A baker's grandson stays up overnight to make his special mandel bread—and tells his family's story in the process
ACT I: The Prelude
In November 1941, Samuel Miller, my grandfather, took over control of a small bakery on South Washington Street in the Flats section of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The price was $500, which he did not have at the time and which he had to borrow from an in-law. Until that point, he and his wife, Evelyn, my grandmother, had endured the Depression in Passaic, New Jersey. There, each working day, Sam, a bakery worker, would haul 100-pound bags of flour up a flight of stairs from a storeroom to a huge mixer. When the Millers finally got their own store, they called it the New Modern Bakery, although no one still alive 70 years later remembers anything new or modern about it.
More about the Millers and their bakery later. Let's quickly skip ahead a few generations. This holiday weekend, instead of getting away for a few days, this proud grandson of a baker spent 24 straight hours, from 6 p.m. on Friday until 6. p.m. on Saturday, mixing batter and baking cookies*. One batch after the other. Hour after hour. In my kitchen. I didn't do it for anyone special. I did it because it's been too long since I committed a random act of kindness. I did it because it's Memorial Day weekend. I did it for charity (okay, and because I like the smell of cinnamon in my house).
The deal was this: Willing friends and family members pledged to make a donation to the charity of their choice and in turn I pledged to send them each a fresh batch of cookies.
* Just so we are clear on terms, my family calls the cookies I bake "mandel bread"—think Jewish biscotti—but they are very different from the old school mandel bread (literal translation: almond bread) that your grandparents may have eaten. My mother changed her mother's recipe by adding cinnamon to the mix (and making sure there were no nuts involved). And I changed my mother's recipe to include loads of chocolate chips, which means I am baking chocolate-y, cinnamon-y slabs of love. My friends have been emjoying them for years. I call it evolution. But please, all you mandel bread purists out there, consider this my humble concession: I am no traditonalist and don't want to be.
The deal was this: Willing friends and family members pledged to make a donation to the charity of their choice and in turn I pledged to send them each a fresh batch of cookies. I suggested a modest donation but I encouraged folks to give as much as they felt comfortable giving for a box of cookies. I know that more than a few of my friends donated much more to wonderful charities, including many, like Cradles to Crayons, that I had never heard of before. Lots of folks gave to the American Red Cross and other charities that are helping the victims, like those in Joplin, Missouri, impacted by terrible weather.
The event was by any measure a success. No one was harmed during the marathon baking session. There was no evident damage to my kitchen or my home. I responsibly disposed of all of the garbage I generated—the egg crates were repurposed, the flour bags recycled. Neither my son (one cookie) nor my dog Trot (no cookies) got sick. And with all that extra time on my hands while the cookies were in the oven I kept good records, too. Below is my story. But first here are the results:
Number of cookies made: 799
Pounds of flour used: 30
Eggs cracked: 126
Pounds of sugar sprinkled: 15
Ounces of cinnamon mixed: 8
Ounces of chocolate chips dumped: 160
Oil/shortening poured: plenty
ACT II: The Preparation:
"Whatcha baking?" said the check-out lady at the King Soopers where I shop. She was scanning the first of my three cartloads of ingredients I reckoned I would need to make the cookies. I could tell immediately that she hadn't paid attention to her question and didn't really care about my answer. I mean, there I was, at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, buying flour, sugar, baking powder, and chocolate chips; not exactly C-4 fertilizer and blasting caps for a truck bomb, right? I told her I was trying to bake the world's largest chocolate chip cookie. She was delighted. Then I told her the truth. She said: "Why don't you just buy the slice-and-bake type?" Practical, my check-out lady.
The next time I went to Kings, on Thursday morning, I bought seven 18-egg packages (I bought more on Friday). Memo to societal experts who study such things: Put a hidden camera on a guy in a supermarket with 126 eggs in his basket, chocolate chips, and cans of Pam, and see how the other store customers look at him. Classic. To be fair, I also stocked up on other essentials for my kitchen marathon: cool, refreshing Fresca, Mike and Ikes, and rawhide bones (just in case the dog wanted to stay up all night with me). "Want help out to the car?" asked the bagger. I'm good, I said. "Be careful with those eggs," another check-out lady warned.
In my house, I cleared a few things off the kitchen counters—mostly the plugs and cords that juice all the handheld devices we use. I commandeered the air-hockey table downstairs to serve as the staging area for the ingredients. I went to my friendly neighborhood shipping store and bought 25 boxes from the nice lady who gives me discounts because I bake her cranberry pie each Thanksgiving. I put the laptop on the kitchen counter. And I put the eggs in the garage, in the small fridge that normally houses only juice boxes, bottles of water, and terribly stale beer.
ACT III: The Baking
5:48 p.m. Right on schedule, the first batch of cookies goes into the oven. Because I do not have a huge oven, it usually takes me about an hour or so to bake the two trays (four loaves) that make up each batch. And then I slice the loaves of cookie into biscotti shape, which makes them perfect for dunking into coffee or milk. I hope to make 20 to 22 such batches before I am through tomorrow evening, which should be good enough for about 30 boxes worth of pure deliciousness—and at least 30 donations.
Back to the Millers. Sam and Evelyn were just getting settled in to the bakery when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Eight months later, my mom recounts, Sam dutifully reported for induction at the Army base at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Mom says that her father was sent home to continue baking for the Northeast Pennsylvania coal miners whose brutal work (and, I guess, carbohydrates) were so important to the war effort. It became a family joke—that Sam's baking was essential to the war effort—but he was patriotic in the line of duty on the home front during the war.
He baked what people wanted him to bake, what people would eat, no matter where they were from. Practical man, Sam.
9:13 p.m. Am now four batches in and going strong. Speaking of batches, you should know that I am not even the best mandel-bread baker in my family. So says everyone else. My mother and I have a healthy rivalry over the years about the respective strengths and weaknesses of our individual mandel bread recipes. I find hers too small and brittle. She finds mine too laden with chocolate and too crumbly. My brother-in-law now has gotten into the act as well—he makes his own. Can't we all just get along? For the record, my son says he likes his grandma's mandel bread best.