A few weeks ago I spent Shabbat evening at David Suissa’s house. His mother Suzanne, visiting from Montreal, cooked.
At the end of the perfect Morroccan Jewish festive dinner came a plate of galettes—anise-scented tea biscuits. Light, not too sweet—perfect for coffee. For breakfast. For the office. I asked her to teach me how to make them.
“Mais oui,” she said.
My cooking lesson with Suzanne was set for 12 pm. I arrived at 12 pm. She swung open the door, kissed me on both cheeks, then hurried back to the kitchen.
“You know when a Moroccan says 12 pm,” she said, “they come at 1.”
She was happy to welcome me into David’s Beverlywood home, but too busy to stay in one place for more than a second. In a couple of days her grandson was to be wed, and Suzanne was in the midst of preparing food for a pre-wedding henna ceremony. Moroccan meat pastries, chicken, meat, vegetables, salads—for 100 people.
Everyone calls Suzanne “Meme”-- Meh-meh—an endearment for Mama. She is 79 years old. Family, food and work, in that order, have defined her life. As David wrote in the Jewish Journal in 2007:
...here in her tiny kitchen in Montreal, these were my childhood memories. Memories of a small apartment kitchen where Meme cooked for 100 people who came for my brother Samy's bar mitzvah, in 1967. Memories of seders, Shabbat meals, hot soups on winter nights, summer picnics, afternoon snacks -- big meals, small meals or spectacular meals, always coming out of tiny kitchens.
Meme stopped the preparations to make me lunch, which she insisted I must eat before my cooking lesson. It was noon, after all. Between prepping dinner for 100 guests and giving me a cooking lesson, she made me lunch: pureed red lentil soup, spiced with onion and cumin, a grilled chicken paillard, a salad of carrot, celery and cilantro, another salad with smoked roasted eggplant.
She asked if I’d like a glass of wine—I said of course. When I started to reach for a water glass, Meme rushed over and replaced it with a proper wine glass.
“No no no no,” she said.
Galettes is a simple recipe, then again, so is pasta, so is bread, so is cheese. The great foods of the world rely not on mysterious recipes or ingredients, but on technique. I’m a confident cook, and I can certainly follow a recipe, but I can only really learn to cook a great dish by watching someone who excels at it—who loves it—do it.
That’s why I didn’t simply ask Meme for her galette recipe—it’s just a list of ingredients. I asked to watch her make it. That takes time, but skill and touch and taste and love—the key ingredients to great food, are only revealed in time. Before we lose the generation that knows these recipes—whether in the hill towns of Puglia or the streets of Beverlywood—we need to preserve them on tape. Great food is not a question of what, but how.
Meme started by mixing eggs, sugar and oil. (“I always check my eggs,” Meme said, as she cracked each into a small dish before adding it to the mixing bowl.)
She added more anise seed than you’ve bought in your life, along with flower and baking soda. She kneaded it all in a KitchenAid mixer.
“My mother put everything in like this all at once and mixed with her hands,” Meme said. She told me her mother was also an excellent cook. When Meme told me one of her favoirte dishes from Casablanca was a salad of green peppers, tomatoes and argan oil, I promised to send her argan oil, which I said was now becoming popular in LA.
"Really!" she said-- but I'm not sure she believed me.
When the mass had come together and was smooth, she rolled it out by hand on a lightly floured surface—at home she uses an electric pasta machine for this—then she used a dough docker to poke the signature holes in the dough. Afterwards she used a ruffled rolling cutter to shape the final biscuits.
When I asked to try my hand at rolling, docking and cutting, I tossed a small scrap of dough, no bigger than a Nicoise olive, toward the trash. Meme looked at me like I just drove a school bus full of children off a cliff.
“I don’t throw anything away Rob!” Meme said.
I took a video until my iPhone battery died, so you can see what I saw. If doing something 10,000 times makes you an expert—so they say—you’re watching a woman who has made tens of thousands of galettes. Pay attention.
Then, after an hour, I had to leave. The thing about Meme’s hospitality is I felt as bad for coming right on time as I did for leaving when I said I had to. The cookies were still in the oven. She had made me lunch and given me the gift of this lesson.
Another double kiss and I was gone, but not before Meme gave me a dozen hot galettes from the first batch.
I ate them in the car on the way back to work.
Meme Suissa’s Galettes
1 c. sugar
1 c. vegetable oil
1 c. water
6 ½ c. flour, approximately
2 T. baking powder
1 c. anise seeds
Beat the first four ingredients together in bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients, then mix by hand or with a sturdy spoon until a stiff dough comes together. Put in a KitchenAid and use a dough hook to knead at low speed for three minutes. ( If you don't have a KitchenAid, you can knead by hand. Why not start by putting all the ingredients in the KitchenAid? Because you need to use your hands to feel when the dough has come together properly. Plus it's more fun.)
Divide the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter out to 1/8 inch thickness. (At home in Montreal, Meme divides the dough into smaller pieces and rolls it through the electric pasta machine attachment on her KitchenAid.) Pierce with a dough docker, then cut into 1 ½ inch by 2 inch rectangles with a ruffle-edged cutter.
Place the cookies on Silpat- or parchment-lined cookie sheet, slightly separated.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until just brown. Switch pans for even cooking.