Kayn aynhoreh! Look how how much you’ve grown! Shaine maidela. Such beautiful girls!

This repeats three more times.

These friends and my grandmother, there were typical housewives by day, meeting up at the sawdust-floored butcher shops, the bakeries, the banks, or under the enormous hair dryers at the hairdresser’s. But tonight, they are exotic and full of mystery, keepers of womanly secrets.

Unlike our mother, they wear jewelry and makeup and perfume, and have their hair done every week. They wear clothes in bold and artificial-seeming colors, dressed in pinks and purples and blues that looked like dyed carnations. They have dressmakers. They know everyone’s families. They know everyone’s secrets. They speak quickly, with loud voices, in many exclamations, switching in mid sentence from English to Yiddish and back to English again in a seamless stream of gossip and jokes. They speak in hushed voices, mostly in Yiddish, with sympathy and about illness, divorce, and disaster. My sister and I try to track these more serious plots by following the few Yiddish words we’ve learned and the names the women mention.

I adore these glamorous housewives and see these evenings as mini initiations into the world of mature women. They talk differently when the men aren’t about. They’re loud, forward, and, I suspect, a bit naughty (though their naughtiness mostly goes over my head). A tiny fly on the wall, I bask in their friendship and laughter.


When everyone is settled in with a drink in hand, four ladies seat themselves at the table, while the fifth player sits nearby. The ladies playing the game are absorbed, serious, and nearly silent. There’s no idle chit chat or jokes. Just the calling out at each turn of the discarded tile, and then the muffled thump as the tile was placed in the center of the table, face up. “Eight bam”, “Three crack”, “East”, “Flower”, “Soap”, “One dot”. Around the table the play goes, tile by tile, call by call, thump by thump.

But the fifth player? Oh, she is ours, all ours.

Red Dragon

We gain her complete, focused attention. We sit on the arm of the chesterfield as close as we can get to her with out sitting on her lap, and answer her questions in whispered voices so as not to disturb the players, “What grades are we in” Do we get good marks in school? Who are our friends?” We don’t care that the questions were repeated all night long; we’re just thrilled for the beam of attention that falls onto our rapt faces.

The quiet breaks when a player wins a hand. Suddenly, there’s action. Everyone else reveals her own tiles, then dumps the tiles into the center of the table. The talk and laughter starts. Eight practiced hands flip the tiles over quickly, then mix them in a circular swirl, each woman pressing her hands on the group of tiles in front of her, then swishing them to her left, and up, as if passing them to her friend, who, in turn, keeps the swirling and the stirring going.

The living room lights up with their voices. The player sitting out turns her attention from us to her friends. Bathroom breaks, phone calls, snacks.

Before we’re ready it’s bed time. The ladies will keep playing, but we are sent to our room down the hall for the night. Reluctantly, we change into nightgowns, brush our teeth, make another round of the ladies for goodnight kisses, then down the hall, into the room, and slide under the covers.

The bedroom door is open. The women settle down to play again.

We listen sleepily as the game begins again, as the women call out their discarded tiles. We listen to the rhythmic thunk of tile against table, the periodic bursts of conversation and laughter, the gorgeous clacking sounds of the tiles as they’re mixed, stirring in and out of our dreams.

Never once did I hear the end of the game, the packing and clearing up, or the jangle of the door’s bells as the ladies left.

We wake in the morning, the card table banished back to the closet, the mahj set put neatly away, and the two locks clicked shut. Later, my sister and I might take the mahj set out to play with its smooth tiles. We play that they’re people on trains. We make the thumping sounds, the clacking sounds. We know motions and hints of last night’s magic, and yearn to know more.


Martha’s Potato Kugel

Potato Kugel - Baked

It’s all about the tool: the flat, wire grater my grandmother Martha used to grate the potatoes and onions for her potato kugel.

There’s just no making it right without that tool. Sure, you can make a fine kugel with your standard potato grater, or even with a food processor. If you make it that way, you won’t be disappointed, but once you’ve had it made with the wire grater, there’s just no going back.

Unfortunately, I didn’t own the tool for a long time. Nor, in fact, the kugel recipe. The kugel was one of those things that grandma (in possession of the original grater) made. When she no longer was able, my mother or an aunt would step in. In time, the grater and the recipe fell to my generation. My sister became the keeper of both, and she’d transport them to my house for the the holidays when we wanted the kugel.

