In the early 1960s, we bought a 45-acre ranch with a big, sprawling house in Topanga Canyon, not far from Pacific Coast Highway. The lush panorama seemed to stretch for miles into Malibu. Our rambling ranch house was a dream come true. From our living room, we had a view of the canyon, with Shetland ponies grazing below, framed by a big bay window.
Prior to buying the house, my husband and I had never been to Topanga before. We were living in a contemporary home in Brentwood when a real-estate friend told us about the ranch, which we had trouble locating at first. Once we found it and walked the property, we were sold.
We were young and adventurous, raising four children, with another one on the way. I don’t think we realized it then, but Topanga changed our life. And those memorable days included several firsts for me as a professional cook.
Topanga was a different place to live — a close-knit community, where neighbors were always available if anything went wrong. There was no daily mail delivery; instead, we had a box at the Topanga Post Office, near a small market, the Topanga Creek General Store, where we could pick up everyday necessities.
When we were typical city folk, the only animal we had was a cat. In Topanga, we kept sheep, chickens, ducks, goats, Shetland ponies, horses and dogs. We even had a peacock, which acted like a watchdog, shrieking when anyone arrived at our front gate; during molting season, we would race to find its long, colorful feathers.
Our children adapted easily to the country lifestyle, with after-school chores that included caring for the animals and collecting chicken and duck eggs from the coop for breakfast the next morning.
Soon after we moved to the ranch, a neighbor taught me how to bake bread, which kicked off a weekly ritual of making challah for Shabbat.
After we joined a synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, I was asked to help plan a lunch for the sisterhood. I was consulted on the menu — Caesar salad, fillet of sole, which was rolled and baked, and for dessert my Aunt Betty’s orange juice bundt cake. I invited the other members to my kitchen to teach them how to prepare the recipes. It would be my first of many cooking classes.
Down the road from us was the Discovery Inn, an organic restaurant that was also a gathering spot for Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and other artists from Topanga’s music scene. When the owners tried my homemade strudel, they were hooked and commissioned me to make it for the restaurant — my first entry into the professional food world. When guests asked where the strudel came from, the owners would answer, “Oh, a little old lady in Topanga made it.”
During the summer, friends from the city would drop by with the excuse that they just happened to be in the area or on their way to or from the beach.
Among our summer Topanga highlights were our annual Kite Festival and a Labor Day Campout. At the kite-flying event, about 200 people arrived bringing kites, blankets and their own picnic lunches. We provided the drinks, homemade pita bread, hummus and dessert. We would all gather near the barn on a hilltop covered with grapevines, hoping for wind. The parents taught their kids to fly kites, but some children had trouble getting their dads to relinquish the kites. We had contests and gave out trophies for the most innovative, largest and highest-flying kite.
During our Labor Day Campout, we invited friends to camp overnight at the ranch. Guests would take care of their own breakfast needs and we would provide lunch and an evening barbecue. After dessert, everyone would gather for a campfire sing-along.
Our family treasures those 15 unforgettable years and the lifestyle we enjoyed together in Topanga Canyon.
HOMEMADE PITA BREAD
2 packages active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups warm tap water (110-115 F)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
6 cups unbleached flour
Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of the water. Let stand in a warm place a few minutes, until foamy.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the remaining 2 cups of water, the olive oil and salt. Add the yeast mixture and then the flour, one cup at a time, beating until the dough comes together.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead until shiny and elastic, 5 to l0 minutes. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, and oil the top of the dough. Cover the bowl with a towel and let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Punch the dough down and knead it until smooth and springy to the touch, about 5 minutes. Roll the dough into a log. Cut it into l5 equal pieces and knead each piece into a ball.
Roll out each ball on a floured board to a diameter of 6 to 6 1/2 inches and a thickness of about 1/4 inch.
Place the pitas on individual pieces of foil or parchment paper, cover with towels and let them stand for l hour.
Preheat the oven to 500 F. Bake the pitas on foil on the lowest shelf or the bottom of the oven for about 5 minutes, just until they start to brown and puff like balloons. Remove immediately and serve hot.
