Monday, September 30, 2013


As American as apple pie.

 While most boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails, most likely in equal parts, mine are a jumble of French, American and Italian. Neither truly and completely one or the other, they balance between their many cultures as on a swing set, a see saw, back and forth, back and forth. They pick and choose the parts they like best. They are able to melt into one or the other, slipping into the chosen persona, offering their best accent and spouting one cultural reference after the next as if on cue. Caught between all of these various worlds, struggling to juggle conflicting identities, find common cultural ground, muddling through the learning process of cultural identity, my two boys have become true mini melting pots.

 When it comes to food, a strong part of their heritage, they are as familiar with osso buco as blanquette de veau as chili or pigs in blankets. Although one clamors for tiramisu, the other profiteroles, they both adore chocolate chip cookies and revel in a huge pan of brownies. Gelato, esquimau, or ice cream sandwiches are equally enjoyed, all depending upon where they are.

 Although their tastes are as different as night and day – one eats salads and vegetables, healthy balanced meals, the other would be happy to live on pizza - there are certain foods they both clamor for and most are American in flavor: grilled cheese sandwiches with processed American cheese served with potato chips, chocolate layer cakes and hamburgers on buns with fries with plenty of ketchup. And Apple Pie. Plain, simple and good, piles of naturally sweet slices of fruit encased between two sweet, flaky crusts, the whole redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg. And eaten slathered with loads of canned whipped cream!

 American as apple pie. Comfort food at its finest, reminiscent of summer holidays.

A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Apple Kuchen, Apple Noodle Kugel, apples dipped in honey, apple strudel. Apples were a part of my upbringing, food filling, comforting and hardy. Jewish women cooking and baking the dishes and desserts of their mothers, food reminiscent of the Old Country. While cabbages, onions, potatoes and beets filled our dinner plates, apples were the sweet reprieve.

 Apples tossed into wide, flat egg noodles with sugar and cinnamon, or smothered under a simple vanilla cake batter, baked into something dense, sliced into squares and eaten warm with a glass of milk. Apples paired with plump raisins and rolled in flakey strudel dough, something more elegant, made for special occasions. Or slices of apple, slippery slick, dipped into liquid golden honey for a sweet new year.

How about them apples?

 Apples bought by the crate or picked from the orchard down the country road, apples were cheap and bountiful. My mother-in-law’s baking was, like her cooking, frugality and simplicity itself, and apples fit the bill to a tee.

 Apples were cored, the slender hole stuffed with cubes of butter and as many raisins as would fit, dusted generously with sugar and cinnamon and pushed into the oven where they would soften and wither, leaving a plumped fruit wallowing in thick apple sauce. On the plate they weren’t the prettiest things, but oh were they good. A spoon would slide into the flesh, scooped out and savored warm, the apple flavor intensified almost like an apple liqueur. The juices would then be spooned up, greedily like candy.

 Her apple tart, like the best apple tart, had little to do with its American cousin. An American apple pie is over-abundance itself, thick, thick, generous layers of apples heaped between two crusts baked to a crispy, flakey assertiveness, thrusting itself at you boldly, confidently. A French apple tart is subtle, enigmatic, promising little at first glance. Thin and delicate, a French apple tart is merely a single layer of paper-thin slices of the fruit placed in a swirl of concentric circles atop a fragile round of dough, glistening with a brushing of jam. My mother-in-law’s apple tart was more rustic than the elegant version yet just as simple, chunks of apples in a single layer of concentric circles, pressed into a thick cookie-like dough, a pâte brisée rather than the familiar puff pastry. Baked and eaten for afternoon snack with a glass of milk.

 Bundled up in sweaters and coats, dog let off the leash to enjoy a day of complete freedom, we would leave her in the kitchen to her cooking and baking. Skirting around the old stone houses and along the edges of the fields (with a nod towards the occasional cow) we would take a brisk afternoon walk of discovery through the village. Around and about we would go, through the village square and its imposing stone church, past the cemetery and ending up at the apple orchards stretching gracefully into the distance. Finding our way back home, chilled to the bone, our cheeks and noses flushed from the fresh air, to find a pot of hot coffee and a warm apple tart on the table.

One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.

 Bobbing for apples on a Halloween afternoon, hair held back by somebody’s mom, our face plunged into the ice-cold water. Apples floating on the surface in a wide, deep basin, Halloween trick or Halloween treat? Try and press your teeth into the skin of one or the other, only to have it slip away. 

 Candied apples at a fair, apples dipped in gooey dark caramel or a bright red hard candy coating, glistening seductively, beckoning sweetly. Try and get a mouthful of the caramel or the candy in every bite, never desiring a taste of only the apple, ordinary apple that we can have for the asking any old day of the week. No, those caramel apples, those candy apples were a rare treat, indeed. Cotton candy or caramel apple? Hold the stick upright in a child’s tiny fist, try and keep the heavy apple erect so the sheer weight of the thing didn’t tip it over and onto the ground. The first bite is the best. Digging teeth into the apple, teeth sticky, lips sticky, fingers sticky.

 A bag full of Halloween candy. Who tossed in an apple? Who sullied a perfect sack full of chocolates, candy bars and popcorn balls with an apple?

