(by Caroline Goldberg Igra)
It wasn’t just the cookies, arranged one overlapping the next, in the pattern of a Japanese fan, a little chocolate stick standing in for the handle. It wasn’t the mug of cocoa, steaming hot and topped by a stiff wedge of frothy milk. It wasn’t the heating, whose warmth seeped into my body, opening pores that had been frozen shut by the cold outside. It was my dear aunt’s smiling face, her quiet voice, her invitation to sit down beside her at the kitchen table and tell her about my day. It was the way she placed her vein-laced hand on the table between us, ready, at any instant, to give me a comforting squeeze or a loving pat.
Every January of my tweens and early teens, my parents flew off from Philadelphia to a health spa in Southern California. My mother has always been very athletic and adored this opportunity to devote attention to her physical fitness regime (even before Jane Fonda’s videos). There’s no question that she also appreciated the chance to live a few weeks as an unencumbered woman, looking after her own needs instead of everyone else’s. A very devoted mother, she deserved the break.
I was quite satisfied being left behind with my great aunt and uncle. Their little house in Chestnut Hill, often encased by walls of snow, frequently aglow, and always overwhelmed by those delicious smells that characterize an active kitchen, became my home away from home. There I was treated as a much-loved member of the family. When not at school, I alternated between the dining room table, where each meal was a ceremony; the cookbook-lined den, wedged between these two beloveds; and the kitchen, learning how to make my way. This was a household soaked through with the culture of cuisine and overflowing with love. It was there that I understood their intricate connection.
My parents’ house was one purposefully not focused on cooking. It wasn’t that we didn’t eat, or even dine. But cooking itself was relegated to a minor role. My mother considered the kitchen a trap from which, once entered, a woman could never escape. I believe her own mother had instructed her so. A mathematician who, just out of college, worked on the original Univac computer with a room of men; a lifelong lover of knowledge who began her doctoral studies during precisely those years; a talented writer who shared her global travels with a wide audience, she had far more significant places to be, far more engaging things to do. Although always home in the afternoons when we returned from school, her energy was focused on developing her children’s pursuits—academic, athletic, even social—and left a minimum of time for meal preparation. Dinner could be a delicious steak or a Stouffer’s TV dinner chosen from the freezer. Always (and still) healthy, never (to date) suffering any major illnesses or lacking in nutrients, consistently full of energy, my brother and I are the proof that this was a completely legitimate way to raise children.
(with Aunt Helen)
Nevertheless, I did suffer a bit from cooking envy and accordingly, had a deep fondness for my aunt and uncle, who embraced its cult whole hog. Part of this adoration was due to my family history. Aunt Helen was the sister of Max, the grandfather who had passed away from scarlet fever in his 30s, just six months before the introduction of penicillin. The fact that Max’s wife Gertrude, my grandmother, perished only a few years later, my father still a child, aggrandized my aunt’s already huge role. She spent the following decades trying to fill the gap left behind in my father’s life, then, fast forward one generation, segued into doing the same in mine. I needed grandparents. With her sole grandchild out of reach, living off in Brooklyn Heights, I became the local stand-in. It was a match made in heaven.
My memories of the annual stay at that cozy house, the morning tromp through the snow 30 minutes from their door to the trolley stop on my way to school, the trudge back in the waning light of the winter afternoons, fingers frozen and toes damp, are surrounded by an aureole of aromas. Aunt Helen was a petite woman who never drove, enjoyed being pampered by her warm and amusing husband Benn, and spent most of her time creating an embracing environment brimming with pots of pussy willow, hand-embroidered pillows, her latest needlepoint projects, and the fabulous smells of whatever she was cooking. Her oven was always up and running, her kindness always overflowing. Although I was most enthusiastic about the cakes and cookies, my present inclination toward baking emerged right there in that house during those formative years, I loved almost everything she put on my plate.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Aunt Helen was that recipes didn’t need to be complex to be successful. She was big on simple ones with a minimum of ingredients, embracing the shortcuts enabled by modern products such as ketchup, mayonnaise, and Hershey’s syrup. She would have adored those TikTok videos that illustrate quick paths to delicious meals. Of course, having passed away in 1996, she completely missed the revolution in cooking made possible by the Internet. She never could have conceived of a time when her vast collection of cookbooks would become obsolete.
Although I also appreciate these innovations, I’ve still hung on tightly to one of the old-fashioned remnants of our winters spent together: a recipe box. Despite the wealth of options available at the click of my finger, it is to this source that I turn for important events, reverently pulling out the relevant card and happily struggling to read the letters smeared by water, oil, butter, or batter, evidence of multiple use. I’ll eventually pass this box on to my elder son, a talented baker. I like to imagine him kneading dough on that green Formica counter in Aunt Helen’s kitchen, laughing as she wiggles by him, offers to sink her hands in and help, and asks about his day.
Caroline Goldberg Igra is a freelance writer, art historian, and triathlete, who lives in Caesarea, Israel, but maintains a clear footprint in her native Philadelphia. She is the co-author of J. D. Kirszenbaum (1900-1954): The Lost Generation. Her first novel was Count To A Thousand. Her most recent novel is From Where I Stand.
2 sticks (1/2 lb.) butter (Aunt Helen used margarine)
1 lb. confectioners' sugar
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. ground mace
pinch of salt
1/2 c. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Beat butter and sugar together until smooth.
Add eggs one at a time and beat until incorporated.
Combine sugar, flour, baking powder, mace, and salt.
Combine milk and vanilla extract.
Add dry ingredients to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beating until smooth.
Scrape into a well-greased 9-inch loaf pan and bake for about 70 minutes.