Eat & Drink

For three generations of cooks, Hanukkah celebration begins in the kitchen

Barb Kovacs, (from left), her daughter, Emily Kovacs, and her mother, Joan Mindlin, gathered at Barb’s home in Overland Park, to make the foods that are part of their traditional Hanukkah celebration. The women used an antique wine glass as a cookie cutter to cut out the dozens of kiflins, a traditional cookie enjoyed by their family during Hanukkah.
Barb Kovacs, (from left), her daughter, Emily Kovacs, and her mother, Joan Mindlin, gathered at Barb’s home in Overland Park, to make the foods that are part of their traditional Hanukkah celebration. The women used an antique wine glass as a cookie cutter to cut out the dozens of kiflins, a traditional cookie enjoyed by their family during Hanukkah. The Kansas City Star

In Barb Kovacs’ modern Overland Park kitchen, the past is preserved in three-ring binders filled with sticky pages of recipes in plastic sleeves. It is remembered by dog-eared pages of tattered cookbooks. And it is recorded in cups of sugar, sticks of butter, dashes of salt represented by scribbles in the margins of faded index cards.

A pantry reveals bookshelves crammed with titles from another era: “Thoughts for Buffets,” “Thoughts for Festive Foods,” “The Settlement Cookbook” — the latter a classic tome, the most successful American Jewish charity cookbook of all time. With more than 40 editions, it has sold more than 2 million copies in nearly 115 years.

“The ‘Settlement’ is traditionally given to women in my family as a shower or wedding gift,” Kovacs, 51, says. “If it’s still in print when my daughter gets married, she’ll probably receive one.”

Kovacs’ culinary traditions run deep. The rituals passed from generation to generation include making a meal every Sunday at her 93-year-old mother’s Overland Park home, where three — and sometimes four — generations break bread together. Another: delivering a fresh-from-the-oven brisket to grieving family members sitting shivah, a weeklong mourning period in the Jewish faith for relatives of the deceased.

Perhaps one of Kovacs’ most treasured customs is cooking with her mother, Joan Mindlin, and 22-year-old daughter, Emily Kovacs of Overland Park, for holidays such as Hanukkah, the annual eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, which this year begins at sundown Dec. 16.

Foods that stir up Kovacs’ memories of generations of cooks long departed — including her grandmother, Hulda Baum Gottlieb, who immigrated to the United States from Mellrichstadt, Germany, in 1886 when she was 2 years old — aren’t fussy.

“She wasn’t a fancy cook,” Kovacs says. “But she was a good cook. I follow in her footsteps.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon Kovacs, her mother and her daughter are gathered for an annual kitchen ballet of sorts — a ritual choreographed by women such as Gottlieb who live on through the legacy of dishes they fixed for Sunday suppers and holidays. The silence is comfortable in Kovacs’ kitchen as three generations of cooks prepare the food they traditionally serve on the first night of Hanukkah. They are making familiar dishes from recipes handed down through the decades, each one receiving a tweak or two from the next generation.

“This brisket,” Kovacs pauses from checking the batch of cookies browning in the oven, “is adapted from a recipe in ‘Thoughts for Buffets,’ a cookbook published in the 1950s. My mom and I put our individual marks on the recipe, doing something just a little differently, like adding mustard seed.”

“I don’t remember putting mustard seed in mine,” Mindlin says.

Kovacs points to the recipe in the splattered cookbook for brisket of beef a la Bercy, the classic French preparation for the cut of meat. “We’ve taken this and made it our family’s brisket recipe,” Mindlin chimes in.

An aproned Kovacs glides effortlessly from task to task: removing the pan of cookies from the oven to cool, checking on a roasting pan cradling a fragrant cooked brisket and a golden-brown noodle kugel already resting on a crowded countertop, all the while hugging the diminutive Mindlin.

“Honey, the kiflin look just marvelous,” Mindlin returns the affection to her youngest daughter, stopping just long enough from coating tiny crescent-shaped cookies with confectioners’ sugar to plant a floury kiss on Kovacs’ cheek.

The family uses 2-inch diameter crystal sherry glasses to cut out the dough. The stem of one glass that Barb hangs onto is broken, a casualty of a long-forgotten kitchen accident. “This belonged to my grandmother,” Kovacs says, examining the glass and shrugging. “I guess I never considered that the stem is a bit dangerous and sharp. I’ve adapted it to be a great cookie cutter. Everything has a chance at a second life in my kitchen.”

Kiflin, an Austrian almond cookie dipped in vanilla-infused confectioners’ sugar, has been a staple of the family’s Hanukkah celebration as long as Kovacs can remember. “This cookie goes back to when my grandmother and mother baked for Hanukkah,” she says. “It’s time-intensive but worth the effort.”

