I must tell you there are not many things I like better in this world than a party. It could be a dinner party, a cocktail party, a small intimate gathering with just a few friends, I am good with all of them. I like planning them, I like hosting them, I like going to them. A party is an excellent excuse to buy a new outfit (maybe something a little sparkly), get dressed up and enjoy the company of good friends. Our friends Kevin and Kristine had a lovely Christmas party this past weekend. Good wine, good food, some festive music, and great company were the trademark of the evening. I always feel that if I am willing to help out, people will be more willing to have parties in the future, so I volunteered to bring along a dessert. I made tiramisu, which I had never made before, and by all accounts, it came out pretty well. I felt a little guilty, because tiramisu is not a very difficult thing to make. In fact, it is more about the assembly than anything else. My sister sent me her recipe, and I looked at a few others in various cookbooks before I sort of made up my own. It involved only one actual bit of cooking. That was the cooking of egg yolks and sugar in a double boiler on the stove top. I even used instant espresso, since we are not coffee drinkers in my house, and I don't even own a coffee pot (when I have my own parties, I assign coffee to one of the guests, and they bring it in a lovely thermal carafe). It was rich, not too sweet, and had a little kick from the espresso and Kahlua. It is important to make it the night before so that the moisture seeps into the dry lady fingers, and all the flavors come together.
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 8 oz. containers mascarpone cheese
2 cups whipping cream
1 1/2 cups espresso (cold)
1/2 cup Kahlua
cocoa powder for dusting the top
dark chocolate curls for garnish
2 packages dry lady fingers
In the top of a double boiler, place the egg yolks and the sugar. Whisk and bring up to temperature. Once the water in the bottom of the double boiler is boiling, reduce heat and whisk continuously for 10 minutes. Take the mixture off the heat. Add the mascarpone cheese and continue whisking until it is well incorporated. Let the mixture cool. In the meantime, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cheese mixture.
Prepare a 9 x 13 inch pan. Quickly dip the lady fingers, one at a time, into the espresso, then place in the bottom of the pan. Line the pan entirely, then sprinkle the tops of the lady fingers with about half of the Kahlua. Spoon the cheese and whipped cream mixture over the lady fingers until covered entirely. Continue the procedure with the lady fingers, creating another layer, ending with the cheese and whipped cream mixture. Using a fine sifter, dust the top of the dessert with cocoa powder. Use a vegetable peeler to make chocolate curls, and place on top of the tiramisu. Let sit overnight before serving.
I have often written about my mother's lack of interest in cooking. She loves good food and is happy to bring good wine along to a meal that we have cooked at our house. She is excellent company and is a great help in cleaning up after a good meal, but she has no interest in actually cooking. She is, however, quite an excellent baker, and makes the best desserts. When we were growing up, she would spend hours and hours baking wonderful Christmas cookies. She had incredible patience in dealing with two young girls who wanted to get their hands into everything. She always encouraged us and made the Christmas baking a festive and enjoyable event to which we looked forward. She made a number of different kinds of cookies. Back in the days before "cookie swaps" were popular, my mother would regularly put out a platter of many different kinds of cookies, made all by her (and us). To this day, I view the baking of the Christmas cookies one of the holiday festivities; it is not just the finished product that is the enjoyable part, but the process of baking the cookies, too. In fact, that is very much the way my mother always lived her life, and does to this day. It is not only what we accomplish that should be enjoyable. It is important to enjoy the process as well, and if you can do it surrounded by those we love, all the better.
So, the holiday baking season is upon us, and my mom's favorite kind of cookie is the one I made first this year. My sister and I were not terribly fond of them when we were little. They were not very sweet, and they had nuts: the kiss of death for young kids. As an adult now, however, I totally get it. These have a delicious crust, are light and flaky, subtly sweet. The star of the show in these cookies is the cinnamon, so buy the best you can, as I did. I splurged and ordered it from King Arthur Flour, and it was worth every cent.
Mimi's Meltaway Horns
For the crust:
3 cups flour
1/2 lb butter, very cold
1/2 pint sour cream
3 egg yolks
1 package dry yeast
In the bowl of a food processor, place flour, yeast, and butter. Process on short pulses until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add sour cream and egg yolks, and process until well mixed and smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
For the filling:
3 egg whites, beaten until light and fluffy
2 tbsp good quality cinnamon
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
To prepare the cookies:
Cut the large ball of dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll each out on a floured surface to about 1/8 inch thickness. Using a pastry brush, brush the beaten egg whites on the dough circle. Sprinkle with 1/4 of the cinnamon sugar mixture, then the chopped nuts. Cut each circle into 16 wedges, then roll each wedge up starting from the wider end. Place on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Let cool on wire racks, then sprinkle with confectioners sugar.
I always thought that someday, when I earned enough money, I would only buy the best ingredients for my recipes, shop exclusively at local markets and places like Whole Foods, buy only artisan cheese, local honey, fresh pasta. You know, that kind of thing. Growing up, we did not have a lot of money, nor did my mother's family when she was young, but there was always good food. My grandmother always believed it is important to eat well. We may not have had a lot, but we always had good meals, cooked by and eaten in the company of the people who loved us most, so we never felt poor.
