Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Three Moms with a Very Berry Tart

circa; ultra retro - my three moms
Blame the twisted  super-boondoggle called fate, but I was the first kid on the block to grew up with (my) three moms.  I love them all, and there is not one I would trade for another.  But the one who can always find Hostess HoHos in a blizzard might have a slight edge.  
Mom 1.0 was a quintessential Brooklyn girl by way of old Romania and eventually became a stalwart 50's housewife, which included the wearing of pillbox hats on special occasions.  She was already at work teaching me how to make the old Jewish family recipes when all I could manage was to toddle by her fabulous red shoes on the kitchen floor.  It was never too soon to learn the heart and soul of those old recipes along with handy kitchen skills that serve me still.  She could roll strudel pastry so thin you could see through it – all without tearing the dough. 
She baked special Valentine cupcakes and provided mom-made matching clothing for both of us that was as good as couture.  She inherited the dress making gene from her mother and aunts.  Frail and ill, she died way too young and missed out on the best years with her children and grandchildren. 
But her kitchen spirit carries on in my heart every time I bake Ada’s brownies, or when I roll out her strudel dough.  And sometimes I swear I can hear her snicker smile as I add one more giant spoonful of chocolate to her brownie recipe. 
The Ad Man remarried just a year after my mother died.  Enter the very young, but determined Step-Mother.  Mom 2.0 arrived just as I was turning into a pubescent cacophony of attitude-ness.  If ever there was a poster child for wicked step-daughter, it would have been me.   I give her a standing ovation for patience, fortitude, along with a medal of valor for keeping the worst of my dirty tricks from my father.  I did take away more pearls of wisdom from Mom 2.0 than I’ve ever admitted.  I learned that women could work in the outside world and be equal to men, especially in the Ad Man's world. That the art of a negotiation is nothing without charm, grace and kindness - all attributes she taught me.
I also learned supermarket 101; shop early and there will always be HoHos.  That Red Jell-O mixed with cool whip was a dessert that never went bad, even if stored in the back of the refrigerator for weeks.  And brisket has a sense of humor.  She taught me that the biggest lesson of all – that I could count on her to have my back.  I call it a mom thing.
And then along came the lemon loving in-laws and mom 3.0 – the granola version.  I’ve known my mother-in-law since I was fifteen years old.  Even back in the day when no one was sure that our teenage marriage would last the length of a teenage attention span, she was there.  She introduced me to natural foods, co-ops, bread baking, homemade yogurt, granola and raspberries fresh from the backyard bushes. 
She taught me how to warp a loom which I promptly forgot.  She tried to teach me to sew, sure that latent DNA would kick in.  It did not.  So she created mom-made clothes for her granddaughters so they wouldn’t be embarrassed with stuff I tried to make.  She taught me how to bake a pie.  She showed me how both mayonnaise and lemon could partner with almost every food and make it oddly better.  She gave me my first Christmas stocking with trinkets that made all my childhood Santa dreams come true.  But most of all, she gave me her son – willingly. 
I honor my three moms this Mother’s Day with a pastry that has something for each of them.  For Mom 1.0 this contains a stellar crust similar to her old fashioned rugelach, but with a twist.  For Mom 2.0 it has a fabulous raspberry-mascarpone whip, sort of like that red Jell-O with cool whip, but tastier and a shorter shelf life.  And for Mom 3.0, the mascarpone is loaded with lots of her favorite condiment, lemon. 
My Three Moms Mascarpone-Berry Tart 
Tart Shell
  • 8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup almond flour
  • 1 cup flour (gluten free flour, plus a pinch of xanthan gum)
  • ¼ cup ice water (more if necessary)
  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar sifted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond flavoring
  • zest of one large lemon
  • 2-4 pints fresh, very ripe berries (I like raspberries)
Tart Shell
In a food processor pulse together flour & almond meal.  Cut shortening and butter into small pieces and add.  Pulse in short bursts until it resembles corn meal.  Add ice water, a little at a time.  Pulse until it comes together in a ball.
Remove to parchment paper and gather dough until it is all incorporated.  Split into two pieces.  Flatten each ball slightly, wrap in plastic or parchment and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Dough will keep for a few days in the refrigerator and longer in the freezer.
Remove one disk from refrigerator and rest 20 minutes at room temperature.  Place in 9 inch tart pan or in several small tart pans.  Press to fit.  Place on cookie sheet.  Freeze for 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350.  Bake straight from freezer about 30 minutes or until lightly brown.  Remove and cool completely.
Put all the ingredients except berries in a bowl and whisk until fluffy.  Add in about 1/3 of the berries and fold with a spatula until incorporated, but some berries remain whole.  Spoon a thin layer into cooled tart shell(s).  Top with whole or cut berries.
Fill the same day you are serving.  Shells can be baked a day ahead. Store in a tin.
Refrigerate filled tarts.  Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. 
Serve plain or with whipped cream. 
Notes:  You can find tart shells in the freezer at the grocery.  Bake and cool before filling.  Optional: drizzle honey over the top, add whipped cream, or spoon macerated berries over the top. 
Bon appétit and Happy Mother’s Day

