By Candy Schulman
Every Sunday my alarm clock was the sweet smell of yeast dough rising, butter melting, cinnamon oozing. I’d dash downstairs to be sous chef to four-foot-eight-inch Grandma Regina. After observing the Saturday Sabbath, she adorned her baking uniform: a shapeless housedress, high-topped black shoes and stockings rolled beneath her knee. She had a comforting lap that had no beginning or end, and her fingers always smelled like sugar and butter.
Grandma Regina spoke six languages and came to this country in her teens. She was from Prussia, but all the borders had changed, so no one was sure if she was Polish or Austrian. She lived in our house during summers, escaping the Florida heat. Although I adored the coconut patties she brought me every year, I preferred her Sunday refrigerator, packed with rising dough balls in pottery bowls—soon to be transformed into rugelach, danish and strudel.
“Come,” she’d say, extending a spoon to me, the official taster of the sugary cheese mixture. “Is it good enough for mine danish?”
“I’m not sure,” I’d pretend, securing another taste.
Only Grandma could produce a perfect circle from the laborious process of rolling out the dough. “No waste,” she’d proudly say.
She let me spread walnuts for the rugelach and cut them into pizza-shaped triangle wedges, then curl them into crescents. My favorites were her coffee cake cupcakes with streusel topping.
Packing to return to Florida grew more difficult each year. Sighing, Grandma said, “Throw away mine baking pans. I’m too old to bake.”
My mother, whose idea of baking was opening the plastic wrap from Hostess Twinkies, stared sadly at the ancient baking pans. “I’m not throwing anything away. You’ll bake again.”
And she did, for almost a decade. One day my mother and I sat down with a pad and asked Grandma for her recipes.
“I have no recipes,” she insisted. “I can’t say how much yeast to add. It depends on the weather.”
“Your recipe is a bissel this, a bissel that,” said Mother, begging her to try just this once.
Reluctantly Grandma measured flour and eggs, while my mother transcribed onto index cards. After Grandma died at the age of 95 or 96 (she had no birth certificate), we tried to duplicate her masterpieces—but none of the recipes ever worked. We’d lost a cookbook of Eastern European pastries, but when I got married, I took her ancient muffin pan, slightly bent out of shape but full of sweet memories.
My daughter Amy never met Grandma Regina, but I shared stories about the countless hours we’d shared maneuvering rolling pins, our hands dusted with flour. After showing Amy how to make cookies, she branched out on her own, first with simple achievements from kids’ cookbooks (zebra cake, a concoction of chocolate wafers and whipped cream) and progressing to perfectly layered birthday cakes—never once resorting to a supermarket cake mix. Other parents worried where their tweens were at night, but I knew Amy was at Talia’s or Monica’s house, baking brownies, risking only an occasional minor burn on her finger.
Eventually we tried to re-create Amy’s great-grandma’s recipes, following failed directions from my mother’s handwriting on the fading index cards I’d saved. They always bombed. One day when Amy was devouring baking blogs instead of writing a research paper for school, she came across a recipe similar to Regina’s streusel cupcake muffins. Amy tweaked it, creating the closest any of us have ever come to Grandma’s masterpieces. She made them with vanilla extract, a heritage classic, and also popped a mélange of berries into the mix for color and taste.
The aromas wafting through our house have transported me back to the basement apartment where my doughy grandmother demonstrated why it was a sin to ever step foot in a commercial bakery. Baking genes and recipes may have skipped two generations, but how comforting that my daughter has brought them back to us. She’s made her own version of rugelach and a decadent chocolate babka. Now I am the assistant to my daughter, holding onto the recipe index card my mother had scribbled upon, finally re-creating and savoring the tastes of my childhood—in a pan I saved from Grandma’s cupboard.
6 TBS butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ cup sour cream
¾ teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
6 TBS butter
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Blend butter, sour cream, and vanilla with a whisk or mixer. Stir into the flour mixture, but don’t overmix. Mix the streusel topping in a separate bowl. Pour batter into muffin or cupcake cups. Sprinkle streusel topping on each. Bake 15-18 minutes at 350°.
Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.
This piece is a part of our What is Motherhood? Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?