It all started with an Easy-Bake Oven.
Karen Mandel knew the minute she got her little hands on her very own oven — despite its low voltage and small size — that she was destined for a life of baking.
“I spent a lot of time baking with my mother in the kitchen as a young child, but when I got my own oven and no longer needed parental supervision, well, it was just an extraordinary feeling.”
Throughout her youth, she enjoyed baking and, when she entered Penn State, she surprisingly declared education as her major.
“I planned to be a teacher,” she explained, “but they asked me what language I wanted. I said, ‘English.’ They had in mind a foreign language, and I simply could not master Spanish. Finally, my counselor referred me to the career planning office and they handed me a book of majors. I recall flipping through this book, starting with the As. Accounting — no. Biology — no. Chemistry — no. When I got to the Fs, I came across something called Food Science and Housing Administration, and that seemed to be a good fit.”
Mandel pursued that course of study — which would now be called hospitality management — and has had a successful career in the industry. She had a long tenure at Aramark, and has also worked for Disney and Starbucks. In addition to her day job, however, she always baked.
“I was a single mom with two boys, so I always needed extra money. I could always afford basic ingredients, and I used food almost like currency. I invented a cookie [a kamish bread] and was able to make some money selling it. I used baking as a way to support my synagogue and other organizations.
“I wasn’t in a position to make a large financial donation, but I was able to provide refreshments for events and teach cooking lessons to youth groups and preschool classes. I also used baked goods as gifts; people always seem thrilled with that personal touch. So it’s not a piece of jewelry, but it is something made with love.”
As a person with spirit, Mandel was determined to provide for her family and set a strong example for her sons.
“I used the talent I had — which was baking — to demonstrate to my boys that there is always a way; that hard work is part of life and that there is value in giving back.”
Mandel continues to give back, volunteering at Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence, a supported community for individuals with disabilities. She does food-related activities with the residents, and ensures that everyone has a great time.
Recalling her childhood, Mandel hearkens back to a time when she went to synagogue five times a week — Hebrew school, Shabbat services and Sunday school.
“We were Conservative. My mom’s family kept kosher, and observed the Sabbath very strictly. We always celebrated the holidays with traditional foods and a big family gathering. To this day, I carry on those traditions.”
Mandel, who now works as senior business development manager at Normandy Farm in Blue Bell, reported that she has stockpiled 30 pounds of latkes in her freezer in preparation for Chanukah, so the tradition continues.
She was willing to share her original kamish bread recipe, which she described as “the most Jewish recipe — you have to see it — it’s handwritten with splatters all over the paper, and extra notes written in the margins.”
We’ve reprinted it below — less authentic, but easier to use.
The Best Kamish Bread
½ pound butter, melted
2 cups sugar
5 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups chocolate chips
½ cup chopped nuts
Heat your oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the eggs and butter with the sugar by hand. Add the flour and remaining dry ingredients; beat well. Add the nuts and chocolate chips.
Grease large cookie sheets and shape the dough into three loaves on the sheets.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the sheets from the oven and slice the dough into quarter-inch to half-inch slices. Lay the slices on their sides on the cookie sheet and return them to the oven for five to 10 minutes to toast.
Cool and store in an airtight container.