Wayward Violinist Meets Fudgy Pudding Cake

Oh?  Really?  Not B minor?  
We come from a long line of classically trained, yet fickle musicians.  We play instruments, compose, and some have even (briefly) attended Julliard.  Careers as virtuosos don't happen in our family, but it is almost mandatory that an instrument be handed to a child at a young age, nonetheless.  Careful not to anger the musical spirits of the ancestors, we enrolled the 4 year-old in a Suzuki string methods class. 
The child attended philharmonic concerts from the age of three, sitting with us in our steeply student-discounted seats.  Fidget free; she seemed taken with string instruments.  When asked which her favorite string instrument was, she eagerly pointed a chubby finger at the violin section.  Or so we thought.
On her first day of class she talked nonstop about getting her new violin - just like the philharmonic musicians.  She skipped into class, dragging us by the hand.  The teacher proudly presented the child with her first violin; a brand new 6-inch cigar box wrapped in wood-grain contact paper with a ruler sticking out of the end for the neck.  The bow?  A skinny little stick. 
The child's face was pinching into the look that happens right before she melts into tears.  She squinted at us like we had offered her worms sautéed with peas for dinner.  Oblivious, the teacher sealed the meltdown by giving her a cardboard circle with two feet drawn in marker – a diagram for her stand on to get into the correct form for playing the violin. 
We weren’t even worthy of her pitiful look anymore.  Stifling a hiccup/sigh, she turned away and merely stared at the ground.  Little tears fell on the floor.  Did our health insurance cover therapy for victims of well meaning, but really stupid parents?
Her homework was to practice holding the pretend violin correctly using all the props.  The girl was beside herself with misery, but she diligently practiced. 
Her younger sister borrowed the violin daily for special projects, like smashing spiders.  She broke it so often we finally ran out of duct tape.  We also went through 3 containers of pick-up-sticks as substitute bows before we realized that the deviously clever little sister was using them as lock picks.  Obviously, her career would clearly not be in music.
Finally, the 4 year old graduated to her first ¼ sized violin. 
Have you heard the catchy tune, Mississippi Hot Dog?  It goes like this; mis-sis-sip-pi-hot-dog.  Repeat, a lot.  If you’ve not had the pleasure of listening to a pint sized violinist play it (badly) four hundred times in a row, consider yourself lucky.  It is hard to screw up the tune since it involves one solitary note.  But given how many ways there is to bow a string on a violin, chaos will ensue; as in your ears will bleed.
Eventually, she was fiddling reasonably well and liked to practice with the door closed because she was shy.  Each day it seemed like the sound got more muffled.  That should have been a clue. 
Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to find her in the closet sitting on pint sized chair.  The little violin was now playing the role of cello.  That’s right.  Apparently she didn't have the heart to tell us that we'd been mistaken.  She wasn't pointing to the violins at the philharmonic.  She was pointing beyond the violins and the violas to the cellos.
We made a deal.  She could play cello right after she finished the classes we had already purchased.  Mississippi Hot Dog?  Sounds exactly the same on the cello as it does on the violin.
Perhaps she had the right idea with that closet.  Julliard would not be calling. 
The other thing the wayward young musician and her lock-picking sister had to look forward to on Suzuki concert days was Uncle Jake’s dessert.  He came to most of the concerts and always brought dessert.   Knowing that fudgy cake was waiting for us at home made 30 kids sawing away in unison (sort of) at Mississippi Hot Dog tolerable.  Almost.
The cake uses ingredients that are usually in the cupboard.  Serve warm with a favorite ice cream, whipped cream or fresh berries.  Or all of the above.

