Sunday, December 20, 2020

Gingerbread Party

  I know I am not the only one who is missing gathering with friends this year. Getting together for a spur of the moment meal on a Saturday or out for a drink to celebrate in a cozy restaurant on Main Street that has been decorated and lit up for the holidays.
  As the calendar moves closer to Christmas, I miss the festivities: the multiple school events, the hustle and bustle of shopping on the last weekend before Christmas: shopkeepers thanking customers with a "Happy Holidays!", even the obligatory work parties in a crowded bar where someone inevitably drinks too much and becomes the subject of gossip the next day around the water cooler. And I never thought I would ever say that I miss the annual Falmouth Christmas Parade. The long wait for Santa to finally arrive, stomping my cold feet in an effort to fend off frostbite, avoiding drinking hot chocolate to keep myself warm lest I need to use the bathroom and take off my multiple layers and the crowds pushing me off the edge of the sidewalk, into the street. I have to admit, I miss grumbling about that, too.
  But of all the events leading up to Christmas Day, I probably miss Sheila's gingerbread house party the most. My friend Sheila bakes homemade gingerbread dough into walls and roof pieces for an entire week, every night after working all day and puts together an individual structure for each of her guests. The spicy, sweet houses are put on Christmas paper wrapped cardboard with a name card designating where each person will sit once placed on extra tables brought into Sheila's mom's kitchen. Not only is this process obviously laborious but the placement is as thoughtful as setting the table for an impressive dinner party so that the guests will all have lively conversation and ensure a fun time will be had by all.
 A huge spread of candy, rivaling that of Willy Wonka's magical kingdom is spread out in the side room where partygoers choose and fill bowls full of candy canes, red and green M &M's, gumdrops and so many other confections they will use to decorate their soon to be masterpieces. 
  The frosting bags are my domain. I'm the type of guest who loves to have an "important" job. I station myself by the savory appetizers, the ones brought by the adults to offset the sugar high and absorb all the wine that the mom's need to drink during this wild (kids eating ridiculous amounts of candy!) afternoon. I fill and refill disposable pastry bags with canned frosting, that is stacked in a huge pyramid by the stove. A can of frosting and a bag of candy is the price of admission for a coveted seat at this event and most of us bring more than just one. 
  I fill multiple bags as a backup for when decorators begin to ask for more. Then I make my rounds, taking photos of the emerging works of art and demanding that my own children, "Look at me and SMILE!" as they lick frosting off their fingers and nibble from their bowls of candy. I am called back to my post as the artists begin to demand more "glue" to continue work on their elegant sugar mansions. 
  I am happy to spend much of the party in that space: facilitating the fun. And, I get to sample all the savory pot-luck delights. My favorite: Sheila's hot spinach and artichoke dip that she serves with Triscuit crackers every year. The crusty, gooey edges from it baking in the oven are what really get me. Sheila's recipe is perfect for a crowd- a piping hot centerpiece in the middle of an array of offerings from salsa and chips, carrot and celery crudite, basic cheese and crackers, etc. In my opinion, this hot appetizer is always the star of the show. 
  I devour a few crackers smothered with the spinach, artichoke and parmesan combination and wash it down with the rest of my glass of wine and then it's back to work. More requests for filled frosting bags! At this point, the demands for additional frosting are from the die-hard adults who are looking to finish their houses and drive home before dark. The kids have abandoned their work to run around the yard, sugar coursing through their veins. I can hear them yelling as they kick around the soccer ball, the sun setting off on the horizon. The table where they were sitting is now a war zone of candy and wrappers but their work is pretty impressive. Some houses are a bit more refined and some a little haphazard but all of the kids are proud of their gingerbread art and so happy to be together, shouting, laughing and eating way too much candy just a few days before Christmas. 
  Of course, this December, I am missing this party oh so much. I look back on the photos I have taken year after year. It's amazing how much the kids have grown up, how lucky we are to have these close friends. The other day, Declan emerged from his room, dragged himself away from his xbox game which he would much rather do than hang out with mom and her friends now that he is fourteen. So, I was surprised when he asked for a gingerbread house this year. "Because we can't go to Sheila's", he stated sadly. This is the kid who would eat a bowl full of M&M's, attach about three pieces of candy to the side of the house, then call it quits before he went outside for the rest of the party leaving me to finish decorating his gingerbread house so that he would have something to bring home. I was never quite sure how he felt about participating especially as he became a teenager, always acting awkward when we arrived and seemingly just going through the motions unlike Ava who couldn't wait to create a magical candy abode and giggle and hang out with her friends. But he must have a warm place in his heart for this annual occasion, even hanging out with his older sister and her pals, the little kids running around and the older ladies hunched over their creations. It is truly a party that celebrates creativity, camaraderie and CANDY. 
  I don't want to talk about "pivots" and "new normals" because I'm truly hoping that this year is a one-off, not to be repeated in any shape or form. I'm looking forward to gathering in a tight space, elbow to elbow, kids and adults laughing and munching candy (and adults drinking plenty of wine!). Sticky fingers and frosting all over the front of my favorite green sweater. We will build colossal gingerbread dwellings and I will devour an enormous amount of warm spinach and artichoke dip. Until then we continue to stay safe and warm while we dream of next year. We do our best to celebrate this holiday season minus some of our favorite traditions. The kids will decorate gingerbread at home and I will bake my own version of my dear friend's spinach and artichoke dip.

Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip
(Serves 6-8)

2 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small jalapeno, diced fine
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
5 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 oz. cream cheese
2 tablespoons Hellman's Mayonnaise
1/2 cup (divided) grated parmesan cheese

Chips, Triscuits, for serving

Melt butter in an oven proof skillet on medium heat. Cook garlic cloves until softened. Add jalapeno, artichoke hearts, spinach, salt, pepper and cream cheese. Stir while cream cheese softens. Once all ingredients are incorporated and cream cheese has melted, add Hellman's Mayonnaise and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Mix to incorporate. Top mixture with remaining 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Broil until dip is browned on top. Remove from oven and serve warm with chips, crackers, etc.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Sunshine Cake

  There was a period of time, at least a few months and maybe even an entire year during the four years I spent at Falmouth High School, when I ate a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread and drank a carton of chocolate milk every day at lunch. I wanted nothing to do with the daily offerings from the public-school lunch menu. In the 1980's, items such as the greasy Steak-umm with melted orange American cheese on a sesame seeded sub roll, made ahead and wrapped in foil and saucy/soggy meatball subs were teenage favorites. And let's not forget the square slice of pizza served every Friday that never delivered on taste although out of the three items, I thought it looked half way decent enough until the day one of my table mates placed a stack of flimsy paper napkins on top of his slice to absorb all the oil before he shoveled it down and got up to buy another. No, there would not be any school lunch purchases made by me for the entire four years of my high school "career". 
  However, there were some sugary sweet items that caught my attention while I was purchasing my daily dairy. I have an enormous sweet tooth. How could I resist those impossibly huge sheet cakes topped with inches of frosting and decorated with sprinkles? My friends may have gravitated toward the Peanut Butter Crunchie bars and the assorted shakes: chocolate, vanilla or coffee, depending on the day, but I didn't have time for such nonsense. Of course, if I happened to have packed some of Val's chocolate chip cookies, toffee bars or any other baked item from her arsenal, my eyes did not wander. No one, nowhere could ever compete with her homemade sweets. But, believe it or not, there were times when the cupboard at home was bare, her children having devoured every last sugary crumb. Instead, she sent me to school with a few dollars and told me to, "Buy dessert."
 The chocolate sheet cake never did it for me. The chocolate wasn't chocolaty enough and the frosting tasted like whipped sugar air as I am sure that making a pure buttercream would have wrecked the public-school cafeteria budget. After sampling that cake once, I gave up on it and instead often chose a Peggy Lawton Brownie: super fudgy goodness packed into a dense 3"x3" pre-wrapped square.
 Anything with chocolate has always been my go-to. I must have been convinced by my bestie, Jenny that the yellow cake layered with white frosting, adorned with yellow and orange sanding sugar was even worth a bite. That square slice perched on the flimsy white cardboard just big enough for an individual serving almost toppling over from its own weight? I don't know. And the name? Sunshine Cake. Seriously? Jenny ate a lot of junk food, but I trusted her judgement when it came to sweets. After all, she spent so much time at my house that she knew of the high standards established by Val in the baking department.
  So, on one of the days when I did not have a home baked dessert and Sunshine Cake adorned the menu, I purchased a slice. And I can tell you that it was awesome. Two moist layers of soft yellow cake, fluffy white frosting, the top encrusted with bright yellow and orange sprinkles. I never looked at yellow cake with white frosting the same way, again.
  Years later, in my quest to find a yellow scratch cake recipe that is moist and light, I have baked quite a few clunkers. Most them have been dense and dry. Not at all like my memories of the legendary, elusive 1980's Sunshine Cake. Whenever I come across a recipe that looks promising, I try it out but have been sorely disappointed. My family still eats the cake and enjoys it enough but to me, it's never been quite right. Not until now. 

FOOD52 has excellent recipes, especially the nostalgic type. This one for "Yellowest Yellow Cake with Fudgy Chocolate Frosting" already looked promising to me considering the amount of fat and eggs listed in the ingredients. Don't freak out! Cake is supposed to be decadent and this one is so moist and delicious, you won't care about the indulgence.

Sunshine Cake
(makes a 6"x 8.5" layer cake)

cooking spray
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cold, cubed
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric (for yellow color)
3/4 cups canola oil
4 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 cups buttermilk, room temperature

  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12"x 17" half sheet pan (jelly roll pan) with cooking spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper and spray the parchment paper. Sprinkle with flour and tap around to cover entire inside of pan. Toss any extra flour and set aside.
  Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and turmeric in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and set to medium-low. Let that go until the butter is completely incorporated and the mixture is pale yellow. Meanwhile, combine all remaining ingredients in a separate bowl and mix well with a fork or whisk. 
  With the mixer on low, slowly pour in the wet ingredients. Stop after a few minutes to scrape the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula and make sure the dry ingredients are not clumping. Mix until the batter is cohesive and smooth.
  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out to edges. Bake for 20-22 minutes until the edges are golden and a pick inserted into the center comes out clean. 
  Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Allow cake to cool completely (at least a few hours) before frosting.Loosen the edges of the cake with a knife and gently flip the cake onto a cutting board. Remove the parchment. 
  Measure 8.5" on the long side of the cake and cut a horizontal straight line to create 2 layers. Place one layer on cake plate and frost the top with half of the frosting (recipe below). Top with second layer and the rest of the frosting. Generously sprinkle cake with yellow and orange sanding sugar or yellow and orange sprinkles or all of the above to create a glorious Sunshine Cake! Keep covered and enjoy for up to 5 days, if it lasts that long.

White Frosting

1 1/2 cups butter, softened
1/2 cup Crisco
4 cups powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
approx. 3 tablespoons milk, room temperature

  Combine butter and Crisco until smooth in the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Slowly, add 3 cups sugar, a cup at a time. Add salt and vanilla. Add 1-2 tablespoons milk. Slowly add the last cup of sugar. Combine until smooth. If the frosting is too thick to spread, add approximately 1 tablespoon more milk until desired consistency is reached. Use immediately.

