Family Cookbooks

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on October 5, 2005

Kugel_026
Getting the chance to renew a childhood friendship as an adult is truly
a gift. Ronnie and I had been good pals since our wild and crazy junior high
days. Somehow, post-college, we managed to lose touch, so I was tickled to get
an e-mail from her a few years ago. We easily picked up the threads, exchanging
news about jobs and kids and husbands and, unbelievably, the fact that we were
both writing cookbooks.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Food was one of the things that always
fascinated me about Ronnie’s house when we were growing up. It was so not like
the food in my house, for one thing. The Leightons were the first Jewish family
and the first Europeans I had known really well. In their kitchen I ate my
first cheese that was meant just for eating (as opposed to melting or grating),
my first lox, my first blintz.

 

I was a little intimidated by that kitchen and that food, as I was by
Ronnie’s parents, Kurt and Sylvia Leighton. They were different from the
parents of my other friends – he dapper and urbane, she chic and elegant, their
English accented with their native Viennese. I could easily picture them
dressed up for a night at the opera. It was always a lot harder to imagine them
fleeing for their lives.

To a teenage girl whose entire understanding of Nazi Germany was culled
from “The Sound of Music,” it seemed inconceivable that Ronnie’s
parents had had to leave their home and belongings in 1939, to sneak, with the
help of courageous friends, across impossibly dangerous borders and start life
all over again, thousands of miles away. I was in awe and a little embarrassed,
knowing I hadn’t a clue about that kind of adversity.

I may have been in awe, but to Ronnie, of course, Kurt and Sylvia were
Mom and Dad, their heritage was also hers, and the way they ate at home was
just the way you were supposed to eat.

She took most of it for granted until decades later when, her father
gone and her mother dying, she knew that it was left to her to bear witness to
their remarkable lives. At Ronnie’s request, her mom had written down an
account of their escape from the Nazis – 15 carefully typed pages prefaced with
the quotation “Handing on to the next generation is always an act of
faith. Remembering is part of survival.”

For Ronnie, the vehicle of remembrance was food. ight before she died,
her mom had given her a couple of worn and blotted notebooks filled with family
recipes written in faded, Viennese German. Grieving, Ronnie found solace and
connection in translating and cooking the recipes of her mother’s youth. She
decided to honor her life by writing a book that reflected her culinary
heritage, weaving family memory into the fabric of a cookbook.

But as she talked to people about the book, she opened flood gates.
Everyone had a story to tell about the connection between beloved family
memories and special foods. Slowly, the focus of the book has changed. Still a
tribute to her mother, it is now more universal – a collection of recipes and
family stories from all ethnic, religious and national traditions she calls
“Around the Table: Culinary Adventures Rooted in Family Tradition.”
From her grief and sadness for her mom has come a truly lovely testimony to the
power of food and family.

Ronnie is still collecting stories and recipes for her book. If you have
a special family recipe tied to a family story that you’d like to contribute,
send it to me at barbour@indiana.edu or care of this newspaper and I’ll be sure
it gets to her.

Noodle Kugel

From “Around the Table” by Ronnie Weston:

My mom made this noodle pudding every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as far
back as I can remember. We all loved it because it was really sweet, a welcome
change from the other traditional foods on those holidays that were not as
kid-friendly. Borscht (cold beet soup) immediately comes to mind. Well, I
continued my mom’s tradition for the last 20 years or so and I was fairly sure
my kids loved it as well. This was confirmed to me recently by my son, Jake,
who felt the need to explain this tradition on his AOL away message. I have
been making an alternative to the sweet kugel because of our baby boomer
obsessions with reducing our waistlines and watching our cholesterol. I sent an
instant message to Jake, asking him which he liked better: my sweet kugel or
the mini kugels. He responded “Sweet, for sure!” He then posted this
instant message “conversation” for all the world to see on his AOL
away message, adding, “Could we be any more Jewish?” Well, Jake,
probably not, but isn’t it wonderful to be able to boast about our traditions
and our heritage?

Yield: 10-12 servings

8 ounces wide egg noodles

1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 package vanilla pudding

1 cup milk

1 pound cottage cheese

1 cup sugar

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup raisins (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 heaping tablespoons sour cream

Cook egg noodles in boiling water for about eight minutes. Drain and set
aside in a large bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Dilute pudding in milk. Add diluted pudding and the remainder of the
ingredients to the noodles and mix well. Pour into well-greased baking dish.
Bake uncovered about one hour or until brown on top.

Rehruecken

From “Around the Table,” by Ronnie Weston:

The German word “Rehreucken” literally means the “saddle
of the venison” or as my mother used to tell us when we were little, the spine
of the deer. If you use your imagination, the finished cake, with the almonds
sticking up, looks like a deer’s spine. At least, this is what my mother had me
believe. In doing a bit of research for this book, I have learned that the
almonds actually represent the strips of bacon or salt pork inserted into the
saddles of venison to lard them. I imagine this information was a bit too
graphic for a young girl and mom’s story worked just fine for our family.

Rehreucken was my mother’s signature dessert. She made it for every
occasion – birthdays, Jewish holidays, secular holidays and “just
because.” Some family members liked it with frosting; others did not. My
brother just plain loved it. Every so often, mom would make it and serve it
with home made whipped cream, which is called schlag in Viennese slang. I loved
the word schlag and remember making fun of the pronunciation when I was a
little girl. I never tried to make the cake while mom was alive. I didn’t need
to because she always did. But it was one of the first recipes that I tested
for this book and I found out how easy it was. If you make no other dessert
recipe in this book, make this one and you will have done me a favor by
honoring my mother’s memory. Your family and friends will love it!

Yield: 10 servings

Cake 

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

5 large eggs separated

4 ounces sweet butter

5 ounces sugar

1/4 cup coffee

6 ounces all purpose flour (for Passover, use 4 ounces cake meal)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt chocolate over hot, but not boiling water in a double boiler.

Beat egg yolks, butter and sugar until thick and lemon colored. Add
chocolate and coffee and mix well.

Beat egg whites until stiff; fold flour and egg whites alternately into
chocolate mixture. Butter “rehreucken” pan or if not available, 11-
by 4- inch mold tube pan. Put mixture in pan and bake 50 minutes. Cool slightly
and then turn out on to wire rack.

Chocolate frosting 

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

2 ounces water

2 ounces coffee

2 ounces milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Almond slices

In top of double boiler, melt chocolate with water, coffee and milk.
Remove from heat. With a rubber spatula, stir in unsalted butter, two pieces at
a time. Continue to stir until perfectly smooth.

Let cool. Spread frosting on top of cake.

Place almond slices in two parallel rows down the top of the cake.

RONNIE’S NOTES: 

Rehruecken can be served with or without the frosting but is most
impressive when served with the frosting and home made whipped cream.

Molds made in the
shape of a stylized saddle of venison have been manufactured for making this
cake. They are fluted and have deep indentations down the middle. If you can’t
find one of these (and they are hard to come by!) the cake can be made in a
deep loaf pan.

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