A master teaches lessons about bread -- and life


THE OTHER DAY I learned how to make mandel bread - a sweet, biscotti-style bread. My teacher was Marion Wolhandler, who in her 84 years has baked a few loaves of mandel bread and has made a few observations about living.

She believes, for instance, that a key to kitchen happiness is for the cook to periodically reward herself by mixing the hard work with a little noshing. "Enough working," she said at one point in our bread-making labors. "Now start eating." She gave me a handful of chocolate chips to munch.

She believes cooking is important because it fills up a home with aromas. The aromas, in turn, fill your home with visitors who are usually appreciative of the food and are often interesting to talk to.

Even after her four brothers got married, she said, one or two of them would often stop by her house at the end of the workday.

"They would come in the front door, sniff and say, "What ya got?" she recalled.

She usually had something cooking. A roast. A meat loaf. A stew. She would feed her brothers and they would repay her with a little conversation before they headed home to their wives and families.

She believes the supper table can be an anchor for family life even during the stormy years of adolescent rebellion. When her three children came home from school - whether it was from a day at high school or later from a semester at college - they would often have a friend or two in tow. Everyone would sit around the table, talking, listening or eating.

She still cooks, even though her husband and several of her brothers have died, and her children are grown. Cooking gives her pleasure, she said, and it makes her feel connected to the past.

During a lull in our bread-making session, Marion outlined the history of her mandel bread recipe, and the history of her family. The recipe, along with her mother, Tema, and her father, Joseph, all arrived at Ellis Island in 1905. They were Russian Jews, hailing from the small city of Vilna.

The couple headed to Utica, N.Y., where Joseph got a job building the city's railroad station, and had six children, including Marion. Marion grew up in Utica, and along with her husband, Joseph, an optometrist, raised their family in the customs and traditions of Judaism. They baked mandel bread several times a year, and always baked some for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

When her daughter married and moved to Baltimore, she visited her. During recent visits she began baking a loaf or two of mandel bread to sell at her daughter's carryout shop. Marion calls her daughter "Susan," but most of Baltimore knows her as "Sascha," proprietor of Sascha's catering operation and carryout shop in downtown Baltimore.

The other day, before traveling back to Utica, Marion stopped in the busy kitchen of her daughter's catering operation to bake a loaf of mandel bread. I watched her work, and had a hard time keeping track of the details.

Instead of precise measurements, she liked to use "a little of this, a little of that," she said.

The recipe was in her head, not on paper. Moreover, she was making a batch of dough four times larger than the one in her recipe. She paused from time to time to make calculations.

She also relied on her eyes. The bread dough, she said, had to "look right." At one point the dough looked wrong - too dry - so she added milk until it reached the desired consistency.

As she made the bread, she was interrupted by the arrival of half a dozen or so cooks and assistants who work in the kitchen. She greeted them as if she were their grandmother.

"Oh, your skin looks so good," she told Ruthie, a baker.

"And here she is," she said to Michelle, another young woman, "the beautiful blond." After hugs, her attention returned to the bread.

The dough was formed into a long, wide loaf and placed in a 350-degree oven for half an hour, or until it "felt right," firm to touch.

As the bread baked, we sat and talked about food and family life. When the bread came out of the oven, we tasted it. It was sweet and had firm texture. I liked it a lot. Marion thought it was good, but suspected something was amiss. When reviewing the procedures, she realized that one ingredient, vegetable oil, had been left out. That, she surmised, was why the dough had looked dry. That was also why she had had to add milk.

She smiled. There had been too many cooks, too much gabbing. But she wasn't upset.

All that socializing may have affected the taste of the mandel bread, she said, but it had certainly improved her day.

Marion's mandel bread

Makes 2 loaves

1/2 cup oil

2 eggs

handfuls of raisins or chocolate chips, or nuts

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup sugar

2 generous teaspoons baking powder

2 cups flour

In a large bowl, combine the oil, eggs, nuts, vanilla and sugar. Add flour and baking powder. Mix well. Form into two rectangular loaves. Place on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, until firm to touch.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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