Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.
I know what you're thinking: how can dessert cure grief? Well, in all honesty, it can’t—but it can make it more manageable.
I lost my mother and maternal grandmother before I could walk down the aisle. My mother died first, suddenly, and my grandmother took over her role as acting mother. She passed away many years later, at a much slower, more excruciating pace. My brother and I watched helplessly as age and Parkinson’s ravaged her body and mind. Losing one parent is bad, but losing two parental figures at an early age—or any age—is indescribable.
Fortunately, my grandmother didn’t get away before teaching me how to bake. Someone once told me that when it comes to our memories, we remember moments, not time. We won’t remember those piles of good or bad days, but the precise moments that change our life’s direction. As I get older, I recall less and less of my time as a child, but I could never forget the food my grandmother churned out. Especially on Jewish holidays.
I grew up Quaker. Or at least that’s how my father tried to raise my brother and I. So, my Jewish grandmother would try to incorporate as many non-traditional foods into Jewish holidays as she could. Enter the chocolate Swiss roll.
My grandmother loved us through her food. We'd stay at her place every other weekend, and she'd make us all the food we could dream of: steak for breakfast, matzo ball soup on holidays, and chocolate Swiss roll for no (or any) reason at all. That chocolate Swiss roll is one of my earliest food memories... besides that one time my father heated up mashed potatoes, added chocolate syrup to them, and called them sweet potatoes (but that’s a story for another day).
The chocolate Swiss roll had three layers: chocolate buttercream on the outside, chocolate sponge cake on the inside, and vanilla buttercream in the center. At every Jewish holiday, I’d make a beeline for it before we even got through dinner. My mother would try holding me back, but somehow, my grandmother always managed to sneak me a sliver of the cake before we started dinner. This was how she loved me.
With any of my favorite foods—a habit that continues to this day—I start by eating my least favorite bits first, reserving the best for the end. In this case, the chocolate buttercream would go first, followed by the sponge cake separated from the vanilla buttercream that I would savor at the very end. My grandmother would watch as I meticulously separated the layers, taking it as a sign that I wanted to learn how to bake. Funny thing is, I never learned how to make those Swiss roll until the very end.
It was the last year of her life, by which point my grandmother didn’t cook anymore, drive anymore, or do much of anything at all. Her kitchen no longer smelled of brisket, matzo ball soup, chocolate baking in the oven. In one of my many moments of panic, realizing that I was soon going to lose the majority of my family, I grabbed one of my best friends, went to visit my grandmother, and asked to learn how to make that exquisite chocolate roll.
She began by teaching us how to make the layer of chocolate sponge cake on a sheet pan. She never needed a recipe—everything was either memorized or made up—but somehow everything still worked within the exacting parameters of baking. Not only did it work each time, it invariably turned out to be one of the best things we ever ate. As she took us through the process, she’d stop now and again, her memory slipping away from her. Watching someone you love disintegrate right in front of your eyes is like taking an arrow through the heart. Luckily, I had finished culinary school at that point, and was well on my way to running my own bakery, so we were able to piece it together.
The recipe is pretty simple really. You make a standard buttercream recipe and divide it in half, making one side chocolate with cocoa powder, and the other side vanilla with vanilla bean. The harder part is rolling the cake without tearing it. I've seen people make Swiss rolls using a Silpat and rolling the cake when hot. However, I follow my grandmother’s method, using a clean dish towel and a ton of confectioner's sugar to roll the cake while it’s piping hot—it’s not fully done until you’re covered in sugar from head to toe. The mess, my grandmother would say, was a sign of good food to come.
That was one of the last times I can remember her being (almost completely) in her right mind, when I still caught glimpses of her vivacity, her wit, her gift. Not too long after, she died, all alone, in the hospice section of one of those assisted living centers.
My brother and I were out of state when it happened. We were told she was getting better before we left, which now I can see was very wrong. When I found out, panic crept in like a crippling virus. I won’t sugarcoat it (no pun intended), but dealing with double the grief was like trying to reach the surface of water, out of breath, while someone pushes your head back under. My only solace was that I now knew I could keep her legacy alive. So I started making Swiss rolls.
I found a kind of peace in baking. The idea of shutting off the noises of the world and meticulously focusing on one task from start to finish became therapeutic. I began by recreating her chocolate Swiss roll, but moved into different flavors, adding my own aesthetic to the recipe, which she always claimed was my gift different from hers. Red velvet Swiss rolls, strawberry shortcake, chocolate cherry, blue velvet, pistachio—always topped with chocolate shapes, fresh fruit, and fresh flowers. That was my special touch that I knew she loved and encouraged.
From starting an online bakery, to creating bakeware supplies, and even hosting a web series, I’ve kept moving through the loss, each stage of my baking career keeping her spirit and legacy alive. But sometimes, when life hits hard, when I start to feel panic, or feel myself missing her intensely, I go back to the original: that chocolate Swiss roll. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and take in the aroma—it always brings me back to those moments in time when I still had her. And then I sit down to eat it, slowly unraveling the layers, starting with the chocolate buttercream and ending with savoring my memories of her. The best part for last.
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