A Recipe for Mother’s Day. Yep. It’s about Food!

One of the things I enjoy most in life is to cook.  I love to search for recipes and try them.  I love to make meals I know by heart how to prepare.  I enjoy reading cookbooks – especially ones in which the author shares stories about how the recipes in them came to be.  I read cookbooks a lot like I read my casebooks in law school — a highlighter pen, an ink pen and a gaggle of Post-It flags by my side, ready to note, mark and flag the components of a future feast.

Cooking is pleasurable to me for two reasons.  First, I love the process.  My kitchen becomes a workshop-slash-laboratory-slash-classroom.  Sometimes, “mistakes” are the most wonderful things you’ve ever tasted.  I love the margin for error, the room for improvisation, and the license for creativity.  I also like the comfort and boundaries of a recipe, which sometimes gives me the courage to try what I otherwise wouldn’t.  Second, I love that the end result is made to be shared – to feed the bellies and senses of people who matter to me.  It is a gift of my time, my love, my labor — all rolled into one.

I especially like preparing Mother’s Day Brunch.  It seems such a fitting way to honor Mom.  But, because I can’t possibly make Mother’s Day Brunch for all the moms I know and love, I give you the next best thing:  the menu for my Mother’s Day Brunch this year and the recipes that go with it.

1st Course:  Polvorones Parfait

Polvorones Parfait is a delicious mix of Mexican cinnamon-anise cookies, coffee yogurt and almond-scented whipped cream. Polvorones are very easy to make from scratch, but you can also find them in specialty food stores.  A decent substitute is Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats or Anisette Toasts.

Here’s the recipe for the Polvorones:

Yours may look a little darker or a little lighter, depending on your sugar:cinnamon ratio for the dusting mix.

Ingredients

5 cups cake flour

1 cup sugar (scant) + 3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

1-3/4 cup shortening

2 cups water

2 sticks cinnamon + 2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1-1/2 tsp. anise seed

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Put the two cups of water, both cinnamon sticks and the anise seeds in a small pot to boil.  In the meantime, in a food processor or stand mixer with paddle attachment, mix together the flour, 1 cup sugar, baking powder and shortening until the mixture forms large, coarse crumbs.  When the water reaches a gentle boil, remove from heat and strain water into a bowl or measuring cup with a lip for pouring.  Carefully pour just enough of the water into the flour mixture to moisten it until the dough forms a ball.  Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured piece of parchment paper.  Break the dough into smaller balls (about 1″).  Place each ball onto a cookie sheet.  Place the filled cookie sheet into the pre-heated oven on the middle rack and bake cookies until light brown — about 8 -10 minutes.  (Keep an eye on them, because oven temps vary.)

While the cookies bake, mix together the remaining 2 tsp. of ground cinnamon and 3/4 cup of sugar in a small bowl.  After removing cookies from oven, let them cool until still warm but comfortable handle.  Roll each cookie in the cinnamon-sugar mixture, then place the cookies on a baking rack lined with parchment or wax paper to finish cooling.

Now, here’s the recipe for assembling the parfait:

You’re going for this look, but with an extra layer between the cream and cookies, which will be the coffee yogurt

Ingredients

12 oz. coffee yogurt

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 tsp. almond extract

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

fresh mint sprigs for garnish

Instructions

First, prepare the almond-scented whipped cream.  Pour the entire container of heaving whipping cream into a dry, metal mixing bowl and whip on medium-high speed using the whisk attachment.  When the cream starts to thicken, reduce speed to low and add sugar.  When sugar well-blended, increase speed to medium-high and add the extracts.  Continuing whipping until cream until thick enough to stick to whisk without running off.

In parfait glasses (or tall drinking glasses), drop a spoonful of coffee yogurt.  Now, break a polvorones into pieces and place on top of the yogurt.  Follow this with a dollop of whipped cream.  Continuing layering yogurt/cookie/whipped cream until glass is filled.  The last layer should be whipped cream.  Garnish with a sprig of mint and serve immediately.

YIELD:  4-8 servings (depends on height of your glasses).  I serve this as the first course, so I sometimes make these in short cocktail glasses or narrow champagne flutes to adjust the serving size.

