In February of 2008 I was living in Nashville, finishing up graduate school at Vanderbilt University. One Friday morning in February I boarded a plane bound for Chicago, heading to my parents’ house to surprise them for Shabbat. My mother had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer, and on the phone she sounded worn out and depressed. An automatic fare alert had notified me that I could get amazingly cheap tickets to Chicago for the weekend, and on a whim I decided to go.
In the days before my trip I made up an elaborate plan. My uncle would pick my up from the airport and drive me home. I planned the menu and coordinated with a family friend who went grocery shopping for me, and left the groceries at our next door neighbor’s house for me to retrieve when I arrived.
Soon I was standing with my uncle on my parents front porch, knocking on the door and waiting nervously for my mother’s reaction. She answered the door in pajamas, looking gaunt and exhausted. She wasn’t wearing her glasses, and at first didn’t recognize me. When she realized who I was she kept saying, “Tamar? But what are you doing here?” Then she hugged hard, and said, “Oh, I was just lying here wishing you were here.”
All afternoon she kept telling me how glad she was that I had come, reaching out and holding my hand or rubbing my shoulder. She was still feeling the effects of the chemo, and she spent most of the day lying on the couch with her eyes closed, chatting with me as I cooked our Friday night dinner. It was strange to cook without her help — by that point I was already a hostess in my own right, but whenever I returned to my parents’ house, I was accustomed to cooking alongside my mother. It was the first time I could remember when she didn’t do any work for the meal.
Choosing the menu had been a challenge. Many foods had become unappealing to my mom during chemo. Eventually I settled on some family standards — gazpacho, Spanikopita, beet salad with goat cheese and spinach, and for dessert, a pareve pear and pistachio cake.
Dinner came out beautifully, and I have never been so happy to be sitting at a Friday night table with my parents. The big hit of the evening was the pear and pistachio cake. For months my mom hadn’t been interested in anything sweet, but on that night she ate two pieces, and kept everything down. A small, but meaningful triumph to a daughter who had been feeling so helpless for so long.
Just two weeks later we found out that my mom’s cancer had gotten stronger. She passed away seven months after that surprise Shabbat. Looking back, making that meal is one of the most meaningful and important memories I have from that whole painful year. I make the pear and pistachio cake regularly, and every time I make it I think of that day I surprised her, and how she said, “Oh, I was just lying here wishing you were here.”
Pear and Pistachio Cake
For Bowl A:
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon allspice or cardamom
For Bowl B:
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
3 pears, cores removed, diced into half-inch pieces (don’t bother peeling the pears)
1 cup pistachios (shelled)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a Bundt pan with cooking spray.
1) Mix all the ingredients for bowl A together.
2) Mix all the ingredients for bowl B together.
3) Combine wet ingredients with dry with a spoon or fork. Keep in mind that this is a dry batter, so just make sure you get all the flour mixed with the oil. It should have a streusel texture, so clumps are okay. Don’t be afraid to use your hands to mix things.
4) Spread the batter into the greased Bundt pan.
5) Bake in 350F oven for 65-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Variation: Replace the pears with apples and the pistachios with walnuts for a delicious apple cake.