A Tribute to Grandma’s Sweets for the New Year

Honey cake (above) and teiglach were the highlight of visits to an otherwise distant grandmother. Recipes are below.

It would be dishonest to claim for myself those warm memories so rich in Yiddishkeit that are prominently featured in the familiar genre known as Jewish nostalgia. Like the writers of those stories and memoirs, I, too, had Jewish grandparents — two sets of them — but they did not provide me with an endless source of Jewish wisdom, nor illuminate Jewish life for me in any special way.

The painful truth is that nothing in my Jewish past, growing up in the suburbs of Boston, had anything but a negative impact on shaping my attitudes about Jewish identity — except for the memory of my grandmother’s teiglach and honey cake, which I seemed to eat on alternate Sundays for the whole of my childhood when we would visit my Dorchester grandparents.

There in the darkened front room of her apartment she would bring to me, from some hidden corner of her humble kitchen, the sweets that no one since has ever been able to duplicate. Of course, I did not know that then — but I did know that the world my grandparents came from was not my world, and I felt its strangeness.

Others in the family may remember those visits differently, but what my young eyes saw were the shabby two-storey wooden-frame buildings that lined the labyrinth of narrow streets, the musty hallways and the darkened rooms within, the bagel factory across the way, and the kosher butcher’s where sometimes you could see the unplucked fowl hanging upside-down in the front store window.

This was to me another country — and to pretend otherwise would be to deny the historical reality of that era. My landscape and that of my friends was fashioned in Hollywood and Coke ads and in the adventures of Henry Aldrich, the all-American boy; not in the Jewish sections of Dorchester. No amount of sentimentality can change the fact that neither my grandparents nor I could cross the gulf that our different worlds created. They could not share their past with me, for that was closed to them — in what way I did not then understand — but, nevertheless, their past hung about them… in their manner, their language and their way of life, alien to an American girl from the upwardly mobile Jewish suburbs of the 1940s.

As I know now, the terrible truth of that time is that while I ate my grandmother’s sweet offerings and stored away the memories, which suggested a quite different Jewish experience from my own, Grandma’s past was being obliterated in the village of Skapishok in Lithuania where she was born and where Jews had lived for centuries, perhaps for 700 years.

It would be wrong to suggest that growing up as a Jew in the suburbs of America in the 1940s and 1950s was so terrible — it would seem a paradise for the Jews of Europe and elsewhere — but the experience was not a positive one in the context of American society. Few, if any, girls then were named Shoshana. Wearing a yarmulke (who ever heard the word kippa?) in public places was unheard of and who built sukkas on college campuses, let alone in one’s backyard?

With hindsight I know that there was a more meaningful Jewish existence than the one my youthful eyes perceived, and I also know that others of my time were better able to withstand the pressures of what seemed to be a more attractive non-Jewish world. But I know, too, that for my generation, growing up Jewish was not the celebration of ethnic diversity that is now officially, if not wholly, embraced by North Americans.

These are the assorted memories I recall, as if from yesterday, in the fall and at the Jewish New Year. When we lived on a remote northern farm on a small island by the shores of the North Atlantic, this was the time we gathered honey from our hives to use for the coming winter and to make Grandma’s teiglach and a version of her honey cake, as I still do today… a tribute and thanks for her gifts to me.

Grandma’s Teiglach

Makes about 24

While teiglach is unique to Lithuanian Jews, made for every happy occasion from Rosh Hashanah to weddings and brits, Grandma’s version is unique to her hometown and the area around it. This teiglach has a few raisins tucked into each piece of dough, like an extra sweet surprise, and the finished balls are always rolled in coconut. Grandma, like most grandmas of her day, were thrifty — nothing was wasted. Every drop of honey syrup was saved to use in making honey cake.

For the syrup

1 pound honey (1½ cups)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water

For the dough

4 eggs
¼ cup oil
1 teaspoon baking powder, scant
1 tablespoon sugar
2½ cups flour or enough to make a dough not too stiff
Raisins
Coconut

1) Combine syrup ingredients and heat in wide-mouth 2-gallon pot.

2) Make dough by beating eggs, stirring in oil and adding all the dry ingredients.

3) Roll out dough and cut into strips (about 24), adding 2 or 3 raisins to the end of each strip. Wind them into small balls and when syrup is boiling, drop the balls into syrup.

4) Boil for about 40–50 minutes, turning balls with along-handled fork occasionally until they are a rich golden brown. Turn off heat and let them sit for about a half hour to absorb the syrup. Drain, saving the syrup to use in honey cake. (Recipe below.)

5) When slightly cooled, roll balls in shredded coconut.

Better-Than-Grandma’s Honey Cake

Years ago, when I wrote a newspaper column for the Boston Jewish Times (until the owner made aliyah to Israel), I reviewed a cookbook called “The Taste of Shabbos: The Complete Sabbath Cookbook” (1987), a project of the Aish HaTorah women’s organization. It was here that I found the honey cake I sought, better than Grandma’s but in the same sweet spirit.

It’s so good you will want to make it often; not just on Rosh Hashanah. In the original version, it’s called “Old-Fashioned Honey Cake,” and what gives it its distinctive flavor is the addition of chocolate, cinnamon and coffee. (You couldn’t lose, could you?)

Although the book is out-of-print, look for it from online sources. Last year, I was able to purchase one for my daughter-in-law .

2 eggs
½ cup plus1 tablespoon cooking oil
¾ cups honey (or leftover teiglach syrup)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cocoa
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose unbleached white flour
1 cup strong coffee, cooled

1) Pre-heat oven to 375° F.

2) Generously grease a 9 x 12 inch baking dish. (I prefer to use an angel food cake pan.) Beat eggs, stir in oil, honey (if you add honey in the same measuring cup you used for the oil, it will slide right out) and sugar. Beat in dry ingredients, alternating with the coffee.

3) Pour into baking dish or cake pan and bake for 45–65 minutes or until a sharp knife comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake. Be sure to cover cake with tin foil when it starts to brown. Cool. Remove from pan.

Jo Ann Gardner lives in the Adirondacks where she and her husband maintain a small farm with extensive gardens. Her latest book is “Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants.” She blogs for about food for Mother Earth News. She can be reached via her website www.joanngardnerbooks.com

A Tribute to Grandma’s Sweets for the New Year

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