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Mrs. Dinah

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 with you.

 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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