*Wilton Sanding Sugar was used on the cake in the photograph


Thursday, September 10, 2020

September's Favorite Sandwich


At the beginning of August, I am dying for some garden tomatoes. They seem to come in at a snail's pace, one maybe two, here and there. Slowly ripening, so slow. As the first fruits ripen in Val's garden, I covet them. Then when she begins to give me a few at a time, I hoard them and hide them from the rest of my family. Eating them when no one else is home to ask me what I am having for lunch.

September sneaks up on us just before Labor Day and tomatoes are everywhere. Val drops them off at my house bags at a time, when I am not home. So, I can't object by protesting that I already have way too many to eat.They soften so fast in the big bowl on my kitchen table. Displayed as the centerpiece instead of a vase full of flowers. 

Getting creative is the only way to trudge through the abundance of tomato season. I roast them with olive oil, a pinch each of salt and sugar, maybe some balsamic vinegar, rosemary or thyme. There is always the easy side dish, Caprese Salad: slices of tomatoes and mozzarella with basil leaves layered in between. But neither of these options make up a rounded out meal requiring extra thought in these last lazy days of summer leading into the school year. 

If September was a sandwich, it would most definitely be a B.L.T. Piled ridiculously high with sliced red, ripe Beefsteak tomatoes rendering it nearly impossible to eat and making the tomato it's star. It should be called, T.B.L. (Tomato, bacon and lettuce sandwich). Sturdy white bread is a must. I prefer thinly sliced sourdough or pain de mie from the local French bakery. A smear of Hellman's mayonnaise is a lovely addition in most cases and necessary as this sandwich needs something to bring the crunchy green lettuce and salty bacon together with the show stopping acidity of the tomatoes. But I prefer  a sandwich spread with a little more personality. It's actually Hellman's, lemon juice and another summer favorite: basil. So simple, it can be thrown together in a flash in a food processor. Make a larger batch than what you need and you can use it for a vegetable dip or put it on any sandwich to add character and zip.

If you aren't totally sick of tomatoes by the end of September, then you haven't had your fill. I suggest you take a trip to your local farm stand or farmers' market, STAT. Fill a bag with all the colors of the heirlooms: yellow, orange, red and pink. Pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread. Eat this for B.L.D. (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for the rest of the week. Only then will you be ready for fall to arrive and finally become tired of tomato season.

B.L.T. (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich)

(Serves about 4)

1-2 large Beefsteak or or other locally grown tomatoes, sliced

6 leaves of Green Leaf or other locally grown lettuce

sliced sourdough or other favorite white sandwich style bread

cooked bacon slices 

Lemon Basil Mayonnaise (see recipe)



Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with tinfoil, long enough to reach over each edge. Spread out bacon in an even layer over the tinfoil. Place bacon in oven.

While the bacon is cooking, slice the tomatoes. Wash and thoroughly dry the lettuce. Place bread slices in a dish (up to eight for four sandwiches). Make the Lemon Basil Mayonnaise. 

Frequently check the bacon. After about 10 minutes, move bacon around sheet with tongs if some pieces are baking faster than others. Flip slices if undersides need browning. The bacon should only take about 15 minutes to cook and can go from slightly browned to burned in a matter of minutes. Once desired browning is achieved, gently remove from oven as not to splatter bacon grease. Remove each bacon slice to a plate lined with paper towel to absorb excess grease.

Once the bacon has cooled to room temperature, place slices on a clean plate. Serve all components of sandwich: tomatoes, lettuce, bread, bacon, Lemon Basil Mayonnaise, salt and pepper so that everyone can make their own.

Lemon Basil Mayonnaise

(makes about 1 cup)

3/4 cup Hellman's Mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream

juice from 1/2 lemon

1 handful of fresh basil leaves

2 shakes hot sauce (I use Tabasco)



Place mayonnaise, sour cream and lemon juice in a food processor. Roughly chop the basil leaves and add to mayonnaise, etc. Add the Tabasco and blend until the basil turns into tiny specks. Taste and add salt and pepper. Blend again. Refrigerate Lemon Basil Mayonnaise until ready to use and up to one week.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Falmouth Road Race 2020

black t-shirt, racing number


This August, instead of moving cones, directing runners, folding t-shirts, greeting VIP’s and generally running around putting out fires, I will be a participant in the Falmouth Road Race. This is not at all what I expected the end of the summer 2020 to look like for me. I am sure that most people are saying the same thing, our lives having been upended by COVID-19 and all the changes that we have been forced to make. In fact, back in February, I was asked before being offered my new job if I ran the Falmouth Road Race? To which I replied, “I have but I am never running that race again!” I immediately regretted blurting out my true feelings until I was told that my answer was pretty much what they were looking for as race organizers have no time to even think about participating in the Falmouth Road Race during the madness of race weekend.

I pride myself in handling crazy, busy situations from working in retail during the height of Christmas season and at a more recent job, corralling customers at the Street Fair held on Main Street in July so, I was actually looking forward to an insane week of working the Expo, the race and the aftermath and of course, lots of t-shirt folding. When Falmouth Road Race made the decision to move to a virtual event that would invite runners to participate “At-Home” instead of organizing the logistics of getting 12,800 runners to the starting line in Woods Hole on the second Sunday in August, everyone on the team decided that we could "run" this year and wouldn’t it be fun to actually be a part of it? Yes, that idea was “fun” in April. Training or should I say, dragging my body through barely four miles, hoping I will eventually be able to do the required seven in the August heat is a special type of torture. Now, I remember why I said to my future boss, “I am never running that race, again!” I should have known those words would come back to haunt me.

