July 20, 2019

Tradition, Longing and ‘Not Very Good’ Cake

There are moments in life when you suddenly find yourself looking at a situation from a different perspective. It could be the tint of your glasses or the state of your hormones or maybe it’s a combination of both that drives a point home at a certain time.

During the blur of Passover and the intensity of the preparations, I phoned, as I always do, my family in Israel: one cousin, the daughter of my Aunt Dora, who had been my mother’s and my culinary mentor, told me she had just been to the cemetery where we had buried her mother almost two years before. 

She told me that she had a hard time reconciling the fact that it had been 14 years since we had buried her father (my uncle) in the cemetery that will eventually hold most of my family. I reflected on those days, the before and the after, the funerals, shivahs, the weddings and the births — all the events that had unfolded since. I suppose it’s natural during holidays to reflect on the past but there was a longing in her voice, a heavy veil that weighed down our conversation that had me lamenting both losses as though they were fresh.

We discussed the menu she was serving for our traditional family celebration on the morning after the seder, our Sephardic version of matzo brei called burmolikos and all the accompanying salads, terrines and pies, complete with Passover cakes made with layers of meringue, lemon curd, cream and fruit. The burmolikos and the Passover seder leek-and-meat patties from the night before had always been my aunt’s purview. She would begin to clean and grind the leeks weeks before and stash away plastic containers of them in the run-up to the holiday. The day before the holiday she would mix the leeks with eggs and a bit of ground beef, season and fry them. She always set them on paper towels to absorb the excess oil before putting them on the table, where they had the place of honor: our must-have food.

Then the next day she would soak and fry the matzo patties and make the traditional sugar syrup that half the family would eat with them. The rest would be eaten with salty Bulgarian feta and some (myself included) would eat them with a combination of the two. 

As if in the transference of anguish, I suddenly longed to be in Israel, back in my aunt and uncle’s sky-high apartment, which at the time looked out over the city, stealing leek patties right out of the pan. I could almost hear my aunt’s voice reprimanding me, playfully swatting my hand away from the plate. Her hands, those soft and slightly puffy hands, the hands of a cook, beautiful yet strong and weathered, supple yet slightly red from being immersed in water for so many hours of the day, were an image I couldn’t get out of my mind for days. I looked at my own hands, suddenly shocked to see that they looked very similar to my aunt’s. After having cooked for days before the holiday — the chicken soup, the fish croquettes, the spinach and zucchini pie and roasted vegetables — indeed, my hands had the telltale signs of a working woman’s — hands not even the best manicure could save. 

Even though I had so much to do and many tasks on my mind, I decided that nothing could be as important as creating a food memory with another generation. I called one of my closest friends, remembering that her 8-year-old son had been asking to cook with me since seeing photos of some of my creations in the bakery when he was playing with my phone. My friend told her son we would make something together before the seder, a busy time in any kitchen and not ideal for dessert making.

I suddenly longed to be in Israel, back in my aunt and uncle’s sky-high apartment, which at the time looked out over the city, stealing leek patties right out of the pan.

We decided to make a no-bake matzo cake, the kind you see in all the magazines and food blogs this time of year — a towering concoction of soaked matzo, chocolate ganache, cream and sprinkles. We had a rather crushing deadline, to get out of the way as quickly as possible while still creating a Passover-friendly dessert that could be kept in the freezer until we served it after the seder. 

As we were whipping the cream and melting the chocolate, my little friend was telling me stories about things he liked to eat, and the matzo brei his father made him, even on non-holiday weekends. I learned about his family recipe — they put Parmesan or aged gouda in their matzo brei — and we created our own little Passover tradition, one I hope we will continue for many years. Only this time, it’s my kitchen-weary hands that he might remember, how after we soaked the matzo layers in milk and vanilla, we laughed as he put a straw in the casserole dish that held the soaking liquid and drank it — making that sound a straw makes when it hits an unexpected air pocket. And the whole time we were stacking our cake, layer after layer, I couldn’t help but remember all the times I “helped” my aunt in the kitchen or cooked side-by-side with my mother, my cousins and my friends. 

Earlier that day — in fact, right before my arrival — my little friend’s mother got news that her grandmother had died that morning. I hugged my friend who was trying not to let her emotions get the better of her before her guests arrived at the seder, busying herself by immersing her energy in the setting of the table.

I knew that her grandmother had been an incredible cook and that my friend had memories of her mom’s food stored for a lifetime. After the seder, my cooking buddy and I served the matzo cake to much cheering and fanfare. While the guests assured us that it was beautiful and delicious, I turned to my co-chef to see what he thought. “It’s not really very good,” he said with the honesty and bluntness that can come only from a child. I took a bite and sure enough, he was entirely correct in his assessment. 

Still, I couldn’t help but recognize the beauty of the food memories we had created that day in the frantic chaos of that hot and busy pre-seder kitchen. When we lit the yahrzeit candles that night and recited the prayer, I silently promised myself that I would continue to create as many beautiful food traditions as possible, even if, like the matzo cake, they didn’t come out perfectly. I thought of a saying I’d probably been too blinded by longing to fully comprehend until now: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” 

Amen to that, even if the memory comes in the form of a wobbly and crooked and “not really very good” matzo cake.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.