My Grandmother and I

Nalesniki z Serem with a Gooseberry Compote

This post was going to be about my family’s birthday bottlenecks.

Lydia turned 5 on Saturday.  By Sunday afternoon I was back in the kitchen cooking away for my Dad’s birthday lunch on Monday.  It’s a public holiday in these parts, in honour of the birth of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II rather than my old man, but convenient for that purpose nevertheless.

I had plenty of time, and, in stark contrast to the stress-fueled frenzy of the preceding two days, was unwinding, taking quiet satisfaction in preparing a meal for kith and kin with the quiet company of my own thoughts.

The menu perforce, my thoughts turned to my Polish maternal grandmother, Babi, so called because it was as close as I could get to saying Babcia (Polish for grandmother) when I was small.

Our lunch would start with a pea and ham soup (grochowa zupa) and move on to marinated fish a la grecque (ryba po grecku) served with a good, hefty, dark rye bread.

For the main course we would have a garlic spiked pork shoulder, roasted slowly with onions carmelising in its own juices. Those juices would be reduced, finished with a little dry sherry and served along side the roast together with crackling, roasted potatoes, kumara (New Zealand sweet potatoes) and pumpkin, the über-Polish cabbage bigos, mushrooms in a cream sauce (grzby w śmietanie), beans (fasolka po bretońsku) and, in a small deviation from Babi’s repertoire because I had a couple in the fridge and because my mother loves them, pureed swedes (rutabaga) finished with caramelised onions.

For dessert, crepes filled with cream cheese (naleśniki z serem) and served with gooseberry compote.  The crepes with cheese were a favourite dish of hers, the choice of tart fruit to offset the richness of the crepes mine. Babi had a very sweet tooth and would have found the fruit unpleasantly sour.

It was a respectable amount of cooking to get through. Throughout my childhood, Babi used to pull off lunches like these on a regular basis.  In honour of birthdays, names days and other holidays there might also be one or more tortes to go with coffee.  Sometimes there would be two soups, meat dishes or desserts to choose from.  At others, the menu would be elevated by the addition of such treats as the boiled and fried potato dumplings Babi called palushki (little fingers), pierogi, the hand-formed, stuffed pasta that are the bright stars of the Polish culinary firmament (in my humble opinion), gołąbki – literally little pigeons, but actually stuffed cabbage rolls –  and so the list goes on – all delicious, all labour intensive.  Half the bread on the table was her own work too.

If I stop and consider that she would often have had me to stay for the weekend, piano lessons to teach on Friday night and Saturday morning, would have done all the shopping on foot or with her bicycle, that she had limited refrigeration and no freezer to speak of, that there was no hot running water in the kitchen and so she had to carry basins of hot water from the bathroom to wash the dishes, and that all along and without fail, she produced up to three hot meals a day, at least one including a soup course, (no take away the night before the big event) I wonder how she did it. And yet, on return from Mass on Sunday, the whole lunch would be ready to go as if the kitchen staff had been quietly at work since Thursday.

It’s one thing to recognise effort intellectually and another to engage with the reality of that effort yourself.  To take on the same labour, feel the heat of the kitchen, the sore feet and the back pain.  This is by no means the first time I’d prepared my grandmother’s dishes for the family, but until now, I hadn’t ever really put myself in her shoes and thought, this is what she did time and again to contribute to our family life, this is how much that life together meant to her.

My grandmother was raised in the bosom of a large extended family clustered around Kraków, Lwów (as it was then), Warszawa and Wadowice.  For her that life came to an abrupt end when Silesia was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II.  The separation was made permanent in ’44 when she fled an advancing Red Army and her Polish homeland with my white Russian grandfather.  In her yearning for those she left behind, she held us all tighter. But I don’t believe she ever really left Poland, so much as took it with her, and nowhere was that more apparent than in her cooking.

I loved my grandmother, but, being in some ways much alike, we often got on about as well as two old feuding strays locked in the same shed. Heckles would rise: Babi could get under my skin in two minutes or less.  A look could be enough to push all my buttons. Simultaneously, or so it felt.  That was on a bad day.