“Indeed,” Mindlin says. “Growing up in Trinidad, Colorado, I made kiflin with my mother (Hulda) and grandmother Jetta. I distinctly remember those as very special times. And being able to re-create the experience with Barb and Emily — well, that’s a priceless generational connection.”

The trio agree: Multi-generational baking sessions are equal parts handed-down recipes, family history, cooking stories and fond memories. “It’s a bond that connects us with our past and keeps us grounded,” Kovacs says.

Family ties

Like many recipes Kovacs has inherited, the stories swapped with her daughter and mother during cooking marathons have been lovingly revised over time. “We gently agree to disagree on the finer points of some memories,” said Kovacs with a laugh as she sifted more confectioners’ sugar for the kiflin.

Emily Kovacs recalls one holiday cookie-baking session when she was a youngster. It was at her cousin’s house, where the kiflin-making over-ran the kitchen and dining room with mixing bowls and spatulas and dough and dozens and dozens of sugar-coated cookies scattered on counters, tabletops and even chairs.

“There were a lot of us that day — even my brother, Brandan, was there — and it was chaotic, but fun,” she says. “Afterward we all went to Union Station and drank hot chocolate.”

“It was fun,” Mindlin says, “but I remember you kids were crazy that day.”

Mindlin was an only child and, despite spending hours alongside her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, didn’t immediately take to cooking. “Honestly, I couldn’t boil water when I married my husband, Stan, in 1944,” she says, shaking her head. “My mother was a willing teacher; I just wasn’t interested.”

Mindlin’s mother baked Christmas cookies with her friends in the tiny town of Trinidad — each proudly producing her specialty. “It was an all-day endeavor back then because there weren’t double ovens,” she says. “And we blended the holidays — we were one of very few Jewish families in Trinidad. Although we had a synagogue, sometimes we had a rabbi, sometimes not.”

Mindlin was allowed to cut out the kiflin during those neighborly baking parties. “That was a big responsibility I took seriously,” she says.

Following newlywed Mindlin’s move from Seattle with her husband to his hometown of Kansas City, she was determined to acquire kitchen skills. “If for no other reason than we had to eat,” she says with a chuckle.

Mindlin decided to host a luncheon for wives of her husband’s friends. On the menu were two items from “The Settlement Cookbook”: tomato aspic, a popular dish at the time, and schaum torte — a crispy, chewy, meringue-like confection with German origins — for dessert.

“I purchased a chicken salad for the entrée, which was a good thing, because the aspic was a miserable failure,” Mindlin admits. “So were the meringues. I don’t quite remember, but I think after that my first culinary triumph was a simple chicken dish.”

Gradually Mindlin gained confidence in the kitchen and later encouraged her two daughters, Jan, who lives in Roswell, Ga., and Kovacs, to experience culinary trial and error and victories. “The girls are very good cooks,” Mindlin says.

Kovacs is grateful that her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother all took time to teach their daughters a slice of family heritage. “Anything that links us back to family is a good thing,” Kovacs says. “Food, stories, occasions that we share.”

Jan Scarborough, 68, is virtually cooking today with her mother, sister and niece from the Atlanta suburb she has called home since 1970. Kovacs receives a text with a video from her older sister — Scarborough is making kiflin in her stand mixer.

“Oh, look at that,” Mindlin stops with two partially sugar-dusted cookies held in midair while she watches a smartphone video, a beater twirling the dough in a kitchen 800 miles away.

Scarborough calls Kovacs, who puts her on speakerphone. “We’re finishing our kiflin,” Kovacs says to her sister. “Looks like you’re just starting.”

The women discuss brisket and their preferred techniques. “Don’t we all use a recipe adapted from ‘Thoughts for Buffets’?” Scarborough queried her mother and sister, who smile at the worn cookbook propped on the counter.

“I usually chop up carrots, onions and celery, sprinkle the brisket liberally with paprika and drizzle it with oil, season it and bake it slowly, on a low temperature,” Scarborough says. “At one time I think we all used to make a brisket by dousing it with a can of beer and a bottle of chili sauce.”

Kovacs and Mindlin vigorously nod in agreement.

“But I really like my version of the brisket recipe,” says Kovacs as the family finishes the phone call.

“Brisket is user-friendly too, because you can make it a day or two ahead of when you’re going to serve it,” says Kovacs, “plus it’s even better the second day, slicing more evenly when cold, and the juices keep it moist and tender while reheating.”

Emily Kovacs notes her appreciation of having patient and creative culinary tutors who insist on passing down family history.

“When I’m married and have children, I want to keep traditions and make my own, too,” she says, cutting out the last cookie. “I’ve taken kiflin to my boyfriend’s family — they know this is something that I grew up with, that is part of my history.”

