Two or three times a year, at no particular day, month or season, my father would get an irresistible urge to bake koochen. This need was akin to salmon swimming upstream or gravity swimming down. It was a genetic command from the Great Chef in the Sky, an Event with a capital “E,” the ripples of which traveled from Glencoe to Highland Park to Chicago, to touch aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, friends and friends of friends with the easily decoded burst of Intelligence: “Sam is baking koochen.”
In the small universe that we inhabited, my father’s koochen was world-renowned. It was something over which prospective victims would groan, “Sam, you could throw it against a wall, and the wall would break,” but which everybody would eat anyway. There was a compelling quality about this heavier-than-air pastry. “I know I’m going to break my front teeth on the first bite.” A quality greater than just the love with which it was baked. “Oh, no, Sam. Not again. My insurance policy doesn’t cover eating injuries.” A quality of meeting, and overcoming one of life’s challenges.
My father’s koochen.
Never did a man bake with such joyful abandon. Never was a kitchen brought to its knees with such a gleam of contentment in the ravager’s eyes.
Flour (lots of it).
Sugar (lots of it).
Cinnamon (a sprinkle here; a sprinkle there).
Dry cottage cheese (it has to be dry).
Vanilla extract (koochen is nothing without a heavy dose).
Eggs (yolk and all).
Milk (maybe a little. Maybe a lot. I forgot.)
And…the magical ingredient: Yeast.
First came the flour, sugar, water, milk, a dash of salt, eggs. Then…the yeast! Mix, knead; get flour on the floor, walls, ceilings, your pants, your hair, and the bottom of your children’s shoes so that they can track footprints all over the house. If flour footprints aren’t on the floors and carpets, the koochen doesn’t taste as good.
Roll the dough into four balls. Put each ball in a separate bowl and cover the bowls with damp dishcloths. The dishcloths should look as if they were stolen from the men’s locker rooms at Ellis Island in the year 1910, but any towel with holes will do.
All of which is preparatory to The Great Rising of the Dough, which, in Sam Reuben’s kitchen was similar, in terms of suspense, to the Sinking of the Titanic. Only in reverse.
After years of koochen-baking, I can state unequivocally that if you sneaked up on the bowl with the requisite temerity and silence, you could see the dough rising before your very eyes. This phenomenon is much like observing the Blob (in the science fiction movie of the same name) as it grows larger, larger and larger until it threatened to devour the whole town.
In such a manner did my father’s koochen dough rise.
As though it had a purpose.
As though it were exhaling hot air.
As though it were breathing.
It was warm and soft and it grew and grew and grew. The secret of its growth was the magical ingredient that my father threw into the bowl. Small, rectangular, and wrapped in wax paper, the label on the package said: LIVE YEAST. Which is something like: LIVE AMMUNITION.
During the course of my many clandestine visits to the kitchen, I would sometimes insinuate my fingers under the damp dishtowel and push down gently on the warm dough…for the pure pleasure of watching it puff out again, like soft belly of a fat puppy.
The dough was left to rise overnight.
In the morning, instead of an alarm clock, we woke up to the clang and clatter of pans and bowls…to the bang and slam of cabinet and oven doors. The Making of the Koochen was about to enter its final stages, and nothing in the world was more fun to wake up to.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben.