Proust had his madeleine. I had Fanny’s Passover honey cake.
Memories of Passover are synonymous in my mind with my grandmother Fanny. It seemed like she prepared forever for the holiday. Everything was homemade—she even made her own horseradish for her sublime gefilte fish. To this day, I can’t abide the store-bought tough rubber ovals that pass for this delicacy.
Coming into her apartment, a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, during Passover was like jumping into a pool of swirling aromas. I would run to the kitchen, hoping to catch her spreading butter on cookie sheets, and pouring a mixture of matzo farfel, eggs, and salt into a thin layer that just filled each tray. I couldn’t get enough of the toasted smell of the farfel baking. When it came out of the oven, she’d let me take handfuls of the crunchy result. To me it tasted better than candy.
Fanny had 13 grandchildren. And even if she called all of us Bubala instead of our names, she knew without hesitation what each of us liked. She kept little wrapped packages in the refrigerator, and she knew exactly which one to choose. For me, she had honey cake; she made it all year round, but it was different at Passover. Even as a child I knew she wouldn’t use regular flour for the holiday, and that the cake would taste special—even better than usual.
I never saw her unwrap honey cake for anyone else. When I visited, she’d stop whatever she was doing, open the wax paper carefully, and watch me make the treat last as long as possible with a glass of milk. “It grows by her,” she’d laugh, enjoying my enjoyment.
I thought Fanny—and her honey cake—would always be there. But when I was 16, she died. And the honey cakes stopped.
My mother tried her best to make Passover. We put away our everyday dishes and changed to special ones for Pesach. We’d read from the Haggadah at the Seder, and the holiday and its different foods still had meaning for me. My mother made chicken soup, toasted matzo farfel in the oven, and carefully chopped apples and walnuts for the haroset. But she bought everything else. It wasn’t the same. I missed Fanny’s gefilte fish, Fanny’s brisket, and—most of all—her honey cake.
I searched for it. I would window shop at bakeries and choose a loaf that seemed moist like hers, with almonds on top. Cutting off a slice, I could see it wasn’t the same. Taking a morsel into my mouth, I’d hope for bubbles of memories. But no matter how promising a cake seemed, it was always too dry or too sweet.
I asked my Aunt Bertha if she knew the recipe. “I don’t want to talk about the past,” she said. My Aunt Betty wasn’t more helpful, as her memory was slipping. I reached out to cousins I hadn’t spoken to in years. Nobody had the recipe.
But they did tell me more about Fanny. I learned that Grandpa had immigrated to America in 1904 on the SS Belgravia and that Fanny had followed two years later. I confirmed which of her children had been born in Russia, and which here. The most surprising news was about their town, near Kiev, one I’d never heard of: Vassilkov.
Through Google, Wikipedia, and Yad Vashem’s website I learned that Vassilkov had been a town of tanneries, which explained my grandfather’s morphing into a harness maker in New York, before turning to auto accessories. I also learned that the Jews remaining in Vassilkov had been rounded up in 1941 and 1942 and killed by the Germans.
I put together a family tree with each of my uncles and aunts and their children and grandchildren. I was even able to go back to the generation before my grandmother and grandfather. We had a history.
Each step made Fanny more real to me. How brave she had been to see my grandfather leave for America, knowing that sometimes the men who left before their wives never sent for them.
Fanny escaped Russia with my uncles Jack and Frank, who were still toddlers, and my Aunt Bertha, who was 5 or 6. My grandmother told me the ship had been horribly overcrowded, that many of the travelers got sick and some died. She was afraid her long hair would fill with lice. Whenever I get discouraged or fearful, I remember Fanny and how she came to America, not sure what she’d find.
The more I learned, the closer I felt to Fanny, the more I missed how welcome and safe she made me feel, and how much her cooking was tied up with that. I wanted more and more to find a honey cake that would bring those feelings back.
After my mother died, I tried to make the Seder, but it was a pale imitation. I don’t bake; I’m intimidated by the oven and cook most things on the stovetop. The only Passover dish I’m good at making is matzo brei, and that’s probably because I can’t remember Fanny’s, so I never have to compare mine to hers.
These days, my husband and I go to Seders at other people’s homes. No matter how good the dinner is, my most cherished Passover dessert is still not there.
Recently I searched through my Special Memories Box and found some of my mother’s Passover recipes. There were instructions for gefilte fish, but nothing for honey cake.
Then I remembered that my cousin Audrey had grown up with Fanny sharing her home for many years. Audrey thought she’d already given me whatever she had, but after checking again she burst out laughing. She’d found part of a recipe for honey cake in her mother’s recipe book. Her mother, my Aunt Ronny, must have gotten it from Fanny. “You won’t believe this,” Audrey said. “There’s a list of ingredients, but there are no instructions!”
Audrey emailed the truncated recipe to me. There is no information about a process, and the list of ingredients includes flour, which must have been for other times during the year; for Passover, Fanny would have used matzo cake meal.
Still, at last I’m like a bee flying to the flower that is Fanny’s honey cake. And even though I’ve never been a baker, this year, I’m going to try to recover the past myself. My plan is to compare ingredients from Passover honey cakes I’ve found online to the list I got from Audrey, and then create what I imagine the perfect honey cake would be.
I know I may have to do this a few—maybe many—times, especially since I’m a newbie baker. But I intend to try. And every time I mix the ingredients I will think of Fanny and how she would take me in her arms for a warm hug, and about how her honey cake made Passover real for me.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Leida Snow is an award-winning journalist. She was theater critic for WINS-AM for 13 years and is writing a book about Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @LeidaSnow.