I was happy for my sister to have the grater. It made sense. She was so close to my mom. It seemed a natural path of inheritance.

Kugel tools

But I wanted to be able to make that darn kugel myself. Whenever I wanted.

I live in a lovely place, but you don’t visit this area for its shopping (unless you have a hankering to visit the King Arthur Flour store, of course). No one around here seems to know about the wire grater. But, by gum, the World Wide Web sure knows about it, and when it (finally!) dawned on me that I could order one online, I had the thing in my hand a week later. And the recipe soon after.

When the Lets’s Lunch group decided that this month’s challenge was to make a holiday side dish from our family or culture, I knew it would come down to either latkes or the potato kugel. After all, what’s a Jewish holiday without some form of potato cooked in oil? And if the recipe requires using a tool where you’re sure to shave some skin off a knuckle, all the better.

The potato kugel is very similar to potato latkes (rendered so ably by fellow Let’s Luncher Lisa, aka @MMCCchikie). Its brief ingredient list yields a rich, irresistible, and festive holiday treat.

Grated  potato mixture

The process of making the two recipes begins identically: grate the potatoes and onions, squeeze out the extra liquid, add a little flour (or matzoh meal during Passover), some salt (and pepper if you like), a couple eggs, and mix.

Kugel mixing

For latkes, you’d form patties out of the mixture and then fry them in oil until golden. For the kugel, you add the oil to an oven-proof pan, then add the mixture to the pan, and bake it until the oil is absorbed and the kugel is golden brown.

If you’re a traditionalist, serve the kugel with some apple sauce. You won’t be unhappy. For an extra treat, though, serve it the way we ate it this evening, topped with sauteed mushrooms. It’ll taste so good, you won’t even notice your scraped knuckles.


Want to find out how the rest of the Let’s Luncher are celebrating their holidays? Check out Cheryl’s post (Auntie Jane’s Potato Gratin), where she rounds up all the Let’s Lunch posts in one place. If you want to join us for the January’s challenge (still to be determined), just follow the #letslunch tag in Twitter.

Martha’s Potato Kugel


  • 10-12 large potatoes (I used yukon gold)
  • 3 medium, yellow onions
  • 1/8 cup flour (or matzoh meal during Passover)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • vegetable oil (I used safflower)


  1. With a rack in the center of the oven, preheat to 350°F.
  2. Peel the potatoes and onions, then finely grate them into a large bowl, alternating the potatoes and onions to keep the potatoes from browning.
  3. Squeeze the potato and onion mixture through cheesecloth to remove most, but not all, of the moisture. Return the mixture to the bowl.
  4. Add the flour (or matzoh meal), salt, and eggs to the mixture, then stir to thoroughly combine.
  5. Pour enough oil into a 9″ x 13″ baking dish to cover the bottom of the dish with 1/8″ of oil.
  6. Heat the pan in the pre-heated oven for about 15 minutes.
  7. Remove the pan from the oven and test the oil to make sure it’s hot enough by placing a small spoonful of the potato mixture in the oil. If it bubbles, it’s hot enough. If it’s not hot enough, return the pan to the oven for another five minutes, then test it again.
  8. When the oil is hot, spoon the potato mixture into the hot pan, pressing the mixture flat on top and into the sides and corners of the pan. The oil will rise up on the sides of the pan.
  9. With a spoon, collect the oil from the corners and sides, and then drizzle it across the top of the potato mixture to evenly distribute the oil.
  10. Bake until the top is golden brown and crispy. Depending on the size of your pan, the depth of the kugel, and the amount of oil you used, the kugel may be done in just an hour-and-a-half, or may take as long as three hours. Check at 1 1/2 hours to make sure it’s not browning too quickly, then continue to cook until it’s as brown as you like.

Note: You can also bake the kugel in individual ramekins or baking dishes. Follow the same instructions for preparing the potato mixture, add a bit less oil to each baking dish, and then divide the mixture evenly among the baking dishes. If you use small dishes, the baking time will be dramatically reduced. I made a half batch of the mixture and divided it among four 4″-diameter dishes. The kugel was baked perfectly in just one hour.