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My Mother’s Cakes, Memory, and the Meaning of Me

Shul on Rosh Hashanah? No, thank you. Honey and chocolate desserts in the mail? Yes, please.

Rachel Shukert
September 11, 2015

It’s Rosh Hashanah, folks, and as usual I am blithely unaware of this fact until I got the traditional pre-holiday email from my mother, reminding me a) that there is a ritual aspect to Judaism apart from writing snide blog posts about reality television shows, and b) do I want her to send cake? My mother wrote that she’s making it like she does every year, but that she won’t send it unless she’s sure I want it, because what kind of a monster foists unsolicited homemade cake on somebody without their express permission?

As usual, I responded by telling her that while I would not be attending any kind of service this High Holiday season (a streak I have maintained virtually unbroken since I moved out of my parents’ house in the summer of 1998), I would very much like the cake. I know on some level this answer will disappoint her. But it shouldn’t.

My mother’s Rosh Hashanah cake comes in two varieties: honey and chocolate chip. The honey cake is baked in an enormous sheet pan and then divided into smaller hunks for easier distribution to its various recipients. The cake is sticky on top, velvety in texture, and colored a beautiful deep auburn from the red wine that, even as a child, I thought added a very complex richness to the taste. As a kid, my chief fascination with the honey cake was not just its vast size or the sophisticated addition of alcohol (which I found alarmingly intriguing), but that it was made from the recipe of my maternal grandmother, who had died a decade before I was born.

As part of my mother’s cooking regimen, she even used my grandmother’s handwritten recipe card, one of the only extant examples of her neat, if slightly hesitant, English handwriting. I used to sneak it out of the recipe box and look it at when my mother wasn’t home, running my fingers over the lettering as though they could give me some sort of insight into a woman I had never met but who seemed still to influence so many aspects of my life.

The chocolate chip cake is less emotionally fraught, but has always been my favorite from a taste standpoint: a buttery, labor-intensive confection of chocolate chips and powdered sugar, baked in a Bundt pan for satisfyingly dense texture. The one and only time I attempted to make it on my own, all of the sifting and re-sifting and separation of flours left my kitchen looking like a set from Scarface.

But both cakes take me back to very specific memories. Trapped in Rosh Hashanah services and desperate for them to end—I have never outgrown my gnawing dread and furious resentment of being made to attend synagogue, which is the reason I have never gone again after being released into the wild, so to speak; adulthood, I find, is by and large overrated, but it does have some pretty large perks—with only the thought of those cakes, served with coffee after the following lunch party at the house, to sustain me. Or sitting in the back of the car in the dark at the end of Yom Kippur, watching my mother pass foil-wrapped cake to my father, along with a flask of orange juice, to help him break the fast.

Though I may have left these religious rituals behind, my mother’s cake takes me back, reminding me of the passing of time, the need to take an honest accounting of my life and relationships, to think about what’s working and what I can do better. They remind me of the person I was, and the person I have yet to become. They’re my Jewish madeleines.

And I don’t quite understand why they haven’t come in the mail yet.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.