AUGUST 16, 2018, CAMBRIDGE – On an episode of their PBS series “Food Flirts,” Marilynn and Sheila Brass went into Mamaleh’s Delicatessen in Cambridge to learn how to make pastrami. The deli was closed, but as they so often do, the sisters managed to charm their way into the back kitchen for a private cooking demonstration.
As Tyler Sundet – the chef and one of the owners of Mamaleh’s – toasted coriander, black pepper, and other spices over the stove in preparation, both sisters were transported back to their Winthrop childhoods.
“The smell of spices brings me back,” said Sheila.
“I wax nostalgic when I smell cigar smoke and pastrami,” said Marilynn. “I remember in the 1940s and 1950s, our Uncle Julius – the scent of his pastrami sandwiches – it was Proustian. Pastrami was our madeleine!”
The kitchen of their three-decker home on Seafoam Avenue was filled with the smells of chopped liver, herring, potato salad, potato latkes, knishes, blintzes, and every kind of cake and pie you could imagine. This busy kitchen, which was a central hub of Winthrop’s Jewish community, was the domain of their mother Dorothy, a talented cook and baker who was known as the “Cake Boss of Winthrop.”
One year, when she was president of the sisterhood at Congregation Tifereth Abraham, Dorothy decided to bake a three-dimensional cake in the shape of the architecturally complex shul for a fundraiser. It was no easy task.
“The shul had a very modern facade,” said Marilynn. “It took her three weeks to bake all the cakes. She was like Euclid with geometry – she had to cut everything so she would build it up.”
From an early age, Marilynn, now 76, and Sheila, 81, were culinary apprentices. “When we baked, we had our own little loaf pan so we could make our own little challies,” said Marilynn.
It’s no wonder the two sisters went on to create a small food empire out of what they refer to as their “132 years of combined baking and cooking experience.” They’ve written three celebrated cookbooks, hosted two shows on PBS, and a one-hour special on the Cooking Channel, and appeared on radio and television shows in 22 cities throughout the United States and Canada.
They’ve also curated one of the country’s largest collections of culinary antiques and artifacts, which includes 6,500 cookbooks, one of which was written after the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s.
They used 250 “manuscript cookbooks” – handwritten, unpublished recipes passed down through generations – to form the basis for their 2006 book, “Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters,” and their 2008 book, “Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters.”
Their cookbooks, shows, and specials have been nominated for several awards, and in 2016, Marilynn and Sheila were honored as Cambridge Food Heroes for their commitment to their community.
After watching “Food Flirts,” it’s easy to see why they deserve such an honor. In the show, which premiered last summer and started its second season on July 6, Marilynn and Sheila travel to restaurants all over the Boston area to highlight the different cuisines available in what Marilynn called a “blossoming” food scene. In each episode, they travel to two completely different types of restaurants, and then go back to their shared home in Cambridge to create a “mash-up,” which is a dish that fuses both types of cuisines.
For example, after they tried pastrami at Mamaleh’s, they went to Chinatown to learn how to cook ramen noodles. Then they created a pastrami ramen noodle kugel, because as Marilynn pointed out, ramen is comfort food, and so is kugel.
In six episodes, they’ve covered a lot of ground: they’ve mashed up traditional American burgers with Indian dosas, chutney with rugelach, and Bavarian pretzels with Mexican chocolate and French brioche.
Once they’ve finished their mash-up, they throw a party and invite all the chefs they’ve met in the episode to come try their new fusion.
“Sheila came up with the [idea of] food without borders,” said Marilynn. “It is a celebration of the multiethnic diversity of cuisines in this country … we want this to really, really bring people together. When you think of the word ‘companion,’ it actually translates with bread, and a companion is someone you break bread with.”
Marilynn and Sheila followed an unconventional route from Dorothy Brass’s Winthrop kitchen to ovens on major TV networks. Surprisingly, neither one of them has worked in restaurants or bakeries, and they still don’t consider themselves to be chefs. Instead, they call themselves “home bakers” or “home cooks.”
Marilynn wanted to be a writer, and majored in English and journalism at Northeastern University, where she also received a master’s degree in English. She eventually founded and chaired the Public Communications and Community Affairs office at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory after it was divested from MIT.
Sheila, meanwhile, wanted to be a fashion designer, and majored in design and illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She became a successful fashion designer, and then worked as the director of marketing for firms in Boston and Cambridge.
When their father Harry developed colon cancer, both Marilynn and Sheila left their jobs to care for him. During this period, they started their own businesses in communications and antiques. Then they worked at WGBH for several years.
“We’d been collecting these handwritten cookbooks, and I said to myself, ‘if I don’t write a cookbook now, I’ll never do it,’” said Marilynn. They took the plunge, and in 2006 published “Heirloom Baking.” It was a hit, and suddenly they were touring the country and writing more cookbooks.
A few years ago, the Brass sisters went to New York to meet Bruce Seidel, at the time the senior vice president for programming at the Cooking Channel, to discuss a holiday special they were hosting. At a restaurant in New York, the sisters tried sushi for the first time. Seidel was amused, and liked the idea of watching the Brass sisters try unfamiliar foods. When Seidel founded his own production company, he invited the sisters to try hosting a show where they did just that.
The humor, intelligence, and open-mindedness of the two “Food Flirts” have charmed audiences around the country. In the words of the Brass sisters: “It’s not just what you put on the table; it’s what you bring to the table.”
Grandma Goldberg’s Honey Cake
This recipe from the 1930s comes from Hilary Finkel Buxton, a friend from our days at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, and her sister, Sandy. Their grandma Celia Goldberg, who lived to 101, was beloved by her family, and they treasured the sometimes cryptic notes she bequeathed to them for her honey cake, mandlebread, and noodle pudding. Grandma called her sister Yetta, who lived to be 102, every day when they both lived in the Bronx.
2 teaspoons instant coffee or instant espresso
1 cup hot water
3 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
3 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons warm water
½ cup oil
1 cup honey
½ cup thinly sliced almonds, toasted
1. Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350F. Coat two 9 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pans with vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom and ends of the pans with a single strip of wax paper and coat with vegetable oil spray. Dust the pans with flour and tap to remove the excess.
2. Add the instant coffee to the hot water and allow to cool, or place in the refrigerator to hasten the cooling.
3. Add the flour, salt, cinnamon, and ginger to a large bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
4. Add the egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip the whites until they form firm peaks. Set aside. If you don’t have a second mixer bowl, transfer the egg whites to another bowl and set aside. The honey cakes come together quickly so the beaten egg whites will not have time to deflate.
5. Add the sugar and egg yolks to the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat to combine. Turn off the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, scrape down the mixture from the sides and bottom of the bowl. Turn the mixer on and continue to beat and combine with the rest of the mixture.
6. Add the baking soda to the warm water and stir to combine. Set aside. Whisk together the oil, honey, and cooled coffee in a small bowl. Add the baking soda mixture, and continue to whisk until combined.
7. Add the sifted dry ingredients to the mixture alternately with the liquid ingredients. Remove the bowl from the stand and fold in the beaten egg whites in three additions. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. The batter will be very loose. Sprinkle the almonds on top of the loaves and bake for 30 minutes. Tent each cake with aluminum foil and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, or until a metal tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean. Transfer the cakes to a wire rack and cool for at least 20 minutes. Go around the edges of each cake with a butter knife and turn out onto a second wire rack. Invert the cakes onto the first rack and continue to cool. Grandma Goldberg’s Honey Cake should be wrapped in wax paper and stored at room temperature.
Yield: 2 loaves; 9 slices per loaf
– Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press