by Dianne Boate
I have always had Russian neighbors in this San Francisco Richmond District apartment building. Many comings and goings of very interesting people, like the White Russian couple, both born in China, reuniting and marrying in San Francisco. There was the guy who liked to shove his furniture out the window to the sidewalk below as a more expedient method of moving things. He also painted the interior of his apartment a hideous shade of pink. Oh, my. Then there was Dora, who made Italian-style cookies.
The Russian population eventually settled down to two couples, Dora and her husband, living directly above, and Rosa and her husband, living on the third floor. I don’t know how it started, but the women and I began exchanging food with each other.
Rosa is still famous for her piroshki, which she periodically brings down steaming hot. Dora was famous for her cookies, which resembled biscotti. The first bite was instant love. Being rather relentless about acquiring recipes of tasty foods, I started to organize a kitchen meeting with Dora, to learn how to make them, with Rosa as the translator, for Dora spoke no English. The trick was getting them here at the same time.
Dates were made and broken for about two years. Then suddenly without warning, Dora appeared at my door, ready to make cookies. No Rosa. I quickly calculated that I probably had the ingredients on hand, and somehow we could manage. Next, I got out flour, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, and a big bowl, measuring cups and spoons. Dora would indicate how much of each item; I made a stab at measuring, and wrote things down quickly on a torn-up piece of paper.
A couple years later, Dora left us for the Heavens, and I organized the neighbors to go to the funeral at the Jewish Funeral Home on Divisadero. Banks and banks of flowers, Russian style! (We saw this in Leningrad, whole bodies banked in flowers.) Dora’s son, Isaac, invited us to the apartment for refreshments afterward. Upstairs, lots of people, a regular feast of Russian food laid out, along with strong drink. It was very noisy and animated. I started to remember the cookie episode and thought the relatives might like to hear about this. In a booming voice the son drowned out everyone, telling them to listen to my story.
A woman spoke up, maybe her daughter-in-law: “Oh, didn’t you know? Dora was a prisoner of war in a concentration camp, guarded by Italians. She learned it from the Italians! And she promised me the recipe but I never got it.”
“I have the recipe,” I said, then raced downstairs to my computer and within minutes handed it to this woman.
From a lesson in my kitchen; October 24, 2001.
- 2 sticks unsalted butter (1/2 pound)
- 1 cup white sugar
- 2 large eggs
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon soda
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 cups plain flour
- ¾ cup chopped toasted almonds*
Divide dough in half; make two oblong shapes like French bread is shaped.
Bake on greased cookie sheet in 350-degree oven; bake shapes until not quite done … still a little soft to the touch. Remove from oven, let rest 20 minutes.
Cut into ½ inch pieces, the way you would cut a loaf of bread; place back on cookie sheet, cut sides down and bake until lightly browned.
*Dora indicated any kind of nuts could be used; raisins, too.
Dianne Boate, a former staff member of the original Dating Game television show, and later, The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, is The Hat Lady, maker of custom millinery, and The Cake Lady, a special events baker for 30 years in the Bay Area. Between cake assignments, she has had several one-woman photography shows, and participated as a botanical illustrator in group shows benefiting the Conservatory of Flowers, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Marin Cancer Institute, and University of California Alumni Association. Her website can be found at www.boatecollection.com.