“Mandel bread is a lot like biscotti. It’s got a tough, crunchy layer from the triple baking. Dotted with nuts or chocolate there is an earthy sweetness to it. It is a pleasure to make when you want to keep your hands busy.” Food writer Adrienne Katz Kennedy shares a sweet family recipe…
Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a food writer and blogs at Season and Sprout
My grandmother, Helma Weinberg, was many things. She was sharp as a tack, both in memory and in wit. She was devious, a rebel with a wonderfully naughty streak – one that we grandchildren were only privy to once we were older (though we all had our suspicions).
She was thoughtful and creative, sending out hand-written and painted cards each birthday, holiday, or momentous occasion – each with a unique poem written just for us.
She was determined and stubborn. Whether it was making a recipe over and over until she deemed it worthy, digging her heals in to prove to naysayers she could do something, or reaching milestones long after they were expected.
Grandma Helma’s love of food – to make, to eat, to discuss, was something I latched onto very early on
After retiring from being a wartime nurse, she came to the decision she should learn to paint. And then she did – she painted commissioned works for her friends at synagogue, became president of her community art club (one in which the median age was approximately 25 – nearly 50 years her junior!).
She entered art shows and won, exhibiting at her local library – sometimes by herself, other times with my grandpa who also decided upon retirement he too was a painter.
Helma was a meticulous record keeper, she kept track of everyone in our extended family from my grandfather’s side who escaped Russia. She noted Jewish immigrants relatives at Ellis Island, distant cousins, nieces – and also, oddly, her own children and grandchildren.
She kept records with photos, journals, hand painted portraits, recipes and stories; many of which were written down and the rest were always on the tip of her tongue.
Whenever I want to remember, honour her, celebrate her – I dig into my collection of her recipes. They bring me comfort
My grandparents’ apartment was always filled with volumes of photo albums, a gallery worth of paintings, drawers of old letters saved from friends and family, and a well-loved planner with everyone’s birthday written in. Nothing got passed her, and everything had a story and lineage.
Grandma Helma’s love of food – to make, to eat, to discuss, was something I latched onto very early on. When I think of my grandmother, no matter the context, her memory is always surrounded by giant bowls of split pea soup and crusty bread, challah (always two loaves for Shabbat), stacks of bar cookies – sealed in tinfoil containers for special occasions.
Also, casserole dishes full of tender chicken and sauce or slow cooked brisket. Homemade gefilte fish (the only kind worth eating), eye-wateringly potent freshly-made horseradish. Her mother’s “ugly cookies” and Mandel bread; one of my grandfather’s and my father’s favourites.
Grandma Helma figured out fairly early on that you can’t take anything with you when you go. So you better say it, do it, and live it before your time is up. From picking up her husband on Pittsburgh’s public trolley (he proposed a mere two weeks after their meeting), to graduating from university at age 81, to becoming a Bat Mitzvah (Jewish coming of age ritual – typically occurring at age 12 or 13) in her late 80s. Helma manifested several generations worth of stubbornness and gumption and chutzpah, and used it all. Every drop.
Whenever I want to remember, honour her, celebrate her – I dig into my collection of her recipes. They bring me comfort, both the busy hands making food, and teaching my children about her, her Jewish heritage, and our family.
This particular recipe is from Great Grandma Bess (Grandma Helma’s mother). I changed it ever-so-slightly, but I know both Helma and Bess would approve, even if begrudgingly so.
Mandel bread is a lot like biscotti. It’s got a tough, crunchy layer from the triple baking. Dotted with nuts or chocolate there is an earthy sweetness to it. It is a pleasure to make when you want to keep your hands busy.
As I sat feeding my girls (almost) the same recipe my great grandmother made for her family, I wondered if maybe I had been passed the baton, next in line for the roll of family historian, hell raiser, and cook.
Great Grandma Bess’s Mandel Bread
Makes approx. 4 dozen cookies from 4 rolls
227g or 1 cup sugar (I used golden caster sugar)
237ml or 1 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract
2 tsp. orange or lemon juice (I prefer orange)
1 tbsp. orange or lemon zest
540g or 4 ½ cups plain white flour
2 tsp. baking powder
100-150g semisweet chocolate chips or roughly chopped nuts
In a large mixing bowl combine eggs and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add oil, vanilla, citrus juice and zest.
Combine the flour and baking powder in a small bowl and gradually add into the egg mixture. Fold in the nuts or chocolate. The dough should be easy to handle, like cookie dough.
Divide the dough evenly into quarters. On a lightly floured surface, using your hands, roll out each quarter of dough to form a log/tube shape – approx. 6cm by 30cm wide by a foot long or so. Place on a greased, parchment, or foil lined baking tray. You should be able to fit two logs per tray.
Place trays into a preheated 160C/325F oven for 30-35 minutes or until lightly golden on top.
Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes, and then cut each log into thin slices at an angle. You should be able to get about 12 pieces from each log, each about 2-3cm thick.
Place each slice back on the tray, and back into the oven to toast for 8-10 minutes, taking care not to let the edges burn! You can pull them out to cool now (twice baked like biscotti) or flip them over and put them back in the oven for another 8-10 minutes for extra crunch.
These are perfect on a Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee. They store in a seal tight canister for up to a week or can also be frozen for later.