Mandel Bread or mandelbrot is an eastern European Jewish culinary tradition. It is not the only answer to the dreary January days or the dreary February days which are still to come– but it certainly helps.
It’s a biscotti-like cookie, meaning it is twice baked, but emerges a little softer and richer from the oven with the help of an out-sized proportion of eggs. The cookies are still crunchy enough to appreciate the company of tea or coffee and you may suddenly find that what seemed irreparable just a few moments ago seems just a little better with a cup of warm coffee and a mandel.
Piedmont: the probable birthplace of the well-traveled mandel bread. This is a hand-colored, glass lantern slide from 1925. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Joan Nathan, fairy-godmother of Jewish cooking in America, has a theory about the journey of this humble cookie. Because of its similarity to the biscotti (and for more demographically sound reasons), she believes that mandel bread traveled to Germany with emigrants from the once robust Italian Jewish community of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Mandel bread with its German name, its Italian roots and its strong foothold in your grandmother’s Midwestern kitchen is a perfect portrait of the wanderings of the modern Jewish populations of North America.
My Grand Aunt (also my great aunt) Laura is my mandel bread expert and I am convinced that the warm almond-y smell haunts her living quarters permanently along with the artifacts and acquisitions of her many travels. Her mother taught her the recipe and on my most recent visit she taught it to me. The autobiographical character in Marcel Proust’s epic In Search of Lost Time finds a flood of memories are unleashed when the crumbs of his madeleine mix in his tea. Mandel bread is without a doubt my madeleine, a humbler more eastern European version, which never fails to bring me back to my Aunt Laura … and Cleveland but let this recipe take you wherever you’d like: perhaps Proust’s Combray in the French country-side or somewhere on the Lower East Side.
Pre heat oven to 350
Line cookie sheets (2) with parchment paper
+ 1 stick of butter
+ 1 cup of sugar (white granulated)
+ 2 ½ cups flour
+1 teaspoon baking powder
+ 4 eggs
+ 1 teaspoon vanilla
+ 1 cup or more of chocolate chips, toasted almonds, and/or cranberries
Cream the butter, by hand or with an electric mixer.
Beat in cup of sugar.
Beat in 4 eggs one at a time.
Slowly add flour.
Add teaspoon of vanilla and whichever chocolate, almond or fruit additions you prefer.
Spread 3 or four rows of dough with a spoon on the waiting parchment lined baking sheets.
Cook for twenty minutes and then remove and slice in chunky diagonals.
Rotate diagonal segments so that the cross section of the cookie is face up and cook for another 20 minutes.
Leave them in the oven overnight… if you can!
Otherwise enjoy as soon as they are cool.
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