Tuesday, 13 December 2011

You want me to bring the cake?

Heaven help the hostess who asks me to bring dessert. I am not a baker, nor have I ever been.  The reasons for this are probably rooted in family medical history (a story for another day), and though I've tried my best over the years, it's probably in everyone's best interest if i dolcetti come from someone with a sweet tooth who can deliver. 

One of the worst cakes I ever baked was buried under one of the three plastic trees in our High School foyer. (Not M. High for those of you who know me...the other High School in sap country, as some of you used to call it, after I moved away.) It was a day in June and our grad year.  There were three of us. K., J. and me.  We cut the cake in the staff didn't look too good...hmmm, not cooked in the middle...but we proceeded as planned. We wandered down to the lobby to wait for our rides home and delight in some cake. One bite and K. grabbed the box from my hands, lifted the first tree beside her, and stuffed it in. There it went, never to be seen again. I still gasp when I think about it. She was that brassy and zanier than anyone I've ever met.  J. and I still talk about it.  As for K., she moved away, to our relief. She could dream up trouble just by breathing. 

Any sweets I make now don't involve baking.  It seems to work out better if I stick to this rule. My kids agree, as they've tasted enough of my half-baked disasters. The trouble is, I substitute too much in my endless search for healthier alternatives. Whole wheat flour instead of white, honey instead of white sugar, pureed prunes instead of wonder nothing ever turns out. Here's one of my favorite dolci and a recipe from my local health-food store. I make them almost every Christmas and they're as good as any regular truffle out there. Try them and, trust me, no one will want to bury these in your house plants.

1 cup peanut butter
1 cup carob
1 cup honey 
1/2 cup each sesame seeds, crushed flax seeds and unsweetened dessicated coconut 

Mix all together (in a Cuisinart works best). If the mixture seems too dry, add more honey. Shape into balls and roll in carob or coconut.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. 

So how does the buried cake story end? Well, much as I held my breath that summer, none of us got a call from the school principal, which still amazes me since there was a crowd of kids in the lobby that day and none of them with Blackberries to distract them.

Over the years I've thought of a few possibilities as to what happened after K. told me without telling me that my baking was more than unacceptable:
1. The caretakers followed their noses and found a moldy mountain of goo in a sand-covered box, cursed the kids with nothing better to do, and spent the rest of the day tidying up the planter.
2. The cake is still there.  It fossilized into a rock over the years and the plastic tree above it is a couple of inches taller than the others. No one knows why and no one cares.
3. One day while K. was baking a glorious cake for her adorable and innocent children in their new and happy home, she opened the oven door when the timer bell rang...and out sprang...a plastic tree! She then had an anxiety attack, a symptom that follows her to this day. No matter where she is in the world, every time she sees plastic vegetation, she faints. Her kids were traumatized as well and, as a result, have never tasted a morsel of cake. Think of all they've missed! Call it karma, I guess, or the perfect order of the way the universe evolves. Personally, I like this ending best. How about you?

Buon Natale a tutti!  Merry Christmas everyone. Buone Feste. Thanks so much for reading my blog this year. I wish you and yours all the best life has to offer this holiday season. May 2012 bring you much happiness, and an abundance of pasta that's cooked just to your dente.  See you next year.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Not Exactly Eggplant Parm

When my youngest was little, I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years.  Life slowed down in heaps. There was an abundance of time-- the kind that gets you moving fridges and stoves and dressers and commodes to get at dust bunnies and their babies.  There was time enough to make stuffed chickens, stuffed peppers and stuffed zucchini.  There was time for traditional Eggplant Parmesan.  The kind that's double-dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, gently fried in olive oil and topped with a homemade Ragu.  Nothing but melanzane and parmiggiano gratuggiato cotte in una barca di Ragu, then topped with mozzarella as far as the eye can see. In those days, I kept candles on my kitchen window sill and lit them every evening before starting dinner. I would read and reread my favorite cookbooks while my kids played quietly with their toys, and spent entire days dehoarding the basement til it felt as spacious as our living room.  

But then came school and homework, volunteer work, back to work, family feuds, renovations, aging parents, menopausal symptoms, and growing children who loved to store precious the basement.  

Speed has a way of pulverizing traditions don't you think?  It has a way of taking the love out of grocery shopping, meal planning and generally running a happy home. My traditional Eggplant Parm recipe died somewhere during those years. A victim of our pick-up-the-pace life, it lies in wait for its very unlikely reincarnation. I guess somewhere along the way I learned that having dinner ready during a certain time frame was better than watching starved famiglia transforming into Joe Pesce. 

These days, rather than burning all kinds of time planning meals and flawless grocery lists, dinner ideas take shape while I'm walking the grocery isles.  It's pretty spontaneous and depends largely on how the spirit moves. When I pick up eggplants every two weeks or so, I place them gently in my cart and trust something good will come from my oven-- even if I tune out the cheese by the time I get to its isle.  Despite my mental notes, formaggio gets left behind when there are seven different types of hummus to choose from.  

Has my family noticed?  Yes and no.  Comments vary.  Some nights I hear:  "The last Eggplant Parm was better."  Some nights it's: "Hmmm, sooo goood."  Sometimes I get:  "Nonna's is better."

"Of course Nonna's is better!  Nonna can spend a whole day making Eggplant Parm if she wants to!"  Kids today are bold, aren't they?  No backhand to worry about and so they just comment as they please.

While I used to plan my Ragu in advance, now it's Ragu if I have time. I layer my EP with whatever leftovers are on hand and grill the sliced eggplant, brushing with garlic and olive oil as I go.  Which leftovers have worked?  Rapini, spinach, shredded zucchini and thinly sliced potatoes have been nice surprises, as have thinly sliced carrots, onions and hot peppers. What hasn't worked?  I would stay away from shredded cabbage.  Yeah.  What was I thinking?  Plain tomato sauce on each layer tastes as good as mouthwatering Ragu, and cheese doesn't have to be Parmiggiano.  Cheddar, goat's cheese and grated Romano all taste great. I may have used others as well but nothing comes to mind right now.

This time around, I found myself grilling eggplants...and reaching for the mashed-potato-and-cheddar-cheese filling left over from Mr. BBQ's homemade peroghies. I layered sauce, eggplant, grated parmiggiano and mashed potato with cheddar cheese.  Repeat again and again til you're done.  Top with goat's cheese. I guess you could call it Melanzane a Tre Formaggi...or if you're older and your kids have left home and have their own families, you could call it something more romantic. This week I was whining to my mom: "I feel like I'm always at the kitchen sink.  I cook. I clean. I cook. I clean. Is this the life my kids are going to have one day?"

"But that is the luv for your familee!  You cook and clean because yu luv your familee and by doing dat you keep ev-ery one too-gether!"  

Well, how about that? Or you can call it love. 

Some days Nonnas give you exactly what you need, don't they?  
Now if she could just explain the ol' backhand to me. 

I think I'll go clean out my basement.