In my house, my mother always did the cooking. Like many Jewish mothers, Mom loved through food; her meals were rich and expansive, enough to feed our family of six, and every other family within a half-mile radius. Brisket, chicken soup, rugellach, kugels, she made it all, and served it with gusto.

I loved watching my mother cook, whizzing about the kitchen, doing a hundred things at once. She chatted happily as she threw in a bit of this and a pinch of that, bypassing the measuring cups for her own intuition, whipping up multi-course dinners without a single glance at a cookbook.

When it came to most things domestic, I considered myself something of a genetic misfire"How do you do that?" I would ask her.

She'd give a casual shrug and say, "It's easy."

As she spun stories about her grandmother's broken engagement or rolled her eyes about the neighbor's yippy dog, she would chop, mix, beat and pound with hardly a glance down at her hands. She was in her element in the kitchen, as natural for her as sunshine on a flower.

But it was Mom's challah, baked fresh each week for Shabbat, that was her crowning glory. The perfect mix of sweet, warm and doughy, it was bread that spoke to your soul. On Rosh Hashana, she baked towering Challah swirls spangled with golden raisins, beautiful enough to make even the darkest cynic hopeful about the year to come.

In our community, "Debbi's Challah" was one of the most sought-after recipes. She even taught challah-baking classes in our house, the kitchen crammed with women elbow-deep in dough, the air thick with the smell of yeast and coffee.

When Mom baked challah, she let me "punch" the dough, releasing excess air so the challah would bake properly. It was a tiny but crucial job, and one I took very seriously. By the time I came home from school on Friday afternoons, the dough was already well risen and waiting for me. As I crossed the kitchen, I would approach the bowl with excitement, anticipating the moment when my fist would meet the dough with a satisfying thud, then a sluuurp as I withdrew my hand from the deflating mound.

My job done, Mom would collect the dough and pull it apart, setting a small piece aside according to Jewish law, and splitting the rest into groups of four. Her hands flew across the table like wild birds as she rolled and stretched the spongy dough into tubes, weaving them into a perfect braid. One over two, one over one; One over two, one over one…

After painting the top of each challah with a beaten egg and sprinkling them with cinnamon-sugar, she would slide them into the oven. Soon, the entire house would fill with the golden smell of baking dough and the spice of bubbling chicken soup. As the sun began to sink and my father walked in the door, he would stop, close his eyes and breathe deeply.

"Aah," he would sigh. "Smells like Shabbos".

The one thing my mother did not do well in the kitchen was delegate. She did everything herself. On the few occasions I would ask to help, I lasted only a few minutes before she'd bump me gently with her hip and murmur, "Here, let me…". It was just easier for her that way.

This is why, years later, I found myself a single twenty-something with no clue how to cook. In fact, when it came to most things domestic, I considered myself something of a genetic misfire. Just turning on an oven terrified me; I would rather have died from salmonella eating raw brownie mix than figure out the difference between "broil" and "convection bake". When I used the stove, my dinner music usually wound up being the sound of the smoke detector going off.

When I got married, I started to suspect that I was going to have to expand my culinary expertise beyond the microwave, but my future husband and I had enough invitations for Shabbat I figured I had time to coast on my challah-punching skills alone. But an unexpected snowstorm, of all things, kicked me into Crash Course Cooking, 101.

My husband, Shuie, and I had been invited to Friday night dinner about a mile's walk away. While looking forward to the company, I was also relieved to hold a "Get Out of the Kitchen Free" card. However, our plans were quickly wiped out by a fluke blizzard that pummeled Boston late Friday afternoon. Three hours before sundown, I faced the grim reality that I would have to make dinner myself.

As I peeled and chopped and sprinkled, I felt a calm settle over meI called my mother in a panic. "How do I make chicken soup?!?"

She talked me through the ingredients: a chicken in eighths, carrots and parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks. Halve a sweet potato. Peel an onion and cut an X into the top. A generous amount of fresh dill, salt, pepper to taste. Cover it all with water. Bring it to a boil and then let it simmer for an hour and a half, at least.

As I peeled and chopped and sprinkled, I felt a calm settle over me. There was something meditative about the scrape of knife against cutting board, the tickle of spices in my nose and the weight of chunked vegetables as I scooped them into the pot. Soon enough the smell of my mother's chicken soup sweetened the air of my crummy one-bedroom hovel — that I loved because it was all mine, thank you very much — and I could feel, really feel, Shabbat coming.

Shuie walked in, brushed the snow off his jacket and inhaled deeply. "Smells like Shabbos!"

I brimmed with pride.

While not the most complicated recipe, that Shabbat meal marked an auspicious beginning in my cooking career. The next few years were marked with some hits (my banana muffins will change your life) and misses ("This soup tastes like burning"), in between more panicked calls to Mom. Under her tutelage I was eventually able to cobble together something resembling a decent meal. As I became more adventurous, the anxious grip in my throat was slowly replaced by a sense of ease, even excitement, as I regarded my cookbooks. I discovered that cooking, when not terrifying, could actually be fun.

I discovered, also, that I shared my mother's penchant for overcooking; after hosting another young couple for dinner, our fridge was bursting with leftovers for the next two weeks.

When Mom was diagnosed with Cancer, it never occurred to any of us that she wouldn't get better. There was no one more vibrant, more alive, than she; surely she would just power through her treatment and move on with the same aplomb she'd shown juggling the demands of four children or throwing together a banquet on a moment's notice. But Cancer proved the one thing stronger than she; after a year of chemo and two major surgeries, the doctors told her she had only weeks to live.

Spring sidled in, and Mom and Dad moved to our family's summer home on Cape Cod, where Mom could spend the time she had left enjoying the sound of the ocean and watching her hydrangeas bloom.

The new season marked the approach of Passover, the holiday commemorating the Jews' redemption from Egyptian bondage. This year, all of my siblings and their significant others would be coming to have our last Passover with our mother. But with Mom out of commission, someone was going to have to step in and clean the house in preparation for the holiday, ridding it top to bottom of all leavened substances, down to the last crumb. Someone was also going to have to make the kitchen kosher for Passover and cook enough to feed ten people for three days.

As it turned out, that someone was me.

When Mom was diagnosed with Cancer, it never occurred to any of us that she wouldn’t get betterIn between making up to-do lists, fielding phone calls and working with the VNA nurses to give Mom her meds, I managed to get the house Passover-ready. There was no time to be afraid or wonder if I could handle it or not; there was too much to be done. The morning of the first Seder, charged with adrenaline, I sprung out of bed at three a.m. to start cooking. The next eleven hours flew by in a blur of cutting, mixing, stirring, beating and transferring delights to and from the oven.

Somewhere between the Potato Kugel and the Vilna Tzimmes time froze, and I caught myself in the moment. Here I was, the ringleader in a circus of activity, setting sisters to work chopping veggies, stirring a soup, checking the time on a kugel, cradling the phone between ear and shoulder and bouncing my baby son on my hip. I had no idea how I was doing it, but somehow it was all coming together. In that moment, I saw myself as I was: my mother's daughter.

That night, as we sat down to the Seder, Mom watched over her children with pride and contentment.

"Rea," she said, in front of everyone. "You have exceeded any expectation I have ever had of you by one-thousand percent".

With that, she had transferred something very important to me. She was telling me she was confident in my ability to take my place as a matriarch in this family, and I should be, too. She would be gone soon, but she had taught me well.

Mom died a month later, when her hydrangeas were in full bloom. From that day, there has been an ache in my spirit that comes from missing her. But every time I walk into my kitchen, punch my challah dough or spice my soup, I can feel her there with me, her laughing voice spinning stories I've heard a thousand times before.