Monday, April 6, 2009

Some Say I am a Gourmet Cook, But What About Ingber?

By Ann Rabinowitz

Some say I am a gourmet cook as expressed by my wide-ranging repertoire of dishes which also covers the greats of traditional Jewish cookery such as cholent, knishes and blintzes.  However, there is one recipe that I have inexplicably never been able to conquer.  It is for something quite simple involving a recipe that has been in my family for generations.  
Let me explain . . .

My mother, who was born in Manchester, England, never had someone who could readily teach her how to cook on an everyday basis as her mother died quite early on when my mother was seven.  My mother’s older sisters and my grandfather’s sister, Pessel Gruber Henick, served as surrogate cooks.  Unfortunately, my grandmother’s sister, Ettel Oxenberg Axelrad, lived too far away in Blackpool, England, to pass on my grandmother’s heritage of recipes. 

Aunty Pessel was from Drogobych, Ukraine, and she lived at 19 Irwell Street, right through the “entry” from 19 Cheetwood Street where my mother lived.  It was in an area called Strangeways which was filled with emigrants, mostly Galitzianers and Rumanians, even some Litvaks and gentiles.  They all lived cramped and crowded in the old-style backstreet row houses which had been constructed for mill workers during the advent of the Industrial Revolution. 

The houses did not have indoor plumbing or electricity or any of the refinements of the modern age, other than gas lighting, when the emigrants lived there.  Early on, cooking was done in the fireplace or hearth with cast iron pots made especially to withstand the heat of the fire.  For some fireplaces, there were niches or ovens where cooking would be done and then there were stoves which were developed that were wood or coal burning.  The kettle and other cast iron pots would be hung in the fireplace as well to cook.  It was not an easy life for the family chef then, but despite this, many a grand meal would come out of these less than perfect accommodations, day after day.

In this regard, my mother would wistfully reminisce about these long ago dishes which had filled her childhood with vibrant and taste-tempting memories with a yiddishe tam.  There was bilban, kichlach, gebratene fleisch, geyorene cake, and my grandfather’s specialties, kalyeh kez and the drink, mead or honey wine. 

My mother’s favorite, by far, was made every Rosh Hashanah and Passover by her Aunty Pessel.  It was ingber, aka ingberlach or imberlach, a carrot candy, which Aunty Pessel would make by grating a mound of carrots, mixing them with sugar, honey and ginger and adding in walnuts.  My mother would be in charge of helping to crack the shells of the walnuts and then they would be mashed into smaller manageable pieces with the mortar and pestle.  When all the ingredients had been cooked on top of the stove, Aunty Pessel would spread them out on a flat surface with a spatula, score them into diamond shapes and let them harden. 

The resulting candy, piquant with the pungent flavor of ginger, would be fabulous except for the bits of shell which often remained in the mixture as Aunty Pessel did not see so well and missed them when adding the nuts.  It was a tiny flaw in an otherwise perfect candy confection.  Who could complain?

As Aunty Pessel did not measure anything she cooked and neither did any of my mother’s sisters, there was no actual recipe which was handed down from anyone.  When my mother thought about it and wanted to make ingber and teach me, she had no idea of what to do. 

It then became an obsession to find just the right recipe for ingber.  First, I looked about to find what ingber meant.  It turned out that ingber is the German and Yiddish for ginger.  Actually, in middle German, it is zingiber and similar spellings occur in many languages even from India where ginger is grown and also China where it was thought to have originated.

Then, I asked all of my mother’s friends who were good cooks of the old style.  None had heard of ingber.  Perhaps it was due to their being mostly Litvaks and this might be a primarily Galitzianer recipe?  No, how could that be?  I’d heard of Litvaks making the recipe in South Africa, where the largest group of Litvak descendants lived.  I’d have to try harder to find a recipe. 

So, I then tried asking Aunty Pessel’s remaining daughter, Golda Henick, if she remembered the ingber.  Yes, of course, she did and she proceeded to give me the recipe.  As I remember it, it was a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  Unfortunately, she was, by this time, too old (in her nineties) to make the recipe herself and show me what it was like.  Her nephew’s wife, Sandra Freedman, just said that the secret to making it work was to use equal parts of all the ingredients.  As Sandra explained to me, the recipe was as follows:
Aunty Pessel’s Ingber (via granddaughter-in-law Sandra Freedman)

 - 1 lb. Carrots
 - 4 oz. (1/2 Cup) Chopped Walnuts
 - 1 lb. (2-1/4 Cups) Sugar
 - ½ Tsp. Ginger
Grate peeled carrots on fine.  Heat the carrots in saucepan with sugar.  Stir on low heat until sugar was dissolved.  Cook slowly until thick.  Add other ingredients and cook until hardened.  Remove from heat.  Spread on a damp board.  When cool mark in diamond shapes with a knife.

However, when my mother tried this recipe, it failed miserably. 