 Green apple Jolly Ranchers.

I’ve never seen such a bunch of apple-eaters. – J.D. Salinger


 Leaves turning to gold and burnished red, flaming orange pumpkins, sweet potatoes dressed in mauve, porcini and chestnuts in sexy shades of cream or mouthwatering hues of chocolate snuggled side by side the deep purple figs in a festive embrace. Autumn’s colors are romantically deep and moody, the rustle of leaves and the breeze tickling our senses with mystery.

 Fallen leaves spread across the city square, filling gutters, not yet lying matted and sticky underfoot like an old forgotten scarf or a stray mitten lost.

 The market stalls breathe autumn as they fill up with the season’s treasures, crates of apples in every shade of green and red, lined up by the dozens next to the more meager offering of pears. Tarter, sweeter, milder, crispier, apples to eat and apples to bake and apples for compote and apples to accompany veal or chicken, savory sweet.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

 While many prefer a croissant, the simplest of French pastries yet anything but simple what with its buttery layers of flakes, ethereal; or its more joyous kin the pain au chocolat with its bite of bitter chocolate, eaten with the excitement of a child; while some desire a pain aux raisins with its buttery, creamy raisin-studded swirl or a totally decadent croissant aux amandes, that over-the-top, extravagant treat of a croissant stuffed with rich almond cream, stuffed to the point of oozing, topped with crunchy slivered almonds and dusted with powdered sugar until the white obliterates the golden of the dough…. I am attracted to the chausson aux pommes.

 The chausson aux pommes is the quiet cousin of the French morning pastries, standing in the corner, hidden among the gold. Less ostentatious than the others, a simple turnover filled with the most basic of all fruit, the first fruit, applesauce wrapped in a cozy casing of puff pastry. It lures me, tempts me like the forbidden fruit, good and evil. Just one bite. Flakes flutter onto my shirt, my lap, the tabletop (lick fingertip, stick onto crumbs, pick up and suck off finger), applesauce oozes out (no matter, eaten in private, away from prying, judging eyes), try and eat only half but to no avail. The temptation is too strong.

 Indulgence, pure pleasure. No shame.

Apple of my eye.

Apples are most definitely my family’s favorite fruit for desserts, whether cakes, coffee cakes, crisps or crumbles. Now that autumn is upon us and apples back in season, preparing apple desserts and treats just comes naturally. An Apple Brown Betty can be thought of as a cross between the American Apple Cobbler and the French Apple Charlotte, a treat of chopped apples tossed with cinnamon and nutmeg-enhanced sugar and layered with buttered breadcrumbs; while the apples and lower layers of crumbs become meltingly tender, juicy and infused with a sweet spiciness, the top layer of breadcrumbs crisps up like the perfect crust. This is an old recipe straight out of my junior high school home economics notebook. A warming and comforting treat. 


7 Tbs (100 g) unsalted butter 
5 cups cubed bread (I used sandwich bread - about 1 slice per cup) 
5 - 6 cups apple cubes (this is between 3 - 5 apples, depending upon their size; I used half delicately-flavored sweet Goldens and half tarter Reinettes) 
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar - either light brown or white granulated 
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg 
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 
1/4 cup water 
2 Tbs lemon juice 

Peel, core and cube the apples. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly butter a 9 x 13 - inch baking dish or equivalent volume (if using a smaller baking dish, make sure the sides are higher and be aware that the baking time may change.) or 8 individual ramekins. 

Melt the butter in a large bowl; toss the bread cubes in the melted butter until all the bread is evenly coated/soaked. 

In a separate large bowl, blend the sugar and the spices; toss the apple cubes in the spiced sugar until evenly coated and all of the spiced sugar is clinging to the fruit. 

Layer buttered breadcrumbs with the apples, beginning and always ending with breadcrumbs (breadcrumbs form the top layer). Mix the lemon juice into the water and pour over the apples BEFORE spreading on the top layer of buttered breadcrumbs. 

Cover tightly with a piece of aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. At the end of the 30 minutes, uncover the baking dish and continue baking for an additional 15 - 30 minutes (depending upon your oven, the apples chosen and the size of the baking dish) until the apples are bubbling and the breadcrumbs on top are a deep golden brown, or as desired. 

Remove the baking dish or individual ramekins from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool at least to warm as the boiling juices may burn the tongue and mouth. Eat as is or topped with ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream. Perfect warm or at room temperature.

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Monday, September 23, 2013


Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain

Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue

She Wore Blue Velvet

Blue Moon

Devil With a Blue Dress On

Blue Sunday

Am I Blue?

 There was no pink for me. No ruffles, no shades of girly pastel the color of bubble gum and strawberry milkshakes. No yellow intruded.

 No gaudy, blindingly bright blaze of yellow to distract. No yellow the color of daffodils, bananas, lemons or rain slickers.

 There wasn’t a dot of orange, neither the wishy-washy, uncertain orange of creamsicles or the bold, brash, rather hideous orange of one’s morning juice, the uneven, dimpled rind of the fruit. No faded, pale color of apricot flesh and bridesmaids’ dresses.

