It seemed like a good idea. My parents’ 50th anniversary was coming up, and I wanted to throw a surprise party. There was only one problem—my father had passed away 20 years earlier. But why should that little detail prevent my mother from celebrating, I reasoned. It wasn’t her fault he had died!
My husband thought it was ghoulish and was having none of it. So I came up with the perfect solution. Her birthday was only a few weeks before her anniversary. So that explains why my mother had a surprise 73rd (non-milestone) birthday party. Let no simcha go uncelebrated!
It was a beautiful June day. I rented tables, chairs and linens, and the yard looked lovely. I hired a string quartet from Cal State Fullerton. My in-laws flew in from Florida. I even got my dear friend Joyce, not known for her punctuality, to come on time and not spoil the surprise.
My mother was understandably farklempt at the outpouring of love. She later revealed that she had never had a birthday party at all, much less a surprise. No one made a fuss over birthdays when she was young, she said. In fact, her parents, who came from Russia in 1906 and 1907, didn’t even know when their birthdays were. Papa Harry, grateful to have fled the Cossacks for the golden medina, adopted July 4th, and Mama Hinda took April 23rd, the day she arrived at Ellis Island.
I had never cooked for more than 25 or 30, and the guest list was double that, so I was feeling insecure. I asked my friend, food writer and stylist Denise Vivaldo, for some tips on party planning—and she ought to know. This seasoned professional, who has catered 10,000 parties (serving the likes of the George H.W. Bushes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bette Midler and Prince Charles), is the author of “The Food Stylist’s Handbook” and with Cindy Flanagan, “Do It For Less! Parties” and “Do It For Less! Weddings.”
“People make themselves crazy when they entertain,” she said. “If you could enjoy yourself more, you would do it more often. When we’re entertaining, we’re all our own harshest critics, but if someone else has set the table, the simplest meal is divine.” What makes people really nervous are sheer numbers. “People are not used to cooking in quantities,” she noted. “It freaks them out to see how much food they’ve got. Is it enough? It is too much? Remember, the more things you have on the menu, the smaller the portions you need to serve.”
With some suggestions from Denise, I pulled it off. Salmon was a smart choice. It could be cooked in advance and served at room temperature. No last-minute oven watching for me. I wanted to enjoy my guests. My friend Arlene had given me the recipe years before—she had learned it in a local cooking class—and it has been a real company crowd-pleaser. (Years later, after my cookbook “Cooking Jewish” was published, when a synagogue that invited me to speak at a dinner or luncheon would ask me which of my recipes to serve, I would usually suggest Arlene’s salmon.)
Mandelbread, or Mandelbrot, is a twice-baked cookie, originally made with almonds. “Brot” is German and Yiddish for bread, and “mandel” is German and Yiddish for almond. It is similar to biscotti (“twice cooked”), which were made by Italians beginning in the early Middle Ages. The dough is partially baked in loaf form, sliced, and returned to the oven to crisp up. “Around the 13th century, following the introduction of sugar in Europe, Tuscans began adding it,” writes rabbi and food historian Gil Marks in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish food. “Sweetened biscotti—commonly flavored with anise, almonds, or hazelnut—soon became the most widespread type. The cookies spread to central Europeans, who primarily flavored them with bitter almonds and eventually called them mandelbrot.” These twice-baked cookies became a favorite among Ashkenazim for its long shelf life, making them ideal for the Sabbath.
Mama Hinda and all the aunties made varying permutations, but Aunt Irene’s became my signature. While she made separate batches for all six granddaughters with varying additions and degrees of crispness, my favorite has always been extra crispy with chocolate chips and cinnamon. For special occasions—and a 73rd birthday would certainly qualify as “special”—I dress them up by dipping the ends in melted chocolate and then rolling them in toasted nuts, sprinkles and/or tiny chocolate chips. Of course, for my mother’s birthday we had a beautiful cake from Beverly’s Bakery in Brea (as it was then known), but if you come to my house you’re going to get mandelbread.
(A word of caution: Are you measuring your flour correctly? Spoon it into the cup and level off. If you scoop and sweep, don’t come crying to me that your cookies are dry!)
Mama Irene’s Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot
To make cinnamon-sugar, stir 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon into 1 cup granulated sugar and blend well.
Yield: about 7 dozen
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 scant teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1½ cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
Generous 2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
Cinnamon-sugar, for sprinkling
- Stir the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together in a medium-size bowl, and set it aside.
2. With mixer fitted with paddle, blend the eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla on medium speed. On low speed gradually incorporate the flour mixture, scraping the bowl as necessary, followed by the chocolate chips. The dough will be very sticky. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread dough as far as you can to the edges. Sprinkle generously with cinnamon-sugar. Cover with parchment or waxed paper and freeze for a few hours or overnight until dough has hardened and is manageable.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Divide the dough into six portions. On a floured board, roll one piece of dough into a narrow log the width of the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough, placing 3 logs on each sheet. Bake both sheets at the same time, on the bottom third and top third oven racks, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through, until the tops are firm to the touch, about 25 minutes.
5. Remove the baking sheets from the oven, but leave the oven on. Let the logs cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheets. Then, using a serrated knife, cut each log diagonally into ¾-inch-thick slices. Place the slices, cut side down, on the baking sheets. Bake for 5 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave the cookies in the oven for at least 1 hour or until the oven is cool. For super crispy cookies, I leave them overnight.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” (Workman Publishing) by Judy Bart Kancigor.
Everything can be measured and prepared in advance, but keep the bread crumbs, nuts, and oil separate. Then mix them with the remaining ingredients just before you are ready to bake the salmon, so the topping doesn’t get soggy.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Vegetable cooking spray, for greasing the baking pan
2 ½ to 3 pounds skinless salmon fillet, in 1 piece
1½ cups panko bread crumbs (see Note)
¾ cup chopped unsalted pistachios or pecans
1 bottle (5 to 6 ounces) white horseradish (not creamed), drained and squeezed dry
¼ cup finely chopped shallots
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 13x5x9-inch non-reactive baking pan.
- Place the salmon in the prepared pan. Combine all the remaining ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Press this mixture evenly over the salmon. Bake, uncovered, until cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes.
3. Transfer the salmon to a platter, using two spatulas. Cut it into individual slices, and serve.
Note: Panko bread crumbs are coarser in texture than ordinary bread crumbs and stay crisp longer.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” (Workman Publishing) by Judy Bart Kancigor.
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.