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Mom's Easter Kitchen


My dad says that when my mom was in her early 20s, she was quiet and shy and liked reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I have a picture of her when she was younger than I am now that allows me the barest glimpse of this sweet, girlish side of my mom. She has a small smile and looks a lot like me.

But this is not the unflappable, intractable mom I know, who once held two intruders at gunpoint in her house until police arrived and who is not afraid of anything or anybody. When she gets a certain expression about her upper lip, I imagine she looks very much like her sergeant major father.

My mom, whose tone of voice makes her sound like she's yelling even when she's not, never expresses tender emotions, though she has no trouble letting out less tender ones.

And yet, when my mother is in the kitchen, she becomes as tender and expressive as a poet.

My mom was born in Arkansas and raised in cities all over Europe and Asia. But when she moved to Oakland in the 1960s, she embraced California cuisine as if it were her birthright.

She would buy any fresh vegetable, especially if she'd never seen it before, and our dinner plates would appear with things like broccoli-cauliflower hybrids and tiny white globe eggplants that looked exactly like eggs. She also discovered peanut butter and jelly in a single jar and hot dogs with the chili already in them. It was this unafraid, non-snobbish curiosity that made her a great cook, whose equal in the kitchen I have never met.

After working all day, she'd come home and make things like gazpacho or linguine with clam sauce or fresh pesto for two kids, who would wail their disappointment over green spaghetti with no meatballs. Our childish preference for white rice dinners--my brother's covered with catsup, mine drenched in soy sauce--didn't deter her from trying new things or new ways of getting us to eat them. Welsh rarebit with tomato sauce became "blushing bunny."

She'd plow through cookbooks the way some people read detective novels, and as my brother and I grew, her collection grew in alarmingly perilous stacks all over the house. After three decades of cooking and baking, she has close to 2,000 books, on every imaginable food topic. But bread has always been her particular passion.

It began, I think, soon after she married my dad. Someone in his family gave them a loaf of Portuguese Easter bread from a local bakery. Since my father's grandparents immigrated to Oakland from Portugal and the Portuguese islands of Madeira in the early part of the century, the bread was probably intended more as a symbolic gesture of family bonding than a culinary one. But my mother was immediately taken with the bread's flavor and set out to duplicate it in her own oven.

This was before she amassed her cookbook collection and before she had much experience in the kitchen. But this loaf of sweet bread, which was unlike the biscuits and corn bread her mother had made, piqued her interest at a time when she was ripe for a culinary epiphany.

Pretty soon she was making so many of the breads that every spring our kitchen turned into a small bakery and practically everyone we knew would receive a gift of sweet-smelling bread at Easter. Always there would be stately round loaves of Portuguese Easter bread with a single white egg nestled in the center, but there were also Russian Easter breads, baked in coffee cans and decorated with a cap of white icing, and meltingly tender hot cross buns, studded with currants and inscribed with Celtic crosses in powdered sugar icing.

Best of all were individual Easter egg buns with pastel colored hard-cooked eggs in the center. My mom would patiently help as my brother and I dyed a batch of raw eggs to be baked into these buns. The eggs were gently pressed into little rounds of dough that were then decorated with colored candy sprinkles. My brother and I traditionally looked for a hidden basket of these breads on Easter morning. One of these rolls and a few chocolate eggs or marshmallow rabbits made one of the best breakfasts around.

For me, Easter came to mean these breads with dark, glossy crusts, velvety, eggy interiors and just a whiff of orange, anise or mace.

Baking has sustained her through many years. Upon finding herself a divorced mother of two at age 30, my mom applied to law school. In answer to an essay question on the application form about her organizational skills, she described a visit to my elementary school, where she had made miniature loaves of white bread with four classes of first- and second-graders. At the end of the day, each child took home a warm loaf of bread and a recipe.

"We made 130 little loaves of bread" she says, retelling the story in a tone of voice that implies that her years as a lawyer haven't tested her organizational skills more sorely.

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