A few weeks ago, I spent Shabbat evening at David Suissa’s house. His mother, Suzanne, who was visiting from Montreal, cooked.
At the end of the perfect Moroccan-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 p.m. I arrived at 12 p.m. She swung open the door, kissed me on both cheeks, then hurried back to the kitchen.
“You know when a Moroccan says 12 p.m.,” she said, “he comes 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 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 really learn to cook a great dish only 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 wanted 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 with time. Before we lose the generation that knows these recipes — whether in the hill towns of Puglia or on 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 flour and baking powder. 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.
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. Afterward, 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’d just driven a school bus full of children off a cliff.
“I don’t throw anything away, Rob!” Meme said.
I made a video of her until my iPhone battery died, so you can see what I saw. If doing something 10,000 times makes you an expert — as they say — you’ll be 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 had given me a dozen hot galettes from the first batch for the office.
On the way back to work. I ate them all.
MEME SUISSA’S GALETTES
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
6 1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup anise seeds
Beat 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 the dough in the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer and use dough hook to knead at low speed for three minutes.
Divide the dough into quarters. Roll out to 1/8-inch thickness. Pierce with dough docker, then cut into 1 1/2-by-2 inch rectangles with a ruffle-edged cutter.
Place the cookies, separated slightly, on a Silpat- or parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake in preheated 350 F oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until just brown. Halfway through baking time, switch pans (upper to lower rack, and vice versa) for even baking.
Makes about 64 cookies.