Makes about 12 to 14 pitas.
The red bell pepper adds a special flavor and gives the hummus a rosy tint.
1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans, with liquid
1 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 roasted red bell pepper
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil
6 fresh parsley sprigs, stemmed
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
12 small pitas, cut in wedges
Place the garbanzos, with liquid, in a processor or blender and blend until coarsely pureed.
Add the tahini, roasted red bell pepper, lemon juice, garlic and cumin. Blend to a smooth puree. Add olive oil in a thin stream and continue blending. Blend in the parsley and l teaspoon of the salt. Add additional salt to taste. Serve with hot Homemade Pita Bread.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Caesar salad — a mixture including crisp romaine, pungent anchovies and grated Parmesan cheese — is an all-time Southern California favorite.
2 heads romaine lettuce, hearts and tender leaves only
Mustard Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon minced anchovies (about 4 anchovy fillets)
1 tablespoon mashed anchovies (about 4 anchovy fillets)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Prepare Mustard Vinaigrette and set aside.
Separate lettuce leaves and discard coarse outer leaves. Wash, drain well, pat dry with paper towels, and tear into pieces.
In a large glass or stainless-steel bowl, toss lettuce with minced anchovies.
Just before serving, mix vinaigrette with mashed anchovies. Add Parmesan cheese and toss. Serve on chilled salad plates.
Makes 6 servings.
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups olive oil
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a bowl, combine mustard and lemon juice and mix well. Using a small whisk or fork, add olive oil and blend well. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and chill. This will keep for several days in a refrigerator.
JUDY’S SIGNATURE STRUDEL
1 cup unsalted butter or margarine
2 cups flour
1 cup sour cream
6 tablespoons vegetable shortening
1 jar (2 pounds) apricot-pineapple preserves
1 package (1 pound) shredded coconut
3 to 4 cups toasted chopped walnuts
Powdered sugar for garnish
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, blend the butter and flour until crumbly. Add the sour cream and beat until the mixture comes away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a pastry board lined with generously floured waxed paper. Toss the dough around on top of the floured waxed paper to coat it lightly with the flour. Flatten it with the palm of your hand, shaping it roughly into a rectangle. Then use a well-floured rolling pin to roll it out into a rectangle, about 6-by-10-inches.
Drop 6 (1/2-teaspoon) small pieces of the short-ening equally spaced on top of the pastry; with your finger, smear the shortening down, and fold the pastry into thirds. Turn the pastry 90 degrees with the ends facing you. Roll it out again, dot with shortening, and fold into thirds again. Turn and repeat this procedure two more times. Wrap the pastry in waxed paper, and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Cut the dough into four equal pieces. Roll out each piece on floured waxed paper into a rectangle, about 6-by-10 inches, as thin as possible. Spread generously with the preserves and sprinkle with the coconut and walnuts. Lifting the pastry with the waxed paper as a guide, roll up the strudel jellyroll fashion.
Place the strudel on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Lift the edges of the foil to transfer the strudel to a wooden board. Loosen the strudel with a knife, if necessary, and carefully roll it off the foil so it rests on the board, seam-side down. Cut it while still hot into 1-inch slices and transfer the slices to a cake plate or platter.
Just before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Makes 12 to 16 servings.
AUNT BETTY’S ORANGE-GLAZED BUNDT CAKE
1/4 pound unsalted butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup orange juice
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 cup toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans
1/4 cup ground walnuts or pecans
Orange Juice Syrup (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Add the zest and juice and blend well.
Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add to the butter mixture alternately with the sour cream until completely blended. Fold in the toasted, chopped walnuts.
Grease a 10-inch bundt or fluted tube pan. Sprinkle with the ground walnuts. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out dry and the cake begins to shrink away from the sides of the pan.
Spoon the hot syrup over the cake as soon as you remove it from the oven.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
ORANGE JUICE SYRUP
3/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
In a saucepan, combine the orange juice, lemon juice and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside.