“No one who cooks, cooks alone,” writes Laurie Colwin, and there are times when my tiny kitchen can become quite crowded, especially when I’m baking. It’s then that I’m joined by the ghosts of my father and my paternal grandmother, Bessie, who, in addition to her claim that she was once a great beauty, was also an expert baker, having been an apprentice to a master in her native Poland before immigrating to this country as a young woman.
My father often reminisced about his mother’s cooking. No one made blintzes as pillowy. She rolled strudel dough on the kitchen floor until it was so thin you could read the newspaper through it. During the Great Depression she could stretch the humblest of ingredients—offal and cheap cuts of meat—into a gourmet feast to feed her family of seven.
Yet Bessie was not a doting grandmother, happily bustling about her kitchen, something delectable always going into or coming out of the oven. By the time I got to know her, she was bitter and tired, her mouth frozen in a frown, parsimonious with affection. Worst of all, she refused to share her recipes. “They go with me to my grave,” she said, when I begged for her secrets while sneaking bits of challah dough. With a slap on my knuckles, she changed the subject by grabbing my ponytail and dragging me to the sink to wash my face with milk. “This is the secret of my great beauty,” she said, a rather alarming assertion coming from a woman who may once have been a looker but certainly was no longer.
Is there a daughter alive who doesn’t crave her father’s approval, no matter if he’s a scoundrel or a saint? Sometimes I think my pleasure in cooking and my insistence on perfecting the foods of my father’s youth derive from this primitive need, though my dad is long dead. And while my taste memory tells me I’ve duplicated certain of Bessie’s specialties successfully, I will never know if I’ve succeeded with the poppy-seed cookies my father yearned for most of all. They slipped off of Bessie’s baking play-list before I had the chance to try them.
Mohn kichlach, poppy-seed cookies, originated with Eastern European Jews. These cookies were traditionally baked for boys heading off to war because they remained fresh for weeks. According to my father, they were small and hard, not too sweet, and utterly addictive. My father last had them when he and my mother embarked from their home in the Bronx on a cross-country drive shortly after they married in 1948. Bessie, who lived nearby, packed a shoebox full of them, with instructions for my parents to deliver the box to a relative in California.
The cookies didn’t make it out of Pennsylvania.
Over the years I accumulated several recipes for mohn kichlach, from Jewish-organization and other cookbooks, but I resisted making them because my father was no longer around to give a thumbs up. Then last summer, in anticipation of a roughly five-hour drive with my husband from New York City to the Finger Lakes region of Western New York, I decided to experiment. Some of the recipes I tried were for drop cookies, others for rolled. One included chopped onions, for a kind of cracker-bialy hybrid. I rejected one recipe that called for an alarming one cup of oil; the cookies slid around the baking sheet and were so flabby and unappealing that I slid them right into the garbage. I finally settled on a rolled version with more poppy seeds and less sugar than most. For some reason—a message from beyond?—I imagined these were close to my grandmother’s.
While I can’t know for sure if I succeeded, I do know this: My cookies didn’t survive New Jersey.