How Cooking Connected One Chef with Grandmothers Across the World
From the time I could chew, I spent afternoons in a double-wide trailer with my mother's first husband's mother, a diminutive woman named Ellie who cared for me as if I were her flesh and blood. She always set out the same spread for lunch: flat-iron grilled cheese made with white bread and a single slice of American cheese, dill pickles, salty chips and ice-cold well water.
Year after year, I sat at that checkered-cloth-covered table in Reno, Nevada, and listened to Ellie's stories about arriving at Ellis Island from Italy, raising her 11 younger siblings during the Great Depression and dealing blackjack at the once-famous Harolds Club casino for the likes of Sammy Davis Jr.
That was my introduction to the link between cooking and storytelling, and discovering the tales behind recipes has been the driving force of my career ever since. After attending the Institute of Culinary Education, and then co-founding a Manhattan bakery, a win on the hit Food Network show Chopped in 2016 helped me fund a year-long trip around the world. Instead of spending my mealtimes in restaurants as I traveled, I decided to return to the home kitchen. I missed the warmth of Ellie's table, and how a simple meal and conversation filled my soul. The Grandmother Project was born.
Across nine countries on four continents, I sought out grandmothers willing to share their stories, their kitchens and their recipes. I met these women through friends of friends, extended family and kind strangers. Sometimes I needed translators, sometimes I didn't. We gathered around stoves and talked about love and loss, hardship and grace. Each time, I was reminded of the power of preparing food with others. It is more than a means to nourishment. It's an expression of love that transcends borders. Here are some of my favorite memories from that year abroad, and the delicious desserts we prepared together.
Isabel’s Quadradinhos de Laranja
When I think of Lisbon, the first thing I see in my mind is a splash of yellow. Yellow buildings around every corner, yellow wooden trams snaking their way through narrow cobblestoned streets, and in every window of every pastry shop, a display of yellow-hued sweets.
I asked Isabel about the curious confectionery color palette as she brushed flour off her grandmother's worn, leather-bound recipe book. "It is because of the Catholicism," she said in heavily accented but spunky English. "Many, many years ago, like in the 15th and 16th century, the nuns used the egg whites to starch the wimples [head coverings worn by nuns]. So they used the yolks and lots of sugar in the sweets."
Though Isabel's recipe does use egg whites, she wasn't kidding about the sugar. Her recipe for quadradinhos de laranja, or "little squares of orange," calls for nearly a pound. Meant to be served at teatime, the light, springy cake is certainly sweet, but it is balanced out by fresh orange juice and lots of zest that add some tang to the final product.
Get the recipe: Quadradinhos de Laranja (Little Squares of Orange)
"Enough is the right amount," said Grazia after sifting a generous portion of chestnut flour into a bowl for her castagnaccio, a chestnut cake originally created by peasants who relied on the bountiful chestnuts found all throughout the hills of northern Italy. Chestnuts, called "castagne" in Italian, reach their peak in October and November. They're harvested en masse, dried, and milled into flour to be used year-round.
Castagnaccio is a staple in Grazia's house throughout the chestnut season. Her husband, Gabriel, loves the slightly sweet cake so much that she makes it almost every night in the fall.
The recipe is straightforward, with minimal ingredients, but the toasted pine nuts, plump raisins and fresh rosemary combine with the chestnut flour to create a complex flavor and a firm, chewy texture that's unlike anything else. The chestnut flour creates a silky yet firm torte that's rich without being heavy.
Get the recipe: Castagnaccio (Chestnut Cake)
No experience better represents the spirit of The Grandmother Project than my time with Liba in the small town of Týnec, Czech Republic. Fluent in French, English and her native Czech, Liba was born at the tail end of World War II and spent most of her life living under communist rule.
Liba taught me to make poppyseed koláče, a Czech pastry with a lemon-poppy seed center, on a bitter-cold January day. We shaped enriched dough and set it over the cast-iron stove to rise while she recounted stories of standing in line for bananas, of smuggling in French textbooks and what it was like living through the existence and falling of walls. With much of the world on the precipice of political change, it was an apt time to look back at history and think about the implications of such separation. Because, as Liba said, "It is easy to build walls. But to destroy them is much more difficult."
Get the recipe: Czech Poppy Seed Koláče
Sofy’s Budin de Pan
Argentina was the last country I traveled to during my year abroad, and finding a grandmother proved difficult. After six weeks of empty leads, I turned to Reddit as a last resort. A college student in Washington, D.C., caught my post on r/BuenosAires and messaged her Argentinian grandmother, Sofy.
We first met at a Starbucks, and any nerves we each had were squashed within moments. Sofy spoke English, and soon we were chatting and laughing like old friends. The next day, I went to her home to make budin de pan, Argentina's take on bread pudding.
Budin de pan was originally created when food was scarce and leftovers were not to be wasted. A loaf of day-old bread goes into a blender along with eggs, sour cream, milk, sugar and vanilla. The custard gets poured over a layer of hard caramel, and bakes in a water bath. The final product tastes like a magical mashup of French toast, cheesecake and flan, and according to Sofy, is best served with a cup of coffee and a dollop of dulce de leche.
Get the recipe: Budin de Pan (Bread Pudding)
Ratachanee’s Khanom Tom
The Thai island of Koh Phangan is small, just 48 square miles. A single road traces the western perimeter, with most of the island's hullabaloo clinging to its edge. Just off the street, in an area called Srithanu, Ratachanee spends her days munching on betel quid, a similar pastime to the ritual of chewing tobacco, and selling coffee drizzled with sweetened condensed milk.
It is an unhurried life, and one I didn't learn much about. Even with a translator, Ratachanee didn't say a lot. Instead, she showed me how to prepare khanom tom, a Thai dessert made from glutinous rice flour, fresh coconut and caramelized palm sugar, through a series of gestures. As we stood together, flattening disks of dough and rolling sticky balls of coconut, I wondered if I was intruding, if I'd asked too much of a stranger who was just trying to live her life.
But right as I was getting set to leave, I turned to thank Ratachanee for her time. She had tears in her eyes and a slight smile on her face. I asked my translator if she was OK, worried that something had gone wrong.
After their exchange, the translator turned to me. "Ratachanee says that she is very shy, and that she was nervous about having you here. Then she told me that normally, she has three children. But today, she had four."
Get the recipe: Khanom Tom (Coconut Balls)
This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine May 2021.
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