Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
My grandmother Henrietta Ring, aka Grandma Piggyback—because she gave piggyback rides—was the most idolized cook in our family. Every few months during my elementary school years, my two older sisters and I would pile in the backseat of my parents’ 1960s wood-paneled station wagon and trek from suburban Philadelphia to the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a feast at Henrietta’s place. We usually spent the night at her house, a magical apartment trimmed in gold, from the picture frames to the armchairs; I loved sleeping on her satin sheets (which were gold too...what can I say? She really loved the color). She'd greet us at the door in a tailored suit with matching jewelry and shoes.
My whole family—except me, the ultimate fussy eater—loved the Polish-Jewish cuisine she served: chopped chicken livers, gefilte fish, herring, tongue, many things aspic and gelée, and honestly, I cannot complete this list without gagging. In my mind, I was there solely for my grandma’s baking. Until that time, I could be found hiding in a corner, clutching my jar of Skippy peanut butter.
In the mornings, she’d make challah French toast, yet even that was too eggy in the center for my taste. But it smelled so good, so I ate the edges only, and she wouldn’t mind at all. Afterward, I’d lean against her retro kitchen island and watch as she prepared the most marvelous treats, like thin and crispy lace cookies and her brownie pie.
“This is more than just brownies in a pie pan, my dear,” she was fond of saying.
She also made the flakiest pie crusts, achieved via one of her seeming favorite ingredients: Crisco. I think she loved watching me watch her, and she always gave me a job, like collecting ingredients, or sifting the flour, or greasing the pans, forever with Crisco. Fussy eater that I was, I abhorred the Crisco, but I never complained. Because when you could achieve a crust like hers, who cared how you got there?
While she worked, she’d look over at me with her huge blue eyes, which I inherited, and gold-tipped hair, which I did not, and stroke my cheek with the back her perfectly manicured fingers, which were often covered with flour. At those moments, the aromas of butter and sugar swirling around us, we were in our own baking bubble, and I was a happy girl. Especially when it came time to prepare my kind of masterpiece: her “world-famous” Broiled Coffee Cake.
“There are very few coffee cakes like mine, my dear,” she’d say. “It’s world-famous, because it requires broiling.”
“Yes, Grandma. I know!”
Very dramatically, she’d whisk together the easy ingredients I’d collected for the recipe, her gold bangles clanging against the side of the bowl. I’d already prepped the pan, and minutes later, she was pouring in the smooth golden batter. Before long, the cake scents made their way into the kitchen. Then she’d work swiftly again, mixing up the topping, and when the cake was the color of doneness, she’d apply the creamy, buttery, nutty sugar on top and turn up the oven up to a broil.
“Stand back, my dear,” she’d say. And I did. She put the cake under it for 30 seconds, a near eternity. She and I admired the brilliant sheen that had manifested before our eyes. Magic. We cleaned up quickly while the cake cooled, and finally, we were ready. I can still smell that cake today.
My sisters never hung out in the kitchen with us, so I’m not sure if they were jealous when I’d escort Grandma Piggyback into the dining room with her Broiled Coffee Cake. I would have been! I considered our one-on-one baking sessions my primary culinary education. My grandma rarely recorded her recipes, and when she did, in her round curlicue handwriting, it was to notate a pinch, something scant, overflowing, or heaping.
Grandma Piggyback married at 19, became a mother at 20, and when her parents died soon after, she raised her younger siblings as well. She did not work outside the home, but what a home she created! Golden. She developed a lifelong mantra: “Young people love me,” and I think that’s why she always showed such admiration, or possibly a longing, for lightheartedness and jeu d’esprit.
I’ve tried to pass along her baking prowess to my own daughter, but she seems happier in more of a front-of-house type position. She doesn’t mind leaning against the counter, though, watching me broil coffee cake, or hearing stories about my kitchen time with Grandma Piggyback, whom she never met. In those moments, my daughter and I have created our own ritual, whereby I brush her cheek with the back of my flour-coated fingers, and we quote my grandma together:
“‘Grease the pan, my dear. With Crisco....’”
Here is that Broiled Coffee Cake recipe, courtesy of the family vaults:
- 1 cup Presto or self-rising cake flour, sifted
- 175 grams (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 eggs, beaten, then add heavy cream to make 1 cup
- 3/4 cup heavy cream (approximate—see note above)
- 8 tablespoons brown sugar, not packed
- 5 tablespoons very soft butter
- 4 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 cup chopped pecans