 My white wedding would be tainted with no red, although passion was the word of the day. Red, or so I had been told, was bad luck at weddings. Fingers crossed. The blush on the bride’s cheek, glowing crimson, the beating heart of the bridegroom was all the red needed.

 And there would be no green. Lilypads and shamrocks may very well bring luck; sweeping fields of freshly mown grass may smell sweetly of spring. Lizards, frogs and toads may titillate the nature lover in my new husband, yet are better left unthought of. Sage may be pleasant, moss soothing, chartreuse daring, emerald regal, apple amusing but I left the green of a childhood bedroom far behind.


 My white, white wedding was in shades of blue. Lavender, sapphire, periwinkle, peacock. Faithfulness, loyalty, confidence and unity. Blue to match the brilliant azure sky above, the wild waves of cobalt of our seaside weekend, the crystal clear cerulean waters along the white rocky shore of an island honeymoon. The blue of his eyes.

 Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

 Raising little boys, one does learn the ins and outs of everything childlike, stirring up memories of our own youthful interests. And discovering new ones. The Smurfs. Those silly little blue creatures scurrying through picture books and scampering across the tv screen. The same everywhere, from country to country as we pick up and move, only the name changes. The Smurfs become Les Schtroumpfs in France become I Puffi in Italy. Husband and sons gaily sing the theme song in one language or the other, even as their desire to watch the show or read the comics dimmed and faded.

 But living in Italy, one surprise awaited us. From out of the blue (in a manner of speaking), gelaterie across the country began selling a new flavor of ice cream, gelato, called Puffi. Schtroumpf. Smurf. A blue the color of the tiny gnomes, a deep cerulean that had customers ogling, pointing, snickering. Many afraid to taste, turning down one of the tiny spoons proffered.

 What is the flavor of deep blue gelato named after a comic book character? One wondered if it was made of actual Smurfs, Puffi, Schtroumpfs… and if so, which ones. Or was it blueberry, raspberry, blackberry or vanilla? Like blue Slurpees, blue Slush Puppies, blue Flav-or-Ice or Mr. Freeze?

 Blueberries, blackberries, Hanukkah cookies, blue lobster, blue m & m’s

 I remember reading a tale of a large reception dinner one famous self-styled lifestyle expert gave for the Queen of Sweden. For dessert, she (the queen) had prepared (for the Queen) elegant yet homey blueberry tarts. Those tarts, as the story goes, were enjoyed by one and all. And as the hostess with the mostess went up to the Queen to pay her respects as her Highness was leaving, a smile passed between the two women. And only then did the caterer, the lifestyle guru, realize her mistake. The Queen’s grin was as deep a blue as a windswept sky, the waters of a stormy sea, the blue the color of a blueberry pie.

 Little fingers and lips stained blue, a day of picking wild berries.

 The limpid blue of the sky meeting translucent, glittering blue water one September morning as I stood on the rocks and stared, mesmerized, into the distance. Cyprus, a honeymoon trip, white rocks dropping straight down into the water, piercing blue skies uncluttered by clouds. Watery blue calm. A hint of the future.

 Doors and window frames painted blue, the color of heaven, keeping evil away.

 “How would you like your steak, madame?” the waiter glances in my direction, a smile softening the features of his otherwise stern face. “Bleu” I answer him as I snap shut the menu. Carnivore that I am, how I love my red meat blue… bleu or saignant, simply one or two steps up from tartare. Bloody good!

 Allez les bleus! The French team, whether rugby, soccer, handball or tennis… are Les Bleus. The Blues. Bleu blanc rouge without the blanc and the rouge.

 Blue cheese had the power to chase my younger brother from the house screaming with its heady piquant scent that seemed to pervade well into the corners of every room, hang in the air and envelop one and all in a musty, earthy, feral wild animal fug. Blues from midnight to turquoise, elegantly marbled like the best Italian floors, well defined veins a disorderly spatter. Or mad streaks splayed out recklessly, smearing the once pristine white now the color of faded, washed-out jeans. Brevibacterium linens. The blues might very well be the most expressive, the most emotional of all cheeses.

 All blue cheeses are not equal. Roquefort, Fourme d’Ambert, gorgonzola, Stilton, Bleu de Gex; sweeter, saltier, milder, stronger. Bold or timid. Sharp and tangy, insistent. Velvety smooth, mellow. Seductive and very intense, the glance of a yet-to-be lover.

 Pair the chosen bleu with an audacious red wine or a harmonious white with a touch of the fruity. Or how about ye olde stout or ale? A slice of sweet pear, crisp apple or a seductive cluster of grapes. A dark, bitter chocolate nibbled upon while sampling les bleu; well, why not? Or toss a handful or two of the cheese (coarsely hacked into cubes) into a fondue, a lively, vibrant dance upon the tongue.

 The excitement mounts. Elves bustle from room to room, digging out decorations, hiding gifts, grinning impishly as they slither and slide ever-so discreetly from room to room. Cupped hands around whispering lips, winks and nudges the latest form of communication; the glee is uncontrollable and contagious as the countdown to the first candle begins.

