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jewish food

My Husband’s Grandmother Cooked in Yiddish

grandmas-cheesecake

A few years before my husband Adam’s grandma passed away, we started asking for some of her recipes so we could record them and continue to enjoy them on holidays. Grandma Jean was the quintessential old world Jewish grandmother. Tiny, with a thick Polish accent, her world centered around food and family. She cooked mostly old-world Ashkenazi dishes, and was very serious about them.

The first Rosh Hashanah Adam and I spent together was in Rio Grande City, in south Texas near the Mexico border. Since none of our friends had ever attended a Jewish holiday celebration, we decided to cook some traditional recipes for them. And since no Rosh Hashanah would be complete without apple cake, Adam called up his grandma to get her recipe. The conversation went like this:

Adam: “Hi grandma, can I get your apple cake recipe from you? We want to cook it for Rosh Hashanah.”

Grandma Jean: “How wonderful. Put Amanda on the phone and I’ll tell her how to make it.”

Adam: “It’s OK, grandma, you can give it to me.”

Grandma Jean: “No, I think it’s better I should give it to Amanda.”

Adam: “Grandma, I’m going to be making it. Give me the recipe.”

Grandma Jean: “OK, tell Amanda this is how she should make the cake. First… ”

As she proceeded to dictate the recipe to him, she said that for the topping, we should “farfelize the dough.”

“Farfelize?” Adam asked. “With a hand grater,” she answered. We made the dough and grated it on top, as she had instructed.

Some time later, Grandma Jean gathered a few of her grandkids, kids and kids-by-association together to give an informal class on how to make her cheesecake, which was a staple at birthday gatherings. Although she was skeptical that men would be useful, she grudgingly allowed Adam and his dad to attend the session.

I should mention that Grandma Jean’s cheesecake wasn’t for the faint of heart. It was an incredibly dense, rich affair–I think an entire cooked cheesecake must have weighed five pounds, and it had an almost savory taste to it. The ingredients were enough to make a person lactose intolerant: The crust alone contained eggs, sour cream and butter, and the filling contained even more eggs, butter, sour cream, cream cheese AND farmer’s cheese.

I was the dedicated scribe of the class, assigned to write down measurements and steps. It wasn’t easy. Like all great cooks, Grandma Jean knew this recipe by heart, and everything seemed to be estimated, so when she said, “After you add the flour and egg, shit and mix the sour cream, baking powder and vanilla,” I interrupted her.

“Excuse me, Grandma. Shit and mix?”

“Yes, shit and mix it and knead the dough,” she repeated, and swiftly moved on.

We all laughed a little, but Grandma Jean was a serious teacher and was watching our every move.

I recently stumbled across both of the recipes, and I remembered the instructions both to “farfelize” and to “shit and mix.” Clearly, these were Yiddish terms of some sort. But what did they mean?

If “farfel” sounds to you like something you’d feed your pet, you’re not alone. But it turns out that farfel is tiny pasta pieces made from egg dough. So when Grandma Jean told us to “farfelize the dough,” she was telling us to grate it into shapes approximating farfel, which of course neither of us had ever eaten.

Decoding “shit and mix” took some more research, but as far as I can tell, it’s probably a variant of the Yiddish term shitteryne, which means, roughly, to add a little of this and a little of that.

As much as I warmly snicker over these terms, they also make me wistful. Adam and I grew up with grandparents who spoke Yiddish, and sprinkled words throughout their conversation naturally. We retained very little except for the most colorful and popular of these terms, and Yiddish, as that generation knew it, is a dying language.

I love that we’ll be able to pass on to our kids these recipes containing two Yiddish words that mystified and bemused us for so many years. I’m not going to edit the recipes, either. When our kids get old enough to wonder, they can look up the words for themselves. Perhaps they’ll even be inspired to write the guidebook to Yiddishisms in cooking.

The crust recipe is for two cheesecakes.  The filling recipe is for one cheesecake. Double the filling recipe if you are making two cheesecakes. If not, you can make the dough into cookies.

Grandma Jean’s Old World Cheesecake

Crust ingredients:

¼ lb. Butter (1 stick)

4 oz sugar (1/2 cup)

8 oz. Flour (2 cups)

1 egg, beaten

1 T. sour cream

1 tsp. (generous) baking powder

1 tsp. vanilla

Filling ingredients:

3 eggs, separated

1 whole egg

1 ½ lb. farmer cheese

8 oz. cream cheese

1 tsp. vanilla

¾ sugar (more or less—to taste)

18 oz. Sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350

Start by making the crust.

Mix together butter and sugar until blended.  Add flour and egg.  Shit and mix sour cream, baking powder, vanilla.  Knead dough.  Add more flour if the dough is too soft.

Generously grease two springform pans (one if you are only making one cheesecake).  Roll out the dough, and place into pans, making sure that the dough goes up about ½” around the sides.

Now make the filling (remember to double the ingredients if you are making two cheesecakes).

Beat egg whites until stiff on highest speed.  Mix together farmer cheese, cream cheese, and egg yolks.  If using an electric mixer, put on “mix” not “beat.”  Add vanilla and sugar.  Fold in egg whites.  Mix in sour cream.  Pour mixture over crust.

Beat another egg, and put in a bit of sugar.  Brush lightly over the top of cake.

Bake for one hour, until the top is golden brown.


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