 The first time I ran, I truly did not know much about the race other than the crowds clogging the streets along the shore and having to leave for work earlier than any other summer morning to ensure that I would arrive in time for my shift at a busy restaurant in Woods Hole located right on the starting line. I am sure my friends and I all thought it would be a great idea to run the Falmouth Road Race when we mailed our applications in February of 1986. It is likely that we planned to run it together not thinking about how we would coordinate our hectic summer work schedules and convince our bosses to give us that Sunday morning off during one of the most insane weekends of the season. The restaurants and resorts needed all hands on deck to accommodate the crowds that invaded the town for race weekend. I was still unsure if I was actually going to run the race at all coming into the month of August. I worked a lot of hours as part of the kitchen staff and I was often so tired when I wasn’t at work on my feet all day that I didn’t run at all that summer. Not that I especially liked to run, anyway.

When one of the cooks who worked with me started spouting off about running the race, I casually mentioned that I had a number and was thinking about doing it, as well. He was so glib and cocky that I ended up being swept up into the kitchen banter that night and somehow agreed to a bet to see who would run the race faster. What was I thinking? Since I had never run the route before or even ran seven miles together at one time, I really don’t know what possessed me to say anything about it.

My boss pulled me aside between orders and yelled into my ear to be heard over the hood fan sucking all the smoke and hot air out of the kitchen.

“You better kick his ass” she hissed in my ear. "And you have to wear one of our t-shirts."

There would be no backing out now.

I was nervous that morning, afraid I wouldn’t make it to the finish line, forget beating that arrogant cook in the race. But I had a few aces in my pocket: I was only seventeen, just home from a week of field hockey camp where we sprinted and ran miles every day, all day from 8:00 am-8:00 pm and I didn’t drink lots of beer after working a fifteen hour shift like the older, college age cooks in the kitchen.

We ran slowly at the start, jockeying between bodies trying to find some space to open up a longer stride. Then, once we neared the lighthouse, he turned to me and said, “Don’t try and keep up with me!” and sprinted ahead into the crowd of runners. I was stunned. I guess I thought he would run with me for a while, the bet only a joke, a way to pass the time at work.

So, I ran and took in the scenery, trying to figure out how far and long I had to go. I was a little scared but comforted myself with the idea that there were so many people running and cheering on the sidelines that it would all work out. Then, into about the second mile, I saw him up ahead. I began to feel good, even strong. I knew in that moment I could take him and beat him to the finish line. Especially since he chose to wear work boots to run seven miles. As I came up behind him, I yelled, “Don’t try to keep up with ME!” and sprinted ahead so that I was no longer near him.

The story of my first race ends with a crazy busy summer night in the kitchen back at work that evening. (No, we could not get the entire day off.) And me collecting on the bet I didn’t think I could possibly win.  For my prize, he bought me a handle of vodka and the biggest bottle of Peach Schnapps they had on the shelves at the Woods Hole Liquor store. Fuzzy Navels and Sex on the Beach drinks were all the rage but I had never had one back then. Just as well, my best friend’s older sister and her friends commandeered the booze for an after work party before I was forced to figure out what to do with it.

The weather was typical for a Sunday in mid-August that year: hot, humid and sunny. But on occasion there have been some tough conditions. Fortunately, I didn't personally have to deal with them. My friends and I became huge fans of the party scene on Road Race Sunday and it certainly helped that one of my closest pals lived just behind the ball field at the finish line. That was my experience of Road Race until the year that I agreed to run with my then fiancĂ© and soon to be husband. In 1999 it rained like crazy on Saturday night into Sunday morning. But the race was still on in spite of the deluge. My father’s truck tires splashed water over the windshield from the enormous puddles that had formed all night as he drove us to our impending doom at the crack of dawn on race day. When we arrived at the starting line and we hopped out of the truck to join the thousands of already drenched runners, I stupidly declined the black trash bag he offered to keep me dry.

Of course I did it, I’m not one to give up but I really didn’t want to run. I knew within minutes waiting in the coral at the start that I would soon be soaking wet and miserable. I don’t even like to run through a hose held from a ladder, showering runners as they go by on the sunniest and hottest race day. About 3.5 miles in, half the race through, along Surf Drive Beach, I just wanted to stop. The water had flooded this stretch of road so it felt like trudging through knee deep water in the ocean located just feet away. But if you’ve ever run Falmouth before, you know if you made it that far, you might as well keep going. There was no sense in throwing it away at that point regardless of the horrible circumstances.

The rest of the 7 miles was as cold and miserable as anyone can imagine. Rivers of water pooled in the streets. Soaking wet spectators cheered us on as it continued to rain throughout the morning. When I heard my father in his orange rain gear and my mother under her yellow striped umbrella yelling our names as we rounded the bend at Scranton Ave. and Robbins Rd. (behind the 7-11), I knew I didn’t have far to go and all I could think about was a hot shower and dry clothes. Finally we climbed the last hill and crossed the finish line. I don’t even think we tried to wait under the tent on the ball field to grab a hot dog before we made a beeline for our car parked conveniently at our faithful friend’s house on North Grand Ave. where the party had already begun before the starting gun went off in Woods Hole.

I got my shower and warm clothes then cruised on back to the party which I should have left early but I know I didn’t. (I always took the following Monday off from work ;)) But I vowed, and I have kept it until this year, to never ever run that race again!

racing bibs

When DeKuyper Peach Schnapps became all the rage in the 1980's, Fuzzy Navel, Sex on the Beach and the Woo-Woo were popular drinks served at the huge post race parties held at the Wharf overlooking the Heights beach at the Falmouth Road Race finish line. These cocktails are various combinations of vodka, peach schnapps and fruit juice (orange or cranberry) and way too sweet for me. They will also give you a killer hangover! Here is an updated version of the Woo-Woo which was served as a shot. The addition of lime juice makes it less sweet and creates the perfect post race celebration cocktail! 

woo-woo martini in a short cocktail glass


Woo-Woo Martini

(Makes one)


2 oz. vodka

½ oz. peach schnapps

2 oz. cranberry juice

¼ oz. lime juice

lime wedge (for garnish)


Fill a shaker with ice. Add vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry juice and lime juice. Shake well, until chilled. Pour into chilled martini glass and garnish with lime. Sip and enjoy!


