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Passing the Mantle

(by Barbara Ballinger)

I was never encouraged to help my mother cook. She seemed to find it easier and more efficient to do everything on her own, even though she had learned from her mother.

Once I had my own kitchen after college, I took matters into my own hands, and chose Julia, Maida, Marcella, Martha, Sheila, and Julee as my muses (aka Child, Heatter, Hazan, Stewart, and the Silver Palate duo of Lukins and Rosso; their acolytes are on a first-name basis). Their writing encouraged me to try my hand at everything from homemade onion soup to zucchini bread, from tiny stuffed cherry tomatoes to flourless chocolate cakes. The dog-eared, food-stained pages of their cookbooks are testimony to my first efforts.

When my two daughters were old enough to help, I invited them to join me and experience together the joy of cooking, eating, and hosting dinner parties. We talked about what worked and why; I taught them how to learn from the unexpected failures and rejoice with the more frequent successes.

We went out to fancy restaurants so they could put on party dresses and experience waiters placing starched white napkins in their laps and lifting off gleaming silver domes to reveal the entree, even if it was sometimes a hamburger and fries. We traveled abroad—first to Paris, where they learned the fun of shopping at outdoor food markets and sampling new foods, dipping their fries into mayonnaise instead of all-American ketchup.

The indoctrination into the world of food seemed to resonate more with my older daughter, who took my copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, instructed me to leave the kitchen (shades of her grandmother), and baked on her own a two-layer frosted lemon cake, which inspired a junior-high school business, Joanna’s Cakes & Stuff. In high school, she interned one summer at New York City’s renowned Gramercy Tavern under its demanding pastry chef, Claudia Fleming, and another summer at Guy Savoy’s eponymous Parisian restaurant.

Her younger sister Lucy showed little interest in cooking, which was fine. She had her acting, swimming, and other pursuits. “Each child takes the seat not taken at the table,” a wise friend instructed. But once she had her own home, she gradually developed a strong connection to cooking. And I like to think my gifts of cookbooks and subscriptions to food magazines strengthened the interest of both my daughters.

In recent years, the tables have turned. It used to be, “My mother’s this or that is the best in the world.” At least that’s what I recall hearing. Now I am proud to report that both have surpassed me in all culinary pursuits, thanks to cooking shows, food apps, blogs, and focus.

Without any sense of competitiveness or one-ups(wo)manship, we applaud each other’s results and differences. Joanna, very take charge in her job as a management consultant, is a fearless, detail-oriented cook who takes no shortcuts. She would never buy a piecrust, as I now do. She also is a brave eater, reflecting her and her fiancé’s love of Anthony Bourdain’s culinary travelogue. Lucy, patient in her work as a therapist, has become skilled in making cookies and baking (back to her great-grandma’s roots). She follows recipes exactly to concoct creative birthday cakes for her sons, including one resembling a construction site with edible dirt.

Along the way, my daughters gently pushed me from my perch as chief food planner and preparer for holiday meals. For our last holiday meal together, it was a bit tricky to have so many cooks in my small kitchen, with so many pots and pans used. I started to think like my mother—"Do we really need that recipe?” But unlike her, I caught myself and kept my aging filter shut. And really, I’m delighted to pass the mantle.

Once the pandemic hit and my girls were stuck in their homes, they used free time to try more new recipes, sharing photos in emails, texts, and Instagram posts. Joanna made beef and pickle tacos (including the taco shells from scratch), banana crumb muffins, and sourdough bread. Lucy tried a variety of challahs, including an unusual one with figs, olive oil, and sea salt. She also decided to expand her repertoire and prepare foods from a different country each Saturday for a date night with her husband after they put their little sons to bed. They “traveled” from Morocco to Germany, from Italy to Vietnam, preparing spring rolls or tiramisu with homemade lady fingers. And my daughters have had an effect on me, encouraging me to be more adventuresome, which resulted in my first boiled and baked sesame-seed bagels.

We continued to talk about our disappointments and successes, offering advice and holding me accountable. My bagels tasted salty and didn’t rise as much as I had hoped. When asked, “Did you follow the recipe exactly?” I had to admit no. Joanna’s pear-chocolate scones sure looked pretty, but she thought they were gloppy puddles, probably the fault of too-soft fruit.

I love that my daughters now rarely ask me for advice but ask each other, as they keep expanding their culinary chops, relieving Covid-19 stress. And I’m proud that they mastered the most important lesson passed down through our matriarchal line: To cook and share food is to create a very strong bond. My only regret is that my 100-year-old mom, their grandmother, sheltering in her apartment with an aide, cannot taste all that she inspired long ago.


Barbara Ballinger is a writer in the Hudson River Valley of New York. She is the co-author of Suddenly Single After 50 and Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life After 50 .

Fig, Olive Oil, and Sea Salt Challah

(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1 packet active dry yeast or instant yeast

1/4 c. plus 1 t honey

2/3 c. warm water

1/3 c. olive oil, plus more for bowl

2 large eggs

2 t. flaky sea salt or 1 1/2 t. table salt

4 c. all-purpose flour

For filling:

1 c. stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs

1/8 t. freshly grated orange zest

1/2 c. water

1/4 c. orange juice

1/8 t. sea salt

few grinds black pepper

1 large egg, beaten

coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

To make dough with a stand mixer:

Whisk yeast and 1 t. honey into warm water, and let stand for a few minutes, until foamy.

In mixer bowl, combine yeast mixture with remaining honey, olive oil, and eggs. Add salt and flour, and mix until dough begins to hold together.

Switch to a dough hook, and mix at low speed for 5 - 8 minutes.

Transfer dough to an olive-oil coated bowl, cover with plastic, and set aside for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.

To make the dough by hand:

Whisk yeast and 1 t. honey into warm water, and let stand for a few minutes, until foamy.

Add salt and flour.

Mix with a wooden spoon until dough starts to come together.

Turn onto a floured counter, and knead for 5 - 10 minutes, until a smooth and elastic dough is formed.

Transfer dough to an olive-oil coated bowl, cover with plastic, and set aside for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.

To make fig paste:

In a small saucepan, combine figs, zest, water, juice, salt, and black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until figs are soft and tender, about 10 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from heat, and let cool to lukewarm.

Put in a food processor until it resembles a fine paste, and set aside to cool.

After dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured counter and divide in half.

Roll one half into a wide rectangle.

Spread half the fig filling evenly over the dough, stopping short of the edge.

Roll the dough into a long, tight log, then gently stretch the log as wide as possible.

Repeat with remaining dough and fig filling.

Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board.

Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet, forming 8 legs.

Take the 4 legs that come from underneath the center and move each leg to the right.

Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left.

If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope.

Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough to form a round.

Transfer dough to a parchment-lined heavy baking sheet.

Brush beaten egg over dough.

Let rise for another hour.

Shortly before rising time is over, preheat oven to 375 F.

Brush again with beaten egg, and sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake in middle of oven for 35 - 40 minutes, or until the center is 195 F. on an instant-read thermometer.

If it starts getting too dark, cover with foil.

Cool loaf on a rack.


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