I still hope that day will come that I am able to buy the finest of ingredients, but in the meantime, I am doing the best I can making good food with the best stuff I can buy. I did, however, decide to splurge recently on some ingredients for my holiday baking. I love to shop from the King Arthur Flour company. The products are fresh, wonderful, and everything I have tried is very high quality. I regularly buy their cinnamon mini chips for the scones I make. This time, I decided to buy some real vanilla beans to make my own vanilla extract. They arrived in a plastic vial, plump and pliable, much healthier looking than the ones I had eyed at the supermarket. This falls into the category of a recipe for an ingredient, and I completely stole the idea from Ina Garten. The problem is that I should have decided to do this a few weeks ago, as the vanilla extract will not be ready for my holiday baking. I am consoling myself with the fact that I will have some awesome New Year baking going on in my house. Just in time for dieting. So after the Christmas bills are paid, I will still have my little slice of luxury: juicy vanilla beans and delicious homemade vanilla extract made from real vanilla beans and good vodka, ready to be used in a drink recipe.
Vanilla Extract (adapted from Ina Garten)
2 or more vanilla beans
8 oz. good quality vodka
Place the vanilla beans in a mason jar. Cover with the vodka. Let sit at room temperature for a month or until the vodka has turned into vanilla extract and the beans are more pliable. This can sit at room temperature indefinitely.
It has been a busy weekend; all kinds of fun stuff went on. First, there was Thanksgiving, the ultimate food holiday. Then, we spent a fun evening with friends, eating pizza and staying out very late. Finally, I attended my 25th high school reunion last night, which was a riot. I graduated from a private, Catholic high school in the city where I grew up. My high school experience was probably very typical for that time; the fun I had was relatively innocent, certainly by today's standards, and there was an amazing sense of community.
There are some people who do not enjoy reunions; I am not one of them. Whenever I can look back on a period of time in my life and find the good memories, I am happy to do so. I had a really fun time catching up with old friends, some of whom I had gone to elementary school with as well. It was very entertaining to recount some of the old stories, and even more entertaining to hear some of the stories of things that happened that I didn't know about at the time. With many of the people I saw at the reunion, conversations were as easy as if we had not gone five, ten, or twenty years without seeing each other; we just picked up where we had left off. Next to the time that my friend Lisa and I crashed my sister's 20th high school reunion, it was probably the most fun I have had at one of these things.
Of course last night proved in many ways that I am not as young as I once was, and I am tired. The upcoming weeks will be hectic ones, as we prepare for more holiday celebrations, and I need a day to just chill. The best way I know to do that is to make a pot of soup, and maybe a loaf of homemade bread, and lounge on the couch with my two daughters, my husband and the two dogs, and watch all the movies we taped this week while HBO was free. So that is exactly what we are doing. And as we have decided to eat a little more healthy in the weeks leading up to Christmas, today is sort of our last hurrah in the decadent food department. This soup isn't so bad for you. It just has a little half and half, and it is so good, I am hungry just thinking about it.
Cream of Mushroom Soup
For the broth:
1 small handful of dried mushrooms (I used dried porcini)
3 cups low sodium chicken stock
2 cups water
Place the stock and the dried mushrooms in a stockpot and bring to a boil. Cook until the stock is reduced by half. Let cool, and strain the dried mushrooms using a fine strainer. Discard dried mushrooms.
For the mushrooms:
3 8-ounce containers of mushrooms, any type you like (I use a mix of cremini, baby bella, and white), cleaned and sliced
1/2 onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken stock
Saute the mushrooms, and onions in the olive oil until they just begin to brown. Add the garlic, stir for a minute, and then deglaze the pan with the wine or chicken stock.
To assemble the soup:
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all purpose flour
2 cups half and half
salt and pepper to taste
fresh chives (optional)
In a large pot, melt the butter, and add the flour, stirring with a whisk until the mixture begins to brown slightly. Add the mushroom stock little by little, whisking as you go to incorporate. Bring up to medium heat, and add the half and half, continuing to stir. Reduce heat to simmer, then add the mushrooms, onions and garlic. Let simmer for at least a half hour, until the soup thickens just a little and all the flavors are blended. Serve with fresh chives, if desired, and a slice of hot, fresh bread.
My husband Michael comes from a family of savers. They save everything. Typically, this is problematic for me, as I am a thrower-outer. I throw out mostly everything. After we got married and bought our first house, my mother-in-law began to bring over the various boxes and bundles of things that Michael had saved over the years, as well as the things that had been saved for him. There was the bowling ball and bag (had I found that earlier, it might have been a deal breaker), and the concert t-shirts, which I had previously been accused of throwing away, and a myriad of other items that were somehow crucial to his existence. Now, I will admit that there were some things that were sentimental, and therefore, worth saving.
One thing that Connie wisely held on to were a collection of classic children's books that Michael and his sisters had received as members of the 'Book of the Month' club, and had loved as children. My girls were the recipients of those excellent and nostalgic books, and we read them, sometimes swooning with remembrances of these books being read to us as young children. One of the books arrived just weeks before Thanksgiving, and not coincidentally, was titled Cranberry Thanksgiving. It was about an old woman who had a secret recipe for the most delicious cranberry bread ever. In the story, there is an ill-fated attempt to steal the recipe, and the culprit turns out to be the last person one would suspect. The very valuable lesson, of course, is 'don't jump to conclusions about people.'
At Thanksgiving dinner that year, my sister in law mentioned that the recipe, which was printed on the back cover of the book (if only the thief had just bought a copy of the book!), was outstanding. I poo-pooed the idea of a recipe, printed on a book mass produced in the late 1960s, as being spectacular. I was soooo wrong. This recipe is tart and yummy, and utterly exceptional. I make it every Thanksgiving now, and happily pass the recipe along, so that nobody has to steal it in order to enjoy this awesome bread.
