This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on October 5, 2005
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or care of this newspaper and I’ll be sure it gets to her.
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.
From “Around the Table,” by Ronnie Weston:
The German word “Rehrucken” 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.
Rehrucken 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
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.
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
2 ounces water
2 ounces coffee
2 ounces milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
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.
Rehrucken 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.