As I’ve written before, Mother’s Day will always be a bittersweet holiday having lost my mom 8 years ago to cancer. I’ve been thinking a lot about the approaching day and how many of us will be celebrating without moms and grandmothers this year because of coronavirus. Like so many other holidays, carrying on old traditions and starting new ones especially through cooking and food are what have helped me survive.
Back in February, I was honored to be interviewed by Zahra Tangorra (chef and owner of the beloved but now closed Brooklyn restaurant, Brucie) and her mom Bobbie who started a podcast called Processing on the Heritage Radio Network. They decided to air the episode over Mother’s Day this weekend and I had the opportunity to catch up with them recently for an update. I loved talking with this mother/daughter team and appreciated all their thoughtful questions and insights about loss, food and life. You can listen to the podcast titled Lemon Cake here.
I’ve also written a longer essay called On Mother’s Day, Love Loss and a Recipe Box which I’m sharing below, of course not without a recipe. Read down for one of my favorite lemon cakes I made with the girls to celebrate this weekend.
On Mother’s Day: Love, Loss and a Recipe Box
My mom was setting the table for Mother’s Day brunch on May 10th, 1981, when I announced my arrival, sending her into labor and making her a mom for the first time. If my birth hadn’t interrupted the party, I imagine the menu included noodle kugel with cornflake topping and a lox and bagel spread. Grandma Syl brought her chocolate brownies and Grandma Mitzi baked mandel bread. Aunt Nancy prepared a pink Jell-O mold. These family recipes, recorded on index cards, were filed in my mom’s recipe box which I inherited when she passed away eight years ago from kidney cancer.
This year, I am far from alone in celebrating the holiday without my mom. The pandemic caused by COVID-19 means that daughters, mothers and grandmothers all over the world will celebrate in isolation, forced to blow kisses over Facetime, gather with family on Zoom calls, hangout from a stoop or stay in their car for drive-by hellos.
Celebrating my birthday and Mother’s Day on the same day will always be bittersweet. But for my two daughters, ages 5 and 8, it’s their excuse to bring me breakfast in bed. Their planning will begin early as they sneak down to the kitchen to prepare scrambled eggs and chocolate cake. This new tradition, along with some old, will get me through the day.
With my mom’s passing, I also said goodbye to our childhood home in the suburbs of Chicago. Along with precious photos, old letters, and a handwritten speech my mom read me at my wedding, I kept her recipe box. It was shipped back to Brooklyn with her china, silverware, and my grandmothers’ teacups. As I unpacked the boxes, I was devastated to broken glass and china, mirroring the loss of my mom and her belongings. The one item that survived the journey unharmed was her simple wooden recipe box.
The salvaged china pieces are now safely stored in my cabinets while the recipe box sits prominently on my open kitchen shelf. The box itself is unpretentious, splattered and stained with cooking grease from my mom’s own kitchen. Like a treasure chest, the recipes inside span generations including original cards written by mom and grandmothers. Sometimes I’ll take out one of the cards to see my mom’s handwriting, feeling close to her again.
The first card in the box is titled, “Mom and Dad’s 50th, 1998.” The menu celebrating my grandparents wedding anniversary: shrimp filo bundles, mixed greens with stilton cheese, mashed potatoes, beef wellington, grilled vegetables and fudge torte represent a time capsule. I was a senior in high school for the party and remember how much thought went into the menu. My mom researched dishes for weeks, making me, my sister and brother serve as recipe testers. She sent my dad out to the butcher, the fishmonger and wine store. I helped her set the table with china days ahead of the party and was her floral assistant for the arrangements.
My mom hosted elaborate dinner parties to express her love, but actually hated to cook. My parents were therapists and our dinners were often an afterthought. Sunday night was our one family meal. We ordered Lou Malnati’s pizza and ate it cuddled in my parents’ bed, watching Field of Dreams. Every New Year’s Eve, my mom would resolve to be a better meal planner, but her interests were elsewhere. It took raising my own daughters to realize it wasn’t where she chose to focus her energy.
Passover was my mom’s holiday to host and this year marked the first time I did too. Like my mom, I started planning weeks in advance, reaching first for the recipe box. I pulled out the cards for Grandma Mitzi’s Matzo Balls and her brisket made with Lipton Onion Soup Mix, along with Grandma Syl’s Passover Brownies and Chocolate Covered Matzo. I wrote my menu out, made grocery lists, and sent my husband to various stores. I sat down for dinner with my husband and daughters to a table set with my mom’s china, serving my grandmothers’ recipes, while hosting our first cross country Zoom sedar. While we, along with so many other families were forced to celebrate the holiday without those we love, these new traditions seemed to blend perfectly with the old, making all that we’d lost at least in that moment seem forgotten.
This Mother’s Day, my daughters might be the only ones more excited than my mom would have been, knowing they’ll be joined by a baby brother in a few months. When I pang to share such news with my mom, I find comfort in my kitchen. I’ll bake her favorite lemon cake which I imagine she’d serve at a Mother’s Day brunch. The recipe now sits closely to the most recent addition to the box, my daughter Sylvie’s Scrambled Eggs which she’ll make for the occasion. She neatly printed the ingredients and directions for her recipe and filed it under eggs. I am proud knowing that she added a fourth generation of recipes to the box. While this holiday and others will be filled with reminders of those we have lost and the loss of freedom to be with those we love, I find comfort knowing both new traditions and old will help us survive.
Lemon Yogurt Cake
Credit: Adapted from Ina Garten
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tsps baking powder
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt
- 1 1/3 cup sugar divided
- 3 extra large eggs
- 2 tsps lemon zest, from 2 lemons
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice For the Glaze:
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- 2 tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 1/2 by 4 1/4 by 2 1/2-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper. Grease and flour the pan.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into 1 bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the yogurt, 1 cup sugar, the eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it’s all incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester placed in the center of the loaf comes out clean.
3. Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 cup lemon juice and remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.
4. For the glaze, combine the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice and pour over the cake.