Cranberry Orange Bread (Adapted very slightly from Cranberry Thanksgiving)
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup butter
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp grated orange peel
3/4 cup orange juice
2 cups fresh cranberries, chopped
Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter, cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. Add egg, orange juice and orange peel all at once, and stir just until mixture is evenly moist. Fold in cranberries.
Spoon into a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.
A recipe for a roast chicken seems kind of ridiculous, kind of like a recipe for a sandwich. I mean, you just put in whatever you like, right? But I made a really delicious and flavorful roasted chicken this week, and was telling a friend about it, and she asked for the recipe. A whole roasted chicken makes a weeknight feel kind of special, kind of like a mini Thanksgiving, only so much easier and less stressful. It makes your house smell wonderful. And with a big enough chicken, and one vegetarian in the house, there is plenty leftover for some great sandwiches the next day...hmmm. Maybe I already have my next blog entry!
Sage, Lemon and Garlic Roasted Chicken:
1 large, whole chicken (7-8 lbs)
5 garlic cloves, peeled
I whole lemon, zested and then sliced
10 fresh sage leaves
About 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or use the sage oil for extra flavor)
salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the chicken inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a large roasting pan. Place the garlic, lemon zest, 1 tbsp olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper in the bowl of a mini food processor. Pulse until it is a chopped paste. Take 2/3 of the garlic mixture, and using your hands, place it under the skin of the chicken. Place the remainder inside the chicken cavity. Place the slices of lemon under the skin of the chicken as well, and then a couple on top of the chicken. If there are any left over, you can place them inside the cavity of the chicken. Roast at 375 degrees until an instant read thermometer reads 165 degrees (or until the juices run clear). Delicious with roasted potato wedges.
My husband is a genius! My favorite fall flavor is sage, and although we dug the plant out of our garden, there are only so many sage leaves, and eventually, I will run out. So Michael has started making small batches of sage oil, and I have begun drizzling it on pretty much anything I eat. I made beautiful soft scrambled eggs with the sage oil today, and I sauteed some mushrooms in the oil for an omelet for Emily this afternoon for lunch. I roast vegetables with the sage oil drizzled over them, and put it on meats and salads. It is utterly delicious, and truly simple, which is why I say my husband is a genius. I mean, he married me, didn't he?
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
handful of fresh sage leaves, washed and dried
Place oil and sage leaves in a small, heavy bottomed pan. Put the pan on a burner, and bring it to a very low simmer. Continue to simmer for an hour or two until the oil is infused with the flavor of the sage. Let the oil cool, then strain through a fine mesh strainer, discarding the sage leaves. The FDA recommends storing homemade flavored oils in an airtight container in the refrigerator and using up in at least ten days, so only make as much as you can use in that time.
My sister Betsy has been a dog person all her life. As a young child, she pined for a dog. The closest she came to having one was a scruffy stuffed dog named Murphy. My Uncle Jimmy even made an oil painting of that dog, and Betsy hung the painting above her bed. So when she got her first dog, a black lab, she named him after that first furry friend. Murphy went everywhere with Betsy, including on the 21 hour trip from her home in Alaska to visit us in Connecticut. When Murphy was hit by a car and killed, Betsy was devastated. Shortly after Betsy and her husband Mike were married, the first thing they did was get a dog, a black lab that Mike trained to hunt with him. Dolly was such a friendly dog, that even my mother, an avowed dog-avoider, would take her on long walks with her when she visited Betsy and her family. We were in Alaska a little over a year ago, and got to know Dolly very well. Though her graying face told us of her age, she was energetic enough to jump into the Grand Central River when we stopped the car on the side of the road on our day trip out to Salmon Lake. Her tail would whip as you walked by, a little friendly greeting, and she loved nothing more than to be outside with the kids. She was a faithful friend and a wonderful companion.
In my own family, we are fortunate enough to have two wonderful, if sometimes a little barky, dogs. Before Chilidog came to live with us, I liked dogs, but because I had never had one, never really understood how beloved they could become. Now, I cannot even imagine living in a home without a dog. They are always happy to see you, never argue or talk back, and only ask for a little food and an occasional walk in return for their good and true friendship.
So I am feeling for my sister and her family today. Yesterday, they said goodbye to Dolly, the dog that had been part of their family for 13 years, and who had been a part of John and Sarah's entire childhood. While my children talk about the time before Chili and Daisy came to be part of our family, John and Sarah do not ever remember a world that did not include their sweet Dolly. If my sister lived closer, I would go to her house and make this meal tonight. It is warm, creamy, salty, and comforting, and while it will not take one's sorrows away, it certainly makes them more bearable. With one of our favorite pasta dishes, we will toast Dolly tonight, the sweetest black lab we ever knew.
4 eggs & 2 egg yolks, at room temperature
generous 1/2 cup of grated pecorino romano cheese, plus more for serving
4 oz. pancetta, sliced (regular bacon will work too, but pancetta is better)
cracked black pepper
1 clove garlic, finely minced.
Put the 6 eggs in a dish of warm water for about 15 minutes - the goal is to raise the temperature of the eggs without cooking them. Cut the pancetta into strips, and cook in a frying pan over medium high heat until crisp. In the meantime, crack 4 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks in a large bowl. Add the garlic, pepper and grated cheese, and whisk together. Add about a tablespoon of the pancetta drippings to the egg and cheese mixture (shhh! don't tell my mother that part), and whisk again.
Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente. Strain the pasta, and place immediately back into the hot cooking pan. Little by little, add the egg and cheese mixture to the hot pasta, using tongs to move the linguini around quickly. Keep tossing to coat the strands of pasta evenly. By keeping the pasta in the hot pan, the heat is retained, and the eggs are heated through thoroughly. Add the crispy pancetta, and toss. Serve with a little more of the grated cheese.
I decided recently that I should always order appetizers when I go to restaurants. It has nothing to do with smaller portion sizes, or eating healthier. What it is really about is getting to try as many different kinds of food as possible. So of course, I like parties where there are hors d'oeuvres. I can sample everything and then go back for what I like best. But why do savory foods have all the fun at parties? Sometimes, I want a sweet bite or two as well. Enter the pumpkin pie dip. Perfect for this time of year, it tastes like pumpkin cheesecake with a ginger snap crust. It was a big hit at a recent meeting at work, and I have brought it to parties withgreat success as well. Serve it in a small hollowed out pumpkin at a gathering, and you have a desserty hors d'oeuvre that is also a conversation piece.
Pumpkin Pie Dip:
1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree
2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese
2 cups confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
Ginger snaps for dipping
Cream the cream cheese in a stand mixer until smooth. Add the sugar, and continue to mix thoroughly. Add the pumpkin and spices, and mix well. Scoop the seeds out of a small pumpkin, and fill the cavity with the pumpkin dip. Serve with small ginger snap cookies for dipping.
All the female members of my household have been sick recently. My youngest daughter is just over strep throat, I have an annoying head cold, and my oldest daughter is suffering from a nasty sinus infection. There have been trips to the pediatrician, the pharmacy, and the grocery store, and each time, we are looking for something to soothe, comfort, and nourish. We have picked up the saline spray and the antibiotics, the cranberry juice and the ginger ale, the cough drops and the humidifier. But a good supper also does wonders to make everyone feel more comfortable, loved, taken care of, and pasta is just the thing in this household. And to go along with the pasta, what could be healthier than some greens and lots of garlic. This is one of our favorite pasta dishes, and just for tonight, we all curled up on the family room couch, with our steaming bowls of pasta, a blanket on our laps, comforted by the closeness of being together in our cozy house on this cold, rainy fall night. We could almost feel the vitamins and minerals making us healthier and stronger, which is a good thing because the only one left to get sick is the man of the house, and ladies, we will need our strength for that!
Pasta with Broccoli Rabe, Spinach and Feta:
1 lb hot, cooked linguine
1 large bunch of broccoli rabe, trimmed and washed well
1 large bag of baby spinach
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
pinch of red pepper flake
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2- 3/4 cup chicken stock
1 generous cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup shredded Romano cheese
8-12 oz. chopped tomatoes or canned chopped tomatoes
In a large pot of salted boiling water, blanch the broccoli rabe for 2-3 minutes (this softens the broccoli rabe and takes away some of the bitterness). Drain and run under very cold water to stop the cooking. In the meantime, put the olive oil and the garlic in a large skillet, and simmer for about 15 minutes until the garlic has softened and mellowed. Add the red pepper flake, stir to mix. Add the broccoli rabe and turn the heat up to medium low. Add the chicken stock, and stir the broccoli rabe. When the chicken stock is very warm, add the spinach and stir until wilted. Add the tomatoes, and let cook together for 6-8 minuted to combine flavors. Toss the greens and tomatoes with the hot pasta in a large bowl. Add the feta cheese and toss to coat evenly. Serve with grated Romano cheese on top.
Girls cannot live by frozen waffles alone. Believe me, it is true. My girls have tried. We seem to get into these breakfast ruts around my house. Crazy school mornings when one teen and one preteen girl are having a hard time getting themselves out of bed due to the fact that they have stayed up past their bedtime talking to each other in the bedroom that they share lead to this over reliance upon quick convenience foods for breakfast. There's nothing bad for them in these breakfast waffles; I buy the low fat ones, and spread with a little bit of low fat cream cheese and some 100% fruit jam. It's just that there is nothing good for them in these waffles either. No grains, no real nutrients, and therefore, no staying power. The kids are hungry by 10:00, and lunch is not until after noon. Not a good scenario when kids are expected to have brains that are firing on all cylinders at school. So I need to get us out of our breakfast rut, and I decided to employ the slow cooker. My husband scoffed at this plan; steel cut oats and dairy sitting overnight in the warmth of the crock pot were a recipe for disaster, he thought. I felt that if meat and broth could sit together in this little 'hot tub,' well then, why couldn't the grain and dairy do the same? And if it worked out right, our breakfast would be waiting for us in the morning, all warm and bubbly, ready to stick to our ribs. The fruit, cinnamon and brown sugar would make the house smell wonderful, helping the whole waking up process along. Lastly, the kids would have a delicious breakfast, with some actual fiber and nutrition, and would be ready to focus on their schoolwork until lunchtime came around. And what I found was this: in addition to the aforementioned benefits, there was also another. The morning chaos subsided because breakfast was already made, and just needed to be ladled out, sprinkled with the almonds and craisins, and a little milk. And if I do say so myself, it was really good. So much so that I packed some up for my lunch as well that day.
Slow Cooker Oatmeal:
for the oatmeal:
1 cup steel cut oats
4 1/2 cups milk
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp real maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla
1 large apple, grated
for the topping:
9 tbsp sliced almonds
6 tbsp craisins
Put all the ingredients for the oatmeal in the slow cooker and stir to mix. Turn the slow cooker on low and let cook for up to 7 hours. Serve in a large bowl, sprinkled with 1/2 tbsp almonds and 1 tbsp craisins per serving. Add a little extra milk to desired consistence (makes six servings).