 Each year as Hanukkah approaches, we eschew the seasonal reds and greens for blue. Buttery cookies in festive shapes, six-pointed stars and menorahs, dreidls and Maccabee soldiers are edged in sweet blue icing. Shimmering garlands of shiny blue and silver are strung from lamps and hung in swags along the mantelpiece. Pale blue felt cutouts in holiday shapes join the party. Some may go as far as to collect pretty blue, silver and white glass balls usually found nestled in the green of a Christmas tree, arranging them instead around the Menorah on a table strewn with glittery gold-foil-wrapped chocolate Hanukkah gelt.

 Soon, the merry sound of latkes sizzling will fill the house as a rambunctious round or two of dreidl is played out, peanuts or M & M’s passed hand to hand, losers to winner, edible prizes pooled around our impatient fingers itching for our turn to spin the top.

 There was a series of blue shirts. He knew that wearing a blue shirt brightened and brought out the blue of his eyes. And he knew that drove me crazy. The first two came with him to our marriage, an odd wedding trousseau one can say. Both horrid. A well worn ridged tank top that had seen many a summer since he was a teen, a well-worn ridged tank top now in faded navy, stretched and rather sordid. A box of smudged and discolored photographs show him in that tank top and bell bottom jeans on a summer working holiday, pushing wheelbarrows, lifting stones, laughing among friends sitting cross legged in the dirt. The other was a hideous bright blue button-up in a slithery, shiny polyester that slipped around in the drawer and quickly became a favorite joke.

 A stunning deep turquoise shirt that I picked out, the first we purchased together as a couple, is still tucked into his drawer amid so many others. A rich turquoise blue with a black and pale blue pattern in squiggles up and down, back and forth, a shirt that makes his eyes glow, although he isn’t aware of the effect. A nubbly white cotton with baby blue flecks, a dark marine blue with long sleeves and mysterious black symbols, a formal shirt for work to be worn with his suit with thin but firm blue pinstripes running up and down. One after the next, blue became a fetish color… my fetish. I am drawn to the blue as they hang on store racks when searching for a gift for him. I gently yet insistently guide him, coax him to the blues when we shop together. Year in and year out, I select blues; any shade will do. But it has to be blue. Long or short sleeve, summer or winter, he collects blue shirts like I collect shoes.

 The last blue shirt in his closet was my brother’s. I had grabbed the last stack of shirts tucked away in the drawer in my brother’s old childhood bedroom at our mother’s house, our childhood home, his last home. A stack of casual shirts in tropical prints that I knew would suit my husband fine. Within was one blue. A regular blue, a traditional baby boy’s blue, just an ordinary old blue, sporting midnight blue shapes like old Aztec or Mayan figures, a fascination for my husband. He wears the shirt now for strolls through town, walks along the river, weekends away. And I think of my brown-eyed brother.

When I was a kid, I used to pretend that that the blueberries I picked and put in a glass jar were like the peanuts of Super Goof (the only character in Donal Duck that I liked) but nowadays I prefer my blueberries in a pie and if they are found in this pie, I'm the happiest of all. The cinnamon in the crust works so well with the blueberries and the hint of apple gives it a depth of flavour that I love!


100 g / 3.5 oz salted butter
100 ml / 0.42 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
400 ml / 1.7 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon

450 g/16 oz blueberries, I used fresh but frozen ones should work well too but you might need to increase the cornstarch with another tablespoon of corn starch if the blueberries are watery.
1/2 apple, peeled and finely grated
4 tbs sugar
3 tbs corn starch

   Prepare the crust. First stir the butter and the sugar until smooth, then add 1 egg yolk at a time. Add flour, cinnamon and baking powder, work the dough quickly until it keeps together. If you have the time, you can let the dough rest for 30 minutes before pressing out the dough in a tart pan. Keep around 1/3 of the dough to roll out and use as a lid on the pie.

   Add cornstarch and sugar to the the blueberries and the grated apple in a bowl. Mix well and then fill the pie crust with it all, make it a bit higher in the middle. Roll out the rest of the dough to a circle and put it on top of the pie, nipping the seams together all around.

   Bake the tart in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 25-30 minutes. Serve it cold as it is or with custard.

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Monday, September 16, 2013


 Life is a combination of magic and pasta. – Federico Fellini


 Pasta in bianco. Pasta – spaghetti, rotelle, fusilli, penne. It didn’t matter the type of pasta, yet pasta in bianco was the only thing he would eat. Oh, plain white rice would work, as would the occasional pan-seared slice of fish. Ravioli in brodo was slurped up happily. But he could eat pasta in bianco, plain pasta simply tossed with olive oil and dusted with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, was his favorite meal.

 My little son, brought to Italy before his earliest memories, a tiny tot, and raised, for all intents and purposes, as an Italian. His tender years, his formative years until the age of eight were spent in Italy, totally immersed in the Italian culture. Yet his natural aversion to new foods, complicated dishes and too many flavors had him sticking closely to plain white pasta or rice, meal after meal.

 It was a romantic getaway weekend. Husband knew of the ideal little spot, a tiny village outside of Bologna, a place that he had discovered once on a business trip. And he knew the best little hotel, nestled in the center of that historic, medieval town. He had stayed at this hotel before, eaten at the hotel’s restaurant and I knew that I was in for a treat.