 Jake’s Fudgy Pudding Cake
  • 1 cup flour or gluten free flour (don't add xanthan gum to this!)
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter melted
  • 1.5 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon Godiva liquor (optional)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1.5 cups boiling water
Preheat oven to 350.  Grease an 8x8 pan.  Mix together flour, baking powder, salt, white sugar, cocoa.  Add in milk, butter, liquor and vanilla.  Stir.  Pat evenly into prepared pan.   Mix together cocoa and brown sugar making sure no lumps remain.  Sprinkle on top of batter.  Pour 1 cup plus a scant half cup of boiling water over the top.  Place in oven and bake for about 35 minutes. 
Cool for about 5-10 minutes and scoop and serve.  Best served slightly warm.  It will be gooey.  Serves 9-12. 
Bon appétit.

Horsing Around with Cornbread

remind me - what's next?
It was a charming 1800's Saltbox abandoned mid-renovation.  Set on acres of field and woods, the house's real age could be carbon-dated by the number of field stones missing in the foundation. The glass-half-full realtor almost convinced us that missing stones meant natural fresh air for the cellar.  We imagined picnics in fields of wildflowers, hikes through the woods and acres of gardens.  So what if our water supply was some stream up in the wooded hillside?  Unlike our old Victorian in the city, this was a country house with two (almost functional) bathrooms and we bought it. 
We wore out two entire sets of friends finishing the renovations. Too bad not one of us realized that streams freeze in the winter and therefore so would our pipes.  When the first thaw occurred we made improvements to the water supply and our thoughts turned to the acres of land.
The place screamed for barnyard animals.  The homestead came with two barns, not quite finished falling down. We voted. No chickens because the oldest child was a newly minted vegetarian. Our rabbits kept dying from frightful night noises from the woods.  Goats were mean.  Sheep were hairy and smelled.  We finally decided on a horse because it would not only look awfully Ralph Lauren but chestnut would accent the new color of the house.  There are dumber reasons.
Learning quantum physics would have been simpler than taking on one Quarter horse named Bones (as in Star Trek Doctor McCoy Bones).  He ate a lot more than dogs and didn't come when called.  Apparently some horses are quite clever at undoing gate latches even if the fences are electrified.  And they eat flowers and vegetable gardens.  The horse developed quite the attitude when he realized we were neophytes in all things equestrian and took full advantage of our stupidity.  Once in a while one of us would look out a window only to see a big horse face staring back at us, lips on the glass.  The escapee had no shame begging for treats.
One Vermont photo-perfect fall morning I was in the kitchen making corn bread, looking out the window marveling at my young daughter slow walking in the field on her horse.  They ambled behind a bump in the terrain out of view.  Suddenly, out whooshes a galloping Bones with….wait.  No rider?  Blink, blink.  I see it.  There are human feet and hands.  The horse turns and I see the blur of child and saddle, perpendicular to where she should be riding and parallel to the ground.  The horse is galloping and she is hanging on for dear life.   I manage to throw myself out the door just in time to see her flying over the top of the horse into the tall grass. 