Just a year ago, my grandmother died at almost 98 years old. In addition to being a beautiful woman, my grandmother was the most generous of women, and affected so many people in her long life. To her grandchildren, she was Grandma, to her precious great-grandchildren (22 of them!), she was Nonna, the Italian word for grandmother. She taught me to cook, and taught me to see food as a way of taking care of those we love; to feed them, body and soul. I would like to share a piece I wrote right after she died. I shared it at her funeral, but I reread it myself every so often, as a way of remembering my Gram, and all the lessons she taught me. I hope this gives you a sense of who my Gram was.
"We cannot do great things; we can only do small things with great love."
These are the words of Mother Theresa.
"We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."
In my life, no person has embodied this sentiment more than my Gram. She was from such a different world that the one she came into when she came to America. Her mother died when she was very young, and perhaps because of this, her life's work was to create a strong and loving family. My grandmother's devotion to us was a constant in all of our lives. She knew only one way to love: completely. For Gram, family was everything, and everything was family. To be her grandchild was to know that no matter what mistakes you made, no matter how far from home you went, you were always loved, you always belonged, and you were always welcome back home. She was quick to let you know if you had done something wrong in her eyes, but just as quick to pull you close to her and love you anyway. For her, 'love' was a verb. It was not so much about how she felt, but what she did to show us how precious we were to her. She showed her great love for us everyday in the many things she did for us - the cooking, of course, but also the clothes she made for us (all those matching outfits for Christmas and Easter so that we wouldn't look shipala-shopala), the mending of clothes; in short, her complete engagement in our day to day lives.
She was the kind of grandmother who, when she was babysitting, would get us out of bed after our parents had left so that we could watch 'a program' on TV with her before she told us to go 'nee-naw' (how many of us can still sing the nee-naw song?).
I have vivid memories of Gram sending us cousins out into summer rainstorms to dance in the backyard, splash in the puddles, much to our mothers' dismay. She overruled our mothers, and we were often happy for it.
Growing up, we did not carry pop tarts or twinkies as the treat in our lunch boxes. We had a baggie full of crispelles, or a couple of Gram's homemade machine cookies. We did not call the pizza place on a Friday night for pizza, we walked upstairs and sat at Gram's kitchen table.
I will always be grateful for her strong presence in my life. After the death of our father when we were very young, my mother, my sister and I could not have had the life we had without the help of my grandmother. She was with us after school when my mother was working or in college, she cooked for us, took care of us when we were sick, listened to us when we were sad. I am who I am in large part because of the guiding presence of Gram in my life. And this story is not unique. Probably every one of my cousins has a similar story, and that is the most amazing thing about my grandmother. Her capacity for love, for generosity was boundless.
My Gram was quick to develop relationships with all those around her; she connected with people, and used her many gifts to help her to do that. When she heard someone was sick, whether it was a family member or one of many friends and acquaintances in her community, she always sent a loaf of bread, and a jar of her famous chicken soup with pastina.
She suffered terrible losses and great hurt over the course of her lifetime; she nursed her children and grandchildren through illnesses, buried both of her parents, all of her brothers and sisters, her son-in-law, her husband, her granddaughter and her son, and she did not become bitter or ever once doubt the faith in God that sustained her. With every loss her love grew. With each sadness her faith in God, in her family, in her friends and in herself strengthened, deepened. She had confidence in God's plan for her, and because of this, through the many difficult times in her life, she lived with great love and generosity towards others.
It is hard to imagine a world without the presence of my grandmother, but the small acts of great love with which she blessed each of us remain, and this world is far better because she lived. Now it is up to us to continue her work.
We should continue loving each other, forgiving each other, helping each other. We should follow her example of love in action, not just within our own families, but with everyone we encounter.
When my sister Betsy and I were little girls, my grandmother came down each night at bedtime to say goodnight to us. It was always a three part goodnight, in Italian, and now I say goodbye to my sweet grandmother the same way:
Buona serra, buon repose, e buona notte.
One of the types of pasta Grandma used to make was cavatelli. When I was a little girl, I would go up and help her to form the shaped pasta, then to drop them in the boiling salted water for just a couple of minutes while they cooked. While this is not my Gram's recipe, I am making these in honor of her today, to feed my family. We will be together, and we will talk about her, remembering the many gifts she gave us.
16 ounces ricotta cheese
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
In a wide bowl, place flour and salt, creating a well in the center. Add the eggs and ricotta to the well, and using your hands, begin to incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients little by little, pulling in the flour as you go. Continue until you have a smooth dough that is not too sticky, adding more flour if necessary. When the dough is done, knead about 20 times to make it smooth, and then let it rest in a cool place for about a half hour.
Once the dough is rested, pull off a small handful at a time, and on a floured surface, roll into a long, thin strand, no more than a half inch wide. Cut the strand into segments of about three quarters of an inch long. Using the side of your thumb, press down on the piece of pasta dough, sliding your thumb across the width of the dough, so that it curls almost like a scroll. Repeat until all the dough has been made into cavatelli. As you cut and shape the pasta, place them on a floured cookie sheet so that they can dry a bit. It is best if the are not piled on top of each other, as they may stick together.
Pasta can be cooked immediately, or can be placed in the refrigerator covered for use in the near future.
To cook, place the cavatelli in a pot of salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes until they float to the surface. Serve with your favorite sauce and lots of good grated cheese. Enjoy the pasta with people you love, because Nonna taught me that every meal tastes better this way.
