Article by Liz Ison
At the recent barmitzvah of Owen Woolf, we were treated to a really special Kiddush lovingly prepared and baked in Cardiff and personally delivered to Wimbledon Synagogue by Owen’s grandmother, Renee (pronounced Reenie).
How did you come to agree to bake for the Kiddush?
A few months before the barmitzvah, my son Maurice asked me, “do you think you’d do the Kiddush for me?”
“Of course, I will,” I replied. “How many people are coming?”
“About 230”, he told me.
After I’d got over the initial shock, I got planning.
I have a lot of experience in catering for large numbers. I grew up in a big family of six children and we would always have guests over for meals, especially on Friday nights. I catered my own 70th birthday lunch for 100 and also prepared the dessert trolleys for my other grandson’s barmitzvah in Israel. My friends and I also made 500 scones in the kitchen of our Jewish old age home and served up a lovely cream tea to the residents.
How exactly do you go about baking for a Kiddush for 230 people at a London synagogue when you live in Cardiff?
About a month before the barmitzvah, I decided to get cracking and I planned to make something every day except for Fridays when I make my own hallah. Luckily my neighbour had a freezer he wasn’t using so I stored everything in his and my freezers ready to be transported.
As I made progress, I would text Maurice messages like, “Keeping you informed – 120 scones made” or “Hello Maurice, 130 welsh cakes made today”. After a while, he stopped replying to my texts.
So, without it being stressful, I made the following: 320 fish balls, 10 lemon cakes, 120 scones (to be served with cream and jam), 130 welsh cakes, 4 chocolate cakes, 100 pieces of apple strudel, 120 date squares, 120 rocky roads and 100 hazelnut biscuits. Oh, and 100 chocolate truffles. Just before, I also made marshmallows dipped in chocolate as I knew those would be popular with the children.
Everything fitted nicely into our car, though we did joke that the friend whom we were giving a lift might have to sit on the roof. We delivered everything straight to the synagogue. I also made some hallah which we had at our family meal on the Friday evening. When we got home I discovered we’d left a box of scones in the freezer.
Were you happy with how the Kiddush went?
Yes, I was.
I felt the Kiddush had a really nice family atmosphere and I think the fact that the cakes were home baked added to that feeling that we – family, friends and the congregation – were all one close community. Because there was plenty to eat, people stayed on, rather than rushing off. They stayed to chat and meet different people. It felt like an evening at home.
Owen told me it was a banquet, and I have been called the “fish ball lady” since! I made sure to walk round offering people more food – that’s the Welsh way – I wanted everyone to eat well and feel welcomed. I love it when people have a second or third helping. That Kiddush, like so many other family parties and occasions over the years, will go down as what we call special family memory time.
Who has influenced your cooking?
I learnt a lot from my mother. She was one of 12 children, and she had six children of her own so she knew about cooking for a crowd. I don’t know how she managed to do everything – she ran a business, brought up her family, contributed to community life and she was always entertaining – she really was an outstanding cook. She managed all that cooking without electric mixers or all the special equipment we have nowadays. I still follow her method of baking hallah, which involves letting the dough rise in a wicker basket, covered with a tea towel with two pillows on top.
I remember my mother’s advice, “It’s not always about how it looks. It’s about how it tastes in the mouth”. I think that’s right: it’s best to aim for something that tastes delicious, and something you know people like. My mother also taught me to lay a table with plenty of food for everyone. If there is some left over, that is much better than there not being enough.
I often repeat the same recipes because my friends ask for a particular cake or even expect particular dishes when they come over. So I aim to keep things simple but tasty. Things don’t always go to plan. I couldn’t lift the first cake I made off the table! But my sister encouraged me, telling me to never give up, and try again.
My signed copy of Evelyn Rose’s cookbook is my Bible. I swear by her! My copy is virtually in shreds I’ve used it so much. Her recipes always work. Many years ago, our local WIZO group (of which I have been chairman for the last 10 years) invited Evelyn Rose to be a guest speaker. We prepared her and the group a dinner – the recipes were all out of her cookbook, of course. She said it was the best meal she’d ever had cooked for her. We modestly said, well it was all from your book. But she replied that we should take credit as we had cooked it. A while later, she was interviewed on Woman’s Hour and was asked whether she found it hard to be cooked for. She replied that the best food she’d tasted was in Cardiff – she was referring to our WIZO meeting!
This isn’t just about cake, is it?
I have learnt from my parents. They had a large family to bring up and they had to work hard all their lives. However busy they were, they would always keep the Jewish holidays. We have such lovely traditions and they are so often about food. I saw my parents change the dishes for Passover, and put out another table on Fridays for extra guests. My parents believed in giving to the community, not taking. I would recommend entertaining, even if it’s just inviting people round for bagels or some cake. It’s what life is about.
Renee, how do you do it?
I’m 72 years old but in my mind I think of myself as 56 and that seems to work! I work 2 ½ days a week, I’m very busy with the United Synagogue in Cardiff, with the old people’s home, and with WIZO. It is about making an effort and being busy but I do it because I enjoy it and I just try to do my best.
I’m starting to think about Jenny’s batmitzvah (Owen’s sister)… I’m planning to make florentines – they’re always very popular. Hmm, and my roulade pavlova usually goes down well…
Finally, we asked the barmitzvah boy what he thought of the Kiddush…
It was the biggest and most delicious I have ever seen. I especially liked the bagels, rocky roads, marshmallows, salmon, crisps, cup cakes, rice krispy cakes, honey cake, chocolate cake and popcorn. [Owen, you’re a good Jewish boy.]
Renee’s top tips
- Make what people like. You don’t need to make complicated things. Stick with recipes that are simple and tasty.
- Freeze cakes or biscuits in small plastic boxes with non-stick parchment between each layer. They freeze much better this way, and can be defrosted in the box.
- You can’t hurry cooking.
- Plan ahead and write down your plan.
- For a Kiddush or buffet, make small sized portions – it makes it easier for people to pick up with their fingers, and they don’t necessarily need a plate.
- Make sure there is plenty to eat.
- Invite people over – get entertaining.
- 100g unsalted butter,, cubed.
- 2 tbsp clear honey
- 300g dark chocolate, broken up
- 5 digestive biscuits, chopped up
- 100g mini marshmallows, pink and white
- 100g macadamia nuts, halved
STRUDEL (My way!)
- 8 oz. plain flour
- pinch of salt
- 2 level tbsp. icing sugar
- 4 oz. hard Tomor margarine
- 1 egg yolk
- juice of 1/2 lemon or 1 1/2 tbsp. lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. cold water.
- 8oz self-raising flour
- heaped tbsp. baking powder
- 1oz caster sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 oz butter
- 5 fl.0z semi-skimmed milk
- 1 oz sultanas if desired
GRANDMA’S WELSH CAKES
- 8oz self-raising flour
- 3oz butter
- pinch salt
- 3oz caster sugar
- 3oz currants
- 1 egg
- semi-skimmed milk