The scent of Mandelbrot baking in my oven can make me feel better when I’m feeling tired or out of sorts. Mandelbrot, which is Yiddish for almond bread, is a type of cookie, similar to biscotti. In my house, these cookies are also called “Mommy Cookies” because they are my favorite. (“Daddy Cookies” are Welsh Cookies, from my husband’s grandmother’s recipe. It is a sort of tea cake/cookie that is cooked on a griddle. They are good, but they do not make me swoon. They also do not contain chocolate, so there you go.) I make the best Mandelbrot in the world. . .unless, of course, you’ve grown up eating someone else’s.
I don’t remember growing up eating Mandelbrot, although I suppose I must have had it occasionally. I remember my grandfather called it “Kamish Bread,” which Wikipedia tells me is what it is called in Ukraine. (Wikipedia never lies, does it?) My grandparents and their cohorts favored dry, somewhat bland sweets. My recipe is adapted from a cousin’s recipe that I’ve fine-tuned over the years until I can almost bake a batch in my sleep. Unlike the version my immigrant grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles ate, mine includes an entire 16-ounce bag of bittersweet chocolate chips, ground almonds and walnuts, and a heavy sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. It’s my “signature cookie.” I used to bribe archivists with it when I was writing my dissertation.
During this time of year, at least in the United States, cookie baking and eating becomes a sort of obsession for many people. The tradition of gift giving within many cultures merges with a desire for rich, sweet foods brought on by the cold weather and limited sunlight. Many who never bake at other times, feel compelled to bake cookies during the holidays. My family and I recently received a tin of amazingly wonderful melt-in-the-mouth Mexican cookies that a friend prepared. I know she only bakes these cookies once a year, and that makes them even more special. I felt honored to receive them.
I love seeing, hearing about, and tasting the cookies that individuals and families believe they must have for their family gatherings, or to give away as gifts. I bake cookies all year round, and I actually tend not to bake Mandelbrot during the holiday season, since I bake it so often throughout the year.
Last week my younger daughter sent me a text saying she was falling asleep while studying for a college final exam. She said she was going to eat the last piece of Mandelbrot from the stash my husband and I had delivered to her a few days earlier, and she hoped it would keep her awake. I told her she would do fine on her exam and joked about “the power of Mandelbrot.”
It was a joke, and yet it wasn’t. The Mandelbrot was comfort food—with chocolate, which of course has amazing power. But even more significant, my Mandelbrot is imbued with cultural and family traditions—as well as the power of Mother Love, and what is more powerful than that?