I can’t quite recall what I expected of middle age, but it didn’t involve endless worry: The precarious health of beloved relatives; the anxiety of maintaining our financial well being; the challenge of bringing shalom bayit to our nuclear family.
It is this last issue, “a peaceful home,” and the parenting woes that accompany us through many dinners that brought our family to the shrink’s couch. The therapist looked at us kindly. He’s heard our stories before. What we need — the therapist counseled — is more fun! We should mark up our calendar with regularly scheduled joyful experiences, which will serve as landing pads amid the generalized chaos of typical family life.
With the holiday of Chanukah nearing, I feel a spark of inspiration. A Family Cooking Project. We will fry. We will not cry or yell. Or pinch. Or punch — with the notable exception of our doughnut dough, on which we may release all aggressions. I take it as a providential sign when The Wall Street Journal runs a piece on the healing powers of cooking, on how some health clinics organize cooking courses to help “soothe stress, build self-esteem and curb negative thinking by focusing the mind on following a recipe.”
That evening, I sing out a holy mantra from my 1980s youth. “Time to make the donuts,” I call out. No one stirs. Of course, by donuts, I mean sufganiot, the round, fluffy discs often filled with jelly and powdered with sugar. During Chanukah, these confections are popular in New York’s kosher bakeries and groceries, and in Israel, they are more prevalent than latkes. Sufganiot combine at least two culinary traditions: the jam-filled pastry of Ashkenazi Jews, sometimes called ponchkes (Claudia Roden in her “Book of Jewish Food” refers to these as “carnival doughnuts”), and smaller fritters of the Sephardic Jews such as the bumuelos, which are dipped in syrup.
To my palate, these donuts are a miracle of modern Chanukah. Dusted with sugar, they suggest the beauty of unsullied snow. Also, in keeping with the holiday’s theme, sufganiot are laden in oil, but, unlike latkes, they are as light and springy as a sponge.
The only problem is that despite two summonses to the kitchen, my daughter Talia, who is 12, and a frequent baker on her own, is the only one washing her hands. Jeremy hasn’t yet looked up from his work, and my son Joel, age 10, is exclaiming, that he’s very sorry, but he can’t participate. Jeremy asks if Joel remembers the moral of the Little Red Hen. (Spoiler alert: The hen doesn’t share with unhelpful companions.)
In the entryway of our small kitchen, I wrap a white apron around Talia’s neck, one she received from a JCC class, and choose a green one decorated with images of pasta for Joel. Talia objects. Tiny globs of flour hang off the white apron, whose logo is pealing from repeated use. “That one’s for you baby,” she says to Joel. The nickname alone ignites wars in our household. A skirmish ensues. “And we’re off!” Jeremy announces.
The project soon settles into a cheerful rhythm, with everyone except for me, the high-strung director, apparently enjoying the activities. I am barking out orders, my blood pressure rising, even as Talia uncaps the vanilla and says, “Joely, smell. It smells like Chanukah!” She laughs. “I’m already having fun,” she says. Just the slightest note of sarcasm creeps into her voice.
We are attempting to prepare the recipe for Israeli doughnuts in Faye Levy’s “1,000 Jewish Recipes.” It includes grated lemon, a flavor I adore, and a culinary endeavor Talia likes. We are halving the recipe, which turns out to be just the right amount for a family of four. What doesn’t turn out to be just right is the yeast I purchased from our local supermarket. It doesn’t bubble nicely after 10 minutes in a sugary solution, and an hour or two after our project is left to double in size, Jeremy says, “May I make a comment? Our dough is dead.”
We roll it out anyway, craft two-inch circles and fry it up. Jeremy terms our pastries, “dotzuhs” or “monuts.” They are the donuts that did not rise. They are small, misshapen, brownish in color. But the flavor hints of citrus and passes muster with Talia, our most discerning critic. We slather some jam on them rather than wasting effort injecting them with a piping bag. We each eat two, admitting defeat, acknowledging disappointment, but savoring the sweetness anyway. We can always try again.
Elicia Brown’s column appears monthly. Email: email@example.com.