A Sweet New Year

For Rosh Hashana, Amy Pollokoff continues a family tradition that goes back more than 50 years -- preparing an annual holiday cookie party

September 05, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Every year as the Jewish High Holy Days approach, Amy Pollokoff goes shopping. She buys five dozen eggs, 30 pounds of sugar, 30 pounds of flour, 16 pounds of butter and two 4-pound bags of chocolate chips, among other things.

Then, three weeks before her annual cookie party, the Owings Mills mother of two starts baking. She makes strudel and candy-bar cookies, Austrian nut-butter cookies and cream-cheese cookies. In all, she makes 21 kinds of cookies, doubling and tripling most recipes. Next week, she'll serve them to friends and family on Rosh Hashana.

It's a party that's been going on for more than half a century. Starting in the 1950s, Pollokoff's grandmother, Bess Fedder, who was born in Baltimore in 1904, would have family members -- as many as 35 people -- over for lunch each year after Rosh Hashana services. Then she'd open her house to 100 or more friends and neighbors for the cookie dessert.

The cookie parties stopped for several years in the mid-1980s as Fedder suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Pollokoff and her husband missed the parties. So in the summer of 1992, Pollokoff met with her grandmother specifically to learn the cookie recipes and continue the family tradition. Pollokoff said her grandmother did not recognize her, but was happy to discuss the cookies.

Over the course of several days, the two women went through all 21 recipes. Then Pollokoff spent the next few months practicing before baking in earnest for the holidays. She's held the party every year since then.

"This is something that's going back virtually 60 years," said Pollokoff's father, Joel Fedder, 75, who now lives in Florida but will return to Baltimore for the Jewish holidays -- and the cookie party -- with his wife, Ellen, as he does every year. "I'm so delighted to see that Amy has carried on this tradition."

While cookies themselves bear no particular significance for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, sweetness does. Eating apples or challah bread dipped in honey are ways to usher in a sweet year. Teiglach, which are dough balls soaked in a honey syrup, are a classic Rosh Hashana treat, and happen to be Joel Fedder's favorite.

Enjoying a holiday meal with family and friends is also traditional. And Pollokoff, 47, believes in tradition. Some might say melting all that chocolate, creaming all that butter and positioning all those pecans is too much work, but Pollokoff said the effort is worthwhile. "I have always wanted the girls to grow up with tradition," she said of her daughters, Heidi, 21, and Alexa, 18.

Because she works full time, Pollokoff bakes in the evenings and on weekends. Some days, she starts at 6 in the morning and doesn't finish until 4 in the afternoon, she said. Over the years, she has destroyed two heavy-duty mixers. Her husband Bob, 47, helps by cleaning pots -- and staying out of the way, he said, jokingly. He's also in charge of making the punch, a confection of sherbet and ginger ale.

Also attending will be Joel Fedder's sister, Sue Garten, and her husband Herb, who live in Baltimore, as well as relatives from Philadelphia and Washington. Alexa and Heidi will return from college. "It's wonderful what Amy has done," said Ellen Fedder.

Now, said Joel Fedder, great-grandchildren of his mother's friends come to the Pollokoff party. The question, he said, is which daughter will continue the cookie party when that time comes. Both girls seem interested. Pollokoff takes the tradition so seriously that she even puts the cookies on the same platters and plates that her grandmother used.

She relies on a photograph of Bess Fedder, probably from the 1970s, standing in front of plates piled high with cookies, to set her table just right. "My table looks exactly the same," she said. The only thing she does differently is that she then puts the framed photo on display.

Over time Pollokoff has tinkered with the party's menu, but not much. She phased out a few recipes, such as rum balls, which were not popular. She's toyed with the idea of making some of the recipes lower in fat, but tradition prevailed. Pollokoff even stores the cookies in her grandmother's old tins, not in the plastic bins most people use these days. She layers the cookies with waxed paper and stores the tins in a cool place until the big day.

Bob, Heidi and Alexa know better than to open the tins, tempting as the cookies can be. But Pollokoff keeps out a plate of broken and misshapen cookies that the family can nibble. "The rule is we can only eat broken cookies," Heidi said.

Bess Fedder's recipes came from newspapers, magazines and friends, and were written on file cards and stored in a green box. Pollokoff still has that box, but she has rewritten the recipes so that she doesn't damage the originals. The candy-bar cookie recipe that follows came from a 1962 magazine clipping.

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