There’s a revolution brewing. This isn’t a freedom mic, military coup, or hostile-romper-takeover type of revolution either. It’s a Jewish ethnic-food revolution. Based primarily in Manhattan (obviously), chefs—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—are taking stereotypically Jewish food up a notch or seven. Adeena Sussman fittingly calls it “haute-haimish grub.” Your very own bubbe’s recipes are being transformed, upgraded, and elegantly served for $30 a plate.
But it doesn’t take a celebrity chef to add finishing touches to old classics. These tweaks happen with every generation—probably every time a recipe is followed. I have a feeling your old family recipe doesn’t produce exactly the same kasha varnishkas your great bubbe made in her Russian shtetl.
As the product of a Jewish family with a wide range of geographic and cultural influences, I don’t have strong connections to many of the foods that typically dominate the standard Ashkenazi menu. (Don’t worry, matzah ball soup has and always will hold a warm spherical place in my heart.) Mandel bread is a major exception. I remember my dad connecting to his fake Italian heritage as he dipped it in his coffee after dinner and nestled up with the serious spread of desserts at my aunt’s Shabbat lunch table. And though I dearly love the family recipe, wherever it may have come from, mandel bread, too, would benefit from a bit of a facelift.
Unlike my father, mandel bread, or mandelbrot, is actually a relative of delectable Italian cookies, biscotti. Joan Nathan posits that Piedmont, Italy was the first place a Jew tasted biscotti and later brought the idea to Eastern Europe where it became mandelbrot. The idea behind biscotti is all about efficiency and shelf life. By baking the cookie twice—once as a loaf and once sliced—pre-preservative and refrigerator Italian bakers were able to keep their product fresh for longer. According to Gil Marks, biscotti were originally sugar and fat free. Once sugar made its way to Europe, the wedges were still dense, which is why Italians started dunking their cookies into their drinks (sorry, Oreo, you weren’t first). Next thing you know, they ended up traveling through Europe where they were flavored with almonds, known in German and Yiddish as mandel (brot means bread). While my dad takes his mandel bread back to its root as biscotti, my aunt capitalized on its traditional use in the Jewish community—a pareve dessert that could be prepared in advance and kept fresh for Shabbat.
Once this durable cookie made its way over the Atlantic, technology in the form of Crisco made its way into the classic recipe, as did chocolate chips and other non-almond add-ins. I can do without the Cricso, but the addition of mix-ins definitely elevated mandel bread from a dry, bland cookie to a dessert to be reckoned with. As tribute to the tradition of this ever-evolving cookie, this mandel bread recipe is decidedly not like your bubbe’s. Taking a cue from the chefs of lower Manhattan, I’ve added a touch of haute to the mix-ins, straying from the cookie’s namesake (mandel) and throwing in pistachios and cherries in place of the almonds. If you want to go completely crazy (and I do recommend it), dip the finished product into dark chocolate melted with cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper. This spiced finish, inspired by Mexican chocolate, brings mandel bread another step along its evolutionary journey and into our even more globalized world.
Nota bene—mandel bread is not meant to be soft. These days people bake a chocolate chip cookie in the shape of a loaf, slice it, and call it mandel bread. Wrong. People with TMJ: beware. Mandel bread should have a crunch to it. In fact, it should be hard to bite even if you have a functional jaw. This is a cookie merchants and travelling rabbis tossed into their rucksacks. The whole point of mandel bread is that it’s a food that tastes good and can withstand the elements. So make sure you follow these baking directions closely—you bake it twice and at different temperatures to dry the cookie out, thus transforming it from an ordinary cookie into mandel bread.
Not Your Bubbe’s Mandel Bread
Makes 24 cookies
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup unsalted, shelled pistachios
1 cup dried sour cherries
3 ounces dark chocolate chips (optional)
cinnamon, to taste (optional)
cayenne, to taste (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two cookie sheets with butter or oil.
2. Mix all ingredients in a bowl.
3. Split the dough into two and form into long loaves about ¾ inch thick, one on each pan. Bake until browned.
4. Remove the pans from the oven and raise the temperature to 400°F. While the oven is heating, slice the loaves into ¾ inch thick slices. Turn each slice on its side so a cut side is down. Bake for 10 minutes.
5. Turn off the oven. Remove the pans from the oven and flip each cookie over. Return the trays to the oven for one hour.
6. (Optional) Melt 2 ounces of chocolate over a double boiler until it reaches 115°F. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining chocolate in batches. Continue to stir until the chocolate comes down to 85°F. Return the chocolate to heat and continue stirring until it reaches 90-95°F. Stir in cinnamon and cayenne to taste.
7. (Optional) When the cookies have completely cooled, paint one side of each mandel bread with the melted chocolate. Cool on a rack until fully set.
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