If you are lucky, you get to work in a field that is rewarding and fulfilling, and if you are really lucky, you meet coworkers who are 'simpatico' and become true friends. I am blessed on both counts. I am a middle school teacher, and I met my dear friend Jeri when I began teaching at my current school. She is all the good things one would want in a teacher. She is compassionate towards kids, passionate about the subject which she teaches, and she holds everyone, kids and teachers alike, to high standards. She is a font of creative ideas and shares her ideas with everyone around her in the most helpful manner. She is a class act, full of positive energy, and she is celebrating a birthday this week. I am a firm believer in the idea of finding any reason to celebrate, so today, we had carrot cake for Jeri's birthday. It had to be the best carrot cake, worthy of Jeri, and I just so happen to have an awesome carrot cake recipe. It produces an ultra moist cake, has a delicious carmely glaze that is absorbed by the cake, and is frosted with the most delicious cream cheese frosting. I have made it in layers, but it is easier to make in a 9 X 13 pan because it is so moist. It also works well in cupcake form. Make it for someone with whom you are fortunate to be friends, and they may even share!
Carrot Cake (from Southern Living)
2 cups all- purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups grated carrots
1 8 oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup sweetened coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Stir together the first 4 ingredients. Beat eggs and the next 4 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in carrots and next three ingredients. Pour batter into a greased and floured 9 X 13 inch pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil to prevent excess browning, and bake 13 minutes more or until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean. Drizzle Buttermilk glaze (recipe follows) evenly over cake.
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
Bring sugar, baking soda, buttermilk and corn syrup to a boil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Boil, stirring often, 4 minutes or until mixture is golden brown. Watch it closely because it will boil over easily. Remove from heat and add vanilla extract. Drizzle over carrot cake. Once the cake is cool, frost with cream cheese frosting (recipe follows).
Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 stick butter, softened
12 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 16 oz. package confectioners sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Add confectioners sugar gradually, beating just until mixed thoroughly. Add vanilla extract and mix. Spread over the carrot cake after it has completely cooled.
Note: I made the cake and buttermilk glaze 2 days ahead, and put it in the refrigerator covered with plastic wrap, and it kept nicely. I then frosted it the night before I served it.
I grew up in a section of a city where the majority of the residents were either Irish or Italian. I was surrounded by good Italian markets and restaurants. The various foods did not seem terribly exotic, and as my grandparents spoke Italian around the house, the sound of the language was very familiar to me. Fast forward to my young adulthood, and my first encounter with someone who pronounced ricotta cheese 'ri-COT-ta. Italians pronounce it re-GAWT-ta, so I was startled at this much more harsh sounding pronunciation of the word. Similarly, to hear people talk about making something like my beloved lasagne with cottage cheese just about appals me. I say this in the knowledge that any Greek person who sees the way I make the following dish will be similarly appalled. And I apologize in advance; this is the best I could do. I will say that although it is not in the least authentic, it is pretty darn good, and as long as you don't have any Greek people over for dinner, it will totally satisfy.
Spanikopita (Spinach and Feta Pie)
1/2 package frozen Phyllo dough (usually there are 2 plastic wrapped packages in each box. Use 1 of the plastic packages per recipe)
4 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 packages frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta
10 oz. part skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated romano cheese
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp red pepper flake
1 tsp lemon zest
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
Mix the spinach and all the following ingredients well in a large bowl. Unwrap the phyllo dough, and lay it out, covered with a damp kitchen towel to prevent the dough from drying out. Mix the melted butter and the olive oil in a bowl. Using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a 9 X 13 baking dish with the butter and oil mixture. Lay 2 sheets of phyllo dough at a time at the bottom of the baking dish. After each 2 sheets, drizzle and brush the butter and oil mixture. Add 2 more sheets of phyllo dough, and repeat the process until you have used half of the sheets. Place the spinach and cheese mixture evenly across the phyllo dough, and the add more phyllo sheets, 2 at a time, drizzling the oil and butter mixture between sheets, as before. Repeat until you have used all the phyllo sheets, and then coat the top sheet liberally with the oil and butter mixture. This can be done a day ahead, amking it a great weeknight dinner option. Bake at 350 degrees for about a half hour, or until the phyllo dough is golden brown and crispy. Slice and enjoy.
Weekend breakfasts call for something a little more interesting than cereal and milk, especially when the weekend morning is as gorgeously beautiful as ours have been here in Connecticut recently. There is definitely the feeling of Fall in the air, but the sunny skies still say Summer. Sitting on the back deck reading the Sunday paper and drinking several cups of tea is a real treat, and a lovely respite from the hustle, bustle and chaos that mark the beginning of the school year. Usually our weekend breakfasts involve eggs and English muffins, but this weekend was different.
This was the weekend we closed up our pool for the season. It is a thankless job: all work, no payoff. In addition, it is sad because it marks the end of another summer, the last stint of freedom for a while. Sometimes it goes easily, sometimes we run into difficulty, like the year we were lulled into keeping the pool open by long, warm September days. As soon as October hit, it was instantly cold and rainy, and we closed the pool wearing slickers in the rain one miserable Sunday. But this year, we closed it over a weekend that we could have spent swimming, it was so warm, and it went off without a hitch, except for the ground wasp nest that was "found" by Anna's friend Brynn while she was helping us with the job. And everyone helped, with no complaints or eye rolling, which, with a teenage and a preteen girl in the house, is no small gift. So this weekend deserved a special breakfast. I have been wanting to find a good recipe for Monkey Bread for some time now, and finally decided to use an old standby dough for cinnamon rolls that I have used for years. Everybody loved it here; I hope you try it and enjoy as well!
