I was in the process of unpacking dozens of cookbooks and placing them on a shelf in my kitchen when I first remembered my grandmother Janet wrote a cookbook. Wedged between two of the larger tomes written by internet-famous chefs I follow on Instagram, “I Can’t Believe It’s Parve!!!” (yes, there are three exclamation points) is a slim volume my grandmother compiled in 1980 of her favorite desserts that she serves in her kosher home.
As an avid cooking hobbyist, I spend a lot of time poring over the cookbook collection I’ve amassed, watching YouTube videos and saving copies of past issues of Bon Appetit so I can thumb through them for inspiration. I love operating on instinct when cooking, adjusting dishes to taste or riffing on something if I don’t have exactly what I need, and through years of practice I’ve gotten more and more comfortable leaping without a net in the kitchen.
Baking, though, is another story entirely. The precision and focus required for making baked goods is something that I have no patience to hone. The constant measuring of ingredients, the impending mess of flour and sugar that I’ll surely make dusting the countertops, the melting of butters and chocolates — it’s a lot of work. Plus, I’ve always had my grandmother’s cakes and cookies to look forward to, so I saw no reason to “try this at home” before, so to speak.
The copy of “I Can’t Believe It’s Parve!!!” that I discovered is yellowed with age, spattered with stains on the cover, edges softened, and on some of the typewritten pages there are traces of dried chocolate. The front cover, illustrated by my mom, reads “A Janson Publication,” a simple portmanteau combining Janet and Sonny, my grandparents’ names. The back cover is plain, save for a small line of text at the bottom: “Volume 1, Copyright May 1980.” Something about that makes me love it even more, as if there was always an intention of a second volume, or even a third.
I was struck by the simplicity of what my grandmother was trying to achieve when she put this little book together. In her opening letter to her readers, she explains that these recipes were culled across sources because she “need[ed] a portfolio of good parve desserts” and she wants others to have them so they can “proudly and confidently serve [them] for [their] family’s enjoyment or for [their] most elegant dinner party.” The letter even goes so far as to recommend Mazola margarine and Rich’s Richwhip Topping… but she prefaces that by saying she doesn’t endorse any products.
My grandmother has always had a girlish determination, a hands-on-hips, chin-jutting belief that she was capable of bringing any of her dreams to fruition. It’s a bit Pollyanna, perhaps, but she has never been in doubt that she could do something if she set her mind to it. The fact that she set out to make a cookbook and then actually did it, even if it’s as DIY as it gets, endears me to no end. She even convinced her local kosher butcher in Dallas (now out of business) to sell copies of it at the register of his shop. This book is a snapshot of her essence, her charm, her brand of hospitality and her can-do attitude. Reading her opening letter and then her subsequent recipes, it’s as if she bounds off the pages, and in her sweet Southern accent says, if I can make all of these recipes, so, too, can you.
I’m not sure what my grandmother really expected to come from her little project, which was probably a not-so-little undertaking when it came down to it. She likely wasn’t expecting any kind of widespread notoriety, or that she would make any money off of it. I am certain that she wasn’t thinking then about what it would mean to her family to have this record of her recipes now.
It’s more than just a collection of the recipes we’ve been eating at family gatherings for the last several decades of our lives. One day, inevitably, it will be the only set of instructions for recreating the cakes and pies and brownies and cookies contained therein. We won’t be able to call her up on the phone and ask her what she meant by this step, or stand next to her in the kitchen and confirm that we did that correctly. It is a record of recipes, yes, but it’s also a record of memories, of smells and tastes and traditions, that we can reference again and again even after she’s gone.
Lately, I’ve been ruminating on the idea of memory as something sweet, tender, fragile, like a meringue or dollop of whipped cream. I picture the soft, sugary peaks of those delicate creations, the way they appear stiff like snow-capped mountains at the edge of a whisk or spatula, but how, with time, their structure begins to wilt and soften, folding in on itself. At some point, I suppose, we all will experience a softening of our memory, cotton candy-like wisps that seem almost to float beyond our grasp.
When I spend time with my grandparents now, I am often struck by my desire to manipulate time to slow every minute down, to stretch each moment. I clock the way their apartment smells on Shabbat, the wafting scent of bouillon cubes that lend a salty, umami flavor to my grandmother’s highly requested noodle casserole. I look forward to the taste of her cinnamon coffee cake (another family favorite, though curiously not in the book) when she cuts me wedges to take home to pair with my morning coffee, a combination that will irrevocably make me think of my grandfather in his blue cotton pajamas, sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday mornings, checking the obituaries and joking that if he’s listed there he won’t get dressed for work.
