by Barbara Sherf
For those of you who don’t know it, a “mitzvah,” in Hebrew, means a good deed. I’ve always loved the word, and I have a friend who calls me “Mitzvah Queen,” a title I am proud to have. The recipe for my holiday Mitzvah Cookies began in early December on Facebook, of all places. I had posted an update about a program I ran at Spring Mill Presbyterian Village, a retirement community in Lafayette Hill, titled “Recipes of Love.”
During the workshop, each woman shared a recipe and the story that went with it. I shared an eggplant dip recipe that my late mother-in-law typically made as part of her lovely Sunday brunches. I told these women how this loving Jewish mother didn’t care that I was raised Catholic; she only cared “that I made her son happy.” I told them how Anne Shapiro taught me the fine art of bringing family and friends together. I shared a tear in the remembering.
Later that night, I posted a brief update about the program on the web, and my former roommate of more than 25 years ago, living in Florida for the past dozen or so years, responded within minutes. She told me that she had been experimenting with her mother’s (Rosemary Casner’s) famous “Kiffle” cookie recipe. (Kiffles are an Eastern European pastry dough rolled paper-thin by hand and filled with assorted sweet fillings. They are pronounced “kee-flees.” The word means “a kiss on the forehead followed by a hug.”)
The Kiffles sounded divine, and I asked for a copy of the recipe. Three days later, I was pleasantly surprised to find the recipe — along with a full page of handwritten notes, diagrams and detailed instructions — in the mail. I couldn’t wait to make Mrs. Casner’s Kiffles. But there was one small problem; our oven was on the blink. It needs a small part that is no longer manufactured, so I needed to find an oven.
The recipe had come on a Thursday, just before a memorial service for a female neighbor, Jackie McKeon, who had passed away three weeks earlier. I was bringing soups and jams to her husband of nearly 60 years, Harry, keeping an eye on him, and visited with the grieving family on the evening after the service. The widower and his son, daughter-in-law and a family friend were playing bridge — a good diversion for sure.
I didn’t want to interrupt their game, but I made a proposition. Tentatively I eyed their double-oven and asked if I could use them the next afternoon in exchange for leaving half of the prized Kiffles behind and cleaning up after myself. I boasted about Mrs. Casner’s famous recipe and how she had made thousands of the sugary treats over the years.
I did not tell them that I had never made them before. They eagerly agreed to the oven-for-cookies exchange and the diversion it would bring. The next afternoon, I entered their Flourtown home, unpacking my radio, pre-made dough, cooking supplies and donning a colorful apron.
“One of the key ingredients to a good Kiffle is playing Christmas music,” I told them as I plugged in my little radio and took over the kitchen. While I rolled the cookie dough out and prepared to put the filling in, we told stories and listened to the music. While the stories were being told, I realized that my dough wasn’t rolling out properly; it was all crumbly and not sticking together in little balls. My Kiffle cookies looked nothing like the diagram. I checked and re-checked the recipe.
Where had I gone wrong? Still, I worked with the dough and told them a story about how I heard their loved one’s laugh in a crowded restaurant two hours from my home while having lunch with my mom. I knew that this couple had a vacation home at the shore not far from the packed eatery, and I went on to tell them how I actually walked through the restaurant to confirm that it was my neighbor, their loved one, Jackie, laughing — and indeed it was. That had been more than a dozen years ago, yet when I told my mom that a neighbor had died, she responded, “You mean the lady with the laugh?”
“Yes,” I said, “the lady with the laugh.”
This opened up a tin full of warm Kiffles as they each shared stories about family trips, good times at the beach and Jackie’s famous meals. We turned the music up a notch and otherwise unplugged for an afternoon of pleasantries and Kiffles. But the cookies didn’t turn out so well — not as well as Mrs. Casner’s, I suspect. Still, they were possibly the best batch of cookies I had ever made or may ever make again. They had gotten me to visit with neighbors for over two hours; to turn Christmas music on that likely wouldn’t have been turned on; and the Kiffle experience created another page in a chapter of “Recipes of Love.”
As I was packing up, Jackie’s husband, Harry, gave me a Thanksgiving apron that hadn’t been used, and he suggested that I put it to good use. I told him that Jackie’s spirit would live on in my cooking — but not necessarily my baking. We all had a good laugh.
About an hour later, my husband and I took a batch of my Kiffles to some friends who had a house full of family and friends over to welcome a new baby into their Jewish family. I congratulated the new grandmom and handed over the cookie tin.
“Oh, Christmas cookies. Thank you,” she said.
“No,” I corrected. “I brought you ‘Mitzvah Cookies’ that are still hot from the oven.”
“Mitzvah Cookies,” said one of the guests. “I never heard of them. How do you make them?”
While sitting next to a cooing baby, I told them how I mixed up some sugar, eggs, butter, flour and a little bit of love and memories on an otherwise dreary wintry afternoon. I shared what I remembered of the actual recipe and added that the key to a good Kiffle was not to worry about the dough, but to turn up the music, share some stories and create your own Recipes of Love.
Barbara Sherf, of Flourtown, is a personal historian currently writing a cookbook about how food creates community. She can be reached at 215-233-8022 or Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.