My brain is not processing this as quickly as it should. I am sidetracked by Bones.  I only see the front end of the horse and it looks like he is sitting in the grass like some 1000 pound overgrown puppy.  My brain, mesmerized by a sitting horse, almost misses my girl as she pops up with a bounce from the field and yells out in one breath - MOMMM! BONES IS SITTING AND HE WON’T LISTEN TO ME! MOMMM!   Bones turns to me (I swear on all things chocolate) and winks before gracefully getting up and snorting at the child.  Totally docile he lets her walk him back to the paddock.
Bones escaped regularly.  When he wasn’t at a window begging, he would be somewhere close by eating someone’s garden. We’d be outside roaming the dirt road calling out his name.  Soon enough someone would reply loudly through the woods which echoed better than any AT&T 3G service today.
We called it crystal clear woods-wireless.  However, the traditional Vermont-speak was a little harder to decipher.
"Heh thair-uh? Yauh haawse iz't faam-uh Roy'z-uh god-en. Ahyup."
Translated?  Bones is eating Farmer Roy's flower garden. Again.
Double duty electrified, triple duty latches were installed later that day.  We found Bones the next morning, once again on the other side of the fence eating the last of our stumpy vegetable garden.  The only thing still growing unharmed was zucchini which even the horse wouldn’t eat.
Not long after, Bones went to a home far better suited to his needs.  Happily, the child moved on from horses to kittens.  Not only did felines eat less, they never had any interest in the flower or vegetable gardens.  More my kind of barn yard critter.
Just for payback, every once in a while Farmer Roy let his cows wander  into our field, right up to the back door.  There is nothing quite like opening the door early in the morning only to be greeted by a herd of 1200-pound cows chewing on the rose bushes. 
Those woodsy hikes? Overrun with bramble and poison oak.  Picnics in the fields?  Lots of field mice and really really big snakes. 
On cold mornings we still make a batch of cornbread almost the same way we did back then, slathered with fresh butter and jam.  The only thing missing is a horse named Bones staring in through the window, and a herd of Holsteins knocking at the back door.
The cornbread can be made gluten free and is best served warm.  Serve with softened butter – European is tastiest, and a little bit of your favorite jam.
Fletcher Fields Corn Bread
(Albers Brand Cornbread Recipe, modified)
  • 1 cup yellow corn meal (Albers is great)
  • 1 cup flour (or gluten free flour plus a pinch of xanthan gum)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar packed
  • Heaping tablespoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup milk (for gluten free reduce milk to ¾ cup)
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
  • 1 large egg lightly beaten (2 eggs if using gluten free method)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place an 8x8 ceramic pan with a pat of butter in the oven to melt.  Swish it around to coat the bottom.  Don’t let the butter burn.
Whisk together dry ingredients in one bowl.  Whisk wet ingredients together in another bowl.  Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and whisk those together until no lumps remain.  Pour into buttered and still hot baking dish.  Bake until toothpick comes out clean, about 20 minutes.  Cool about 5 minutes and cut into 9 pieces.
Bon appétit!