2nd Course:  Pasta, Bacon & Herb Frittata / Bette’s Potatoes / Fresh-Fruit Salad

Frittata

First – the frittata.  I learned the basic recipe for a pasta frittata by practicing the recipe in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. You can pretty much put whatever the heck you want in a frittata – it is the kitchen sink of breakfast/brunch foods.   Frittatas can be sweet or savory.  This one has my favorite food in it:  BACON.

Ingredients

1/2 pound cooked pasta  (Bittman tells you to use long pasta, like spaghetti or fettuccine.  I actually prefer using elbow macaroni or sometimes even orzo.  Your call.)

6-8 strips of bacon, cooked to crisp and cooled  (I recommend using thick-cut bacon.  If you can get them, I actually recommend lardons — about 8 oz and cut into small cubes.)

Salt (Notice there is no measurement here.  Salt should be to taste.  Unless you eat a crap-load of processed or fast food or your doctor told you otherwise, you can liberally salt your food and not give a second thought to your blood pressure.  So don’t be afraid of salt, but do be careful with it.  The one kitchen mistake you really can’t fix is over-salted food.)

1/2 stick of unsalted butter or 4 tbsp olive oil  (I almost always go with the olive oil; it just seems healthier?)

5 eggs

Fresh-ground black pepper (but I sometimes use white pepper – this is, again, to taste)

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese  (Please, for the love of Julia Child, do not use that crap that comes in the green Kraft bottle.  Go to the section of the store where they keep actual cheese and find grated Parm there.  You will thank me for this later.)

1/4 cup chopped FRESH herbs (You choose.  I like basil, oregano, thyme, parsley or chives.  Sometimes, I use a combo of these.  Whatever you do, please use fresh stuff.  It makes an enormously big difference.)

1 shallot, finely minced

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400°F

If your pasta isn’t already cooked, do that now.  Cook it just until it’s chewy but not all the way done.  (Just before al dente.)  Drain it, then put it in a big bowl or baking dish. Toss pasta with half of the butter or olive oil (whichever you’re using).

Put butter or olive oil (whichever you’re using / remaining half if you just cooked pasta or all of it is your pasta was already cooked) in a large, oven-proof, non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.

Beat eggs together with some salt and pepper in a large bowl.  Add pasta, 1/2 cup Parmesan, your herbs, the cooked bacon and the minced shallot.  Mix together gently, then pour into skillet.  Turn heat down to medium-low.  Let cook until mixture starts to firm — about 10-15 minutes.  DO NOT STIR IT.  No matter how bad you want to.  Don’t do it!  Once firming starts, transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the top is cooked – about 10 more minutes.  Remove from oven, sprinkle with remaining Parm and serve.

YIELD:  4 servings

Bette’s Potatoes

Now, the potatoes.  My husband and I are particularly fond of a place called Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley.  I loathe telling you this, because the wait for a table is already about 90 minutes every time we go.  But, it is actually worth it.  If you go on Sunday, by the time you’re done with brunch, there’s also a very good chance that the Cupkates truck will be parked down the street. Kate is the freakin’ dominatrix of cupcakes, yo.  She makes Red Velvet cupcakes that will BLOW. YOUR. MIND.  The chocolate cupcakes with Guinness are not to be overlooked either. The line that forms before she even gets the damn truck parked is probably the best indication of how good her cupcakes are.  I freely admit that I follow her Twitter feed (@cupkates) to chase down her truck.  For realsies.

But, back to Bette’s.  Bette’s makes some home fried potatoes that are MARVELOUS, and I’ve more or less worked out a replica.  Here you go:

Ingredients

16 – 20 small new potatoes (These are the little red potatoes in the bin for you produce virgins)

1 large white or yellow onion (I like Vidalia onions, because I prefer a sweeter flavor)

Olive or grapeseed oil

Salt and pepper

1 tbsp chopped chives

Sour cream

Instructions

Fill a large pot about 1/2 to 3/4 full with water and add a four-finger pinch of salt.  Wash and cube the potatoes, add to water, place on stove and bring to a boil.  Boil the potatoes until just soft enough to pierce with fork.  DO NOT OVER BOIL.  Drain and rinse with COLD water.  Turn potatoes out onto a cookie sheet lined with paper towels to absorb excess moisture.

While the potatoes boil, cut the onion into small strips.

Put a skillet (preferably a cast-iron one, if you have it) on the stove over medium to medium-high heat.  Once the pan is heated, add oil to coat bottom.  Add potatoes and onions and lightly coat with more oil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are completely soft and potato skins and onions are crisp.  Serve with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkling of chopped chives.

YIELD:  4-6 servings

Fruit Salad

Now make some fruit salad:  Buy fruit.  Cut it up.  Put it in a bowl.  Put the bowl on the table with a serving spoon.  <shakes head>

3rd (Dessert) Course

Honestly, this year I am kind of torn.  I love making dessert, so this is always a tough choice for me.  (This is also why I will never, for the life of me, understand why dessert is the downfall of most Top Chef contestants.)  I like to finish brunches with a fruit-based dessert, so while I contemplated an amazing-looking Chocolate-Ricotta Icebox Cake I saw on Delish, I’m now down to either Bananas Foster or my Grandma Rose’s Cherry Cream Pie.  You can find the Bananas Foster recipe under the link, so I’m not going to repeat it here.  But, the only place you can find Grandma Rose’s Cherry Cream Pie recipe is right here, baby:

Cherry Cream Pie

If you want, you guys can vote on it for me:

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I Don’t Need a Therapist, I Need My Grandparents’ Kitchen

Most of my best childhood memories revolve around my paternal grandparents.  My grandfather passed away in 2005.  My grandmother has dementia and doesn’t recognize me anymore.  But, for most of my life, my grandparents were my gravity; their home was my safe house.

For them, life revolved largely around food — not just consuming it, but shopping for it, preparing it, sharing it, enjoying it.

My grandparents’ house had the most wonderful smell.  It was the perfect mix of garlic, chocolate, floral and damp concrete.  Every time I walked in the door, the smells enveloped me like my favorite blanket fresh out of the clothes dryer; like a kiss and a hug; like love.  It was the scent of permission to be a child, no matter how old I was as I stood in the foyer.

I’ve tried everything I know to replicate that smell in my home, even if only for an hour, but I can’t seem to do it.  It’s as if that smell didn’t come from the aroma of whatever cooking Grandpa did or cleaning products Grandma used, but from the lingering scents of memories that filled the house and seeped deep beyond the paint into the wood of the framing that my grandfather and uncle put up with their own hands — a complex bouquet of aromas fermented over years of holiday meals, family arguments, games of Uno, sleepovers with cousins and scrubbing with Lestoil.

The framing for the addition

I can see my grandparents, sitting at the small round table in the corner of the kitchen, each hunched over a Sunday crossword puzzle.  They had a crossword puzzle dictionary so worn it was bound together with duct tape.  In between questions — “What’s a six-letter word for ‘revealing story’?” and “Who starred in the 1968 film ‘The Love Bug’?  It starts with ‘J'” — was a rapid-fire discussion about what to have for dinner that night.  Unspoken was how the dinner plans were to come to fruition, because Grandma and Grandpa had it down to a science.  I didn’t need to be told either; by the time I could understand the discussion, I knew it meant we were 20 minutes from leaving the house to embark on an epic culinary shopping spree.

Grandma and Grandpa's house, looking at the magnolia tree and the throw-back folding chairs. (I mean that literally and figuratively ...)

My grandparents had a white Cadillac sedan with a slate blue top.  It had an eight-track player.  Yeah, that’s right.  What else you gonna bump Bing Crosby on?  I would ride in the backseat, taking the familiar streets that lead to the markets and stores that held the promise of an extraordinary meal.  Sure, there was Stop & Shop, where certain staples were purchased (especially Jell-O Pudding Pops, which were one of the greatest inventions EVER).  But bread came from a bakery; vegetables came from a produce market; meat came from a butcher.  These were actual bakeries, produce stands and butchers not departments in a super-sized, over-priced grocery chain.  I loved wandering through the produce market behind my grandmother, sneaking raw string beans out of the bins to crunch as we made our way around the narrow aisles.  Watching her buy cantaloupe was a fascinating but quizzical process.  She would squeeze the melon, roll it around in her hands, then knock on it.  I do the same thing now when I buy such melons, but I have absolutely no idea what I’m feeling, looking or listening for when I do.  I just send up a small wish to the cantaloupe gods that the thing will be ripe when I get it home and cut it open.  So far, so good.

The morning shopping usually took a couple of hours.  Once back at the house, my sister and I were promptly ushered out to play in the yard while the kitchen magic was performed.  And play we did.  We ran around in bare feet.  We played whiffle ball.  We rode Big Wheels up and down the driveway.  We climbed trees.  We got dirty, never once saw a bottle of antibacterial hand gel and lived to tell the tale.  When we’d wander back into the house, truly hungry from the gazillion calories we burned, the beginnings of dinner or dessert were already floating in the air.  As our stomachs grumbled, my grandmother called from whatever corner of the house she was in, “Go wash your hands!”, and my grandfather would make lunch.  There were no bags, boxes or cans involved in this process.  Instead, lunch would be a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, plenty of pickles on the side, and a huge glass of iced tea Grandma brewed in the sun and garnished with mint from the garden.  If we were really lucky, Grandpa would make us chocolate malts.  He actually had a stand mixer expressly for this purpose.  But, we were more often happily dispatched back to the yard with an orange or an apple.

Come join our Big Wheel gang. You know you want to. Mine had a brake. You could pedal as fast as your legs would go, pull the brake and spin out at the end of the driveway like a bad ass.

The most delicious part of lunch, though, was my grandfather’s undivided attention.  He’d sit and eat with us, talking about everything or nothing.  If my sister or I told him a story, his response was almost always, “Well, isn’t that marvelous?”  Writing it down now makes me realize how much of the meaning in my grandfather’s words didn’t come from the words themselves but from the inflection in his voice and the expression on his face.  There is no way I can capture in words the smile, sincerity or pride that accompanied “marvelous”; the way it danced off his lips and across the table right into your heart, spinning you in a circle like a ballroom diva.  He had a way of making me feel like the most important person in the world but without making me lose the desire to continue to make him proud.

After lunch, we’d head back outside to conquer evil, plot corporate overthrows, win the racing world cup or host the grand opening of our sandbox bakery.  Sometimes, Grandma worked in the garden.  She grew cucumbers, string beans, tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, mint.  I vaguely remember strawberries once or twice.  My grandparents also had an enormousapple tree in their backyard.  Grandpa once offered to pay my sister, my oldest cousin and me a nickle for each fallen apple we picked up from the ground.  The three of us nearly killed each other fighting to collect the most apples.

Oldest cousin, me and my sister (squished in the box)

Granted, this picture is maybe a year or two before my grandfather broke any child labor laws. But look at the way my cousin is squashing my sister. You can just see him boxing for apples, right?

I don’t remember who won, but I do remember my grandfather muttering that, next time, he would pay only a penny an apple, because we were making him broke.  I’m sure we were excited about the money, but let’s just cut to the chase here — we knew this meant some apple pie was coming out of that kitchen, probably that night, and if there is one thing that motivates me in life more than a buck, it’s the smell of hot, sweet cinnamon.  (And don’t sit there shaking your head, because you know you’ve walked your sorry ass all the way to the other end of the mall for no good reason other than to get a whiff of that crack called Cinnabon.)

Most nights before dinner, especially if there was company, my grandparents had cocktail hour.  In the summer, that meant drinks, crackers, cheese and fresh pepperoni under the cooling shade of the umbrella-like magnolia tree in the front yard.  My grandmother loved apricot sours, which I learned to love first without the alcohol and later with.  (Unfortunately, finding a bartender now who actually knows how to make an apricot sour is about as easy as finding a four-leaf clover, and it is the one recipe I failed to ask Grandpa to write down for me before he died.  If he isn’t standing at the Pearly Gates, waiting for me with a damn apricot sour in his hand, we’re gonna have a problem.)  The grown-ups sat at my grandparents’ cheap white plastic table, precariously nestled into folding chairs while drinking and snacking.  We kids usually played whiffle ball in the front yard, begging any adult we could cajole into pitching for us.  The trees in the yard were the bases, and we’d play as many innings as the sun or the dinner bell would allow.