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Where's the Zucchini?

green zucchini held in front of garden patch

A contest is held every year at the Barnstable County Fair to see who can grow the largest zucchini. A first prize ribbon is bestowed upon the grandest of the green fruit. There are no other awards, no second place. You are either the biggest and the best or you are out of luck.

There are a lot of people on facebook showing off their zucchini harvest. The squash piled high, photographed on a kitchen counter, bad lighting and poor composition. The text imploring fb friends to send along their favorite recipes. I have a few recipes. But I don't have any zucchini.

I planted seeds early, in April. They did well in their flats and I transferred them to my small garden plot on the back side of my house where the sun shines all day. The plants seem to be thriving, covered in bright orange blossoms sheltered by massive green, fan shaped leaves. Where is the zucchini? I have yet to reap the benefits of babying these plants. Maybe not babying them, but watering them and shooing the dog away. That and keeping a vigilant eye for any pests who may invade. I once had a battle with a zucchini worm. I don't like to talk about it. Not only was it devastating but it was so gross, it makes me want to gag just thinking about it. So, I look under those big leaves everyday, searching for signs of hope but I haven't seen anything promising, yet.

Val has a good crop of zucchini this year but it's not yielding an overabundance. She gave me a pretty big zucchini which I promptly used in one of my favorite summertime recipes: Chocolate Zucchini Cake. Served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream or cut into small squares for my beach cooler, it really is one of the best chocolate cakes, ever. And it's one way to get my fourteen year old carnivore to eat some vegetables.

A tart made with a crisp biscuit dough filled with ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and topped with a layer or zucchini and/or yellow summer squash seems to please everyone and looks pretty impressive, especially if you are bringing it to a party. I've made other versions of this zucchini tart idea based on a classic one from Ina Garten. Crust, cheese and just a little vegetable, how can you go wrong?

Of course, there are methods of cooking zucchini that can go terribly wrong, in my opinion. Zucchini was a tough sell back in the 1980's when every restaurant on the Cape offered it as the classic summer vegetable side to accompany dinnertime entrees. Cooked ahead of time in large hotel pans, steamed with summer squash, carrots and sliced onions. "Summer Vegetable Medley" was scooped and served in white monkey dishes alongside expensive grilled swordfish steaks and filet mignon. Soggy and lackluster, I'll pass, thanks.

But by far the best recipe and one that is not often considered because of the work involved is Zucchini Relish. The recipe comes to us by way of Norma, my grandfather's second wife and her cousin Elmira from Lubec, ME. These women knew how to put up vegetables and in spite of the heat from the canning pot and the amount of chopping and salting, they managed to preserve just about anything that came out of a summer garden. I must admit that I didn't really like this relish until recent years. I was not a fan of the sweeter pickled taste. Maybe it's the bright yellow/green color or the appreciation of the effort, there is truly nothing better than smothering a grilled hot dog with this magical concoction of zucchini and spices.

I'm impatiently waiting and inspecting every morning with my coffee in hand. Hoping for enough zucchini for a batch of Zucchini Relish. There are a lot of buds that have yet to open hiding under those big leaves. Who knows, maybe I'll get enough from my harvest, when it finally comes, for two batches of relish this year.


jars of zucchini relish and cucumber pickles

Zucchini Relish

(makes about eight 8 oz. jars)


10 cups cubed zucchini (smaller than 1/8" cubes)*

4 cups finely chopped onion

5 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 teaspoons celery seed

1 red pepper, diced (smaller than 1/8" cubes)

1 green pepper, diced (smaller than 1/8" cubes)

5 cups sugar

1 teaspoon black pepper**

1 tablespoon turmeric

2 1/4 cups vinegar


Combine zucchini, onion and salt in a large bowl. Set aside for 3 hours. 

Drain thoroughly in a strainer by pushing water out with hands. Combine drained zucchini and onions with all other ingredients: cornstarch-vinegar in a large stockpot. Bring mixture to a boil then turn down heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Ladle zucchini mixture into prepared sterilized jars. Wipe rims and threads with a clean, damp towel. Place sterilized lids and rings on jars. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove processed relish jars to rest on clean towels on counter top overnight. The next day, test seals. If seals are tight, store in a cool dry place for up to one year.


*The original recipe notes suggest a choice of cubed or shredded zucchini

**1 teaspoon black pepper "2 if you like!" noted on original recipe card


Val usually doubles this recipe as it is a lot of work and everyone likes to receive a jar for Christmas!


Canning Basics:

-Use new canning jars and lids. Re-using rings is fine.

-Sterilize all by running through a dishwasher cycle or placing washed jars, lids and rings in boiling water for 10 minutes. 

-After placing filled jars in canning pot, bring water to a full boil, then time for 10 minutes. Be sure the water covers all jars with at least 1 inch of water during the process. 

-Gently remove processed jars after water has stopped boiling (wait 5 minutes) then place on clean, dry towels on counter top. 

-Do not disturb jars for at least 8 hours.

