I like to listen to audiobooks while I’m cooking, especially while baking. This occasionally causes problems such as forgetting where I am in a long list of recipe ingredients, or becoming even less efficient in the kitchen than usual. Or having to rewind the audiobook frequently because reading cookbook directions distracted me from listening. This leads to a lot more hand washing and hand drying time.
The audiobook I’m enjoying this weekend is The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, narrated by George Guidall. Parts of it are set in a poor and crowded immigrant neighborhood of New York City known as Little Syria, in the first years of the 20th century, where the two title characters, at first nameless, have been stranded – separated by time and distance from everything familiar to them.
This excerpt comes from the beginning of Chapter 6, when the female golem is learning how to pass for human from the kindly old rabbi who has secretly taken her in. (A magical being, the golem has been created only to serve; she hears everyone’s unspoken desires and has to resist the compulsion she feels to satisfy all of them. Until she can control her impulses better, she rarely goes out. The rabbi – used to living alone and doing for himself – can’t help the occasional stray wish for his old solitude from crossing his mind. The golem, to make up for her presence, tries to be useful.)
“He was comforted that at least there was plenty to eat. For, to pass her time, the golem had taken up baking. It had been the rabbi’s idea, and he scolded himself for not thinking of it earlier. The notion came to him when he stopped at a bakery one morning and glimpsed a young man working in the back, rolling and braiding dough for the sabbath challahs. Loaf after loaf took shape underneath his hands. His quick, automatic movements spoke of the years he’d spent in this very spot, at this very task, and in that moment, he seemed to the rabbi almost a golem himself.
Golems did not eat, of course. But why should that keep a golem from becoming a baker? That afternoon he brought home a heavy, serious-looking English volume and gave it to the golem. “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” she read. She repeated the names of the recipes to the bemused rabbi in English and then in Yiddish and was astonished when he declared many of them completely alien to him. He had never eaten Finnan Haddie – a type of fish, apparently – or Gnocchi a la Romaine, or Potato es Delmonico, or any of a host of complicated-sounding egg dishes. She declared that she would cook a meal for him. Perhaps a Roast Turkey with Sweet Potatoes and Succotash. Or Lobster Bisque followed by Porterhouse Steaks, with Strawberry Shortcake for dessert?
The rabbi hastily explained – not without regret – that these dishes were too extravagant for their household and besides, lobsters were treif*. Perhaps she should start small and work upward from there. There was nothing he liked more, he said, than a fresh-baked coffeecake. Would that do for a beginning?”
The golem goes out shopping for coffeecake ingredients, braving the streets of New York’s Little Syria where she is assaulted by the random desires of every passerby.
“She baked the coffeecake, following the recipe with fervent exactitude, and was successful in her first attempt. She was pleasantly surprised at the ease of the chore and at the almost magical way that the oven transformed the thick batter into something else entirely. Something solid, warm, and fragrant. The rabbi ate two slices with his morning tea, and declared it one of the best cakes he’d ever tasted. She went out and bought more ingredients that afternoon. The next morning the rabbi awoke to find a bakery’s worth of pastries on the parlor table. There were muffins, and cookies, a phalanx of biscuits, and a towering stack of pancakes. A dense, strongly spiced loaf was something called “gingerbread.”
“I had no idea one could bake so much in an evening.” He said it lightly, but she saw his dismay.
“You wish I hadn’t,” she said.
“Well,” he smiled, “perhaps not so much. I’m only one man with one stomach. It would be a shame to let this all turn stale. And we must not be so exorbitant, you and I. This is a week’s worth of food!”
I’ve posted a few times about gluten-free baking. One of the things that is the hardest to replicate is the yeasted, whole-grain bread that was once – in the days before the low-carb diet, at least – the substantial accompaniment to hearty soups and stews, all winter long. I wondered whether it was worth even trying to bake a gluten-free version.
But I already had a bag of gluten-free Ancient Grains Flour Blend (like the golem, I kind of went overboard for the holidays, buying too many ingredients) and decided to try the recipe on the back of it. It took a little longer than I thought it would, because I forgot to account for rising time, but the bread was very similar in texture to the whole-wheat bread of yore.
*not kosher. (Excerpt transcribed from audio, so may not exactly match the correct print version in punctuation and spelling)