Seeker of Lost Recipes and Restorer of Dreams
Judy Bart Kancigor
A&E’s Dog the Bounty Hunter tracks down fugitives and brings them to justice. The History Detectives on PBS search for clues to unlock mysteries of the past. Just call me the Cookery Sleuth, Seeker of Lost Recipes and Restorer of Dreams.
Recently, after giving a talk on Jewish cooking at Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton, California, Betty Miller of Brea approached me and asked if I had ever heard of a cookie her Hungarian grandmother used to make. She pronounced it “pa-GAR-chil” and described a dough containing cream cheese and hard-cooked egg yolks.
None of my Hungarian cookbooks contained Betty’s elusive cookie. An internet search revealed recipes for “pogachels,” – the word apparently just means “biscuits” in Hungarian – but they were biscuits, not cookies, nor did they contain egg yolks. At least the spelling mystery was solved! Since the cookies Betty remembered were raised and kind of puffy, it made sense that her grandmother could have used the term “biscuit” to describe them.
I found Hungarian pogascas, cookies calling for hard-cooked egg yolks, but no cream cheese. I sent Betty the recipe, suggesting she substitute cream cheese for half the butter. Armed with that recipe and similar ones she obtained from her mother and great-aunt Etta, Betty embarked on the great pogachel bakeoff experiment and invited me to come and sample her results.
“I loved my grandmother,” she reminisced as we sat in her living room, waiting for the cookies to cool. “Her cooking was to die for. Every once in a while I think of something she made and my mouth puckers up.”
Betty’s mother, Belle Noar, was a good cook, she said, but couldn’t come close to her grandmother, who came to live with the family after her husband died when Betty was just a child.
“We had these down cushions,” Betty recalled, “and my grandmother would drape white linen towels over them to cool her cakes on. The cake would bake really high and fall over the edge of the pan, and we’d break off the edges. For years she’d say, ‘Who did that?’ but I think she really wanted us to do it. We would massacre that cake!
“And she was a fanatic about cleanliness. She wouldn’t let me help her in the kitchen, but I liked to watch. If you put a glass down, she would immediately wash it with kosher soap, dry it and put it back.”
As we tasted the different versions, Betty’s eyes lit up. “These are the closest to my grandmother’s,” she pronounced. Another memory restored.
I conducted a similar experiment with cookie recipes given to me by two relatives. Each remembered lovingly the poppy seed cookies of their youth.
David Miller, my cousin Vicki’s husband, said his Grandma Mollie used to make them for the holidays. “She knew that I loved them and would always make sure that I went home with a private stash,” he recalled. “When I was away at summer camp or college, she would always send me a tin of them that would get devoured in seconds.”
When David proposed to Vicki, he gave her Grandma Mollie’s engagement ring, which was given to her by her husband almost eighty years before. The memory of his beloved grandmother was all wrapped up in that cookie.
Sheilah Cohen’s mother-in-law Sally was famous for her poppy seed cookies too, and when I looked at the two recipes, they were astonishingly similar. I tried them both, but frankly, neither one worked. Both were too soft to roll and pointed up the difficulty in trying to re-create those moments from the past.
Our grandmas sifted flour – they had to! Pre-sifted flour didn’t become available until the early 1960s. And those recipes called for glasses of flour – but which glass?
I consulted David’s mother, Rita Miller, and learned that her mother used – what else – a yahrzeit glass.
“I have my mother’s original scrap of paper that the recipe was scribbled on, and looking at it after all these years, I came to realize that she not only used a yahrzeit glass for a measuring cup,” she said, “but for a tablespoon she used her soupspoon, which was an old-fashioned European-style spoon and is larger than a standard tablespoon measure. I also remember that she sometimes used peanut oil, and when I tried that, it definitely made a difference.”
After experimenting with both recipes, I settled on four workable versions and sent four samples each to David in New York and to Sheilah in St. Louis. Amazingly, each picked the recipe closest to the other’s as the one they remember! The poppy seed cookie recipe below is a composite of both.
This “cookie” is not overly sweet and really more like a cracker. But go ahead and try eating just one!
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman) and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
Betty Miller’s Pogachel (Hungarian cookies)
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
2 large hard-cooked egg yolks
2 tablespoons whiskey
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Cream butter, cream cheese and sugar together with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until smooth. Pass the egg yolks through a sieve and beat into the mixture with the whiskey. Stir the flour, baking powder and salt together. Reduce the speed to medium-low and slowly beat in the flour mixture just until combined. Refrigerate the dough overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly grease.
3. Roll dough 1/4-inch thick and cut out 2 1/2-inch circles. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. Bake until barely beginning to brown at the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 3 to 4 dozen
Grandma Mollie Weiser’s/Salley Cohen’s Poppy Seed Cookies
from Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons peanut (Mollie’s) or vegetable (Sally’s) oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium-size bowl. Set it aside.
2. Beat the eggs, oil, sugar, poppy seeds, and vanilla with an electric mixer on medium speed until thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, beating until it is fully incorporated. The dough will be very sticky.
3. Roll the dough out between two pieces of waxed or parchment paper until it is 1/8-inch thick. Without removing the paper, pile the sheets onto a baking sheet and freeze them until firm, about 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
Remove a sheet of dough from the freezer, remove the paper, and cut it into shapes with a 2-inch round cookie cutter. Reroll and cut out the scraps. Repeat with the remaining dough.
5. Place the cookies an inch apart on the prepared baking sheets and bake, two sheets at a time, on the bottom third and top third oven racks, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through, until the cookies are nicely browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the cookies with a spatula and let them cool on wire racks. Makes about 8 dozen