-To check seals, remove ring, lift up gently on edges of lid. If lid stays secure, it is sealed properly and can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to one year. If lid pops off, refrigerate jar and use within one week.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Frozen Treats and Sweet Friendship

chocolate and vanilla ice cream sandwiches on a white plate

"The most underrated ice cream treat is the ice cream sandwich. They are soooo good!" -Ava Norris

 I agree. I love a soft chocolate wafer cookie with creamy, melty ice cream. I love that as I smoosh the two cookie layers together, the ice cream, if melted to the right consistency,  pushes itself out along the edges so that I can lick it off until finally, there is no ice cream left between the two cookies. At that point, the cookie layers have become soft, they are thin enough to be pliable and as they are sticking to my fingers, I try to slowly savor the chocolaty goodness before the cookies completely disintegrate in my hands.

It just so happens Food and Wine magazine this month has a feature recipe recreating this favorite frozen treat. This version includes the recipe for a cookie that is both crisp enough and has the ability to become perfectly softened as the ice cream melts between the layers. And to top it off, it does not require that I churn my own gourmet ice cream. In fact, the ice cream component listed in the ingredients is none other than one of my absolute favorites, Cherry Garcia.

Way back during my first two years in the early fall weeks at the University of New Hampshire, my friend Holly and I would abandon the institutional food at the dining hall for two heaping scoops of Ben & Jerry's ice cream doled out from a single freezer case by some upper class man who knew Holly's older sister. Perhaps he had a crush on Holly or was trying to impress her sister, those small plastic cups could barely hold the portions he jammed into them. This ice cream paradise was a hidden gem, located in a small convenience store on the outskirts of campus. But Holly could always find the ice cream as if she had an internal GPS tracking for the icy sweet goodness.

My choice of Cherry Garcia and Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Holly's: Cherry Garcia and Peanut Butter Cup was a splurge for us. We had to scrounge loose dollar bills and change. I think the portions cost $4.00 each which back then equaled four loads of laundry, running at four quarters a load. Wearing old t-shirts and not wearing socks for a week was a small price to pay. I loved escaping the structure of classes, studying and schedules for a few hours of freedom. Our friendship growing through our appreciation of really good ice cream.

We pulled our ratty sweatshirt sleeves over our hands to protect our fingers that were becoming red with cold and walked faster as we gossiped and ate, making a big loop around campus taking us past Frat Row, up by the clock tower of Thompson Hall, the dorms farthest out, (I don't recall the names) and finally back to our rooms at Hitchcock Hall. Our hall mates asking why we missed dinner and where we had been until it became a normal occurrence for me and Holly to disappear for a couple of hours every week. Ice cream hasn't tasted so rebellious, secret and special for a long, long time.

My new partner in crime is nearing the age I was during those clandestine ice cream adventures. Ava knows really good ice cream, small batch, made in gourmet shops and scooped to order. But she won't turn up her nose at a treat from the ice cream man. Even if it is artificially died cream substitute wrapped in paper and served on a stick. Nothing goes better with salt, sand and sea with the sun beating down, melting it all over your hands and arms. In the summertime, Ava scoops ice cream in a small shop down the street. At the end of her shift, she gets to choose some for herself. I admire her flavor experiments: Red Razz Truffle and Cookie Dough, Chocolate Peanut Butter and Black Raspberry. Fruity and creamy with candy and crunch. I couldn't have chosen better myself.

Ice Cream Sandwiches
(Adapted only slightly from "Black Cherry-Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwiches"-Food & Wine Magazine, June 2020)

1 1/4 cups flour, plus more for rolling
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon instant coffee
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 quart of your favorite ice cream

Stir together flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder in a medium bowl; set aside. Beat butter, sugar, instant coffee in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. With mixer running, add egg, beating until well combined, about 30 seconds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough out sandwiched between two large pieces of parchment paper. Use a small amount of flour, if needed to prevent sticking. Trim to a 13"x 10" rectangle (bake scraps on another cookie sheet and devour later). Slide trimmed rectangle with parchment underneath onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Remove dough rectangle from refrigerator. Using the blunt end of a wooden skewer, prick holes all over dough about 1/4 inch apart. Bake in preheated oven until set but still soft, about 9-11 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to a wire rack and let cookie cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Cut cookie crosswise into 2 rectangles. Invert one cookie half onto a large sheet of tinfoil. Top with ice cream, spreading evenly to edges. Place remaining cookie half (do not invert) on top of ice cream. Wrap the whole thing in foil and freeze for 8 hours.

Remove frozen sandwich from foil. Cut into 12 bars. Serve immediately or wrap individual bars in wax paper and store in freezer for as long as you can keep them a secret or up to one month.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Salad Days

garden salad in a while bowl on a brown table

It was my first job. I was 15 years old. My boss yelled at me everyday. She yelled at everyone. All Day Long. The restaurant was insanely busy in the summertime with tourists trying to make the ferry over to Martha's Vineyard and loud with the excitement and stressed out energy of families on vacation. I barely had time to use the bathroom during a 12 hour long shift. I drank Diet Coke and ate oyster crackers that I kept in my apron pocket to keep my stomach from growling. There were no breaks. Ever. Until you punched out. I went back day after day because my parents would have killed me if I didn't. Plus, my mother drove me to work.

When I was finally told that my shift was over and I could leave, I ran out the door, down the street to the payphone on the corner to call my mother to pick me up. I was so glad to be out of that building, away from the yelling, the noise, the smell of french fries, coffee and bleach. It took at least 30 minutes after I called for her to arrive in Woods Hole, driving down the hill and turning the corner in front of the drug store. I sat on the big rock next to the phone booth, watching, waiting for the yellow station wagon with the faux wood paneling and the ceiling my mother fixed herself by stapling it back into place. Each silver staple perfectly spaced so that it looked intentional, like it was part of the original design. 

