My father's culinary skills were limited to three things. He could
make coffee, scramble an egg, and after he and my mother got over their initial
fear of using it, bake a potato in a microwave. Amazed that he could
do these simple things, one of his favorite sayings was, "In my mother's
house, I never even knew where the kitchen was!"
That was not really very surprising, since he was the son of a wealthy restaurant
owner (several big cafeterias and a night club) and his mother was a marvelous
Hungarian cook who ruled supreme in her kitchen. According to my father,
when the family sat down to dinner, they were never served just chicken
or steak or fish, etc, but each meal included at least four or more main
courses, in addition to appetizers, soup, side dishes and dessert.
For most of her married life, my grandmother had assistance in the kitchen
in the form of a housekeeper or cook who helped her prepare her bounteous
meals. But, as far as I'm concerned, the only one who counted was Mrs.
Dinah, who came every Thursday to help with the baking.
Mrs. Dinah was a tiny woman who always wore the same thing ... a stiffly starched
white blouse and skirt, which she immediately covered with a long, black
apron, heavy black shoes and when she took off her hat, her hair was tucked
up in a hairnet. She was a professional cook who earned her living
by helping women with their baking and between the two of them, she and my
grandmother would turn out a week's worth of wonderful bread and rolls, cakes
and pies, sweet rolls and coffee cakes, rugelah, mandel bread, hamentashen,
etc., but best of all, I remember her strudel.
No one was allowed in the kitchen while they were baking, but I remember
the sound of their voices as they discussed recipes and techniques.
Mrs. Dinah was always very respectful toward my grandmother, but sometimes
they would disagree about something and the clattering of pans would grow
louder for a while and the Hungarian, Yiddish and English would rise and
fall until a truce was reached and the baking could continue.
Mrs. Dinah didn't care much for children, but occasionally, after much begging,
if I promised to sit there quietly, I was allowed into the kitchen to watch
her bake. I would climb up on a high stool and not move or say a word
for the next hour or so, just so I could watch her work, because for me,
what she did was magical. At first, she would eye me suspiciously,
as if expecting me to do something distracting, but after a while, as she
became absorbed in her baking, she would forget about me completely.
I loved to watch her make strudel. First, she would make the dough
by sifting about 1 ½ cups of flour and ¼ tsp. of salt onto
a wooden board. Using her hands, she would make a well in the middle
of the flour and pour in a well-beaten egg mixed with about ½ cup
of water and 2 tsp. melted butter. Then, she would work her way all around
the outside of the well into the middle, combining the ingredients and then
knead the resulting dough until it was soft and stretchable. She would
then brush the dough with melted butter and cover it with a bowl she had
heated in the oven and let it stand there for ½ an hour or more while
she readied the ingredients for the filling and prepared the table upon which
the dough was to be made.
The filling was approximately: 2 slices of toast, grated into fine
bread crumbs; 1 T. cinnamon mixed with 1 cup of sugar; 1 cup of raisins;
1 cup of chopped almonds; about eight cups of shredded apples and melted
butter to brush on the dough.
She would cover the round kitchen table with a clean white cloth and work
flour into its surface. Then she would place the ball of dough in the
middle of the floured cloth and using a floured rolling pin, roll it into
a perfect circle. Placing her hands straight out with her palms
down under the dough, she would gently work it from the center out, not really
pulling it, but stretching it as she moved around and around the table until
it was so thin it was almost transparent and the edges hung evenly over the
sides of the table.
She would trim off the edges and brush the surface of the dough with
the melted butter and sprinkle it with the breadcrumbs. She would then
alternately sprinkle the dough with the apples, nuts, raisins and cinnamon-sugar
mix. More melted butter would be poured over all of this and then she
would lift up one edge of the table cloth and start the dough rolling over
itself jelly-roll fashion.
When it was all rolled up, she would slice the roll into equal lengths and
place them on greased cookie sheets and brush them with more melted butter
and sprinkle them with a little bit of water. They would bake
for about 30 minutes in a pre-heated 350º oven until well browned.
When slightly cooled, she would cut them into diagonal slices.
I always got the first piece. Grudgingly admitting that I had been
good, she would stand there with her arms crossed against her tiny chest,
waiting for my reaction to the first bite. I never failed her.
It was always wonderful.
Dear Mrs. Dinah -- I can see you now, putting your dishes into the sink for
the maid to wash up, taking off your apron and putting your hat and coat
back on and slipping the money my grandmother handed you into a shopping
bag that carried some of your own favorite kitchen tools that went everywhere
When my grandfather died, my grandmother moved to Florida to live with
her daughter and that was the end of Mrs. Dinah coming to her house. What
eventually happened to her, I do not know. I suspect that she finished
out her years doing what she did best ... making little children (and big ones,
too) happy to see her come, knowing that when she left, the house would smell
so good and the strudel would be the best.
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