Saturday, August 16, 2008

Grandma knows best

In my last post I shared a photo of a slice of my grandmother's blueberry cake, and I thought I'd go into a little more detail about that recipe. In one of my older posts I wrote about "the old standby"--one of those recipes that you return to again and again, both perfecting it through practice and also putting your own personal stamp on it. And an important and reliable standby is definitely the family recipe. Carefully passed down like an heirloom, it's tried and true and stands the test of time. In my food-centered Jewish family, we have a number of such recipes. One of them is my great-grandmother's mandel brot, which is basically a Jewish biscotti studded with nuts (mandel brot means "almond bread"). The story goes that my great-grandmother never used recipes, and as she got older family anxiety that the recipe might pass away with her increased. So one day when she was baking her famous cookies she was closely observed and the recipe was finally recorded. Since then it's been baked dozens of times, mostly by my grandmother (whose blueberry cake recipe follows) and by my mom.

My grandma Georgia is a great cook and baker. We visit her house in Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving every year, and in addition to the turkey, brisket, sweet and sour meatballs and potato kugel that she turns out (largely on her own), she also serves up pumpkin pie with the most tender and flaky crust (her secret? Crisco), airy vanilla cake topped with sweet cherries, and chunky, slightly salty oatmeal-and-chocolate-chip cookies. Blueberries, obviously, aren't in season in November, but during the summer when they abound my grandma makes this delectable cake. It's such a great recipe: sweet and laden with fruit, it still manages to be light, thanks to the step which calls for the egg whites to be beaten separately. The best way to eat it? Unadorned, and with a cup of coffee or tea. But if you want to gild the lily--as we all do sometimes--top it with some vanilla bean ice cream.

*Note: if you--like me--prefer your desserts a little less sweet, you can reduce the sugar in this recipe by up to 3/4 cup. Another change I make is to use two sticks of room temperature butter in place of the shortening. Finally, I add the zest of one lemon to the wet ingredients for more complexity of flavor. Enjoy!

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