Family Recipes - Well Worn, Well Loved

IN my mother's red-and-white recipe box, two of the cards are well fingered and spattered with sugar and love. They're titled ``Gaga's Crepes'' and ``Gaga's Christmas Stollen.''

Gaga was my mother's mother, who sailed to America at the turn of the century. She was 16 years old and alone when she made the journey, but she had the scents of Switzerland tucked away, beneath her velvet cape.

Her life was compressed into less than half a century. Widowed very young, she moved from Washington to Philadelphia to New York City, and she came to live with us near the end of her life.

After she was gone, the recipes remained, with all their smells and tastes.

My mother tried to make the crepes the same way that her mother did, ``the way Gaga made them,'' as she'd always say. And as I closed my lips on the sugar-coated crepe, letting the warm grape jelly run over my tongue, I tasted something so sweet and good, something that reminded me of my grandmother.

``Mom,'' I'd say, ``show me how you spread the crepes out so thin and make them taste so good.''

She'd spoon out just the right amount of batter, tilting the pan around in a circle. Then she'd put a little grape jelly in the middle, spread it around the circumference, and roll the crepe from right to left, as the edges turned golden brown. She never had to keep the crepes warm; we ate them from the pan.

And once a year, a few nights before Christmas, Mom would take out the recipe for stollen. The list of ingredients ran down both sides of the card: flour, milk, eggs, sugar, butter, and yeast, and then slivered almonds, candied orange and lemon peel, dried raisins, and cinnamon. After Mom put everything together and kneaded the dough well, she set the loaf aside for one entire night to let it rise. And then the scent of Gaga filled the house.

``It smells like Gaga,'' I used to say.

Thirty years ago, it was my turn to sail to Europe, to live here with my French husband. I brought my childhood with me, in souvenirs and memories. And before I left the United States, I copied some of my mother's recipes. Gaga's crepes and her Christmas stollen were coming home, round trip over the ocean.

I found a small recipe-card box, about the size of my mother's, and covered it with the same red and white checkered cloth. As my husband and I traveled from country to country, I added recipes from France and Belgium, from Italy, and then from Switzerland. I switched from tablespoons to decigrams, from cups to deciliters, and from Fahrenheit to Celcius. But the recipes from Gaga remained the same. And as my family grew, I doubled and then tripled the ingredients.

The red-and-white box sits in the cupboard, near the stove. It's filled tight with recipes, like a travelogue of where we've lived, but only the two from Gaga are as well-fingered and spattered as those in my mother's box.

Every year at Christmas, we have a stollen night. The children gather around the kitchen table, each with a large bowl, ready to stir in all the ingredients.

They knead and shape the dough into dozens of loaves. We sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon, and during the night, as they all rise, the smells and scents bring Gaga back. I close my eyes and know she's there.

When it's time for crepes, on a quiet day in the late afternoon, I try to make them as my mother did, ``the way Gaga made them.'' It's my grandchildren now who watch and wait their turn. And when there's one crepe left for me, I let the warm grape jelly run over my tongue just as it did when I was a child in America.

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