There were very many good days.  My grandmother was young and vivacious. She had a keen sense of humour and strongly irreverent streak. On a Friday night after dinner had been put away, she would sit down to her piano and practice, often Chopin, often from memory.  The hands that held and cared for me, that had spent the early afternoon peeling potatoes and frying onions, flew over the keys, her whole being focused on the music, concentrated completely, from body and shoulders through arms to the meeting of fingers and ivory to tell stories of loss and regret beyond words.

Other Fridays were for late night shopping excursions, perhaps with a shared package of hot chips to warm us on a walk home through a cold southerly blowing uninterupted from the Antarctic’s ice. We two would sit down to a game of cards and a cup of tea at her green formica kitchen table.  Tea, that is, with a good two fingers of brandy in the bottom of it.  We would talk and exchange jokes. Beds were warmed, blankets added.  I would be put to bed in a veritable cocoon of flannelette, with stories, prayers and fervent blessings.  During the night she would check in on us, my little aunty and me, and we would wake up with more blankets, or if it were a really cold night, then also warm coats heaped upon us until we could barely move beneath.

With age my grandmother got more difficult, she would seek reassurance by prompting disagreements, and she was pretty good at finding them. Increasingly our long conversations were centered on two tacitly agreed safe zones, cooking and memories of Poland. 

I never gave her credit while she was alive, but it is true that much of what I know about food came from what I learned at her table.  It involved all the senses. The silken, springy softness of a yeast dough that is smooth and elastic and ready to rise, the sound of a piece of meat sealing in searing hot oil before being braised, the smell of onions barely turning golden, the gloss of egg whites beaten just stiffly enough to fold through a pate to lighten it.  All the hundreds of minute observations that inform the cook, telling what is just enough and not too much.

These I learned largely from my grandmother. And, as I learned in Poland, her cooking had a provenance that reached back generations.  My grandmother learned from her mother who learned from her mother-in-law and so on.  My great-aunt Hania, the sister-in-law my grandmother never met, learned from the same sources and her cooking, though separated by decades and the better part of 18,000 km, was eerily similar to Babis. 

To my grandmother I might have been the most difficult child, but eventually I was the one who went back to her home and family, and the one she gave the family cookbooks to:  the books that her own mother sent on to an exiled daughter half a globe away.  Ultimately, they were my grandmother’s only inheritance.

Advancing dementia eventually robbed us of our middle ground.  Had I grasped the true meaning of what she had done for us over the years, I might have shown more patience and respect.  Instead I was cowardly.  I withdrew, met her on neutral territory, left contact to the days when I felt strong enough.

If there was one thing Babi had in abundance, it was faith.  So I hope that somewhere she sees her children still gathering, still enjoying her food.  I hope she knows when I cook her food, that it is my homage to her and my way of passing her love to the next generation.  If I failed to pay her her due when she lived, perhaps I’ll manage it yet.

Naleśniki z Serem

I’ll leave you with my recipe for these cheese stuffed pancakes. Like Babi, I make my own twarog or biały ser, a fresh white cheese like quark or quarg, but typically drier. However on the last occasion I managed to ruin it completely, so used marscapone instead.  It is by no means an exact substitute, but pleasant enough all the same. Otherwise you might try quark – if it is very wet then drain it in a clean napkin set over a sieve until the surplus whey has stopped dripping.  I understand that Americans can use Farmer’s Cheese, but have no direct experience of this.  At a push you could soften a block of Philly and blend in a little cream until you have a smooth, readily spreadable mix.

Naleśniki:

My grandmother used to make batters like these by eye.  It worked for her, but is difficult to pass along. This recipe taken from the Polish Heritage Cookbook by Robert and Maria Strybel produces an identical result.  Proportions here are given for a double batch.  About enough for 7 adults and three small children, two of whom can easily lay waste to about 6 small and unfilled pancakes each.

2c milk

4 eggs

1/2 tsp salt

2c flour

2 tbsp oil

1 1/2 to 2c water

about 100g/ 1 stick butter for frying.

