February 25, 2020

Bubbe Cakes, the Unforgettables and Talking to Strangers

We humans have powerful filtration systems that we use all the time. You can call these filters lenses or defense mechanisms, protection or rose-colored glasses, and we use them to choose what we want to see and hear. Each of us creates our own little version of “reality,” which we usually like to stay securely within. We are such masters of this process that it happens without our even realizing it. It’s hardly surprising, then, that we miss the signals we receive from the world beyond our comfort zone.

This is one of my major lamentations when I visit the United States, where 8 out of 10 people will be wearing headphones to avoid human interaction at all costs. Aside from the fact that this is an incredibly unromantic way to live, blocking out conversations, laughter and flirtations with strangers by plugging in to tune out is, in my opinion, one of the great tragedies of modern times.

While I’m one of those people who could be seen as “plugged in” when it comes to technology, I like to completely unplug when it comes time to travel or even while enjoying mundane things like taking public transportation or eating in a restaurant. Because being so aware of my surroundings makes me open to magical experiences, I have more than my fair share of them, and because my passions originate in the food realm, often I find myself in extremely fortuitous eating situations.

Take, for example, my recent trip to visit friends in the Catskills in upstate New York. After a night of heavy “reminiscing,” I didn’t want to wake my friend to ask her where to find the coffee maker. I remembered that she had told me of a great little coffee shop in town called Café Adella Dori. I drove myself there on winding, leafy roads early in the morning, walked in and ordered myself a coffee and had a hard time picking from the case of fresh baked goods, each one looking more appealing than the next. Immediately, I recognized the coffee was not a typical American cup of filtered coffee but a richer, more nuanced one with the bitter, earthy notes of a good African robusta.

I have more than my fair share of magical experiences, and because my passions originate in the food realm, often I find myself in extremely fortuitous eating situations

Half expecting the young woman who served me to be a student working part time in the café, I told her that I thought the coffee was the best cup I’d had thus far in the States. “Oh, thank you, the beans are from Cameroon,” she said. “Where do you live?” “I live in Uganda,” I told her excitedly. “I knew it tasted like African coffee!” As the conversation unfolded with Eva Barnett, the 35-year-old owner of the café, it turned out that the name of the café was not Italian as I had originally thought but a combination of the name of her Bubbe Adella and of her mother, Dori, of Romanian descent — just like my Romanian bubbe and aunt.

Eva showed me around the café, decorated with old photographs of Adella and Dori and what she calls the “Mommy hall of fame,” a long corridor adorned by black-and-white snapshots she asked her customers to bring in of their mothers in honor of Mother’s Day that was so popular it became a fixed feature wall of the restaurant. While giving me a tour of her kitchen, Eva told me the story of her bubbe, Adella Gross (nee Frank), who was was born in Romania and at age 20 was deported from her village of Lazar and sent to Aushwitz. After somehow surviving the war, she remained with only two brothers, with whom she returned to a nearby village and met Eva’s zayde, Yossi Gross. They married and immigrated to to New York City, where Yossi’s family was, with Eva’s mother, Dorina, in tow.

Yossi got a job in a kosher butchery and they settled in Rego Park in Queens, where Bubbe worked in a garment factory sewing. They kept a kosher household and were very active in their shul. Every Shabbat, while her grandfather was at shul, her grandmother would put out a huge spread of baked goods for the other Romanian women, mostly widows who had lost their families in the camps. Eva grew up knowing this spread as “Bubbe cakes.” Eva remembers the women dissecting ingredients and trying to patch together the recipes from the memories of the tastes of their childhoods, their own bubbes gone long since.

Here is a recipe for Blueberry Drop Scones I ate while drinking coffee and talking to a stranger named Eva whose bubbe passed down many things to her mother, one of which was a love of baking. She carries these scones in the caféhonor of them both and their very important Shabbat baking ritual.

Eva and I talked about her idea to conduct her own Shabbat rituals in her café after meeting and talking with a customer who, as it turns out, is a cantor from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After getting to know each other, they realized they both wanted to create community by inviting local residents — Jews and non-Jews — to break bread together by participating in pot luck dinners starting this fall.  They met over coffee while the wall of unforgettables in Adella Dori watched over them — most likely arguing over recipes in a place far away.  I’m going to try to score myself an invitation to one of those meet-ups and when I attend, my headphones will be off and my heart will be fully open to the company of strangers, some of whom have already become friends.

Adella Dori’s Fresh Blueberry Scones
12 oz. cold butter, chopped into small cubes
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling on top
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
2 cups cream, plus 2 tablespoons for brushing tops
2 cups farm fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Chop butter into cubes. Mix with all dry ingredients in mixer on low speed. Once butter is about pea-sized, add in eggs and cream until just combined. Be careful not to over-mix. Toss in the berries and finish mixing by hand. Use a 4-oz. ice cream scoop to drop batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet 2 inches apart. Brush cream onto to tops of scones and sprinkle with extra sugar. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Scones should be golden and firm.

Yield:13 scones

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.