For the dough:
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 package active dry yeast
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract
To coat the monkey bread pieces:
6 tbsp butter, melted
4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Put half of the flour and all of the yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer. Heat the milk and butter slowly in the microwave, until just warm and the butter is almost melted. Stir until it is melted completely (mixture should be about 120 degrees). Add to flour mixture, then add eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat on low speed until mixed, then scrape sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the rest of the flour, put on the dough hook, and knead for 6 - 8 minutes. Shape into a ball, and place in a greased bowl in a warm spot, covered with plastic wrap.
When the dough has almost doubled in size, punch it down. Spray a bundt cake pan with cooking spray. Mix the cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, salt and pecans together in a bowl, and prepare the melted butter in a separate bowl. Cut quarter-sized pieces of dough (I made my pieces too large), roll the small pieces in a ball, and then coat in melted butter. Place immediately in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and coat generously. Place the coated pieces in the bundt pan, spreading evenly. Repeat until all the dough has been used up. If there is melted butter or cinnamon/sugar left, spread them evenly over the top of the cake (why not?). Place the pan in a warm spot, and let rise for about an hour. Alternately, you can put the cake pan in the refrigerator overnight, and remove in the morning, waiting for the dough to come to room temperature and to rise before baking. Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the cake is golden brown. Turn pan over and serve with powdered sugar on top. To serve, just pull the pieces apart. My daughters have requested that the next time I make this, I make Monkey Bread Muffins.....a great idea, I think!
My mother drove out to one of the orchards in town earlier this week and stumbled upon a basket of local nectarines marked 'seconds.' She inquired about the fruit, and the cashier told her that the nectarines were not as smooth and beautiful as the fruit they sold at full price, but that they were still tasty. A good sized basket with at least twenty pieces of fruit was just five dollars, so she bought them, and dropped half off at my house. My daughters, undeterred by the irregular fruit, ate a few of them before I even got home that day. Once I arrived, I banished all the fruit eaters, and wrapped them up to save for some weekend baking. I do believe a few pieces of fruit were pilfered even then. When I was cutting them up for the crisp I made on Sunday, I understood why. These were the sweetest, tangiest, juiciest nectarines I have ever tasted. I quickly threw together this crisp, throwing a few blueberries in for a little color and some more flavor. We ate the whole thing for dessert tonight, and I called my mother after to let her know how delicious it was. How else could I guarantee that she would drive to the orchards again to get me more nectarines?
For the Fruit:
About 8 medium peaches or nectarines, cut up
2/3 cup blueberries
juice of 1/4 lemon
2 tbsp. Instant tapioca
3 tbsp. brown sugar
For the Crisp Topping:
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter, melted
Mix the fruit and the next three ingredients in a 9 X 13 baking dish. Toss well to mix. Mix oats and remaining ingredients together in a bowl, and then crumble over the fruit mixture. Bake for 35-45 minutes at 350 degrees until crust is golden brown and fruit is bubbling. Serve warm, preferable with vanilla ice cream.
There are a lot of reasons I love my husband. He is one of the most intelligent and curious people I know. He has a wicked sense of humor, keeping the rest of us laughing much of the time. He is the sweetest, and most loving father I could ever imagine, staying far more calm than I as our daughters enter the teenage years. He is fiercely loyal, and loves to cook. In addition, he is persistent to a fault, rarely getting frustrated at the many jobs there are to do around the house. He is an amazing partner and friend. His many wonderful qualities, however, have made my Michael a man who loves a good household project. Over the years, we have relandscaped, built a stamped concrete walkway, knocked down interior walls, built closets, painted, gutted and retiled a bathroom. I am just the cheap labor; I often cannot see the forest for the trees, as they say, and Michael is the one with the vision, the knowledge and skills to carry out the plan. It is one of the few times that I just do what I am told.
A few years ago, we ripped out a brick patio in our backyard to prepare for a large deck. Michael is not one to discard any useful things, so we stacked the bricks in a large neat pile in the side of our yard, knowing that down the line, we would find some way to use them. A friend casually said to Michael, "If you just pulled a few of the bricks out of the center, you'd have a brick oven to make pizza." An obsession was born! From that point on, Michael spent all his free time researching, planning, drawing, and getting ready to build the brick wood-burning pizza oven that now stands in our backyard. To be fair, we had been talking about the fact that there is no good pizza to be had in the town in which we live. But still, there were people who called us crazy. Sometimes it was me.
We dug, poured a cement base, spent the Spring of 2007 building the structure of the oven out of cinder block, then I channeled the spirit of my grandfather, who was a bricklayer when he first came to the U.S. from Italy, and mastered the fine art of bricklaying. We spent that summer sweating in the backyard laying brick over the cinder block structure, then building the barrel arch from firebrick. While I would not want to build another pizza oven, I will say that working on such a project together was a rewarding experience. Our kids would swim several yards away in the pool while we worked, so the hours we spent working, we also spent talking. There was nowhere we could go, and nothing else to do but sing along to the music playing on our ipod and talk. So although I ended that summer far more exhausted than I started out, we finally got some good pizza.
Making pizza in this manner is a project in itself. The fire needs to be built in the oven three hours before the pizza is made, because the mass of the oven needs to absorb the heat from the fire until it is saturated and can reflect the heat back to cook the pizza. It is perfect for a lovely late summer or early fall evening with friends and a few bottles of red wine.