 Narrow cobbled streets, snaking upwards, we carried our bags from the car park on the outskirts and entered the hotel. A step up to reach the door, we noticed another open doorway to the right. Curious as we are, we peeped in and saw that it was a kitchen, undoubtedly the hotel’s kitchen, large enough for two or three women to prepare the restaurant’s meals. Women, always women. A large stainless steel table stood in the center, an expanse of stove against the back wall. We sighed in contentment. A kitchen such as this promised divine cuisine.

 Settled into our room, we decided to explore the village. We took the winding staircase down to the street, yet our glance, our curiosity was immediately and naturally drawn to the open door of the kitchen. We leaned in and saw just what we had hoped to see: three women hand-rolling pasta and tortellini. For the day’s lunch. A sacred silence reigned in the semi-darkness, concentrated as they were on their work. Rhythmic movements, deft fingers folded, rolled and turned, three sets of eyes turned down towards the work surface. Rows upon rows of flour-dusted tortellini lined up obediently. Something so holy, a tradition stretching back generations, a near-religious experience.

 We kept in close contact with our Italian friends once we moved back to France from Milan. When they let us know that they would be traveling through France and could swing by and pay us a visit, we were more than excited! We were elated. Friends who go out of their way to stay in touch, to visit, are rare and precious indeed.

 And of course we planned an action-packed visit: a walk in the nearby woods, a trip into Paris, and an evening out at our current favorite eatery, a Scandinavian restaurant all dressed in white a blue. Fresh fish, smoked salmon, Danish specialties. We bundled everyone into the car and proudly walked them into the restaurant. The boys, our two and their one, made their choices, everyone finding something to please. Husband and I and Lucia selected starters and mains, very pleased indeed.

 Yet… Alberto. How can a grown man be so stuck in tradition, be such a creature of habit. He scoured the menu, scrutinized each and every offer, brow furrowed in concentrated worry. A look of panic spread across his face as we waited for his decision. “There is no pasta!” he wailed. “I need a primo piatto – a first course, a starter of pasta!” We stared at him in wonder, consternation and just a tad of amusement. Husband and I smothered a giggle or two as we thought of those heady Italian stereotypes. But here was an Italian who embodied that stereotype of one who absolutely must start each and every meal with pasta.

 Eventually, with the help and understanding of the chef, were able to serve Alberto a plate of pasta and assuage his panic. We couldn’t let a guest go hungry, could we?

 The pasta of my youth was certainly not the pasta that my children were raised on. Theirs was an Italian childhood, one of fresh pasta purchased at the market daily. Theirs was handmade ravioli or tortellini filled with goat cheese or porcini or spiced pumpkin. Theirs was orecchiette tossed with freshly chopped ripe summer tomatoes and basil from the garden. Theirs was tiny raviolini in brodo, delicate little ravioli filled with a dot of cheese floating in a warm clear broth and dusted with freshly grated Parmesan. Pasta al pesto, spaghetti in rosso, my sons enjoyed every sort of pasta one could imagine both at home and at school, raised, nourished and nurtured in Italy through their youth as they were.

 My own childhood was an odd mix of old earthy Russian dishes and modern American cuisine and none too creative at that. Cans of Spaghettio’s, tiny circles like ring worms floating in thick reddish-orange sauce, salty and sweet, sometimes dotted with miniature meatballs; or Tuna Noodle Casserole, my sister’s specialty, cans of tuna tossed in wide, flat egg noodles, swimming in a can of mushroom soup and topped with crispy, crunchy potato chips.

 How I loved pasta!

 My mother would make meatballs, simmer them in tomato sauce and plop the whole on a bowl full of spaghetti… or linguini with clam sauce, clams from the jar but even as a kid I adored the long, thin, slippery noodles bathed in a fishy sauce dotted with parsley, chewy with clams.

 And then there was Noodle Kugel. Wide, flat egg noodles baked with apples and cinnamon, studded with raisins, in a large sheet pan, sliced into thick chunks and eaten warm with Cool Whip on top. That Cinnamon Apple Noodle Kugel was my comfort food, dense, chewy and heavy, just sweet enough. One always picked off the crispy burnt bits on the top before digging into the noodles.

 Manicotti. One of the first dishes I ever prepared on my own as an adult away from home was Manicotti. Pasta tubes stuffed with a creamy ricotta and parmesan filling, speckled with green of the parsley, pushed into the tubes with fingers slick with the filling, fingers it took all of my self-constraint not to lick. Tubes of pasta filled to overflowing with white fit together like a puzzle in the baking dish to get them all in and then smothered under tomato sauce. Mozzarella, more parmesan and into the oven. A pasta recipe I still make. A pasta recipe we still love.