My mother’s siblings were long gone by the time I started this search and I tried asking their children.  Only Dina, the wife of my late cousin, Brian Fink, responded with a recipe which sounded delicious, but which had an Israeli twist to it with orange juice as an ingredient and a different kind of nut. 
Dina Coleman Fink’s Ingber
 - 1 lb. 4oz (1/2k) Cooked Carrots
 - 1 lb. (1/2k) Sugar (a little less)
 - ½ Cup Orange Juice
 - ½ Tsp. Salt
 - 3 oz. (75 grams) Ground Almonds
 - 1 Tsp. Ginger
 - 1 Tsp. Vanilla
Mash carrots through strainer.  Pour off juice.  Add rest of ingredients.  Cook on low for a half hour or until thick.  Stir often.  Sprinkle a little sugar and ginger on a board.  Spread mix.  Sprinkle more sugar and ginger.  Cool.  Cut before hard.

No, that was not what I was looking for.

Next, I trawled through my huge collection of Jewish cookbooks looking for recipes.  Hardly a one had anything for ingber.  It was a strange and consuming odyssey which was not getting anywhere fast.  I was beginning to think my mother had dreamed up this ingber and it did not really exist at all, only in her memory.

Slowly, I began to find recipes and my mother and I tried each one of them out.  There seemed to be a consistency in the ingredients and the amount used . . . 1lb grated carrots to 1lb sugar, was a common theme throughout.  However, when the mixture was boiled as the recipe directed, it never seemed to harden.  During the preparation of one recipe, we became so disheartened at this, that we plunked the whole thing into the freezer hoping it would harden at last.  No such luck!  It remained an orange-reddish mush. 

Some said it might be the extremely high humidity of South Florida which caused the mix to fail to harden or not letting it sit for several days.  The thought of letting such a sweet mixture sit out for days brought on thoughts of every ant or bug in South Florida’s tropical climate attacking the mixture without impunity.  Anyhow, no matter the reason, it was tearing out your hair time for both my mother and I.

Throughout all of this, we must have grated tons of carrots, not an easy task I can tell you.  I was beginning to hate the thought of carrots altogether.  It reminded me of the time I had made my father an old Litvak Passover recipe, eingemachts, which means in Yiddish “to preserve” as in preserving fruit.  The recipe consisted of using large black radishes, honey, ginger and almonds.  Supposedly, when completed, it would be the consistency of jam or preserves and could be spread on bread or dollops dropped into tea, the way it was done in “der heim”.  However, it had caused such a stench when it was cooking that it had driven my father out of his comfortable chair to the out-of-doors.  It was an inevitable consequence of modern unfamiliarity with old ingredients and recipes.

My father, who was a chef and restaurateur, as they call it now, was very easy about all of this uproar about ingber and he let my mother and I struggle through this lengthy and time-consuming process by our selves.  He, in the meantime, placed himself steadfastly in front of the television engrossed in the latest football match, ignoring the hubbub.  After all, my mother was almost always expected to get something like this right as she had a perfect palate and taste for things and was a very creative cook.

When I was a child, I remember that she had written to the Duncan Hines Company regarding an idea for a recipe which she thought they might like.  She had added pudding to the recipe of one of their cake mixes.  One day, some representatives appeared on our doorstep to speak to her about her recipe.  Next thing she knew, they had incorporated her idea into their cake mix.  Nothing ever materialized monetarily for her from this other than a carton of free boxes of the Duncan Hines mix.  Every time we used the mix, it brought back the memory of how our mother had been creative enough to change this popular mix into something special.

In addition, at one time, my mother worked for James Neville McArthur, the noted founder of McArthur Dairy, one of the largest such agricultural enterprises in the state of Florida.  Very often, given her perfect palate, he would have her taste proposed new brands of ice cream and give her opinion of them.  She knew her stuff and did not mince any words about things which did not meet her exacting standards.

So, I had faith that she would, no doubt, figure out the problem eventually with the ingber.  However, that was never going to be as my mother became ill and later passed away never uncovering the secret to making the perfect ingber that she fondly remembered.  For many years, I gave up on any further sleuthing regarding ingber.  For, how would I ever know, if it was done correctly or had the right tam.  The person who knew was now gone.  It seemed a silly goose chase to pursue.

