Thanks to Elena Sigman for this guest post.
My Tante Toni (may her memory be a sweet blessing) made a dish for Purim, called noun, which I haven’t seen since the 70s. It was my favorite treat at her house: a plate of sweet, sticky pieces of noun cut in the shape of diamonds about one-and-a-half inches long. I guessed it was made of honey and chopped nuts and dates, but I was never sure of the recipe. It was dark brown and chewy and even though it was super-sweet it was also somehow tangy. The plate was passed around the table at the end of our Purim seudah, and it was quickly finished. The batches were never big.
Tante Toni had blue eyes that were two different colors because one was hers and the other was glass. The glass eye was bluer and bigger and her real eye was smaller and more hazel. At home in the evening, she wore a hairnet in order to preserve her coiffure from erev Shabbos, after she came home from the beauty parlor, until the next Friday morning when she’d get her hair done again. She was a smart, compact woman, barely taller than my child self, but she walked with a spine so straight no runway model could match it. She never tried to make chit chat with me. When I was a kid I would occasionally sleep over at her apartment on Friday night. After dinner she read the B’nai Brith Messenger cover to cover in her high-backed chair, and I read my book (Agatha Christie mysteries one year, Pearl S. Buck novels the next) on the couch until the Shabbos clock clicked off the light.
As a child, I never thought to ask what language “noun” was (Yiddish? German? Perhaps Polish?) or what it meant. It would be like asking for a definition of sun or moon or apple. The things Tante Toni cooked just were, like Tante Toni herself: a part of the family, and beyond questioning. Now, though, I have questions. Do I have the right name for it? How do I spell this lost treat from my childhood: Is it “noun,” a food like a part of speech—the name of the food itself as well as the name of all things? Or “nown,” a shortened form of renown for something so obscure? I also wonder where this food originated, before it got to Tante Toni’s kitchen. Though I associate it strongly with my family’s Eastern European roots, surely a dessert with so much honey in it ought to be Middle Eastern, more closely related to baklava than babka.
Not long ago, I was at a lecture on nutrition for kids with suggestions for healthy lunch boxes and snacks, and there I discovered the Larabar, Cherry Pie flavor. With just three ingredients (dates, almonds, unsweetened cherries), it turned out to be the closest I’ve ever come to Tante Toni’s noun. It had that chewy-sweet-nutty-tart mouth-feel. Granted it was in a rectangle, a bar in a package, thoroughly American, and not at all the requisite diamond-shape sticking to a glass plate from Europe. But it was here, alive—RAW, the package assured me. I could buy more of them, as many as I wanted, I could gorge on the noun taste-alike. Suddenly noun had moved out of the Proustian memory-sense realm and into some place practical. I could buy Larabars for my husband and kids and say, “That’s it! That’s what noun tasted like. Almost.” And they could shake their heads at me, a bit bewildered by my out-of-proportion enthusiasm, as they chewed.
I’ve tried all the Larabar flavors in the hopes of finding another one even more noun-ish. The only other one in contention is the Pecan Pie, which is made with dates and totally delicious. But the pecans give it an oiliness that I don’t remember in the noun, and it lacks a certain Tante Toni tang.
The Larabar inspired me to hunt for my original, my Madeleine. Fortunately, in the Internet age, nothing is so obscure it cannot be retrieved. When I Googled “Jewish food for Purim almonds and dates” I found a recipe for “Nooant,” which seemed like it might be my noun, or at least next-of-kin. It consists of honey, sugar, and walnuts, and it comes with the following warning: Don’t attempt to make this in humid weather.
1 lb honey
3/4 cup sugar
1 lb chopped walnuts
In heavy pan, boil honey and sugar on a low flame until dissolved. Add chopped nuts and simmer over low flame for 20-30 minutes or until a medium-brown color. Stir carefully with a wooden spoon to prevent burning.
Wet a board or marble slab well and spread mixture with a wet spatula, about 1/2- inch thick. With a wet knife, cut into small squares or triangles. Cover and store at room temperature.