My grandmother, Helma is many things. She is sharp as a tack, both in memory and in wit. She has a naughty streak to her, one that we grandchildren have been privy to see more and more of, the older we’ve become. She is thoughtful and creative, sending out hand written cards each time a birthday or holiday rolls around, each with a special and unique poem written just for us.
She is determined to a fault whenever she sets her mind to do something. She decided after retiring from being a nurse, that she should become a painter. So she did. She painted commissioned works for her friends at the temple, became president of her local community college’s art club, entered shows (and won), exhibited at her local library- sometimes by herself, other times with my grandpa who also decided after years selling jewelry that he in fact, was a painter too.
She is a meticulous record keeper, and has always kept track of everyone; with photos, journals, portraits painted, recipes and stories; many of which were written down and the rest were always on the tip of her tongue. My grandparent’s apartment was always filled with volumes upon volumes of photo albums, a gallery worth of paintings, drawers of old letters saved from friends and family, and a well-loved planner with everyone’s birthday written right in place. The lady didn’t miss a beat. Ever.
And her love of food- to make, to eat, to discuss has been one attribute of hers that I latched onto very early on, and have yet to let go. When I think of my grandmother, no matter the context, her memory is always always surrounded by giant bowls of split pea soup and crusty bread, challah (always 2 loaves), stacks of bar cookies – sealed in tin foil containers for special occasions to give away, casserole dishes full of tender chicken and sauce, and her mother’s “ugly cookies” and Mandel Bread.
Grandma Helma has also always been one to buck the system a bit, which perhaps is why our own Isla Harper (middle name after Helma- us bucking the Jewish naming system too- with both her permission and blessing) has always been one to push back. Isla is so very much like her namesake.
Gram has always done what the hell she wanted to. Said what the hell she wanted to (both within reason.. mostly) and from what I can tell, has figured out that you can’t take anything with you when you go so you better say it, do it, and live it before your time is up. From picking up her husband on the trolley (Grandpa George proposed a mere two weeks afterwards, clearly smitten from Gram’s go gettum ways), to graduating from college at age 81, to becoming a bat mitzvah even later, this lady has manifested several generations worth of stubbornness and gumption and chutzpah, and used it all- every drop.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how I feel about my grandma. The woman deserves an ocean worth of praise and love- she’s done so many wonderful things through out her life. But, make no mistake- Helma Weinberg is also one tough cookie. Climbing barbed wire fences, becoming a nurse during wartime, surviving cancer, and raising three mostly well-adjusted children.
Today I dug deep down, into my collection of her recipes, into my thoughts on who my grandma is, into my genuine gratitude for having been influenced by the presence of such a spectacular soul, and baked for her what I hoped would give her both comfort and strength. So she knew she was loved, and would always be loved. Deeply. A small token of my thanks, my nod to all that she is, as well as other things I don’t quite know how to put into words. The girls and I made Great Grandma Bess’s (Grandma Helma’s mother) Mandel Bread. I changed it ever-so-slightly, but I know both Helma and Bess would approve, even if begrudgingly so.
Mandel Bread is a lot like biscotti. It’s got a tough, crunchy layer from the triple baking. Dotted with nuts or chocolate there is an earthy, sweetness to it. It is a bit hearty, a bit dry I suppose, and a pleasure to make when you want to keep your hands busy.
Here’s to you Gram, for all that you’ve taught me. As I sat feeding my girls the same recipe (almost..) my great grandmother made for her family, I wondered if maybe I was being passed the baton, next in line for the roll of family historian, hell raiser, and cook.
Great Grandma Bess’s Mandel Bread
makes approx 4 dozen cookies from 4 rolls
1 cup sugar (I used golden caster sugar)
1 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
2 tsp orange or lemon juice
1 tbsp orange or lemon zest
41/2 cups plain white flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips or roughly chopped nuts
In a large mixing bowl combine eggs and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add oil, vanilla, orange juice and zest.
Combine the flour and baking powder in a small bowl and gradually add into the egg mixture. Fold in the nuts or chocolate. The dough should be easy to handle, like cookie dough.
Divide the dough evenly into quarters. On a lightly floured surface roll out each quarter in your hands to form a log/tube shape- approx 21/2 inches wide by a food long or so. Place on a greased or foiled baking tray. You should be able to fit two logs per tray.
Place trays into a preheated 325F/160C oven for 30-35 minutes or until lightly golden on top.
Remove from oven, let cool for approx 5 minutes, and then cut each log into thin slices at an angle. You should be able to get approx 12 pieces from each log, each about 1/2-3/4 inch thick or so.
Place each slice back on the tray, and back into the oven to toast for approx 10 minutes. Careful not to let the edges burn! You can pull them out to cool now (twice baked like biscotti) or flip them over and put them back in the oven for another 10 minutes or so- for extra crunch.
These are perfect on a Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee.