My Mother-in-Law's Recipe for a Sweet New Year

Jan Dale's cookbook i

Jan Dale's stained, dog-eared cookbook is full of notes, recipe variations, and a few mysteries for her son-in-law to unravel. Scroll down to find a recipe for honey cake -- an essential Rosh Hashana treat -- as well as mandel bread and poppy seed cookies. Maya Silver hide caption

itoggle caption Maya Silver
Jan Dale's cookbook

Jan Dale's stained, dog-eared cookbook is full of notes, recipe variations, and a few mysteries for her son-in-law to unravel. Scroll down to find a recipe for honey cake -- an essential Rosh Hashana treat -- as well as mandel bread and poppy seed cookies.

Maya Silver
Jan Dale and Maya Silver i

Jan Dale (right) shares a moment with her granddaughter, Maya Silver, in this photo from 1999. Craig Terkowitz hide caption

itoggle caption Craig Terkowitz
Jan Dale and Maya Silver

Jan Dale (right) shares a moment with her granddaughter, Maya Silver, in this photo from 1999.

Craig Terkowitz

About the Author

Marc Silver is an editor at NPR.org and a baker. The photos are by his daughter, Maya Silver, who couldn't wait to taste his version of Nana's mandel bread and mun cookies.

As Jan Dale lay dying in a Boston hospital last year, she sent one of her daughters to her apartment. "I made some mandel," she said. "Bring the tin." We sat with Jan and enjoyed her crumbly, cinnamon-scented cookies. I remember thinking, "This is the last time we'll have this pleasure."

But I was wrong. Even though Jan, my wife's mother, passed away, she will be with us Friday night when we celebrate the Jewish New Year — and not just in our memories. We'll be enjoying her favorite desserts.

A few days after Jan died, we went through her possessions, and there was her go-to cookbook, stained and dog-eared. The book is called Our Favorites ... with Cocktails and Coffee. The spiral-bound book contains recipes from women in the Hadassah chapter she belonged to. It appears to have been printed in 1980, but it's redolent of the 1950s, when many of the women would have been raising families and cooking dinner every night.

I felt as if I'd found the Holy Grail. The cookbook has a recipe for mandel bread — Yiddish for "almond bread." That's the Jewish version of biscotti, a twice-baked cookie named for the almonds mixed into the batter. I also found recipes for Jan's excellent poppy seed cookies and her moist, flavorful honey cake. On Rosh Hashana, it is customary to eat sweets, particularly those made with honey, to symbolize the sweetness of the new year.

My mother-in-law was not a gourmet cook. Nor was she one of those cooks who will devote hours to a dish. When her three daughters were growing up, she'd pour ketchup over noodles ... and voila, spaghetti with tomato sauce. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But as I read her cookbook, I could see that Jan was not just a follow-the-recipe cook. The book is filled with notes in her Palmer-perfect handwriting, as well as alternate versions of recipes on slips of paper. But which version did she prefer? I had other questions: "Why did you change the oil quantity from one cup to half a cup in the mandel bread?" (Probably she'd answer, "Who needs all that oil?") Why did you write "wash and drain" on the poppy seed recipe, then cross the words out? And then there were the missing elements — like a pan size for the honey cake. She most likely had a cake pan she'd always use, but that sure didn't help me.

Through trial and error, and by consulting with other cooks, I solved some of the mysteries. For example, Jan called for "one tablespoon of baking powder" for the mandel bread. When I took a batch to my mother, she took one bite and said, "Too metallic — how much baking powder did you use?" With her guidance, I reduced the amount to two teaspoons (although I'll never know why Jan called for the larger amount). Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible and baking blogger, helped solve the "wash and drain" instruction for poppy seeds. Apparently, folks used to think that washing poppy seeds would remove the bitterness associated with them. But in fact, poppy seeds quickly turn rancid once they're opened, and washing won't help. The solution, says Beranbaum, is to store poppy seeds in the freezer for freshness. That would have appealed to Jan. I figure someone told her about washing seeds, she wrote the instruction down, then thought, "Who needs that extra step?" and crossed it out.

I plan to try more recipes that Jan loved, and I'm sure I'll encounter glitches and confusing instructions. I don't mind that at all. I feel as if I'm having a conversation with my mother-in-law about something both of us love — cooking.

As for the desserts I made, I asked my kids to judge. "They taste just like Nana's," they said. "Only not quite as good."

I guess there are some ingredients that only a grandmother can bring into the mix.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Poppy Seed Cookies

Poppy seed cookies
Maya Silver

The thing that surprised me most about this recipe is the cost of poppy seeds — a couple of bucks for the quarter-cup called for in the recipe. Jan was a woman who thought that if you paid more than 99 cents for a pint of blueberries, you were a sucker. Yet she splurged on poppy seeds. Go figure. Guess she liked the nice crunch that the seeds add to this soft and homey cookie dough.

Jan also called these "mun cookies" — mun is German and Yiddish for poppy seeds, which were an integral part of European baking but never quite achieved the crossover success of chocolate chips and raisins. Mun cookies can be thick or thin. Jan's were rounded and pillowy — and incredibly yummy.

Makes 25-30 cookies

1/2 cup oil

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

3 cups flour

1/4 cup poppy seeds

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Juice of one orange

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix oil and sugar. Beat eggs slightly. Add along with orange juice and beat.

Mix dry ingredients and poppy seeds. Add to batter, and mix well.

Drop by tablespoon on a greased cookie sheet.

Bake 20 minutes or so until golden. (Jan suggests you check after 15 minutes.)

Jan's Mandel Bread

Jan's Mandel
Maya Silver

"You'll learn how your mother-in-law came up with the recipe she liked if you try the different versions," advised cookbook author Pam Anderson. So I did. And I learned. The version that called for one-third of a cup of orange juice made the dough a little too crumbly. But the following recipe is pretty darn close to Jan's excellent mandel bread (or "mandel," as she called it).

Jan did not include the instruction to bake the cookies a second time after slicing the loaf. I'm sure she would say, "Too much trouble." The result is a softer cookie that my kids like a lot. But I prefer a slightly crisper cookie, so I do a second bake, either at 250 degrees or 325 degrees for 20 minutes (flipping the slices over after 10 minutes.)

The temperature depends on how toasty you'd like the final cookie to be. One final note: Jan sometimes used maraschino cherries in the recipe. I decided to substitute dried cherries, and while they didn't add much color to the final product, they do provide a nice burst of chewy cherry flavor.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

3 eggs

1/2 cup oil

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons orange or lemon juice

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup almond slices

1 cup dried fruit (optional)

1 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Cinnamon-sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

By hand or mixer, beat the eggs, oil and sugar into a yellow, creamy-looking mixture.

Whisk in vanilla and juice.

Combine dry ingredients and mix in by hand. (Note: I substitute 1 1/2 cups of King Arthur's mild-tasting white wheat flour for regular flour — it adds fiber but doesn't alter the taste.) The dough should be firm and a little stiff, with the consistency of play dough. If dough is too moist to handle, add up to 1/2 cup more flour.

Knead in almonds and dried fruit (golden raisins or cherries get my vote) and/or chocolate chips.

Knead into a ball. Slice the ball into four wedges.

Roll each wedge into a rope about 12-14 inches long, 1 inch in diameter.

Prepare two baking sheets with foil. Spray foil with oil.

Place two ropes on each sheet, about four inches apart. Sprinkle each rope of dough with cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Bake for half an hour. Remove and let cool.

Reduce oven heat to 325 degrees or 250 degrees, depending on your crispness preference.

When the loaves are cool, slice on a diagonal. You'll get about a dozen slices per loaf.

Lay the slices flat on the foil of the baking pan. Sprinkle again with cinnamon-sugar.

Return to oven for the second baking of 20 minutes. (Flip slices after 10 minutes.) Or, if like my mother-in-law, you don't want to bother, just dig in. They're delicious.

Jan would store her mandel bread slices in a tin, on sheets of aluminum foil. That's how she brought them to our house when she'd visit.

Eleanor's Honey Cake

Eleanor was one of Jan's good friends. The ingredients for this recipe were handwritten on an old letter from a synagogue. Honey cake is a traditional dessert for the Jewish high holidays. The idea is that it'll usher in a sweet new year.

1 cup sugar

4 tablespoons oil

4 eggs

1 cup strong coffee (add 2 to 3 tablespoons of instant coffee to hot water)

1 cup honey

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons cinnamon

1 1/2 cups floured raisins and/or other dried fruit*

1/4 cup slivered almonds (optional)

Jan was minimalist in her directions: "Beat. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour." For those (like me) who crave more directions, I consulted with other similar recipes.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine hot water and instant coffee. Add oil and honey. Whisk.

Add dry ingredients and beat with electric mixer. You'll have a liquidy, mocha-colored batter. Stir in dried fruit.

Pour batter into large tube pan or 9-by-13-inch pan. If you want to use nuts, spray the bottom of the tube pan with oil and put them on the bottom, or sprinkle them on top of the batter in rectangular pan.

Bake for one hour (until a toothpick comes out clean).

*Note: Gently sprinkle the dried fruit with a scant teaspoon of flour. This keeps them from sinking into the batter. Don't use too much flour or it may not bake with the cake.

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