 We fondly called her Nonna Anna, our neighbor, our son’s best friend’s grandmother, Italian through and through. I learned so much from her as she spoke about her cooking, the simple dishes she prepared for her brood when they were all together. Simple, economical and filling for her and her husband Beppe, their five children and a gaggle of grandchildren, all gathered together in that little white house out in the countryside. Tremendous bowls of pasta tossed with cubes of fresh ripe tomatoes and chopped basil, olive oil, salt and pepper just before serving and basta. She showed me how to make Risotto alla Milanese using tiny penne in place of the rice, stirring, stirring the pasta in wine and broth, adding saffron powder, stirring and stirring until meltingly smooth and creamy, like the best risotto. A generous dusting of parmesan and everyone was content.

If you have pasta left over from last Monday's recipe, this is what you can do with it:


   Whip up a few eggs, about one per person, with one tablespoon freshly grated parmesan per egg.

   Take your leftover pasta (and I am speaking of pasta with any kind of sauce), put it in a bowl and stir in the eggs.

   Heat up olive oil in a skillet and pour in the pasta, flatten it out and cook on high heat, let it crackle. Turn the frittata on a plate or a large lid and slip it into the skillet so that it cooks and gets golden brown on both sides.

   Serve with a sprinkle of fresh parsley or herbs on top.

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Monday, September 9, 2013


 An impressive expanse of burnt orange lit up the living room wall. Such a wide-open space deserved something dramatic, a powerful burst of color. Spare in furnishings, the golden blush of the wood parquet desired a partner such as burnt orange to illuminate it, to infuse it with a radiance that allowed it to stand bare and alone, no need to cover up with a motley jumble of sofas, chairs and coffee tables. One tremendous burnt orange wall facing a stunning wall of windows framed in gris de Seine which wavered from deep sage to elegant gold divided simply by oak.

 Autumn light glowed against that burnt orange, warm and comforting. The summer sun bounced gaily off the walls, chasing one joyously around the salon. Heady with self-confidence, that burnt orange wall drank in the sunshine greedily, almost arrogantly, knowing that we would be drawn to it like moths to the flame, basking in its energetic heat and enthusiasm.


 I sat in my study, my office in front of my laptop. Concentrated on whatever project I had been working on. Something on the edge of my conscious niggled, like an odd hushed voice hissing to claim my attention. I shook my head and tried to ignore it. 

 A bit later, I realized that whatever it was had not gone away. It was only then that I noticed the smell. Distant and hazy, it was hard to tell just where it was coming from but it was disagreeable, something pungent. I sat back and closed my eyes and tried to pinpoint what it could be, where it could be coming from. But again, it remained just out of reach, still inaccessible, so I turned back to my laptop and continued with my work. 

 As time passed, minutes then more, ten maybe twenty, the smell continued to grow stronger, more present; that odor crept closer. The acrid smell of something rotting. Or something burnt. Like old tar or rubber. 

 I paused in my work and pushed myself away from the desk. What was it? Invasive, aggressive, that putrid smell pricked and stung the nose. I could not for the life of me figure out what it was or where it was coming from. I peeked out the window… no nothing on fire. Scratching my head, I sat back down and resumed my work until the smell became unbearable. 

 And then it hit me like a shot to the head. I yelped loudly, released the mangled screech of a wounded animal, and ran into the kitchen. My focaccia! I had completely forgotten the focaccia I had put in the oven to bake ever so long ago! A stream of curses escaped my lips as I saw the smoke filling up the kitchen. I yanked open the oven, grabbed a mitt and pulled out the baking sheet upon which was reposing an inky black mass, a petrified rock billowing heavy, stinking, sour smoke. 


 And that pungent, putrid smell of burnt invaded our home and hung in the air, taunting me, ever remindful of my forgetfulness, for weeks to come.


 “Froid, brulé, pas cuit” A mocking phrase that means nothing, means everything all in those few, simple words.

 Froid, brulé, pas cuit, (simply translated) meaning cold, burnt, undercooked or, in other words, a culinary disaster. But in our home it is often said in a mocking way, to tease. We are all inclined to expect the worst in everything and anything we cook. Or at least I am. My husband dug down deep into his memory and pulled out this old phrase, coined during his university days by a friend, dusted it off and introduced it into our home. Froid, brulé, pas cuit has become a joke in our kitchen, a way to make fun of me when doubts of my cooking or baking prowess consume me, when my confidence in the results of an all-out culinary effort begins to waver. As soon as the wailing and chest beating begin, as soon as the excuses start spilling from my lips, warning that what I have placed on the table before my family may be a horrid failure, he lightens the mood by yelling froid, brulé, pas cuit! In other words: yadda yadda yadda, I have heard it all before and no matter your warning that it is overcooked, undercooked or burnt, it is usually just right.

 Crème brulée, a fine layer of brown sugar cooked quickly under the grill until burnt, deep golden, shimmering. Rap the back of the spoon against the hardened burnt surface until it cracks like the shell of a hardboiled egg. Paper thin, that burnt sugar crackles and shatters, revealing something utterly smooth and silent.

 Charred peppers and eggplants, blackened and bubbling, the smell of summer. Burnt sweetness, papery ebony skin, fluttering away with the flick of a knife.

 Burnt toast, just a minute or two too long, in the toaster, under the grill. Scritch scratch scrape the black off with the butter knife over the sink and make the best of it. Butter and jam.