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horse lips are big, yeah i'm hungry now, breakfast cornbr

Imps Go Rogue With Chocolate Nut Cookies

one of these imps is not like the other
They were relying on the neighborhood imp to lead the expedition off the block and into the city wilderness.  The imp, the one who had the most success regularly breaching the border, was me.  Grasping hands, we went rogue.  Stepping jauntily out of bounds, we turned the corner and never looked back.
Stuffed into our pockets were boxes of raisins, several Kleenex, paperclips, rubber bands, mom’s chocolate nut cookies and one small apple. Two 4th grade outcast girls, one geeky 2nd grade ballerina, and a developmentally delayed 14-year-old boy made up our motley crew.
Danny’s old sneaker soon started flapping as the sole separated from the canvas.  MacGyver Alice secured it with rubber bands.  Further along, Alice and Danny rounded up plenty of sidewalk insects, spiders and crustaceans to investigate.  Alice jotted data in her little notepad.  Danny was thrilled to be her science partner.  My classmate, Shirley kept up the rear, loosening her tight ponytail.  Unabashed, we trail blazed down one city street and then another.
Danny's uniform of dungarees, old converse high tops, and a bright white tee shirt also included his version of a Gilligan hat to block the midmorning summer sun.  I snuck glances at Danny, wondering if I could magically see the actual hole in his heart through his tee shirt. Shirley’s too small, faded battleship gray school dress with long sleeves was getting damp around the middle from the heat.  Petite curly red-headed Alice had on pink shorts and a sleeveless button down (white) shirt with a pocket for her pencil and notepad.   I was wearing my favorite mom-made polka-dot shorts and matching top.
Two hours later, thirsty and sweaty we finally turned back onto our street from the lower end.  Our parents were swarming all over the other end of the block calling out our names.  My posse looked at me for a sign that we weren’t about to get sent to the stockade, but I think I let them down.  I had told them at the beginning of the adventure that I was sure their parents would not mind us going on this hike.  Add neighborhood hooligan-imp to my 4th grade resume.  
Alice’s mom was shooting me a murderous look.   Danny’s mother, out of breath from running to reach us,  gave me a look that only indicated half of what she really wanted to say, but didn’t.  That look was worse than any punishment I would get.  Shirley’s mom was standing in her doorway with a scowl that made both of us cringe.  Shirley ran right home.
My sentence was banishment to my room sans dinner and after that I was released to the prison back yard for two weeks.  Mom brought me sandwiches and her wonderful chocolate nut cookies.
The second day I pulled a patio chair to the back gate just so I could see freedom.  I still felt the full weight of being the neighborhood kidnapper. Engrossed in a book, I didn’t hear Danny’s mom approach the gate.
She stared at me for a moment with a much kinder look than the day before and threw a nickel at me.  As she turned away she muttered something I couldn't hear.  Red faced, I grabbed the nickel and stuck it in my pocket.
Every time I came across that nickel, I thought of all the lessons I learned that day.  From science geek Alice I discovered more insects than I ever wanted.  From Danny, I learned that brain damaged doesn’t equal stupid and having a hole in one’s heart doesn’t mean it isn’t any less full.  From Shirley I learned that money-poor could still mean you were a rich family, at least in cottage cheese and milk.  Her dad was a milkman.  And from my two week sentence I knew that reading books was a good way to free your mind from forced solitude.  Especially when accompanied by chocolate cookies.
Danny died a few years later from that hole in his heart.   I think of him whenever I make this updated version of my mother's chocolate nut cookies.  Danny ate every single one that day on our hike, and until my mother died she would bake extra just for him because he loved them that much.  Eventually I learned why I had earned that nickel.  He told his mother that it was the very best adventure he had ever had.  That he got to be just like any ordinary boy that day.  
This modern version of my mother's chocolate nut cookie is flourless, fudgy and crisp-chewy.  I think my old friends would like it.  Alice would love the chemistry of why flourless works the way it does.  Shirley would have loved to eat a cookie that someone else made.   And Danny would love them because they are my mother's chocolate nut cookies, redux.  We call this version Danny's Cookies, in honor of one extraordinary boy.
Danny’s Flourless Chocolate Nut Cookies
  • 4 large eggs, whites only
  • ½ tablespoon each, almond & vanilla flavoring
  • 3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • ¾ cup of Valrhona unsweetened cocoa, sifted
  • pinch of salt
  • 8 oz. of chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350.  Turn oven down to 325 once the cookies go in.
Sift powdered sugar into a large stand-mixer bowl.  Sift cocoa on top.  Add salt.  Whisk together gently.  In a separate small bowl mix the whites with the flavorings using a small whisk.  With the whisk attachment on the stand-mixer on low, add in the whites mixture until fully incorporated.  Turn mixer on medium high and whisk until glossy- just a couple of minutes.  Stir in the chopped nuts with a wooden spoon.
Drop by heaping tablespoons (or scoop) onto silpat or parchment lined baking sheet.  Give them lots of space and limit to 5 per sheet.  Makes about 15 large cookies.  Feel free to downsize them and make a larger quantity.  Flatten the dough slightly with a fork before baking – they will still spread into a thin cookie.
Let them sit about 30 minutes before baking. 
Bake at 325 about 7-9 minutes for the large cookies, 6-8 minutes for smaller cookies.  They will look gooey in the center.  The tops will start to crack.  Don’t over bake them!
Be sure to let them get stone cold cool before you try to remove them.  Peel the silpat or the parchment from the back of the cookie.  Store in a tin.  They taste the best on day two, so plan ahead.
 Bon appétit and here's to Danny's big heart!

