I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, where there was a large Jewish population
and where Jewish cuisine has a lot of peculiarities. The appetizer called “unclepasto,’’
for example - a quirky variant of “antipasto,’’ contains scalded
tuna, whatever that is. Sandwiches are stuffed with pink
cream cheese. A gooey triple-layered cake called a “shmoo
torte’’ shows up at every Bar Mitzvah.
And there’s a popular dessert known as “nothings’’ - light, airy
cookies resembling popovers or cream puffs, with a gnarled surface like the
craters on Mars. In bakeries around Boston, nothings are called “kichlach.’’
My mother claims, wrongly, that nothings are the only thing she makes well,
and in my family no Rosh Hashana dinner is complete without them. Nor is
the weekly mah jong game, the shivah visit to a bereaved family, the cup of
tea after dinner. Nothings are as much a part of the fabric
of life as the heavy toile draperies in every window; there was always a
crystal bowl of them on the dining room table or the sideboard, primed for a
“nosh.’’ (The beauty of nothings is that you could
break off a piece of the knobby, craggy top before the company arrived and
your mother would never know. You could also delude yourself into thinking
they have no calories. They are “nothing,’’ after all. )
As a kid, nothings always seemed magical to me. They have only four
ingredients - flour, oil, sugar, and eggs - and you could whip up a batch of
them in 10 minutes, or at least my mother could. They have no leavening agent
- no baking powder, no baking soda, no yeast - and yet they’d blow up in the
oven like golden beach balls. And they are the only dessert I’ve ever seen
that you bake by putting in the oven and turning it off. Then you
leave them to cool “until tomorrow,’’ according to my mother, who at 86
still makes them every week.
Until recently, I never tried to make them, partly because they seem so
old-fashioned and, frankly, because I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.
Nothings, my mother warns, are “temperamental’’ and in Winnipeg nothings
are “a competitive sport,’’ recalls Judy Gerstel, a Toronto food writer
who also grew up in Winnipeg. “The worst things were to have leaden
nothings. (“somethings?’’),’’ she writes in an e-mail. “The
biggest sin re nothings: doughy inside.’’
are burned edges, no air bubbles inside, and -
most offensive of all - collapsed nothings. “I recall agonizing on McAdam
[Avenue] about getting them to rise,’’ she says.
Back in the day, Jewish cooks followed certain unalterable nothing-making
conventions. “You put the eggs in the Mixmaster and beat them for at least
20 minutes: People used to burn out their Mixmasters,’’ according to
Toronto’s Norene Gilletz, a Winnipeg-born author of kosher cookbooks and a
cooking website, www.gourmania.com.
“The dough would literally climb up the beaters and go over the top of the
mixer and go all over the place.’’
The heavy beating would develop the gluten in the flour, she says. “The
flour would form gluten strands from all the beating. It would give [the
dough] structure. The oil would keep them tender.’’ (Nowadays most cooks
use food processors, but “you need one that has a strong motor,’’
cautions Gilletz. “A cheap one would not work.’’ )
Last time I was in Winnipeg, I asked my mother to show me how to make them.
“They’re easy,’’ she claimed. All you need are 3 eggs, a half-cup of
oil, a tablespoon of sugar, and 3/4 cup of flour. You put the eggs in the food
processor and “beat the hell out of them.’’
Next comes the oil, through the feed tube. Then the flour-sugar mixture,
dropped in one tablespoon at a time.
So what’s so hard about it? “The secret,’’ said my mother, “is
The idea is to preheat the oven to a very high temperature, then let the
temperature drop gradually. You do this by keeping the door propped open for a
few minutes, then closing it and turning the oven off. The nothings are in the
oven all this time. The first blast of heat makes them rise, and letting the
temperature drop gradually prevents the tops from burning while setting the
shape of the cookie. “The structure won’t collapse. It will be lacy and
dry and crisp. And addictive,’’ Gilletz says.
My mother sets her oven to 475 degrees and here’s where things got
confusing. She has an old oven with a red indicator light. When the light goes
on to indicate the oven has reached the setting, that’s her cue to put the
nothings in, leaving the door open a little bit to let cool air in.
“When the light comes on again [indicating the oven is back up to
temperature], you close the door, and turn the oven off,’’ she instructed
me. “I thought it was crazy, too,’’ she added, seeing that I was
dubious. “But it works.’’
It didn’t work for me. For starters, my modern oven, which is just two
years old, doesn’t have a red light. I didn’t know how long to keep the
door open, or how long to wait before shutting the oven off. I made seven
batches and only two came out right. A couple of batches were as flat as sugar
cookies, others looked good on the outside but weren’t airy on the inside,
and still another tasted right but were too smooth on top, lacking the
distinctive craggy texture. Food editor Sheryl Julian and another tester tried it eight times, adjusting the flour and the oven temperature,
and every one of them flopped. What’s the problem?
Norene Gilletz’s diagnosis is that my mother’s 22-year-old
oven isn’t as well insulated as my newer one. “Today’s ovens hold their
heat very, very well,’’ said Gilletz. “The old ones continue to lose
Takeaway message: Set your oven lower than your mother did.
It only takes 2 minutes to mix up this batter in the processor, compared to
20 minutes with an electric mixer! They're excellent for diabetics as they
can be made sugar-free.
2 Tbsp sugar (or sugar substitute to equal 2 Tbsp sugar)
1/2 cup oil
1 cup flour
3/4 cup sesame seeds
2 additional Tbsp sugar
Preheat oven to 500 F.
Steel Blade: Process eggs with 2 Tbsp sugar and salt for 30 to 60 seconds,
until light. While machine is running, pour oil through feed tube in a
steady stream. Process 1 minute longer. Add flour by heaping spoonfuls
through feed tube while machine is running. Process 30 to 40 seconds longer.
(Processor may shut off automatically after about 40 seconds because batter
is very sticky. If you have an inexpensive processor, don't let machine shut
itself off or you may require a service call!)
Combine sesame seeds with 2 Tbsp sugar on a flat plate. Take a scant
teaspoon of dough and use another spoon to push it off into sesame seed
mixture. Roll dough in sesame seeds. Stretch dough to about 3 inches in
length, then twist it to make a long, twisted finger shape. Roll again in
sesame seeds. Place on sprayed foil-lined cookie sheets, leaving 3inches between cookies for expansion.
Reduce heat to 400 F. Place cookies on middle rack of oven and bake for 7 to
8 minutes. Reduce heat to 300 F and bake 10 to 12 minutes longer. Turn off
heat and leave cookies in oven 10 minutes longer to dry.
* Replace sesame seeds with poppy seeds.
* Instead of shaping batter into fingers, drop from a teaspoon onto sprayed
cookie sheets, leaving about 3 inches between cookies. If desired, sprinkle
lightly with sugar before baking.
Yield: About 40 cookies. Each cookie contains about 40 calories if made with
sugar substitute, 43 calories if made with sugar. Freezes well.
Food Processor Bible