The pungent aroma of baking would often greet me when I came home from school. My mother was an expert baker (and cook) and had a wide range of goodies that she would make in the course of the year, as well as the delicious Challah and rolls she would bake every Friday.
But when Chanuka came round it would be time for her to bake the traditional delicacy known to us solely as Pfefferkuchen. Today I know that it’s called gingerbread or lebkuchen by the rest of the world, but for me and my family (and my sisters and their families) it will always be Pfefferkuchen. In Christian countries the delicacy is associated with Christmas, but for me it is an integral part of Chanuka.
To bake that special delicacy, which is something between a cake and biscuits (i.e., cookies) my mother would turn the whole kitchen into something approaching an industrial unit dedicated to the creation of the end-product. The preparation and baking process involved assembling a wide array of ingredients, spices, flavourings and decorations, and took several hours to achieve.
And the end-result was always a substantial quantity of delicious and delectable objects that we would consume with great enjoyment. Each biscuit would be adorned with icing upon which either multi-coloured hundreds-and-thousands or chocolate sprinkles would be scattered.
One of the treats of those far-off baking days would be the segments of Pfefferkuchen dough that my mother would leave unbaked, and which my sisters and I were allowed to roll out and then apply the gingerbread-man form to create a figure that would be placed on a baking tray and inserted into the oven to be baked. When it was ready, my mother would wield the icing-cone and deftly provide the baked gingerbread man with eyes, nose and mouth, and even buttons down his front. Then our greatest joy would be to eat the little man, biting off his head, arms and legs and eventually consuming all of him. Delicious!
Over the years I have been reluctant to undertake this baking enterprise myself. Yes, I have baked cakes and biscuits of various kinds, but nothing as ambitious and time- and energy-consuming as Pfefferkuchen. My family’s needs for this delicacy have been met by my two sisters, Esther and Ruth, who have kindly presented us with some of their production. I have gratefully accepted their contribution to our general welfare, but as the years roll by I have started to feel increasingly inadequate in being unable to provide for my family’s requirements.
So this year I spent an evening as my sister’s apprentice, watching her prepare a batch (the first of several) of Pfefferkuchen. I came away clutching a box of delicious biscuits and a photocopy of the recipe that had been passed on to her by our mother.
After making sure I had all the ingredients, I decided to screw my courage to the sticking-post, as dear Lady Macbeth would have it, and embark on the enterprise myself. And believe me, it did take a lot of courage. The process begins with one whole kilogram of flour. That’s a lot of dough.
But it seems that having put everything together, mixed and rolled out the dough, and done my best to cut it into the requisite diamond shapes (but no gingerbread men), the end-result was passable, even edible, although I grant that there is still room for improvement. I presented each of my sisters with a (small) box of my first effort, and both pronounced it satisfactory. My own taste buds seem to find the result adequate, and those few souls who have been kind enough to try my first-fruits have given me positive feedback. In fact, within a week most of the initial production had been consumed by family and friends.
Thus encouraged, I felt ready to try and produce another batch. The second time, I’m happy to say, the process took less time and effort. And hopefully by next Chanuka I’ll be up to repeating the experiment.