In all my memory, there could never have been a family party or holiday celebration in our house without one or more of my mother’s sumptuous baked goods. She was a magician, conjuring her cakes, cookies and pies made from scratch using one smallish oven, a classic O’Keefe and Merritt stove never replaced in the fifty years she lived in her San Francisco house.
For her, serving abundant and delicious baked goods was ingrained for two reasons. My mother had fled Hitler as a teen but started baking as a young girl in Germany. The German tradition of Gemütlichkeit, the warmth and friendliness of entertaining, was part of her background. She was also imbued with the Jewish traditions of welcoming guests and between the two traditions, one was graciously greeted into our home and treated to yummy food whatever the occasion.
After arriving in Chicago, she traveled by train to San Francisco to join her sister. The family lore is that she wooed my father, a dapper American soldier and also a German immigrant she had met at a Jewish Community Center dance, with her baking. He fell in love with the cute, brown-haired, buxom young woman and couldn’t resist her rich Apfel Kuchen (apple cake.)
I remember as a child in the 1950’s how her cousins and lady friends got together many Saturday afternoons for Kaffee Klatsches, sitting around the blonde-wood dining room table set with linen and china, newly acquired in the States, to share gossip, sip strong coffee and sample the delicious home-baked array. Despite the fact that some of her German immigrant relatives had suffered terribly during the war, unable to escape Germany in time, the warm afternoon get-togethers were an old-country tradition they treasured and embraced.
My mother’s baking repertoire varied depending on both the time of the year and the Jewish holiday cycle. In the fall, her specialty was plum cakes using small Italian plums split open and placed on large sheet cakes made from a yeast dough that would rise in the warm kitchen like a big stomach. She would also use that dough and cover it with streusel, little sweet crumbs of butter and sugar. Another fall staple were dense honey cakes, traditional for symbolizing sweetness for the new year. In the spring, she baked airy sponge cakes without leavening, using eight or nine eggs, for the holiday of Passover.
For Thanksgiving, her pies did not have a flaky pie crust but rather used a heavier cookie dough-like crust that was the base for tart cherries or apples, also heavenly. Several times a year she would bake batches of chocolate chip cookies which were hard and crisp in just the right way. I can never get them exactly like hers or so my husband laments. We found her recipes in tattered stained books. Even if we could have deciphered her backhand scrawl, her baking magic can never be duplicated.
published 19 September 2016