Nora Ephron, Cabbage Strudel, and an Obsessive Hunt for a Perfect Recipe

Nora Ephron first slipped into my imagination when I was barely out of high school – in a movie theater, of course, where I was watching Heartburn, the screen adaptation of her first novel published in 1983.

I was way too young to really grasp or care about the story’s take on marriage, childbearing, and work, all that other grown-up stuff, but one scene in particular left an impression. It featured the main characters Rachel (played by Meryl Streep), her husband-to-be Mark (played by Jack Nicholson), and a giant bowl of linguine alla cecca.

Rachel, a cookbook author, whipped up the pasta effortlessly with the few ingredients she found in the refrigerator of her typical single-girl Upper West Side kitchen. She shared it with her famished lover (they ate it straight out of the bowl) in the middle of the night with a relish that buzzed with ecstasy.

It would later balloon in my mind as a decadent symbol of all the cravings for freedom, independence, and fulfillment that adulthood brings. The scene was mouthwateringly glamorous.

This was before When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle defined the Nora Ephron signature take on romance and mating, beguiling the whole nation with her wit and heart. She creates a palpable sense of connection with her audience. All women thought they knew Nora Ephron, as her sister Delia recalls in her recently published memoir Sister, Mother, Husband, Dog. Or, they simply wanted to think that she was writing about them.

It was years before I started taking cooking seriously and gained an appreciation for Nora not just for her keen sense of humor and insight, but for her foodie sensibility. She reserved special appreciation for the old-fashioned and proudly un-chic comfort foods of Eastern Europe.

When years later I read Heartburn for the first time, I realized how prescient it was—a chick lit and a culinoir before those genres got their names—and how boldly it reconciled the roles of a working woman, urbanite, mother, and passionate home cook. It couldn’t have been too fashionable in the early 1980s.

I still can’t let go of Nora Ephron, recently consuming all her books in a single gulp, including the Audible version of her final collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, which she recorded herself and which made me cry (in some instances from laughing so hard).

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one in my family with Nora on her mind. This summer, at my father’s 78th birthday party (which we celebrated on a small Black Sea coast town in Bulgaria) my aunt surprised my father with a platter of steaming cabbage pie.

After a moment of speechless delight, my father looked over at me and said, “This is it; this is the cabbage pie that Nora Ephron searched for all over New York City.” It seems that my father’s longing for the cabbage pie was as strong as Nora Ephron’s epic search for her own culinary grail.

That my father knew about her at all was a surprise for me, but that he knew about her obsessive hunt for the pie’s recipe was an outright shocker. (He confessed to sneaking a peak at I Feel Bad About My Neck while my mother was reading it.) My heart skipped a bit when I realized we have our own family recipe for it.

“Not only do we have a family recipe,” my mother said, “You used to help your grandmother make it.”

I only had vague memories of kneading dough with my grandmother, but I was determined to learn how to make the dish all over again. Back home it became a family project. It turns out that my mother hasn’t tested the family recipe in 35 years, my grandmother was gone, and the recipes we found on the Internet were mostly off (Nora Ephron already tested them anyway).

Worse, they called for dry, not fresh yeast, a non-negotiable no-no. Russians are expert dough makers and prefer not to experiment. Fortunately, we are in possession of several rare cookbooks with recipes dating back to the Russian pre-revolutionary period and were able to reconstruct and convert the coveted Russian cabbage pie, known as kuleibyaka.

It was an all-day production, with more than a few disagreements. The filling had to be just so, my mother insisted, with the cabbage retaining its green translucence. My kids’ babysitter, who is of Armenian extraction, suggested that we brown the cabbage more, add tomato paste and red pepper to the mixture to rescue the vegetable from its natural blandness. This is how her family used to make it back in Armenia. My mother rejected the idea outright as inauthentic.

Then, there was the art of raising and punching the dough, which no one could agree on. When the beast was ready, we pretty much agreed that no matter how good or authentic it is, no American will ever attempt this. If there is one thing Americans agree on is that life is too short to sweat it out in the kitchen.

Then Nora Ephron came to the rescue. I remembered a line in the final essay from I Feel Bad About My Neck, “What I Wish I’d Known”: “There is no point in making pie crust from scratch,” was one of her bits of wisdom.

Store bought puff pastry to the rescue! I waited for the family to clear the kitchen so I could focus on making the cabbage pie that Nora Ephron would approve of and people might actually attempt to make. For dough I followed the package instructions. I made the same classic filling with cabbage, onions and eggs but added red pepper flakes for an extra kick, and sundried tomatoes for specks of red and earthiness that the cabbage longs for.

The result was an unexpected savory treat, a meatless comfort food that an American palate will associate vaguely with the most tender and fragrant of eggrolls. For this, Russians will excommunicate me. But that’s ok.

I’ll take solace in eating this delicious cabbage strudel as the days grow colder, enjoying it with either a bowl of hot broth for lunch or a cup of sweetened freshly steeped black tea for mid-afternoon snack, reading the recently released The Most of Nora Ephron collection and thank my lucky stars that our paths have crossed on the pages of her books.

Photo Credit: Lesya Dolyuk/Shutterstock.com

Stay tuned! Julia Serebrinsky will share her family’s special recipe for Cabbage Strudel.


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