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Almond Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot

Almond Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot

Growing up, the holiday season was always a little depressing for me. Even though Jewish people have our own winter holiday, Hanukkah never really seemed to be equivalent of Christmas and rightfully so, because, well, it’s not. Like many Jewish holidays, though there was celebration, it was also infused with that uniquely Jewish bittersweetness and sadness in the storytelling around its history. This acceptance of the sadder and darker moments that are an inevitable part of the full picture of life may make for people who are more willing to accept the various hurdles, disappointments and tragedies that life presents but as a child, frankly, all I wanted from my holidays was cheer, comfort and forgetting.

I have a bit of a confession. To my young mind, all you needed to be safe and happy was to be born Christian. I know that is silly and nave but that was my sense growing up. The stories we were told in synagogue were all about pain, suffering and just barely managing to overcome the odds for survival. If I could just be Christian, maybe life would be easier, maybe it would be more like life in the Brady household, where the biggest thing to stress out over was living under Marcia or Greg’s shadow. Hanukkah rather emphasized this divide to me: I imagined that our Christian neighbors were enjoying gingerbread cookies and were lit by Christmas trees as they did sing-alongs around the piano like everyone just stepped out of Capra set. Meanwhile, we were spinning dreidels for waxy chocolates and hearing about the Maccabees eventual triumph over oppression. Let the good times roll! 

Through it all, though, I had my grandmother. (My grandfather was amazing, too, but a quieter person so a less obvious influence.) My Grandma Dora will likely always have the biggest influence on how I live my life and she is especially on my mind this time of year when she made a difficult time of year, when I felt isolated, sad and estranged, feel much more bright and warm.

My grandmother was the sort of person strangers would smile at and even when she was old and living in a senior care facility, the harried nurses would make a point to smile at her. She was the anchor of our family, a benevolent matriarch you couldn’t help but love with a big smile, an earthy laugh and a true effervescence than bubbled over into everything she did. When my mother and her siblings were growing up, her home in Rogers Park was the gathering point for all of my grandmother’s siblings, nieces, nephews and friends. She was assertive but diplomatic, confident but never arrogant, and a lifelong flirt. I could not ask for a better grandmother. She also happened to be an amazing cook and baker, the kind of person who could make an ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwich taste more delicious than anyone else’s. Or maybe that is just the part of the mystique I held her in.

Throughout a pretty unhappy childhood, my grandmother always made me feel valued and protected, and my favorite memories were sitting at her little kitchen table and helping her cook. I was her assistant, she said. We would roll out the dough for rugelach, I would grate potatoes for latkes, I would add the strawberry jam in the belly button of her thumbprint cookies, and all the dark stuff in my own world, all the sadness, would dissipate. Whether we were talking and laughing or just working together silently, there was something about my grandmother and her presence that was so deeply comforting. Covered in flour, my little fingers numb from shredding, I couldn’t have felt more peaceful. To me, perhaps that was what I thought Christians universally had. Peace. A suspension of troubles and fears. That was what I had with my grandparents.

Marla and Grandma Dora c.1995

My grandmother’s mandelbrot (which we called mandel bread, literally almond bread) was, to my mind, her signature sweet treat. Not specifically for any particular holiday, her mandelbrodt always showed up where she went and was a rather simple but no less delicious slab of a cookie that was sweet and crunchy with almonds. Is it possible for a cookie to create a feeling of security? I’m not sure, but I do know that everything crafted from her hands in her warm little kitchen had that affect on me but perhaps her mandelbrodt achieved this most.

For those not familiar, mandelbrot is often referred to as “Jewish biscotti,” though it’s a little more cookie-like, a little less dry. Like biscotti, they are twice-baked cookies to create that satisfying crunch, though, as “peasant food,” they are easy and inexpensive to make. Last week, I was missing my grandmother again, which I always do this time of year, and a voice inside me said, “Make mandelbrot.” I was instantly comforted at the thought and set about trying to recreate it.

I haven’t had mandelbrot in many years but these are reminiscent of my grandmother’s, with the exception of adding chocolate chips (because they make everything better) and adapting it as a gluten-free recipe, because my grandma wouldn’t want my tummy to hurt.

Here’s to you, sweet Grandma Dora, and all the other beautiful souls who lift us up with their mere presence and warmth. May we all be that beacon of light to those who seek comfort in the world.

Almond Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot

2 tablespoons flaxseeds
6 tablespoons water
2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour blend
(I used Bob’s Red Mill All-Purpose Blend)
1 cup almond flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
2 teaspoons baking powder
teaspoon salt
2/3 cup coconut sugar or vegan dry sugar of your preference
2/3 cup slivered almonds
1 cup fair trade, non-dairy chocolate chips
cup plain, unsweetened non-dairy milk
(I used almond)
cup neutral oil
(I used safflower)
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract

First, make your flax “eggs.” Stir together your flaxseeds and water with a fork or a mini-whisk and allow this to chill in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

Toast the almonds in a small baking pan for five minutes, shake, and toast another five minutes. Remove from the oven but leave it on. You can pulse the almonds in a food processor to make them crumbly or add as slivers to your dough.

Meanwhile, whisk together the flours, cinnamon, xanthan gum, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, stir together the flax eggs, milk, oil, and extracts. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry along with the almonds and chocolate chips. It will be sticky! If you want to refrigerate to reduce the stickiness, through it in the fridge, covered for an hour or so. Otherwise, proceed and be prepared for sticky hands.

With wet hands, shape the dough into a log shape on prepared he baking sheet. 

Bake for 40 minutes or so until the edges start to lightly brown. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool for ten minutes. Then, using a serrated knife, cut into uniform slices, about 1-inch wide. (I used the knife straight up and down rather than in a sawing motion because I thought that would keep it intact better.) On the same parchment-lined cookie sheet, gently turn the pieces over so they are flat on one side and bake for 10 minutes more or until cooked through and perfect. Because the pieces are so big, I cut them in half at this point. Allow to cool and enjoy!

2013, 2014, Vegan Street

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