This dough is very versatile. It makes a great calzone, good bread, and works very well in a traditional oven jacked up to the highest temperature. Let the oven preheat for at least 30 minutes, and if you are using a pizza stone, make sure it is in the oven while preheating.
Pizza Dough (adapted from Alton Brown)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil plus more to coat the dough while rising
3/4 cup warm water
2 cups bread flour
1 tsp. active dry yeast
In the bowl of a stand mixer, place the water, sugar and salt. Mix well until the sugar and salt are dissolved, and then taste to see if it is balanced. This is essentially what your pizza dough will taste like, so if it is bland, add some sugar or salt. Add the yeast, stir and let sit for a couple of minutes for the yeast to activate. Add the flour, then using the dough hook, start the mixer on low, as the flour and liquid become incorporated. Add more flour if necessary to form a sticky but smooth dough. Knead the dough (continuing to use the stand mixer and the dough hook) for 15 minutes Alternately, the dough can be mixed and kneaded by hand. Cut the dough in half, and roll each half into a ball. Coat each piece of dough with olive oil and place in a large bowl covered with a clean damp dishtowel. Place in a warm place to rise. Dough can be made a day in advance and left in the refrigerator.
When the dough has risen, stretch by hand into a medium sized circle. Top with your favorite pizza toppings, and bake on a pizza stone at the highest temperature your oven will reach. When the cheese on top is golden brown, and the crust is crisp and browned, pull the pizza out with a pizza peel. Slice and enjoy!
I have been back to work for six days now, have gotten a paycheck before students graced my classroom, so I really cannot complain. I am a middle school teacher, and I am looking forward to the students' return, because it is much more fun to be working with them than it is to be preparing for them. Yes, fun. When I meet new people and the inevitable subject of what one does for a living comes up, I am often amused by the reaction of those people when they learn I teach 13 year olds. The conversation typically goes something like this:
"So, what is it that you do?"
"I am a teacher." (at this point, they smile at me because they are imagining that I work with young children in elementary school, and that is noble)
"Oh, how nice. What grade do you teach?"
"I teach eighth grade English." This is the point that I look forward to because the look of shock is just priceless. Some fear for my sanity, some just try to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. I laugh because they don't know what they are missing. Kids at that age are certainly full of energy, and hormones, but they have wicked senses of humor, are appreciative of any kindness you show them, and can be the most fun people on the planet to spend time with. I swear.
So my only complaint is that once I start back to school each Fall, my lifestyle goes through some changes. I have to get used to getting up at 5:20 AM, have to become reaccustomed to the fact that restroom breaks are determined not by my body, but rather by the school schedule, and that my lunch has to be planned and teenager-friendly, as I may have students in my classroom when it is time to eat lunch.
So, my favorite lunch this summer is squarely off limits to me during the school year. You see, I discovered a really great sandwich made with egg salad, onions, avocado, and a thick slice of garden tomato. I could eat this in school if I wanted to be the laughing stock of my students. Remember all that good stuff I said about middle-schoolers? That is true only for people who don't bring in weird and smelly lunches. So I will have to relegate this yummy, open-faced sandwich to my weekends, and maybe add a piece of bacon to make up for the loss.
Egg Salad Sandwich with Avocado and Tomato:
1 thich slice multigrain bread, lightly toasted
2 hard boiled eggs (1 yolk removed)
1/4 avocado, cut into small chunks
1 tbsp. finely diced onion
2 slices tomato
salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients except the bread and the tomato in a bowl. Place the tomato slices on the toasted bread, then pile the egg salad on top of the tomatoes. Eat and enjoy without guilt!
Today is officially my last day of summer vacation. School starts for most kids next week, so for us teachers, the mad rush to the first day of school begins this week. While I love teaching, the transition each year is a tough one. To go from the long, relaxing summer days where the biggest decision is what to have for dinner, to getting up at 5:15 AM and hitting the ground running is a tough one. Teachers look forward to summer each year, not necessarily for the reasons you would think. While we love the free time, what we really need is the long strand days where we do not have to plan what we are doing the next day or the next class. For ten months each year, the first thought I have when I wake up is "what am I doing in the classroom today?" The summer provides the break from that.
Don't get me wrong. By the end of the summer, I am ready to go back. It is time to use my brain again, and of course, time to earn a paycheck again! But I still feel that sadness at the end of each summer. Time is passing too quickly, the kids are growing up much too rapidly. As the saying goes, 'the days are long, but the years are short.' So I do what I can to extend that summer feeling. In addition to making a point of getting outside to enjoy the beautiful weather that September brings to Connecticut, I also continue to cook like it is summer.
The vegetables in the garden and at the farmer's markets are hitting their peak right now, and nothing is more delicious than late summer tomatoes. We have been working toward real panzanella all summer, and waiting for the garden to yeild those sweet, juicy, red tomatoes. They are here in spades, almost too many to eat. Almost.
4-5 excellent summer tomatoes
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced
1/2 medium red onion
2 tbsp. capers (optional
big bunch basil
salt and pepper to taste
1 small loaf Italian bread (I used a small ciabatta loaf), cubed
Extra Virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Toast the bread cubes by drizzling with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, and placing in a 300 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until crunchy. Cut up the tomatoes into bite sized chunks, and place in a large bowl. Add cucumbers, onions, capers, if using, and basil. Once the bread is toasted and cooled, add to the tomato mixture.
Mix 4 tablespoons of olive oil with 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, and whisk together. Drizzle over the bread and tomato mixture, tossing to coat. Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix again. Add more dressing if necessary. Serve immediately, and savor the taste of summer.