One Old House, Two Flying Girls and a Rocky Road

two small flying girls, one old house & a (hot) dog
One old house and a crumbling barn were all that remained of the original 150 year old farmstead.  For all the wrong reasons we bought the place.  Located on the curb of a busy intersection, there was little privacy.  Windows, open all summer let in the traffic noise and odor.  The plows constantly piled up the snow so that shoveling a small path to the door was an exercise in futility.  With little insulation it was a freezing in the winter.  No energy stars for that old house. But even with all the quirks and general disrepair it was a whimsical little home. The front had two separate porches.  One led to the front door, the other to the kitchen door.  People often came soliciting to both doors thinking the house was two apartments.  Weren’t they surprised when the same little girl(s) opened both doors? 
Upstairs, we fixed up a tiny space with a window overlooking newly planted shrubs and turned it into a sunny dollhouse-sized playroom.  The old house had a hole from the dollhouse room floor into the kitchen to migrate the heat from the single woodstove located downstairs.  The hole had an old iron grate, and was big enough for the cats to drop through onto the kitchen table.  While we were used to the cats jumping through the hole, it did startle visitors when a gray and white fur ball came flying through the ceiling.
Baking brownies with tiny marshmallows one fall day, I lost track of the chatter from the two little girls above.  That is, until I heard a deafening screech that certainly sounded like a feline, but was not.  A child ran into the kitchen from the back porch.  You can’t actually get outside except through the kitchen from upstairs.  My brain addled through the logic.   The conclusion was heart stopping. 
  1. Children upstairs. 
  2. Children now outside. 
  3. Hole in ceiling only big enough for cat. 
  4. Did not exit, apparently, through any door (or hole).
  5. Craptastic.
The story was revealed through giggles and tears.  Tossing your sister out the 2nd story window was the theme of the day.  And I have those lemon loving in-laws to thank for that.  Since they could never remember the words to all the traditional nursery rhymes, they ended each the same way.  And taught the little girls every single rhyme with this ending:
Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider, sat down beside her & threw her out the window.
The window.  The 2nd story window.
Turns out one girl threw the other and then jumped after her.  Landing in those most forgiving shrubs saved both from breaking their little necks.  The poor shrubs took it on the chin and survived and even seemed to thrive.
Though we carefully discussed why tossing someone out a 2nd story window was not such a peachy idea, I am pretty sure they continued to jump out that window based on the condition of the shrubs throughout the fall.  I can only imagine what passing motorists thought when they were treated to the flying sisters’ act.   I’m grateful no one called child services. 
The last Google earth picture of the house shows that the porches finally fell off and weren’t replaced.  But those shrubs are still there, bigger than ever. 
Any time I bake with marshmallows I think of the two small flying Wallenda peanuts, the old house that will probably still never receive any energy stars, and most of all, those wonderful little shrubs. 
I’m also quite grateful that the lemon loving in-laws redacted the 2nd story window ending to all things nursery rhyme. 
Rocky Road Squares with Coconut, Gluten Free
(adapted from Alice Medrich’s Cookies and Brownie Book)
  • 1 cup of graham cracker crumbs (Gluten Free Girl Recipe here)
  • ½ cup finely shredded unsweetened coconut
  •  4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  •  2-3  tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped nuts
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  •  2 cups mini marshmallows (make sure they're gluten free)
Preheat oven to 350.   In a small bowl combine the coconut, graham cracker crumbs, sugar and stir in melted butter.  Pour into an 8x8 pan lined with a foil or parchment liner that comes up the sides and press firmly.  Bake 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.
Remove from oven.   Place one cup of the marshmallows on the crust.  Alternate the nuts and chocolate and remaining marshmallows on top and return to the oven.  Bake until chocolate is soft and marshmallows are slightly toasted and melted.
Cool in the pan until stone cold!  Using the parchment or foil liner remove from the pan.  Cut into 16 squares using a serrated knife. 
Notes:  Gluten Free Girl and the Chef’s website is full of wonderful recipes and information for celiacs and the gluten intolerant.  For her graham cracker recipe, I use brown sugar to replace most of the honey, although you should keep some in the recipe – it adds a nice flavor.  I double the recipe.  I leave out the final sugar cinnamon dusting.  Best gluten free graham cracker recipe out there! 

