I’m sure that we have all experienced it, that taste of something that throws you back to your childhood. Every family has that one relative, whether a mom, a grandma, a dad or an uncle, that special someone who made the most memorable of dishes, sweet or savory. And if not a relative, then there was the deli at the corner or the bakery across the street with its loaves of rye and cornbread that supplied the aromatic flavors, the background music of childhood.
My Mom was a baker and there are many dishes and cakes that I never appreciated enough when I was a child, but I inherited her recipes along with her double chin and worrisome ways. Out of respect for tradition, I mix the ingredients that are listed in blue smudged ink on frayed and yellowing lined paper, and written in Mom’s flowing but fading hand. Often there’s a blur and I need to decide if the intention was half of a cup or perhaps two cups. And how much exactly is a glass of oil or a spoonful of cinnamon? Over the years and after repeated tries I have managed to quite reasonably reproduce the tastes that I never lingered upon long enough during my youth.
Shortly before the start of spring, while the earth is still hard and the trees are still bare, my family celebrates the holiday of Purim. I guess you could say that it is the Jewish version of Halloween or of the Carnival of Venice, even though the origins of the holidays couldn’t be further apart from one another. Shop fronts are loaded with sales of silky colorful garments and accessories that range from magic wands to firemen’s caps. Some moms sew their own homemade costumes and probably with much better stitching and material than the purchased ones that carry the “Made in China” label. Other families rumble through suitcases and boxes stored in an attic or under a stairway that are packed with the still wearable outfits that were donned in previous years by older siblings. The once traditional attire of kings and queens has pretty much been replaced by that of action figures, fairies, ballerinas and even spongebobs. Schools let out early and entire classes join parades sporting their holiday apparel in city organized “adluyadas”. There is music in the streets, laughter in the air, the sound of groggers or noise makers and at times the cry of an infant who is just a bit too overwhelmed by all the bustle and sound.
As with most holidays, there is also the traditional culinary treat. The one for Purim is called hamantashen. It is dough folded into the shape of a triangle and filled with whatever pleases. The time honored practice of filling solely with a poppy seed paste has given way and now includes date spread, nuts, apples, chocolate and even cheese. The custom is to prepare fancy wrapped paper plates or boxes, to fill with assorted sweets which often include several of these unique over sized cookies and to deliver by hand to friends and neighbors, some of whom are seen only while passing by on the street or while waiting in line at the local grocery.
Mom would start her baking two weeks ahead of time preparing the dough and the filling. My job was to fold the dough so that just a little of the filling peeked through the center. I guess I always liked to play with food. After these Purim Cakes were baked, Mom and I would pack them up in boxes, wrap them in brown paper bags that were cut to size and label each with the names of cousins who lived too far away for the packages to be delivered to by hand.
After I moved away and Mom’s age and health prevented her from doing all the baking, filling, folding and packaging, I took over our family tradition. My packages make their way to China and to several cities in the United States, in addition to the more local cities in the north and center of Israel. And then left with a few lone pieces, I linger on the taste of Mom’s hamantashen that are laced with just the right amount of cinnamon and feel nostalgic, remembering the two of us standing over the small counter in her kitchen in Brooklyn, Mom mixing the dough and cooking the poppy seed filling and me folding the rolled out dough into triangular Purim Cakes so many years ago.