February 25, 2020

The Saudade of Cake

Aside from the fact that my father is a remarkable storyteller, he has been swimming upstream for many of his 79 years on Earth, and I’ve been along for much of the ride and inadvertently have followed in his footsteps.

In 1966, he left the relative security of his close-knit Bulgarian family in Israel and plunged into the great abyss of New York City. He had very little money to his name and a wife and small child to support. My mother had little desire for adventures like these and was struggling enough with the responsibilities of being a new mother. She also didn’t speak more than a few words of English.

Back then, New York City was not the gentrified Disneyland of today but a rough-and-tumble town with opportunities and dangers in equal measure around every corner. My father says he was so thin then that he and his friend, another Israeli emigre, could effortlessly squeeze through the subway turnstiles together so they could ride on one fare. When he rode the subway, he carried an umbrella in case he needed to fend off would-be muggers.

My father reinvented himself again and again, always carrying us along, bolstering my mother and me with his seemingly never-ending fountain of optimism and energy. He moved us to six states before I was 11 years old, pushing forward ahead of technology until finally building a successful company. We even did a brief stint back in Israel, the intended goal from the start, before both my parents realized that they felt more comfortable in the once-foreign land of America that had accidentally become their home.

“To ground myself, I decided to use my challah dough to make a version of Kozunak.”

Because I now live in Uganda and my parents are still in the U.S., our time together when I visit is limited and can be somewhat fraught with tension. We race to tell one another stories and fill in details of conversations that shouldn’t have started on the phone in the first place. While my husband and I struggle with jet lag and the cold weather that chills our Africa-thinned blood, my parents fill the inadequate time with us by passing on their knowledge and experiences from which they think we might benefit.

During my most recent visit, I found myself marinating in stereotypical reverse culture shock. After not living in the U.S. for 15 years, I began lamenting the “old” version of America I once knew. An America where people weren’t staring at smartphones and wearing headphones in public places. I longed for the days when there wasn’t a minimum of two Starbucks on every corner, and the city still had grit and flavor. I was experiencing saudade (sow-DAH-jeh), a Portuguese word that means a constant feeling of absence or sadness for something that’s missing.

Perhaps sensing my discomfort, my father told me a story about his childhood that mirrored the saudade I was feeling. During World War II, Jewish residents of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, were expelled from the city and forced to move to surrounding villages. Because my grandfather was an officer in the Bulgarian army, he had the opportunity to relocate his family to the destination of his choosing. They ended up in his birthplace, Pazardzhik, a small town 70 miles southeast of Sofia. There, they were fortunate to spend the war years without experiencing much hardship. Food was plentiful, and they considered themselves among the fortunate ones, even if the austerity of the village in wartime granted them few of the luxuries they were accustomed to before the war.

My father was 9 years old when his family returned to Sofia after the war. In the summer, he and his friends would travel via electric tram to enjoy the swimming pool in a city park named after King Boris. They also were drawn to the park by a special treat sold in a stall there, a Kozunak, a sweet, cakelike bread from Eastern Europe, known as babka by American Jews. My father told me he still remembered the smell and taste of that cake, such a treat after years of wartime deprivation.

Back in Uganda, saudade struck me again, this time in reverse. After having been in the States for a month, I had become accustomed to the abundance in the grocery stores. I now felt stifled by the lack of choices. I also missed my parents, my mother’s food and my friends. I realized I was, indeed, stuck — not feeling at home anywhere.

Because I cook for a living, I had no choice but to go back to work and immerse myself in the bakery. To ground myself, I decided to use my challah dough to make a version of Kozunak, perhaps to indulge myself in the sweet memories of my father.

I cut 40 ounces of the dough in half, rolled each half out into a rectangle and smeared each with pastry cream. In honor of Tu B’Shevat, I then layered each half with fig jam, chopped dates, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, slivered almonds and a sprinkling of brown sugar.

I rolled up each half jellyroll-style. Then, with a sharp knife, I cut each roll through the middle horizontally to expose the layers. I braided the four, layered strands and placed them in a large loaf tin to double in size.

After the loaf had risen, I brushed it with butter, sprinkled almonds all over it and baked it into a puffed bronze braid. I then doused the hot pastry liberally in a simple syrup made with honey for added moisture.

Standing in my kitchen at work, inhaling the scent of still warm challah with sweet fruit, I suddenly understood how the intoxicating aroma of this sweet cake could make my father’s childhood memory — even 70 years later — feel like it came from yesterday.

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.