How to Create a Lost Family Recipe

Play 'culinary detective' and reinvent Nonna's meatballs or Abuelita's tamales

by Joanna Pruess • Next Avenue
Meatballs image
Photograph: Shutterstock

My maternal great-grandmother, Rose Newman, landed in Bayonne, N.J., in the mid-19th century with little more than her arsenal of Austro-Hungarian baking skills, but they served her well. My mom said the woman could stretch strudel dough so thin you could see her knuckles through it.

The first time I tasted a strudel as good as my great-grandmother’s — at Mrs. Herbst’s, a long-closed Hungarian bakery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — it was like encountering a ghost from my culinary past.

Another cherished memory was her cookies. Every year when she’d visit us, her suitcase would be packed with cardboard boxes of butter walnut cookies, sweetheart cookies dotted with raspberry or apricot preserves, and pogachel, Hungarian biscuits made with sour cream that were my favorite. We'd devour them within two days.

In the 1970s, her daughter-in-law, my Aunt Ann, had the foresight to turn those imprecise pinches and jam jar “cups” into accurate recipes for posterity. Or so I’d thought.

In 1987, Aunt Ann handwrote those recipes out for me to include in my first cookbook, The Supermarket Epicure. When I tested the pogachel recipe, I thought they tasted like the ones I remembered. But then my cousin Fern told me that her own version — written out years before mine, when she was in the kitchen with our great aunt — was different and that she’d measured the ingredients just as Ann used them. Sure enough, when I tweaked the recipe, the firm but delicate texture of the biscuits was spot-on.

Therein lies the challenge of trying to recreate favorite foods from your past.

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