Rounding second base.

And then it was dinner — that magical moment when an entire family sat around a table and shared a meal.  We always started with salad.  Grandma would make mine with just lettuce and cucumbers, the way I loved it, so I wouldn’t have to pick around anything.  She made dressing using Good Seasons dressing mix, but I’m about 99% sure she didn’t follow the recipe on the little envelope of spice mix, because hers definitely tasted better than mine ever does.  Then, we’d have meat, vegetables and starch. There was almost always bread, too.  Not just any bread, mind you, but my grandmother’s garlic bread.  I would share the recipe with you, but I’d have to kill you.  Actually, I’d share the recipe with you, but reading it will instantly clog your arteries, sending you into cardiac arrest when you see the amount of butter that goes into the bread.  Trust me when I tell you, though, you will die happy.  Very.  Happy.

After dinner, there was dessert.  My grandmother made some outstanding desserts, but the one that topped them all was her cheesecake.  Now, the irony of this is that my grandmother hated cheese.  When I say hated cheese, I mean she ordered pizza without cheese.  She made something called lasanki noodles – a dish that would blow your mind with buttery, cheesy goodness — but she never ate a bite of it.  Not even once.  Anyway, her cheesecake was amazing.  She made the crust with zweiback toast and the filling had an airy, ricotta cheese-like texture to it that made it lighter than the dense New York-style cheesecake most are accustomed to eating.  When I was in college at Western Connecticut State, the promise of cheesecake was the only incentive I needed to spend a Friday (and Saturday) night at my grandparents’ house, damn the 40-minute drive.

Even on the nights dinner was less formal, we’d still have dessert.  Grandpa, Grandma, my sister and I would move to the den and watch TV together, enjoying a dish of ice cream with chocolate sauce or Jell-O Pudding Pops.  This was where I learned to love baseball (but not the Yankees — sorry Grandpa); this was where I learned to watch the news (and yes, I yell at the TV, too, Grandpa); this was where I learned that my grandfather could do a perfect imitation of Woody Woodpecker’s laugh; this was where I learned what home felt like.  When I was still little, this was the time of the evening that I would climb into my grandfather’s lap, as he sat in his overstuffed E-Z recliner, and curl myself next to him.  He smelled of a heady mix of garlic, alcohol and aftershave that was like a balm on my wounded soul.  I can almost remember the smell, but it’s like the movie star you can picture but whose name you just can’t quite remember.  It’s right there, on the tip of your tongue, but it won’t quite come to you.

Lunch time!

I miss that house.  My grandparents sold it in 1991 or 1992.  Before they moved out, I went upstairs into what we called the “back” bedroom — the one with the twin beds that my sister and I shared when we stayed with them, until I was “too old” to want to share a room with her anymore.  I sat down in the empty closet, staring out at the room.  Then, I took a pencil and wrote on the wall of the closet closest to the door frame — a place I figured least likely to be painted over later.  I wish I could remember what I wrote, but my only memory of that day is sadness.  I was 21 years old, and my childhood officially was ending with the sale of the only evidence I’d even had one.

Lately, as life has particularly challenged me, I’ve longed for those days.  I’d give almost anything for just that moment of opening my grandparents’ front door, crossing the threshold and breathing in that wonderful air.  I’d give almost anything to hear my grandmother call out, “Dad, Dani’s here!” and the musical reply of “Isn’t that marvelous!”  In some respect, I’m sure what I’m longing for is the carefree feelings of youth; but what I long for more is the nourishment of my body and soul that those days with my grandparents provided.  What I wish is that what troubles me now could be fixed with Sunday shopping and chicken and orzos.  That would be marvelous.

The best grandparents anyone could ever want or have. Miss you every day.