 Steaks on the barbecue or whole-roasted pigs, elegant kabobs of cubed meat strung together and dotted with red, green and white, vegetables like Christmas bulbs. Tossed on the barbecue until seared, scorched, burnt bits picked off and popped in the mouth before digging into the tender flesh.

 The burnt-out shell of the building stood forlornly in the empty lot surrounded by remnants of a life. Bits of paper fluttered across the dusty surface of what must have at one time been a green lawn. Scraps of wood lay willy-nilly in heaps or leaning against each other, edges burnt. Jagged teeth in gaping mouths, windows shattered, eyes staring in empty and hopeless desolation. The ghosts of chairs and tables crept across the wasteland in the shadow of the carbonized hulk.

I learned long ago that adding a purée of charred, roasted red and yellow peppers to a tomato sauce adds a smoky sweetness making for an incredibly flavorful pasta sauce. A pinch of both smoked paprika and adobo powder adds further complexity and incredible depth to what is usually a rather simple, common sauce. If you prefer a bit of heat, replace the smoked paprika and adobo chili powder with touch of puréed or chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Inexpensive, simple, yet a kicked up version of your regular red sauce. 

Serves about 4 people 

1 small or medium red pepper 
1 small or medium yellow pepper 
1 medium yellow onion, chopped 
1 clove garlic, chopped or minced 
1 can very good quality crushed tomatoes 
Pinch of sugar 
Salt and freshly ground pepper 
½ tsp smoked paprika + ¼ - ½ tsp ground adobo chili powder, more to taste 
Olive oil 

About 1 lb (500 g) fresh or dried pasta, enough for 4 hungry eaters 

 Rinse, pat dry and trim the peppers; remove and discard stem and seeds. Cut each into 5 or 6 large pieces and press flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast under the grill of the oven until the skin is charred black and bubbling. (Alternately, roast over the flame of the stovetop whole, turning the pepper until charred all over; once cooled, cut away the stem and scrape out the seeds.) Carefully remove from the oven and slip the pieces of charred peppers into a plastic bag. Let the peppers sit until just cooled, about 5 minutes, during which time the condensation in the plastic due to the heat of the peppers will lift much of the skin up off of the flesh. Simply pull each piece out of the plastic bag and slip a thin, sharp knife blade between the skin and the flesh and lift off the skin and discard. Purée the skinned roasted peppers. 

 Trim and chop the onion. Add a couple tablespoons of olive to a large, heavy pot or skillet and heat. Add the chopped onion and cook over medium or medium-low heat, stirring often, until the onion bits are very tender and golden brown around the edges. Add the chopped or minced garlic and continue to cook for another minute or two until the garlic is tender. Add the chopped tomatoes, the puréed peppers, the smoked paprika and adobo chili powder (or the half chipotle pepper, chopped). Salt and pepper and add large a pinch of sugar. Stir, add about half a cup of water, bring to the simmer and allow to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water to the sauce now and then to keep it from burning. 

 Taste, adjust seasonings and serve over pasta.

Monday, September 2, 2013


 I travel with three sets of measuring cups. More precious than jewelry (well, almost), these cups of mine are the only thing that seem to validate my ownership of dozens upon dozens of American cookbooks, my connection to my culinary heritage. From the United States through France and Italy and back again, tucked into suitcases, the last to go in, the first to come out, what would I do without my American measuring cups?

 One set is brown, the color of chocolate, the color of my morning coffee. Old as the hills, the cheap plastic cups nestle one inside the other comfortably yet are forever attempting escape, bouncing and scattering among the bowls and casserole dishes in my bottom cupboard, playing hide and seek from the cook. This set is used to measure out flours and sugars, cocoa powder and ground nuts, precision is the key to their success. Spoon lightly in and level with the blade of a knife.

 One set, the glamorous set, are all shiny stainless steel, flashy in a way only silvery measuring cups can be, better than diamonds. Beautifully shaped with their elegant curves and their saucy handles, these cups are used for holding precious cargo, the dried fruits and whole nuts, the chocolate chips, freshly grated carrots or Parmesan cheese. Sassy girls like these don’t need to be precise or rely on fussy things like exactitude. They are pretty as a picture and love nothing more than hanging around, filled to the brim with plump ripe berries, glistening candied fruit, fragrant hazelnuts or tempting chips waiting for the image to be snapped. Then happy to release the goods, freed for more interesting things to come along.

 Finally – although who can ever possess too many? - there are the imposing glass measuring cups, weighty, cumbersome; cool customers, indeed, with their rather grandiose formality, chilly to the touch. And insistent they are. To be used for liquid, of course and nothing else. Oh once in a while they will make an exception for sliced bananas or peaches, for purées or grated zucchini, yet they prefer to live on a liquid diet, don’t they? Golden honey, tangy sour cream, milk, coffee, juices. They are always up for something boozy (who isn’t?), be it rum, Cointreau, cognac or Prosecco. Maybe beer, stout or ale, need be; they are never too proud to hang out with the masses. They don’t particularly settle inside one another comfortably like those pretty little Russian dolls; my collection seem ever ready to dispute, clattering noisily each time one or the other is needed, threatening to chip or, worse, drop to the floor and shatter in so many pieces. Treasured they are with their cups, pints and quarts in this land of liters, and they certainly seem to know their worth in all of their imperiousness.

