At my recent Jewish-themed KinoVino event, I screened a beautifully moving documentary, Oma and Bella. Directed by Alexa Karolinski, the film tells the story of her grandmother’s life-long friendship with Bella, and their inexhaustible love of cooking and feeding their dearest. Their amazing life-stories, reminded me very much of my own great grandmother, who was the heart and soul of my family, raising both my mom and me in an abundance of love and delicious food.
Born in pre-Revolutionary Ukraine, she was the contemporary of the 20th century. Witnessing and enduring all of its harrowing events, from the Russian Revolution, to the Holocaust and the collapse of the USSR, to me she was the embodiment of history. She was born into a Jewish family as Rosalia Leibovna Belenkaia, yet had to obtain a fake passport with a Russian name in order to escape Nazi persecution during WWII. She became known as Elena Leontievna Doubinina, and retained that name for the rest of her life. Somehow, I felt drawn to call her by her real name in recent years, in a symbolic gesture to return her authentic identity that was stripped off by history. Her memories of the WWII and her miraculous escape from the occupied Ukraine are forever engrained in me and what inspires me the most, is that despite having witness and suffered from the worst in humankind, she was one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve known.
‘The hands that raised me’ was the title of my photography A-level final show, which was dedicated to her. I keep returning to her story in an attempt to find a means of relating it through some artistic form. Perhaps that script that’s been sitting in my ‘special folder’ for years now, will materialise into a film one day. But more recently I started to realise that it is also my love of food and feeding that is directly linked to her, so in a way cooking is another form of relating her story. After the war she trained as a pastry chef and it is precisely her sweet cakes and breads that I remember the most. The creamy vanilla of the Napoleon cake and the intensely rich poppy seeds filling of the rugelah are the two tastes that I can recall instantly, although it’s been more than 10 years since I last tasted her food. She had an almost religious respect for food, especially for bread, common amongst her generation, teaching me as a child that is was a sin to throw away bread and waste any bit of food. There was something magical in the way she prepared bread, sometimes waking up at night to check on the proving. The traditional Russian Easter bread ‘paskha’ was particularly special; she would always put on clean clothes and say a prayer before preparing paskhas, asking for God’s help with the raise of the dough. She even had the most amusing habit to tell everyone off who would utter any rude/inappropriate words while the dough was proving, and her classic phrase: ‘Not in front of the dough, please’, has become a bit of a family refrain. From today’s perspective it might seem naïve and odd to treat dough this way yet at the same time there is something awe-inspiring about such an approach. Today I want to share one of her classic recipes, the Napoleon cake, as a symbolic gesture of sustaining the connection and passing on her love of feeding people.
a simpler version of the French mille-feuille
For the pastry
500 gr white flour
250 gr of very cold margarine, grated/chopped
pinch of salt
150gr of cold water
1 tsp of white wine vinegar
Mix the flour with egg and the margarine, the same way as you would for short crust pastry. Mix water with vinegar and add to the flour mix until a dough ball is formed. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours. Divide the dough into 8 equal parts and roll each to make a thin discs. Put each in the preheated oven (200C) and bake each for about 4 minutes or just watching them as they start to brown.
For the crème pât
500 ml milk
1 cup of sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp of flour
50 gr butter
1 tsp of vanilla essence or 1-2 vanilla pods
Mix sugar, egg, milk and vanilla in a pot and bring to boil stirring constantly. Add the flour and remove from the heat, stirring continuously. Beat in the butter gradually to avoid lumps. Cool before spreading over the layers. Smother each layer in custard, pressing layers together so that the pastry absorbs the cream. Leave one of the layers aside and once everything else is shaped together crumble the last layer on top of the cake. Refrigerate overnight to enhance the flavours and let the custard really sink into the pastry.
It would have been magical to have a slice (or two) of her cake right now!