Blogger leaves death’s door and enters the kitchen

When Jessica Fechtor started her blog Sweet Amandine in January 2009, her readers had no idea what she had just been through. That was deliberate on her part. They didn’t know that she was recovering from a brain aneurysm, or that in the months afterward she had several surgeries and serious complications.

“It was wonderful to not talk about it,” the San Francisco-based author said. “You might think of it as an omission, or that I was hiding something, but actually it felt like the opposite.”

In one of the follow-up surgeries in 2008, a piece of her skull got infected and had to be removed, requiring her to wear a hockey helmet for a year before she could be fitted with a prosthetic. “I was writing with my helmet on my head because I was missing a piece of my skull, and feeling so sick and weak, but that was only a part of me at the time, but not the real me, not the truest me. When I was blogging, I got to be only the parts of myself that were me, and not the illness. That felt incredibly authentic.”

It was only when she needed to undergo the prosthetic surgery — one her father dubbed “Humpty Dumpty Day,” to put her head back together again — that she realized she’d need to take a break from the blog. She knew her readers would wonder why, so she decided to write about her ordeal.

That August 2009 post brought much more attention to her blog. Then the agents came calling, asking for a book. At first she demurred, thinking she had nothing to add to the illness and recovery genre, but as she continued sharing recipes and the stories behind them, she began to change her mind.

“Through my blog, I had fallen in love with writing narrative nonfiction, and I realized if I could frame the book as an illness and recovery memoir, but more about the experience of figuring out how food was so important to me, then it was a book I wanted to write,” she said.

The result is “Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home” (Avery), which was released in the spring and spent time on the New York Times best-seller list. The writing is incredibly poetic, and Fechtor’s Judaism is sprinkled throughout. In addition to recounting her experiences, the book also includes many of her favorite recipes and conveys how much being in the kitchen made her feel like herself again.

Fechtor, now 35, was 28 and had just run a half-marathon in New York. She was living in Cambridge studying Jewish and Yiddish literature in a Ph.D. program at Harvard, in the best shape of her life, and she and her husband were thinking about starting a family. Then she fell on a treadmill while attending a conference in Vermont in August 2008.

To say that the aneurysm that caused the fall changed everything would be an understatement. Though Fechtor would have a grueling recovery, she didn’t die, as many people in her circumstances do. She needed several surgeries, permanently lost her sight in one eye and, for a time, lost her sense of smell. Whenever she sat down to do her academic work, she couldn’t concentrate, and she wondered whether her mental capacity would ever be the same.

When Jessica Fechtor started her food blog, it was an escape from her illness. photo/jeremy fraga

Seven years later, a lot has happened. The book ends with the birth of her first daughter; now she has two. She went back to teaching and then wrote the memoir. Last December, her husband’s work brought the family to San Francisco, where they are active with Mission Minyan, and Fechtor has changed her dissertation to focus on representations of food in Jewish literature.

In the interview, she listed numerous ways cooking facilitated her return to wellness, how it helped her learn to trust her body again, and how the simple act of taking raw ingredients such as butter, sugar, eggs and flour and “doing something generative with them, when I was feeling so broken and incapable, was powerful.”

Baking in particular allowed her to start giving of herself again, after having relied so much on her friends. “You can cook for one, but you bake to share. If you have enough butter, flour and eggs to bake, you have more than enough than for just you.”

Being able to invite friends back to her table gave her “freedom from the smallness of having to think only of yourself.”

Fechtor keeps a kosher home and is a staunch believer in using butter in cakes, so her family often has fish or a vegetarian meal on Shabbat that allows her to serve such a cake for dessert. She also has a collection of olive oil cakes and desserts like apricots baked in wine that can be served with a meat meal.

“I don’t think of it as a hierarchy in that way,” she said, but she feels strongly that there’s no excuse for using fake butter in a cake that calls for the real thing.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Butter is kosher.”

So if making Fechtor’s Italian Prune Plum Tart(below), use real butter. It’s a dessert appropriate for this time of year and absolutely spectacular. I made it for Shabbat dinner last week.

CRUNCH FOR HEALTH: The JCC of San Francisco is marking National Food Day at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 23 by hosting an event called Food Day Apple Crunch. The Apple Crunch is an action that will be taking place at other institutions around the country to raise awareness about eating better diets for our health and the environment, access and affordability of fruits and vegetables and supporting local farmers. Recipes using apples will be given away. Find information at


Italian Prune Plum Tart

From “Stir” by Jessica Fechtor

Italian Prune Plums arrive in the final weeks of summer and don’t stick around for long, so when you see them, grab them, and make this tart. The press-in crust keeps things simple and bakes up beautifully into a sweet and salty shortbread-like shell. Then all that’s left to do is fill it with fruit, whisk together a custard, pour it over the top and bake. While I’m waiting for prune plums to come around, I make this with apricots instead. Delicious.

For the pastry:

1¼ cups plus 1 Tbs. (180 grams) all-purpose flour

½ tsp. sea salt flakes, like Maldon

½ cup (1 stick; 113 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

¼ tsp. pure almond extract

¼ tsp. pure vanilla extract

For the filling:

½ cup heavy whipping cream

1 large egg, lightly beaten

½ tsp. pure vanilla extract

3 Tbs. granulated sugar

1 Tbs. flour

10-13 Italian prune plums, pitted and halved

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

Make the pastry:

Whisk together the flour and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Put the sugar and melted butter into a large bowl and mix well with a spoon. Add the extracts, flour and salt to the sugar and butter mixture, and stir to form a soft dough. Transfer the dough to the center of the buttered pan and press it evenly into the bottom and sides of the pan. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes, until the dough puffs slightly and takes on a bit of color. Set aside to cool. (It doesn’t need to cool all the way to room temperature, just enough so that you won’t cook the egg in the custard on contact.)

While the pastry is baking, make the custard:

Whisk together the flour and sugar in a small bowl. Combine the heavy cream, egg and vanilla in a medium bowl, and whisk well. Add the flour and sugar, and whisk again until smooth. Pour the filling into the cooled pastry.

Place the prune plums cut-side down into the cooled pastry in two concentric circles, with one in the center. Pour the custard into the tart around the fruit. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the custard is just set and the top blushes with spots of golden brown. Cool before serving.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."