 I had two favorite cups growing up and absolutely had to drink from one or the other.

 Goofy Grape. My sister had Jolly Olly Orange, my brother Freckle Face Strawberry. There may have been a Rootin’ Tootin’ Raspberry in the house but the Goofy Grape cup was mine. For Goofy Grape koolaid, of course! But the perfect shape and size for a scoop or two of ice cream, a cupful of dry cereal to nibble on while whiling away an afternoon curled up on the sofa, my nose in a book, or even simply a cup of ice cubes to chomp on during the sweltering dog days of summer.

 My tall plastic cup in pale sea green, ridged all the way around the bottom few inches, perfect for grasping, not bad for gnawing gently around the rim when nervous or when daydreaming. This was the ideal cup for chilled chocolate milk stirred with an iced tea spoon, coca cola or koolaid in the afternoon, plenty of room for ice cubes to rattle around gaily, or a milkshake if one was so lucky. Pour in a Great Shakes (only chocolate, please) or an ice cold Yoo-Hoo or an iced tea, later, when I was older. Cold cups of milk in the morning, orange juice later in the day, I loved my cup.

 I still own my green plastic cup, have carried it with me through college, drank from it during those heady, bohemian years in New York, have kept it with me in Italy and France, a fetish, a remembrance, a link to my past, my youth.

 I take my morning coffee in the same cup every single morning or all hell breaks lose pushing one of the other to scuttle to the sink to wash one of the only two there are in the house. Yes, there are two identical coffee cups, a spare in case the first is dirty. The perfect size and shape, it nestles inside my cupped hands, not to big, not too small, just right. Its gently curving sides are elegantly ridged, curvaceous, gracious, giving traction, keeping the heat at bay. Two-thirds coffee, freshly brewed, one third milk, steaming hot, half a sugar cubed snapped in two and it does indeed make the perfect morning coffee cup.

 I have always been a woman of habit.

“Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence” – Robert Fripp

“…a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.” - William Collins

“A cup of kindness is better than a cupboard of criticism.” – William Arthur Ward

“Life’s enchanted cup sparkles near the brim.” – Lord Byron

 Goblet, beaker, grail, chalice, mug, tumbler, cup. Which best describes you? Half empty or half full?

 A cup of joe. Not my cup of tea.

 Cupped hands. Sips of water, slurping, lapping. Cupped hands, a toddler offering a tiny mound of damp dark earth, maybe an earthworm or a snail snuggling within. Cupped hands, clasping the tiny fist of a newborn or cradling the face of a child. Cupped hands holding a small heap of chocolate chips or cashew nuts or golden raisins, willing to share. Cupped hands clenched around a fistful of coins, waiting eagerly for the ice cream truck.

 My mother came home from a visit north with two old child-sized cups: one chipped white enamel edged in marine blue, the other a cup in aluminum like we used to carry with us on Girl Scout camping trips. “These two cups belonged to my uncles, Grandma Bertha’s two youngest brothers.”

 Bras, jock straps, codpiece, World Cup… Reese’s Peanut Butter… cups galore!

 Paper cups for barbecues, delicate porcelain teacups graced with blossoms, edged in gold. Supersized mega cups in thick, resilient plastic for Slurpees. Egg cups! Egg cups in white ceramic in the shape of a hen or funny wooden chicks, sticky yellow yolk dripping slowly down the side. Thick heavy white coffee cups in diners, bistros, bars all around the globe, each alike, universal, a worldwide community of cups.

 One cup sugar, one cup flour, one cup butter.

 Many a slip twixt the cup and the lips.

 The bride and groom each take a sip of wine from a Kiddush cup. The groom lifts his foot and brings it down hard, smashing the cup wrapped in a white cloth napkin.

I have always loved jelly desserts and I confess that when I was a child my favourite dessert was JELL-O pudding. I didn't get it often but when I did I was a very happy 7 year old, the stronger the colour it had, the happier I was. I have no memory of it having any recognizable flavour, the allure was it's transparency and the wobble, two aspects that still attract me but now I want the jelly taste good as well. Tea jelly is very refreshing on a hot day, not to speak of the possibilities it has, you can use any of your favourite teas and make it with or without fruit.
350 ml/1,48 cup tea of your choice, I used Earl Grey
100 ml/0,63 cup sugar
150 ml/0,63 cup water
3 tsp gelatin powder but it’s always best to control the dosage on the packet.

small grapes of the variety called uva fragola in Italy
   Add 2-3 tsp of water to the gelatin powder and leave it for a couple of minutes.

   Make the tea and add the sugar while still hot, stir until completely dissolved

   Add the gelatine and mix very well. Pour the tea into cups or glasses, drop in 2-4 small grapes in each cup and put them in the fridge for 3-4 hours to solidify. If you use glasses you can put the grapes in at different stages so that they are not all at the top: pour a finger of tea into the glass, wait until the liquid is a starting to get solid before putting i few grapes in, repeat until you have filled the glass.