by Rachel F. Wantik
My Safta knew how to cook. She worked at the fish counter at a modest-sized supermarket in Holon commuting there by bus from her neighboring hometown of Azur. On Thursdays, she’d bring home a whole carp in a brown paper bag and on Friday she would… I have no idea what she did but the fish was delectable. For me, Safta made the most flavorful gefilte fish. The adults sat around saying “Geschmack” between every finger-licking, tongue-smacking morsel of carp (or was it pike?), from its silvery skin, with only the bones remaining.
Sometimes, Safta would bring home a chicken or two. Growing up in the U.S., I was used to a de-feathered headless bird, with its giblets packaged separately from their source, plastic wrapped on a Styrofoam tray. These fowl resembled rubber chickens from comedy acts but their distinctive smell suggested otherwise. All parts went to good use – good food. The chicken broth was served as the finale because Safta thought it healthy to end a meal with a soothing warm liquid. Always an avid fan of the color yellow (but now with fewer negative tartrazine consequences), I’d fill my bowl with Shkedi Marak, literally soup almonds, but Safta’s soup didn’t really need any accoutrements. Aided by cavernous spoons, the family would slurp up the soup, as homage to the cook’s talents. Often, they would request seconds.
Way into the afternoon, probably around teatime although I doubt Safta had ever been to the UK, tea would be served in amber-colored glass cups accompanied by one of my fondest treats, her spice cake. She baked it in the WonderPot* tube pan, maybe on the stove-top, or maybe in the oven.
At some point in my teen years, perhaps after reading way too many books about loved ones passing on, I thought it best to obtain the recipe. I remember making a list of ingredients, with the assistance of the polyglots in the family offering translations from the Hebrew , Russian and Yiddish. Cloves, cinnamon, and the obvious sugar, flour, eggs? But that was as far as I got. How do I make that cake?
Another memory of the cake was that it never tasted exactly the same each time. Sometimes it was sweeter and other times heavier on the ginger.
It all came together when I made corn muffins the other night. Some of my friends came over and gobbled up the mini-muffins with optional maple-buttery spread. “What is the recipe?” one of them insisted. I stared at her somewhat blankly, repeating her question. “Well, I can tell you what I mixed in a bowl,” I said, “Cornmeal (which was marked as corn flour on the package), applesauce, rice milk to keep it parve, and whole wheat flour. “You don’t remember the amounts, do you?” she inquired. I smiled sheepishly. I bake according to consistency and most times the taste works out okay. Using that technique, which I must have learned from my Safta, I hope to re-create her spice cake, with a list of ingredients and scrumptious experimental attempts.
*A WonderPot was a very common item in Israeli kitchens of the past…It looks like a tube pan (as for a Bundt cake) but with small black handles. It has a cover, a heat dispersal ring and could be placed on a stove-top burner. For those without the luxury of an oven, it was indeed a wonder.
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