This year marks the fourteenth year that my husband and I have hosted Rosh Hashanah together. Our tradition started in Boston, where I was in grad school at the time. It was too hard to fly back to be with our families in the middle of the week with our busy schedules so we gathered our closest friends in our home in Cambridge. I remember hosting that first holiday and the daily phone calls to my Grandma Mitzi, who was back in Chicago. She coached me through preparing our family recipes (brisket, rice and noodles, mandel bread) which she could recite off the top of her head. She was going through cancer treatment at the time and I wanted so badly to be back in her kitchen, helping her prepare meals for our family. I cherished those phone calls and knew how proud she was of her matriarch in training.
The following year, I was deep into midterms and started learning the benefits of cooking ahead and freezing as a means to prep for a big dinner. I had the added pressure of hosting my soon to be in laws for the first time who had flown in for the holiday so prepared almost the entire meal a week in advance. A couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, I received a call from my family that my Grandma Mitzi had been hospitalized and that I needed to fly home to say goodbye. I was completely devastated. I returned to Chicago and left my Rosh Hashanah meal behind for my husband (then boyfriend) to serve and host his family and our friends.
As hard as it was to say goodbye, I felt so lucky that I had taken the time to learn the ways of the kitchen and those unwritten family recipes from my Grandma. She was the ultimate hostess, cooking for dozens on a regular basis, always with a long telephone cord wrapping around her body as she moved through the kitchen gossiping with her girlfriends on the phone.
We’ve continued hosting Rosh Hashanah every year since. Eleven years ago this weekend I was preparing to host 25 friends in our small apartment in Brooklyn when on our walk back from services my husband proposed on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and our Rosh Hashanah dinner turned into a surprise engagement party. This year we hosted our biggest gathering yet, celebrating the New Year with four generations. For me Rosh Hashanah has always been about creating community together inside our home especially during these transient times in our lives. Our gatherings are always a blend of family and friends and the greatest celebration of health, happiness and traditions both old and new. I am just so grateful that I took the time to learn some of those family recipes that never make it into a cookbook and look forward to one day soon when I start passing them on to my own two daughters.
Grandma Mitzi’s Thin Mandel Bread
1/2 cup butter
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
3 cups pecan halves (or walnuts)
Stage 1. Mix butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla, then sifted dry ingredients, finally add nuts. Mix thoroughly until combined. Spray foil pans (8×3 ¾ x 2 ½) with Pam and divide batter evenly. Bake at 350 for 35 min. Invert on rack to cool. Cover with foil and freeze. Stage 2: When ready to serve, remove from freezer and while frozen, slice thing with serrated knife. Brown on cookie sheet at 400 6-8 minutes.
(My Grandma would always say, Don’t leave the kitchen while the mandel brot are cooking, they toast quickly!)