I know that time with them — with anyone — is finite, but I try to savor it, to make mental notes of what they say, the stories they tell, the little details. I try not to get frustrated or sad when I notice that my grandmother can’t remember certain names and places. I try to muster a smile when she laughs in spite of herself because she forgot that we had already spoken about something only a few hours beforehand.
Sometimes I find myself mourning moments with them before those moments are even over, so much so, at times, that I notice I’m not really present for them the way I once was. I find myself missing the version of my grandparents that were a little bit more vibrant, a little more colorful. Perhaps I’m preparing myself in some way, bracing for impact. But when I catch myself doing that, I remember that what I am missing out on, instead, is the creation of new memories, the opportunity to experience moments with them while they are still here.
I have a million mental snapshots of my grandmother standing in the corner of her small kitchen, apron and “house shoes” on, whipping up something delicious, but until recently, I had never baked with her. So after I unearthed my weathered copy of “I Can’t Believe It’s Parve!!!” I resolved to change that. I wanted to learn some of these recipes straight from the source. I called her up and invited myself over for a baking mission: teach me, her oldest grandchild and self-proclaimed subpar baker, to bake her piece de resistance, Chocolate Fudge Cake with Chocolate Fortune Icing. Ever the sport, she told me she would have the ingredients ready when I arrived.
Upon entering her apartment, it quickly became clear that she took my proposal literally, and that she intended for me to do most of the work while she supervised. We started on the cakes. She handed me margarine, sugar, eggs and vanilla, which the recipe instructs must be creamed in a stand mixer “until fluffy.” While I covet stand mixers when flipping through catalogues (I am, in spite of myself, a woman of a certain age who associates stand mixers with wedding registries and therefore does not yet own one), I am also extremely daunted by them in practice. I nervously hovered over my grandmother’s red KitchenAid, watching the mixer churn the ingredients together, periodically tapping her and asking, “Is this fluffy enough yet?” when it felt like it had been on for too long.
The recipe also calls for melted unsweetened chocolate in both the cake and the icing, so she handed me squares of Baker’s chocolate and instructed me to melt them in the microwave. Of course I burned the chocolate when I zapped it for 30 seconds instead of in 10 second intervals as she instructed. I had to start that part over again.
Did you know that when a recipe specifies “sifted flour” in the ingredients, you actually have to put flour through a sifter? I had no idea. My grandmother’s sifter is worn, creaky and probably 30 years old. She rolled out parchment paper onto her counter so I could sift the flour into a snowy mound without making a mess, but of course, plenty of the powder still ended up all over the floor. I have yet to master her grace in the kitchen.
Once the cakes made it into the oven in two round pans, we tackled the chocolate fortune icing. I watched as all of the ingredients blended together, then eagerly ran my finger against the mixer for a taste test once my grandmother had deemed the icing acceptable. Somehow I had managed to create the same flavors as my family’s collective favorite cake. And though I did need quite a bit of handholding, knowing I was able to pull it off was more satisfying than I had expected.
Later that night, I brought my creation home so my boyfriend David could try it. Not a huge chocolate fan, David accepted the piece I handed him with fairly low expectations. After his first bite, he just looked at me and said, “Whoa, that is seriously good.” Over the course of the week, we pawned off slices to friends who stopped by our house, or dipped forks in the cake while chatting together in the kitchen. Within just a few days, every last crumb of the cake was gone.
The day after our baking experiment, my grandmother called me to ask how the cake turned out. “Delicious,” I assured her, “but clearly I still have a lot to learn.” She laughed. I thanked her for spending the time to teach me. “I loved it,” she said. “What are we baking next?”
Chocolate Fudge Cake
2/3 cup of softened margarine
1 and 3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 and a 1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate, melted (she recommends Bakers’ Chocolate)
2 and 1/2 cups sifted flour
1 and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/4 cups ice water
Cream margarine, sugar, eggs & vanilla in a stand mixer until fluffy. Add cooled chocolate. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with ice water.Pour in two greased, round cake pans lined with wax paper or a greased 13x9x2 Pyrex. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. Cool and ice with Chocolate Fortune Icing.
Chocolate Fortune Icing
2 and 1/2 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 cups sifted powder sugar
3 tablespoons hot water
1/3 cup softened margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla
Blend in sugar and water to melted chocolate. Add egg, then margarine and vanilla. Beat well. Will yield ample icing to fill and ice cake – but wait for cake and icing to cool before frosting!