November 1, 2012
Author: David Sax
“Granny” Ella Sax’s signature dessert was her rice pudding, baked without dairy, studded with raisins, blanketed in cinnamon, and drenched in maple syrup. In her warm Montreal apartment, with its candy bowls and old world tchotchkes and hallways smelling of chicken soup, a casserole of rice pudding was always in the oven when we arrived from Toronto, as sure as her sweet and sour meatballs bubbled atop the stove. The aroma of those two dishes mingling in the same space form the perfume of memory for Granny Ella.
Granny grew up in Drummondville, a small Quebec town, east of Montreal, which is overwhelmingly French. I’ve been told she grew up in a priviledged family, with drivers, fine cars, and fur coats, but by the time we’d met, all that remained were photographs and antiques cluttering her apartment. My grandfather, Sam Sax, was a garment worker, and from what I heard, Granny Ella never let him forget that. She consistently held to the idea, throughout her life, that she was Austrian gentry, descended from landed Jewish nobility in the heart of Europe’s cultural capital. She dressed impeccably, accessorizing with scarves and costume jewelry befitting a duchess, and spoke as though she’d just stepped off a carriage into a ballroom, greeting everyone with a drawn out “Hellooooo Dahhling”. You could almost hear the waltz playing in the background.
The truth, however, was that Granny’s family was from Bessarabia, which, although technically in the far flung corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is in fact current day Moldova, about as Viennese as colonial Haiti was Parisian. Two years ago, I was visiting Romania, and ate at the house of a Jewish cook there, who served a baked rice pudding. It was nearly close to Granny’s, with no dairy, baked rice, raisins, and tons of cinnamon. The maple syrup, Granny’s decidedly Quebec touch, was replaced with fruit preserves, but otherwise it was similar in many ways.
“This is my grandmother’s recipe,” the woman told me. “She came from Bessarabia.” When I came home, I told my father and my aunts, which soon provoked the usual arguments. “Mom was Austrian” vs “Mom was Hungarian” vs “No, she was Bessarabian”. What I thought was definitive proof proved no more final than her recipe itself, which omits what kind of rice to use, its consistency, and how much maple syrup. Like its namesake, it’s best shrouded in mystery, left up to the next generation to shape to their narrative.
1 1/2 Cup(s)s Rice
3 Cup(s)s water
1 cup(s) raisins
1-4 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 egg beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup(s) Brown sugar
lots of cinnamon
1 apple peeled and grated
1. Cook rice in water just until all water is absorbed.
2. While rice is cooking, combine oil, eggs, vanilla, brown sugar and lots of cinnamon (the more the better) in a large bowl.
3. Combine with rice, raisins and apple until well mixes together, place in an 8-inch square pyrex pan, sprinkle liberally with cinnamon, and bake, covered, at 350 for 1 hour.
Serve warm with maple syrup.