Elsie Tapper was born 120 years ago, and today, her lessons in the kitchen are perhaps more relevant than ever.
Tapper always loved to bake, but above all else, she loved her family. Dinners at Tapper's home, the table surrounded with her children and grandchildren, were never complete without "Elsie's famous" cakes and brownies. Her granddaughter, Cindy Fabrikant, described her grandmother's desserts as warm and comforting — a direct reflection of Tapper herself.
"She was this mild-mannered, kind, incredible woman. Everybody just loved her and everybody loved her baking," Fabrikant told TODAY Food. "She was the most wonderful, special lady and we had an incredibly special relationship. As far back as I can remember, ya know, it was a different time, people were home, kind of like now, she always had a love for baking. Her mom was a baker as well."
Fabrikant can't remember a meal she ate with her grandmother that didn't end with one of Tapper's renowned cakes or brownies.
Even when Fabrikant went to summer camp as a girl or studied abroad in London with her dear friend, Debbie Kosofsky, her grandmother would mail them a little taste of home.
Kosofsky, the TODAY Food senior producer, who has known Fabrikant since they were 15, still dreams about those brownies.
"At summer camp, she would send us these shoe boxes filled with these amazing baked goods and I would honestly hoard them away from Cindy. I loved them so much," Kosofsky told TODAY. "Elsie’s brownies, and really all of her baking, are legendary. I challenge anyone who says I didn't love her baked goods the most!"
Today, though Tapper is gone, her brownies and cakes live on — albeit not in old shoe boxes wrapped in wax paper but in an old book of recipes Fabrikant recently revived from stacks of old cookbooks.
"Now, I have time, and I found this whole book that my aunt put together of my grandmother’s recipes. It was in my kitchen," Fabrikant told TODAY. "I love to bake as well and I would like to think that Grandma Elsie inspired my love for baking."
Among the recipes was Tapper's Graham Cake, a moist confection with graham cracker crumbs instead of flour, jam swirls and a whipped cream topping.
Like many Depression-era recipes (Tapper lived through two world wars and the Great Depression), her desserts were made with just a few ingredients people would typically have on-hand in their pantry.
"If you look at this recipe, these are things you could just find in your cupboard without going to the supermarket," Fabrikant said about her grandmother's brownies made with chocolate syrup, "It’s not high-end. It’s simple. Everyone could use a little bit of that comfort feel right now."
While baking has eased many people's stresses during the coronavirus pandemic, Fabrikant feels it's her grandmother's deep love of family that shines through in every bite. And Fabrikant's father, 90, gets to see his mother living on through her recipes.
"For me, my grandma was so nurturing and warm and wonderful. My memories were always about her love of family and here we are," Fabrikant said. "We’re surrounded just by our loved ones and these things (like baking) that are bringing us together. Baking is always something I did with my girls. It brings us back to the basics that make you feel good. We could all use a recipe like that today."