Celebrating tradition

The sun disappears below the horizon as Kovacs removes a menorah and slender blue-hued candles from a kitchen cupboard, placing them on the counter next to a black-and-white photo of her grandmother Gottlieb.

“This menorah was my great-grandmother Jetta’s,” says Kovacs, running her fingers over the tarnished brass and the double lions flanking a Star of David. “She grew up in Mellrichstadt, a German town where Jews no longer exist, wiped out during the Holocaust.”

Kovacs’ family left Europe for the U.S. before the onslaught of atrocities that killed millions of Jews during World War II. “Just like the recipes we’re making today that have been handed down, it’s important that I have this menorah to be connected to a part of my family I never knew, but who had an impact on who I am today,” Kovacs says.

Grandmother, mother and daughter put finishing touches on the kiflin, brisket and noodle kugel, the foods that accompany the lighting of the candle on Hanukkah’s first night.

“This holiday symbolizes rebirth, which we all seek, regardless of our religion,” Kovacs says. “And at the heart of any holiday celebration is food we make and share that represents our history.”

Kimberly Winter Stern is a radio personality and freelance writer based in Overland Park. She is a frequent contributor to The Star’s Food section and the Chow Town blog.

FAMILY TRADITIONS

These recipes, which Barb Kovacs makes each Hanukkah with her daughter, Emily, and mother, Joan Mindlin, have been handed down through the generations. Mindlin made the same recipes with her mother, Hulda Baum Gottlieb, although she admits changes have been made here and there. “That’s the fun of cooking, to put your own stamp on something,” she says. “To me, that makes tradition even more special.”

Noodle Kugel

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 (16-ounce) package wide egg noodles

1 onion, finely chopped

1 cup skim cottage cheese

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup sour cream, plus more for serving

Dash Tabasco sauce

1/2 clove garlic, minced

Salt to taste

Grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.

Cook the noodles in boiling salted water for 10 minutes; drain in a colander. Mix onion, cottage cheese, Worcestershire sauce, sour cream, hot sauce, garlic and salt together in a mixing bowl and add to the noodles stirring until well combined. Place the mixture in the buttered dish, and bake for 45 minutes or until browned and crusty on top. Serve piping hot, with sour cream and Parmesan cheese.

Per serving, based on 6: 403 calories (25 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 90 milligrams cholesterol, 59 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams protein, 184 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Brisket

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 (5-pound) brisket

Garlic salt, celery salt and onion salt, to taste

1 onion, sliced

1 tablespoon whole mustard seed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Season meat with garlic salt, celery salt and onion salt on both sides. Place onion in bottom of a roasting pan. Place seasoned brisket in pan fat side up and cover with mustard seed. Cover the roasting pan with foil and cook for 4 hours. Remove the foil and bake for another hour until fork tender, or to an internal temperature of approximately 180 degrees. Allow meat to rest; slice across the grain and serve.

Per serving, based on 6: 602 calories (44 percent from fat), 28 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 235 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, 79 grams protein, 385 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Kiflin

Makes 22 1/2 dozen

1 vanilla bean

1/2 pound (2 cups) confectioners’ sugar

1/2 pound raw blanched almonds

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter

1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine

2/3 cup granulated sugar

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour, or more

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, grind vanilla bean pod with confectioners’ sugar. Place sugar mixture in a pie pan or other shallow container and set aside.

Grind the almonds in the food processor fitted with a metal blade until finely ground but not a powder.

In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a flat beater, cream together the butter, margarine, granulated sugar and almonds. Add flour, a little at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. (Switch to a dough hook halfway through mixing, if necessary.) Form the dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for 1 to 11/2 hours.

Roll the dough into a log. Divide the dough into nine pieces and return all but one dough ball to the refrigerator. On a floured surface or pastry cloth, pat dough down with hands or flatten with a rolling pin to a circle 1/4-inch thick. (Gottlieb tradition favors patting the dough rather than rolling it: “It wouldn’t taste the same if you used a pin, would it?” says Barb Kovacs.)

Cut dough into crescent shapes with edge of crystal wine glass, or alternatively use a 17/8-inch biscuit or cookie cutter. Repeat until you’ve filled an oversized cookie sheet with six rows of 15 kiflin. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until kiflin are lightly browned; do not overbake. Remove pan from oven. While still warm, gently dip each cookie in confectioners’ sugar/vanilla bean mixture.

Repeat the patting and cutting of the remaining dough balls, filling the cookie sheet two more times; Kovacs bakes one sheet at a time.

Store cooled cookies in a tin between layers of waxed paper at room temperature for up to a week; do not refrigerate. (Kovacs adds, “My grandmother said they will keep for months under lock and key.”)

Per piece: 30 calories (56 percent from fat), 2 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 4 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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