I worked really hard at that job. Bussing tables as fast as I possibly could. Clearing the sticky dishes covered in maple syrup, refilling the sugar packets, making another pot of coffee, wiping down the glass tops, pushing in the chairs. Competing with myself, getting faster and faster, more efficient: anticipating, checking the bathrooms before being reminded, trying to think of everything so I wouldn't get screamed at. Somehow, I began to like the sense of accomplishment. But the intensity of the day always came out in a flood of tears as soon as I climbed into the car and closed the door.

The cooks started calling me, "Speed Queen", then, "Speedo" and sometimes just shortened the nick-name to, "Speed" because I did my job so fast powered by adrenaline from fear and teenage energy.  I didn't react to anything they said, just brought them Cokes with lemon and pint glasses of ice water when they asked. I was a little scared of them, too. They were older than me, in college. 

One Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer, my boss' husband, quiet but still imposing, told me to come into the kitchen. We were winding down in the dining room, cleaning and setting up before the dinner rush. I was sure he was going to tell me that I was doing something wrong, maybe fire me. When his wife was really, really angry, she stopped screaming and yelling and sent him to convey her angry message. Not only was I about to be humiliated, my mother would definitely kill me when she picked me up, having to drive all the way to Woods Hole to get her daughter who got canned for doing a terrible job.

I made my way through the swinging doors and into the lion's den. The kitchen was small, bright, bustling with energy that urged, "Get the prep done now or we are screwed!" He told me I was going to make the garden salads. You know the ones that come in a bamboo bowl: iceberg, shredded purple cabbage, 2 cherry tomatoes, 2 slices cucumber, a ring of red onion, a ring of green pepper and maybe a canned black olive, if you are lucky? That was it. He needed my help. 
He calmly showed me how he wanted the salads to look and asked me to make 60 of them: 5 sheet pans of 12 salads, each. Then, bring each one through the swinging doors, up the stairs, down the hallway and store it in the walk-in. Make them look good. Dinner starts in an hour.

I was terrified that I would mess it all up. 

I worked the salad and dessert station on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for the rest of the summer. Bussing tables during breakfast and lunch wearing a blue apron in the front of house, then changing into a red apron to work in the kitchen through the evening service. Baptized by fire on a hot summer day, pulled onto the "Red Team" out of necessity, allowed to stay because I kept my mouth shut and my hands moving. I worked in that restaurant for seven summers, through high school and part of college. I got tougher and grew a thick skin, no longer crying everyday on the ride home from work. My boss stopped yelling and screaming at me.  I must have passed her test. She moved on to new members of the dining room staff, who often quit because they didn't have parents who told them, "This is how it is in a restaurant. It's stressful, people yell. Let it roll off your back." This may seem like harsh parenting. But through the years, my first "professional" kitchen experience has made me realize that ranting bosses are usually their own worst enemies and being able to focus on crafting something as simple as a garden salad in the middle of the frenzy on an insanely busy Saturday in July are lessons that I have been using all my adult life.

Simple Garden Salad
(makes one)

1 1/2 cups chopped iceberg lettuce
1/4  cup shredded red cabbage
4 cherry tomatoes or 2 wedges from a medium sized tomato
4 slices cucumber 
1 ring cut from the center of a whole green or red pepper
1-2 rings sliced red onion
4 black olives
1 pepperoncini

salad dressing of choice: Italian, Ranch, Peppercorn Parmesan, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese*

Place lettuce and red cabbage in a small bowl. Toss gently. Strategically place tomato around edges of lettuce mixture. Place cucumbers in the same manner. Place pepper and onion rings on the center of the lettuce mixture. Place black olives in between tomatoes and cucumbers. Place pepperoncini in the center of the red onion rings, as the crowning center of the salad. Enjoy with dressing.

*May cost extra


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Rainy Day Beef Stew

  While digging around in my blog vault, I came across this unpublished post. Although it's from seven years ago (February 2013), and I now have an exciting and fulfilling job, during these uncertain days, it's a reminder that things can always get better and comfort food always helps.

beef stew in a white bowl with a slice of bread and butter

  I've been having a pity party lately. Actually, it's been going on for about 3 months now. I spend my days wracking my brain, trying to find a job that suits me, my schedule (kids), that is fun and brings in a decent amount of money for my time. Working on my resume, psyching myself up, trolling the internet, reconnecting with former's an exhausting roller coaster ride of emotion. Then it's time to cook dinner.
  Although there are times when I don't feel like coming up with something to make, once I get myself into the kitchen and begin working, I suddenly feel that I have regained some sense of control over my life again. Even when I feel like there is no hope of finding a job, of making things work, at least I have the confidence that I can produce a good meal, that is enjoyable not only to me but to the people I'm cooking it for as well.
  That's exactly how I felt last Friday after a long week of trying to figure out my life. The kids were home on school vacation so between refereeing their fights and getting them out the door to the library, public skating, to a friend's house to play, and finishing Ava's science project, it wasn't really an ideal time to come up with a new fabulous career idea. I was frustrated with myself and at the end of my rope with the kids. I took a break and watched some mindless t.v. before getting out of my pajamas and getting on the with day.
  "Slow Cooker" week on Rachael Ray....whoo-hoo! as I lay on my bed, half looking out the window at the dreary weather, half watching the show, the creative wheels in my head began to creak into motion. I came up with the brilliant idea to use the Crock-Pot to make a hearty stew. At least this was a mission I could motivate myself to get behind. Some good basic ingredients plus heat almost always yield the results I want, something delicious to eat and share with others.
  It's funny I never realized that the kitchen has been my place of comfort for so many years. In college, after my dearest friend died, I cooked chili and bread from scratch every week and ate all of the meals that I prepared for myself at the tiny kitchen table by the window in our basement apartment that I shared with two other girls. Later, while living in Boston on a (frayed) shoe string budget, most nights I made it home from working in the mall after 8:00pm but I always managed to whip up some eggs with salsa and cheddar cheese, my own version of comfort food in a neat little omelet. Now especially when I feel I have no control over what life has to offer, I turn to the stove. Baking chocolate chip cookies, kneading bread, chopping vegetables, these are things that restore my sense of stability and help me to relax. When nothing appears to be going my way, at least the oven still works, the sugar tastes sweet and a hot meal reminds me that tomorrow is another day.

