I lost my dear mother a few weeks ago. A child survivor of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Ann Lenga did not let the horror of those years define her life. She was resilient, courageous, adventurous and an inspiration to everyone who knew her.
Despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis more than 30 years ago, my mother persevered, lifting weights and riding a recumbent bicycle every day despite crippling fatigue and weakness. She also walked every afternoon and evening with her walker, often exceeding a mile each day, all the while maintaining her unique sense of humor.
My mother pursued her love of learning by attending lectures, reading history books and biographies of presidents, and of course, reading her Wall Street Journal (“my bible,” as she called it) cover to cover. She would clip newspaper articles to share with family, friends and the staff at her assisted living facility, and would often call me late at night to discuss something interesting she had just finished reading.
She loved classical music, opera, art, and, especially, nature. She loved visiting the Missouri Botanical Gardens and al fresco dinners on my backyard patio. She treasured the time she spent outside in her building’s courtyard reading, admiring the gardens and taking in the fresh air.
And then there was my mother’s love of food—preparing it, enjoying it and reading about it. She was an enthusiastic and adventurous eater. My mother savored little gem salads and smoked beet sandwiches at Union Loafers, Pad Kee Mao at Fork & Stix, Vietnamese spring rolls at Mai Lee, stir-fried glass noodles with lemongrass pesto at Lona L’il Eats, and tofu Gogi bowls at Seoul Taco. We had dinner together on Sundays at my house, when she would eat with gusto and declare each particular meal to be “the best one yet.” She would always ask for a little baggy to take back some cakes or pastries I had made. She would stash them in her refrigerator to enjoy after her evening walks.
My mother was an extraordinarily creative cook and baker. Her specialties were chicken soup with homemade kreplach, chopped liver, gefilte fish, roasted brisket, stuffed cabbage and cholent, and she was only too delighted to share them with her frequent dinner guests. She even started her own baked goods business entitled Ann’s Perfectly Delicious that featured assorted homemade filled and rolled cookies.
Passover was a special holiday for my parents. Having survived the Holocaust, for them the ancient story of survival and renewal had special resonance. When I was growing up, my mother would begin cooking for our Passover seders days in advance, preparing enough to host as many as 20 friends and family at each seder. For the seder dessert, my mother made her addictive dried-fruit compote (heavy on the prunes), which she accompanied with layered sponge cakes and a gorgeous platter of assorted cookies. It became a tradition that every guest left carrying a tin of enough cookies to get them through the holiday week.
Over the past few years, when my mother was no longer able to cook, she would channel that passion through the many cookbooks and food magazines I would bring her. And as any good cook would, she shared baking advice with me, sometimes when I asked and sometimes when I didn’t!
One bit of her advice that I share with all of my students is to never underestimate the importance of salt. “Salt is a flavor enhancer,” my mother told me. “While you may only think of adding salt to a stew or a sauce or other savory food, salt is important in baked goods such as breads, cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and scones. Just a pinch of salt will make a huge flavor difference.” My mother was right!
She felt similarly about the role of citrus zest in pastries. “Fresh citrus gives zing to just about everything,” she told me. Indeed, she would know, after just one bite, when I had forgotten to add the lemon zest to one of my sweet bread concoctions.
With Passover just days away, I thought I would honor my mother by baking some of her favorite Passover cookies. The recipes are quite unusual, and I was worried they would fail. However, they worked perfectly. Just a bite of one of her cookies transported me back to my childhood and to the beloved memories of my mother that I will forever cherish. May her memory be for a blessing to my family and to all who knew her.
Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of seven. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.