1. Beat the eggs, milk and salt together, dump in the flour and beat until bubbles appear in the mixture.  Beat in the oil, then so much of the water as you need to make the pancakes spread readily.  The thinner the more refined the result.

2. I use a set of 6 inch (15cm) skillets for daintier dessert pancakes, 9 inches (23cm) for breakfast crepes or for stuffed rolled crepes where I am going to want all the edges folded in.  The size is totally up to you. Melt the butter in one of your pans and pour all the excess off into a mug or heat resistant glass.  Every time you go to pour a fresh pancake, brush as light a coating of the butter as you can onto the surface of the pan. 

3. Make sure the pans are good and hot.  Pour each pancake. Swirl enough batter around the pan so that it is just coated. (If you have excess pour it out of the pan back in with the rest of the batter. If it is too thick, beat in a little more water until the next pancake has right consistency.  It’s trial and error and comes with practice.

4. If your pans are well seasoned, you will know the crepe is ready to turn when it is set and can be shaken gently loose from the pan surface.  If your pans are not in great shape, you might need the help of a spatula.  Aim for a nice golden colour.   The side on the pan now will be the good side of the pancake.

5. Flip the pancake and cook the other side. You will notice that the underside browns in spots where there have been bubbles in the batter. You will not achieve the same uniform colour that you can with the first side to cook.  Just wait until the bubbles are a deep gold to light brown. This second side is the side you want to keep to the inside of the pancake when filling – it is not your presentation side.

6. Tip the finished pancake straight out onto an inverted plate, so that the first side is plate down and the spotty side faces upwards.  If you stack them like this, they are all ready to fill.  Unlike other fried foods where stacking is to be avoided, here stacking the pancakes keeps them soft and pliable, making them easier to fold.

7. Continue in this fashion until all the pancakes are cooked. How many you get depends on your pan size. Fill immediately or allow to cool, cover the stack and put it in the fridge until you are ready to use.   They will keep covered in the fridge for two or three days, but I think that making them earlier on the day they are to be eaten or the afternoon before is better.  Like most food, fresher tastes better.

Filling:

1kg twarog, quark or marscapone

icing sugar to taste

vanilla to taste (I used approximately 2 tsp of vanilla paste)

2 egg yolks

2 to 4 tbps cream (really only necessary if your fresh cheese is a bit dry)

8. Beat the ingredients together.  If the cheese you are using is crumbly, rub it through a fine sieve first – this will help to make the mixture smooth and unctious.

Compote:

9. Prepare a simple syrup:  cook 1 cup of sugar together with 1 cup of water until the sugar is disolved.  Add 1kg (2 1/4 lb) prepared fruit, in this case gooseberries to the syrup and simmer gently until the fruit is just soft. Cool, transfer to a serving bowl and chill until ready to serve.

This method works well with frozen berries.  Add to the syrup while still frozen.

Bringing it together:

Frying nalesniki up close

10. Heat a large skillet. Add a knob of butter.  While it is melting, fill as many crepe as you can fit comfortably into the pan (there should be at least a slight gap between each one).

11. My preferred fold for this kind of crepe is the so called handkerchief: put a couple of spoons of filling on one half of the pancake – spread around the half slightly, but leaving a good margin from the round edges.  Fold the unspread side over the spread side, then fold  in half again.  You will be looking at a 1/4 circle wedge.  Arrange in the skillet, cook on each side until golden on both sides.

12.  If you find the filling tends to run, then you might prefer a different fold.  Spread the filling in the middle of the pancake. leaving a margin of about 1/5th of the total diameter free around the whole edge.  Fold in the sides by that 5th on each side (across the middle you will see even amounts of folded in edge, uncovered filling and then the other folded in edge).  Fold up the bottom quarter of the pancake. Now roll over again.  One final roll should tuck in the rest of the pancake under.  When you go to fry the filled pancake, fry it seam down side first so as to seal it.  You should end up with a neat and sealed little oblong package.

13. Transfer to individual plates or a serving platter.  Dust with icing sugar. Repeat with remaining crepe or until you have the required number of servings.

14. Serve as is with the compote alongside.

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