kitchen window covered in snow

Rainy Day Beef Stew
(Serves 6)

2 lbs. stew beef, cut into 1 inch pieces
salt and pepper
3-4 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons flour
6 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
2 medium stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, diced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1 cup beef stock
1 cup red wine
3 oz. tomato paste (1/2 of a small can)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

  Dry meat with paper towel and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Divide meat into 3 batches. Toss one batch of meat into skillet and sear on all sides. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour. Pour beef and juices into Crock-Pot. Repeat with remaining two batches.  Add 1 teaspoon oil  to the skillet and cook carrots  for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Place carrots in Crock-Pot. Cook  celery and onions until softened, season with salt and pepper and add to Crock-Pot. Add 1-2 teaspoons oil to skillet and cook mushrooms for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Place mushrooms in Crock-Pot.  Place pan back on heat and add beef broth and wine, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooked bits from the bottom. Clean pan with this process and pour entire contents into Crock-Pot. Add tomato paste, thyme and mustard and stir entire contest of Crock-Pot to distribute ingredients.    Cook stew on high for 3 hours, then on low for one hour until meat is tender. Alternately, cook stew on low for 8 hours. Once cooking is complete, to thicken juices, mix one tablespoon cornstarch with one tablespoon cool water and add to stew. Stir to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  Add vinegar, stir and cook for 5 more minutes before serving over mashed potatoes or with a slice of bread.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Never Too Old For Cupcakes

a plate of chocolate cupcakes with white frosting and orange sprinkles

  How old is too old to have a birthday party? Is it want your mom to make cupcakes and to have your friends over for a bowling party when you are a 14 year old boy? Personally, I don't think anyone should ever grow out of the Birthday Party phase. Not ever. I hope my kids never do.
  Declan and I have a ritual. If we are both home in the evening, meaning if he doesn't have  basketball practice, a baseball game or some other activity after dinner, we watch a show on t.v. together. But not just any random show that may be broadcast that given night or something that is popular to binge watch on Prime or Netflix. Our show is carefully selected and must adhere to a strict criteria.  It must be light yet sprinkled with dramatic moments. It must have run for at least three seasons to be worth our time investment and capture our attention. It must have a serial element to it so that a cliff hanger is presented at the end of each episode compelling us to watch a second one in the same sitting.  And it must star a recognizable but not super famous female lead. 
  This is our not so secret shared guilty pleasure. And Declan isn't shy about it. He has actually had discussions with his friends about his healthy addiction to "Heart of Dixie" and "Gilmore Girls". Maybe it's cool to be into these dramedies set in small towns inhabited by quirky characters with their themes of relationships and farce. But I don't think so. Perhaps it's just ironically funny to him. But I know the real secret, the one he doesn't say out loud in public and it's my favorite part of our t.v. watching time together. While I am sitting on the couch, glass of wine in hand, ready for some small town drama; he is not too old to lean against me for the entire 40 minutes, or so, at least at this moment in time. It's not a full on snuggle like a little boy might want from his mom, it's the early teenage version. We are on the cusp of him growing up and leaving his childhood behind. While I will never be ready for this to finally happen, he will be someday, likely sooner than later.
  Most of the time, our relationship takes the shape of a typical mother-son dynamic. I am aware that I shouldn't go in for a hug in public. When I am driving him and a friend home from school, he talks with a sarcastic edge: just cool and distant enough to show the outside world that he is tough and grown-up. But when he puts on those fleece pj bottoms with the Celtics logos printed all over the fabric, the ones that have suddenly become three inches too short, along with his fuzzy socks and says in his recently deepened voice, "Mom, Gilmore Girls?", I know he is still my little boy.
  Even though next year he may say he doesn't want me to make cupcakes, I am still going to bake them and frost them and decorate them with orange sprinkles (his favorite color). I will not stop baking cupcakes on his birthday and I hope he never wants to stop watching bad t.v. in his pajamas on the couch with me.

  This chocolate cake and frosting recipe is a combination of a few found on the internet and the cake on the back of the Hershey's Cocoa can. It makes one large cake or 24 cupcakes. (Fill lined cups 2/3 full with batter.)

Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
(makes one 8 inch layer cake)
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder such as Hershey's Cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon instant coffee
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup oil (canola, etc.)
3/4 cup boiling water

  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line the bottoms of two 8 inch cake pans with parchment paper (cut to fit). 
  In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: sugar, flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, baking soda and instant coffee. In a smaller bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and oil. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Gently stir in the boiling water. Pour batter into cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Begin checking cake at 28-30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans onto wire rack and allow to cool completely before frosting and decorating.

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (softened)
1/2 cup Crisco
3 cups powdered sugar 
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tsp vanilla
1-3 tablespoons milk

Place butter and Crisco in the bowl of a stand mixer. Combine. Add sugar in three parts, combining between each addition. Add salt and vanilla. Combine. Slowly add milk by the tablespoon and combine well until a spreadable consistency is achieved.

To frost and decorate:
Sprinkles, sugar decorations, candy

  Level each cake with a knife. (Save scraps for snacking!) Spread frosting on top of one layer, place the second on top. Top cake with a large amount of frosting. Smooth it over the top and down the sides. Add sprinkles and other decorations before frosting dries.