Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/9/2009 (3740 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BOSTON - I grew up in Winnipeg, where there was a large Jewish population and where Jewish cuisine has a lot of peculiarities. The appetizer called "unclepasto,’’ for example - a quirky variant of "antipasto,’’ contains scalded tuna, whatever that is. Sandwiches are stuffed with pink cream cheese. A gooey triple-layered cake called a "shmoo torte’’ shows up at every Bar Mitzvah.
And there’s a popular dessert known as "nothings’’ - light, airy cookies resembling popovers or cream puffs, with a gnarled surface like the craters on Mars. In bakeries around Boston, nothings are called "kichlach.’’
My mother claims, wrongly, that nothings are the only thing she makes well, and in my family no Rosh Hashana dinner is complete without them. Nor is the weekly mah jong game, the shivah visit to a bereaved family, the cup of tea after dinner. Nothings are as much a part of the fabric of life as the heavy toile draperies in every window; there was always a crystal bowl of them on the dining room table or the sideboard, primed for a "nosh.’’ (The beauty of nothings is that you could break off a piece of the knobby, craggy top before the company arrived and your mother would never know. You could also delude yourself into thinking they have no calories. They are "nothing,’’ after all. )
As a kid, nothings always seemed magical to me. They have only four ingredients - flour, oil, sugar, and eggs - and you could whip up a batch of them in 10 minutes, or at least my mother could. They have no leavening agent - no baking powder, no baking soda, no yeast - and yet they’d blow up in the oven like golden beach balls. And they are the only dessert I’ve ever seen that you bake by putting in the oven and turning it off. Then you leave them to cool "until tomorrow,’’ according to my mother, who at 86 still makes them every week.
Until recently, I never tried to make them, partly because they seem so old-fashioned and, frankly, because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Nothings, my mother warns, are "temperamental’’ and in Winnipeg nothings are "a competitive sport,’’ recalls Judy Gerstel, a Toronto food writer who also grew up in Winnipeg. "The worst things were to have leaden nothings. ("somethings?’’),’’ she writes in an e-mail. "The biggest sin re nothings: doughy inside.’’
Other sins are burned edges, no air bubbles inside, and - most offensive of all - collapsed nothings. "I recall agonizing on McAdam [Avenue] about getting them to rise,’’ she says.
Back in the day, Jewish cooks followed certain unalterable nothing-making conventions. "You put the eggs in the Mixmaster and beat them for at least 20 minutes: People used to burn out their Mixmasters,’’ according to Toronto’s Norene Gilletz, a Winnipeg-born author of kosher cookbooks and a cooking website, www.gourmania.com. "The dough would literally climb up the beaters and go over the top of the mixer and go all over the place.’’
The heavy beating would develop the gluten in the flour, she says. "The flour would form gluten strands from all the beating. It would give [the dough] structure. The oil would keep them tender.’’ (Nowadays most cooks use food processors, but "you need one that has a strong motor,’’ cautions Gilletz. "A cheap one would not work.’’ )
Last time I was in Winnipeg, I asked my mother to show me how to make them. "They’re easy,’’ she claimed. All you need are 3 eggs, a half-cup of oil, a tablespoon of sugar, and 3/4 cup of flour. You put the eggs in the food processor and "beat the hell out of them.’’
Next comes the oil, through the feed tube. Then the flour-sugar mixture, dropped in one tablespoon at a time.
So what’s so hard about it? "The secret,’’ said my mother, "is the stove.’’
The idea is to preheat the oven to a very high temperature, then let the temperature drop gradually. You do this by keeping the door propped open for a few minutes, then closing it and turning the oven off. The nothings are in the oven all this time. The first blast of heat makes them rise, and letting the temperature drop gradually prevents the tops from burning while setting the shape of the cookie. "The structure won’t collapse. It will be lacy and dry and crisp. And addictive,’’ Gilletz says.
My mother sets her oven to 475 degrees and here’s where things got confusing. She has an old oven with a red indicator light. When the light goes on to indicate the oven has reached the setting, that’s her cue to put the nothings in, leaving the door open a little bit to let cool air in.
"When the light comes on again [indicating the oven is back up to temperature], you close the door, and turn the oven off,’’ she instructed me. "I thought it was crazy, too,’’ she added, seeing that I was dubious. "But it works.’’
It didn’t work for me. For starters, my modern oven, which is just two years old, doesn’t have a red light. I didn’t know how long to keep the door open, or how long to wait before shutting the oven off. I made seven batches and only two came out right. A couple of batches were as flat as sugar cookies, others looked good on the outside but weren’t airy on the inside, and still another tasted right but were too smooth on top, lacking the distinctive craggy texture. Food editor Sheryl Julian and another tester tried it eight times, adjusting the flour and the oven temperature, and every one of them flopped. What’s the problem?
Norene Gilletz’s diagnosis is that my mother’s 22-year-old oven isn’t as well insulated as my newer one. "Today’s ovens hold their heat very, very well,’’ said Gilletz. "The old ones continue to lose their heat.’’
Takeaway message: Set your oven lower than your mother did.
And eat nothings at the source.
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org