What to CookBakingDessertEssay

Why I Was the Last to Learn My Mom's Famous Birthday Cake Recipe

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Certain things skip generations. Like the mysterious redhead that’s born to two brunettes, or athletic ability that graces the parent but eludes the child. The love of food is deeply entrenched in my family, but each person has had a slightly different way of showing it. I can trace it back to my maternal grandmother who went hungry during World War II, and made sure in the years that followed to never be too far from her next meal. Her talent was with numbers, but her work was food adjacent—after the war, she became a bookkeeper for a dining establishment in Soviet Latvia. This got her access to hard-to-get ingredients that she scored under the table, like meat, butter, vegetables, or anything that was available, to cook with at home.

My mother, too, devoted her life to food. Whereas my grandmother’s relationship was born out of scarcity, my mother developed a passion for cooking. She would watch her mom in the kitchen, helping her at every turn, absorbing recipes and techniques. That’s how she learned to make many traditional foods, among them krendel, a Latvian cake that my grandmother made for the birthday of each of her children, and eventually, grandchildren.

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Why I’m Getting Serious About Absorbing My Mom’s Cooking Lessons
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Why I’m Getting Serious About Absorbing My Mom’s Cooking Lessons

As a member of the third generation, my interest in food took on yet another mutation. Watching my self-taught mom run a catering business out of our home made a deep impression, though it wasn’t yet obvious that I had skills in this arena, apart from having a good palate and a good appetite. Unlike my dependable sister and competent younger cousin, I was flighty and too much in my head to be good at catering jobs. I’d get caught daydreaming while other people were filling coffee urns or replenishing trays of hors d’oeuvres. I could get by if I was given a specific task, but I was never adept at figuring out how to make myself useful when no one was telling me what to do. I was a liability, and my stint helping my mom was a short one.

When I pursued a career in writing, it was clear that the subject that interested me most was food. But I’m a storyteller, not a cook, and as such, I’ve spent the last fifteen years contextualizing other people’s food traditions, trends and quirks, still on the outside looking in. My mom gave me the foundation to write about food with confidence, but I didn't inherit her cooking savvy, and I haven’t yet picked up the recipes that I’d like to pass down to the next generation, the way she did from her mom.

As I approach forty, doing so has taken on a sense of urgency. Take that krendel. Until very recently, the recipe for the gargantuan cardamom-scented yeasted dough cake was poised to skip a generation (much like my Dad’s math skills, which seem absent from my DNA). My mother had already made krendel multiple times with my ten-year-old nephew and eight-year-old niece, yet it dawned on me that we hadn’t yet baked one together. So last week, we made our first krendel together as the first part of a series of torch-passing cooking lessons. And when I say we “made” it, what I really mean is I watched my mother make the krendel from beginning to end, listened to her instructions, and helped, only after having been given an explicit task. It’s always been our way.

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Though most cooking lessons aren’t streamed on live video, this one was, which means I can watch it when I’m ready to attempt krendel on my own. It also gave me the unique, cringe-inducing opportunity to compare what was happening in my head to what was going in real life. Take minute 30:01: I’m mixing the dough with a bench scraper and my mother tells me to “incorporate that flour, otherwise it’s sitting in the middle and nothing is happening with it.” In the video, I make light. “Mom, stop yelling at me!” I joked, and we all giggle as my mom teasingly tells me not to be so sensitive. On the inside, a little child was seething. Why was my mom correcting me when I was already, in earnest, trying? In the moment I knew my internal response was irrational, but that didn't stop it from happening.

It’s psychology 101, reacting to something that isn't there. Of course I picked up valuable baking tips, like how to get streusel with every bite (brushing every last bit of the dough’s surface with egg wash, then using a bench scraper to press the bits of streusel that might otherwise have tumbled off against the sides), or finally learning the correct way to knead (start with an oblong piece of dough, fold it onto itself, push into it with heel of your hand, rotate, fold, repeat). I am also, as ever, impressed with my mom's baking prowess. But I also got an uncomfortable front-row seat to why maybe these cooking lessons hadn’t yet happened. I am still a child who hates being told she's doing it wrong. But I'm also an adult who knows learning is hard when you’re afraid to make mistakes. I think I’m ready to try.

Watch Gabriella and her mom make their first krendel together!

9633ffa0 c25d 4de0 8321 9763f23529f7  screen shot 2017 05 25 at 12.47.11 pm

Birthday Krendel

1d8b474e 8cb6 4ce7 b471 f79cd5053ffd  screen shot 2017 05 25 at 12.22.57 pm Anna Gershenson
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Serves 12

Krendel

  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons lukewarm water
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 4 1/2 to 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 pound golden raisins
  • 1 large egg beaten with 1 tbsp. milk, for brushing

Streusel topping

  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
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