Soon enough though, I had an added incentive to continue.  My cousin, Rose Yodaiken, sent me her recipe for ingber.  It was, at least, fifty-five years old and she had learned to make it with her mother, Sadie Fink Josephson, my mother’s sister, when she was a youngster in Dublin, Ireland.  My Aunty Sadie was a fabulous cook and everything she made was delicious as I remembered
from childhood meals she had made me.
Sadie Fink Josephson’s Ingber (via daughter Rose Yodaiken)
 - 1-1/2 lbs Carrots
 - 16 ozs. White Sugar
 - 3 tsp Ginger
 - 4 ozs. Walnuts or Almonds
 - 1 Lemon, juice of
Boil or pressure cook carrots until soft (press through colander to remove liquid).  Chuck into big pan and add warmed sugar.  Cook 30 minutes, medium/low light until mix thickens.  Keep stirring as bottom of pan can “catch” easily.  When thick, add ginger, nuts and stir.  Only when really thick, add lemon juice.  Cook gently until juice evaporates and test a tiny amount on saucer with a tiny drop of water like when you make jam.  You may need to keep cooking until mix stays firm.  Then spread on sugared board and leave until cool and firm, but not cold.  Cut into diamonds and leave on board overnight.  You can put in a plastic bag to protect from bugs.  It should be completely set by morning.

According to my cousin Rose, the derivation of this recipe was up for grabs.  It may have been from our Aunty Bessie, my mother’s oldest sister and the fountainhead of all of the heirloom recipes in the family or, from the well-known Florence Greenberg’s Anglo-Jewish Cookery Book, 1958.  Sometimes, it is difficult to determine what an heirloom is; or what is an adaptation from a popular cookbook.

Following this lead, I posted an inquiry on the British-Jewry digest on the Internet, asking for anyone who had the Florence Greenberg book, 1958 edition, to respond and check for an ingber recipe for me.  Immediately, I was overwhelmed by individuals who were happy to oblige with lookups.  It is surprising how many people had this basic cookery book.  It seemed to be equivalent to Americans having a Jenny Grossinger’s Art of Jewish Cooking, also published in 1958, or, actually, a more modern choice, Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook.
Florence Greenberg’s Ingber
 - 1 lb. Carrots      
 - 1 lb. Caster Sugar
 - 4 oz. Chopped Nuts
 - ½ tsp. Ground ginger
Scrape and wash the carrots, then grate on a fine grater.  Put into a saucepan with the sugar, place over an asbestos mat, and stir over a very gentle heat till the sugar has dissolved.  Then continue cooking very slowly till all the moisture is absorbed and the mixture is very thick, keeping it very well stirred.  Test a little on a plate, and when it sets hard add the nuts and ginger and remove from the heat.

Spread on a damp board, and when cool mark with a knife.  When cold break into pieces along the marks.

After reviewing this recipe, it appeared that my Aunty Sadie’s version might have been a candidate for an heirloom recipe as it was that much different in quantities and ingredients from Florence Greenberg’s to be a bit special.  Perhaps I had found my family’s original recipe after all.

(Published with permission of the British-Jewry News 16, March 10, 2009)
© Ann Rabinowitz, 2008

4 comments:

  1. Anne,

    Thank you so much for all of this research! My father, who is in his late sixties, remembers a carrot candy his grandmother would make for Pesach. It was his favorite treat and to hear him speak of it makes my feel like I've opened the pages of Proust's novel!

    Unfortunately, he doesn't remember what it was called, nor how it was made. I want so badly to make it for him!

    I've come to the conclusion that it must be "Ingber," but he remembers it having a slight marzipan taste and being the consistency of a thick halavah....

    Do you think I'm on the right track?

    Thanks and Hag Samach!

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  2. Ah! I tried making eingemachts too, with black radishes and honey and spices. I'm glad to know that I wasn't doing something dreadfully wrong (or were you and I both?), because it was the most DISGUSTING thing I ever made. My husband (who likes chutney, which I don't) gamely ate a little, but I disliked it. And the stench lingered in the house for days. Do you think we both did something wrong or is that the way it was supposed to turn out? I tried it because I was doing research for the novel I was then writing, BLACK RADISHES. I was going to have my main character remember it fondly. But once I tried it, I had to come up with another radish recipe for him to remember fondly!

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  3. Hi,
    I was just searching for ingber recipes and found your fascinating saga.
    My Auntie Dora always made and sent ingber for our household when I was a kid.
    I always remembered it as having a peppery flavour, so was surprised to see it (more likely!)contained ginger!
    I was intrigued to see your family was from Manchester, and when I looked up the street names on Google Maps,I realised that they lived just off Bury New Road, where my family's shop was located until the mid 60's, when they moved into the centre of Manchester.
    We lived in Stockport in those days, some miles away, but my Grandfather and Auntie Dora both had houses nearby.
    I seem to remember a big wartime water reservoir over the road from the shop, which was a men's outfitters called J. Nachman Ltd.

    Oh well, time to get carrot grating I guess!

    Best Wishes,
    Paul Nachman.

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  4. In regard to the three comments regarding Ingber:

    To lu103, it sounds like Ingber is what your father remembers . . . so I think you are on the right track. Sorry it has taken so long to respond.

    To Susan Meyer, I'm glad someone else had the same experience I did with the radishes!!!! Glad you tested it out before putting it in your writing.

    To Paul Nachman, will get back to you on your family and glad to hear you are spoiling yourself with carrots . . . so good for you. It is lovely to bring back old memories of one's family through recipes.

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