Last week, just in time for the Jewish high holidays, a care package arrived from home. Grinning uncontrollably, I knew exactly what it was the minute I got it. Inside the box was a mound bundled in tinfoil and bubble wrap and cellophane, tied with a ribbon. “For a sweet New Year!” was written on a tag — referring to Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that signifies the beginning of a new year in the Jewish religion. After careful inspection, I opened the cellophane and tore through the tinfoil, instantly getting crumbs and cinnamon and sugar all over my shirt. My excited sneaking suspicion was correct: My mom sent me a package of her famous mandelbrot.
Mandelbrot is a cookie popular among Eastern European Jews, literally meaning “almond bread” in Yiddish. Cut from a loaf into one-inch slices and baked twice, the delicate treat can be mistaken for biscotti’s softer first cousin or the chocolate chip cookies’ thinner — and somewhat frailer — uncle, but one bite proves otherwise.
Every time I hear those three syllables, my ears perk up, my mouth begins to water and I mentally prepare myself to delve into a delicious piece of my great-grandmother’s mandelbrot recipe. The aroma produces a visceral reaction, a Pavlovian response. I know I’m about to enjoy a welcoming mouthful of chocolate, cinnamon and sugar.
Our family’s mandelbrot — “or ‘mandelbread’ as the gentiles would call it,” my grandma would interject — dates all the way back to the early 1900s. I say it’s my great-grandmother’s recipe, but her neighbor, Mrs. Wertheim, was the true creator of this particular combination. In what has been retold to seem like a covert operation, my mom had to coerce Mrs. Wertheim’s niece to sneak her the top-secret recipe when her aunt wasn’t looking.
We still give Mrs. Wertheim credit, but ever since that recipe handoff more than 25 years ago, the mandelbrot recipe has been altered a bit, thus becoming the nucleus of the Katz household. Hosting the Katz’s for Rosh Hashanah dinner? Get out a tray for their delicious mandelbrot. Going over to the Katz’s house for Passover? Get ready for their amazing Passover mandelbrot, a different — yet just as tasty — recipe, made without flour and replaced with matzah meal. Sometimes I feel like our dessert gets us the invites.
Much of Jewish culture is centered around food, as is the case with many different ethnicities. The laughable, yet accurate, remark I hear all the time from my relatives that summarizes every Jewish holiday is “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Food is a major part of our cultural identity — pastrami and corned beef on rye with a cup of matzah ball soup is a mantra I live by — and my family’s mandelbrot recipe perfectly describes this importance.
The word mandelbrot doesn’t just mean I’m about to eat my favorite sweet; that’s not what it truly represents. The tradition of a family recipe links the generations while facilitating the creation of new memories. This heavenly loaf has the power to bring together a family and sometimes an entire community together in times of happiness and sadness.
Along with joyous occasions like holidays and birthdays, mandelbrot can also serve as a form of solace for those grieving. A staple in Jewish culture, the dessert infuses an inexplicable sense of comfort. Our family’s go-to dish to bring to a shiva — a weeklong grieving period in Judaism — is mandelbrot, for good reason. The crunchy bite doesn’t just give off a homey feeling, but it also provides one of comfort, a sort of distraction from pain.
Yes, I am biased, but I truly believe my mom makes the best mandelbrot in the world. Although a somewhat simple recipe of eight ingredients, for some unknown reason, friends who have attempted it have been unable to deliver.
My mom used to tell me a man who knows how to cook or bake will always make his wife very happy. I immediately became her permanent sous chef. Looking back, that was probably just a ploy to get me to help make dinner — or maybe to spend quality time with her oldest child.
Ever since I can remember, I have helped my mother finish off the loaves with a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. Now I know the recipe by heart, perfecting the chocolate-chip-to-batter ratio. With this comes a great responsibility to continue passing on the joy of this mandelbrot recipe to future generations — the common theme in Judaism of l’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation” in Hebrew — and doing so all the while touching others with this taste of family.
It may seem cliche, but even though I’m 511 miles away from home, this dessert makes me feel like I’m still just a boy sneaking a taste after helping his mom with the cinnamon and sugar dusting. For a split second when I ripped through the tinfoil and started to pick at the mandelbrot, I wasn’t in my dorm room, but rather at home eating the treat that makes my ears perk up and my mouth begin to water.
For that one moment, as I ate the first piece of mandelbrot, I felt a sense of love and security, protecting me from the outside and the stresses of college. I’m reminded of my culture, of home.
Mandelbrot is so much more than food to me. It represents a special bond between a mother and her son. It represents a cultural identity being passed down for generations. It represents celebrating the happy times and mourning the sad ones.