cat orbiting through ceiling holes

The Passover Story: Carp, Lemon & Coconut

circa 1962, practicing the four questions on my unimpressed friend
Whitefish, carp and pike are swimming circles in the bathtub.  The house cleaning takes on a fevered pitch as every last leavened crumb is vacuumed.   As the sound of the Hoover reaches the hallway, that is the five minute warning.   I scoop up the toys from my closet floor where I covertly (or so I thought) eat sandwiches and cookies.  The year before, along with the secret stash of crumbs, I also lost all my fabulous Barbie stilettos to the Hoover.
 The Jewish year is 5722 (1962) and Passover is approaching.  
Preparing the Seder feast in advance, I watch my mother make chicken soup with matzo balls, dress chickens for roasting, and scoop potato kugel into casseroles.  Thankfully, the family gets the bathtub back because Mom is finally using the very um, fresh whitefish, carp and pike to make homemade gefilte fish.  Dessert is cardboard sponge cake, sweet and gritty with no flavor.   Manischewitz canned macaroons on the side.
The evening of the first Seder arrives.  I am sitting at one end of the small Passover table, squeezed between Fake Aunt Hope and my brother who seems to have eaten beans the day before.   My 6-year-old stomach is churning from hunger and stage fright.  As the youngest child I will recite the four questions from the Passover service booklet, the Maxwell House (yes, coffee) Haggadah.  As the service drones on past my bedtime, I am so sleepy that all I want to do is lean on my brother and close my eyes, no matter how much he stinks. 
Finally, all eyes turn to me.  I squeak out the first questions in a whisper. Why is this night different from all other nights and why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzoh?   My elderly faux Uncle yells out “can’t hear you, missy!”   Beet red and humiliated, I stutter, making my voice crack.  Now I imagine that everyone thinks I am on the verge of tears.  I am.
The Ad Man purses his ridiculously large lips, my mother audibly holds her breath, my brothers stifle giggles, and Fake Aunt Hope leans over and pats my arm enveloping me in her stinky perfume.  I push the Haggadah up to my nose, adjust my geeky glasses, take a deep breath and loudly mumble each question into the fold of the book.
As the 4th glass of sticky sweet Mogen David swill wine is poured, the front door is opened to welcome the phantom Prophet Elijah who whooshes in, drinks up his wine with a little help from Fake Aunt Hope and apparently leaves as the door is closed.  We are all awake now from the cold rush of air - it is the middle of April and snowing in Syracuse. 
Everyone raises their wine tumbler in a final toast - Next year in Jerusalem! they shout with imbibed enthusiasm.  And it is finally time for dinner.  The feast’s perfume has overtaken Fake Aunt Hope’s cloying scent and on this night, I am a grateful little girl. 
But Passover isn’t over just yet.  For seven days I construct matzo sandwiches for lunches.  Tuna on matzo.  Peanut butter and jelly on matzo.  Egg salad on matzo.  Ham and swiss on matzo.  Ok, kidding about that one. 
Try eating a matzo sandwich.  It's a little like taking forty ritz crackers taping them together and smashing some filling inside, picking it up and crunching.  The only possible outcome is a pile of crumbs.  I use the matzo as the placemat and eat the filling with my fingers. 
Over the years, Passover became more about how to make the food a little more interesting and still maintain the religious traditions.  We tuned up the lowly, cloyingly sweet macaroon and made it a spring time delight.  It has a deep coconut flavor infused with (Meyer) lemon.
Now, if only someone could think of a way to make matzo a little more interesting.
 Coconut Lemon Macaroons
  • 2 large eggs, separated, using whites only
  • ½ cup white sugar plus 2 tablespoons
  • 1 teaspoon almond flavoring
  • Zest from 2-3 lemons (Meyers are perfect)
  • 3 cups flaked unsweetened coconut (Bob’s Red Mill)
  • Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350.  Turn oven down to 325 once the cookies go in.
Mix the sugar and the lemon zest with your fingers in a large bowl.  Let the two infuse for about 5 minutes.   Then, with a wooden spoon, mix in all the remaining ingredients until thoroughly incorporated.  With wet hands gather a scant ¼ cup of coconut dough and form into haystacks on a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet.  Pinch the tops to form loose haystacks (keep your fingers wet).  Let sit for about 45 minutes before baking.  Bake about 20 minutes at 325.  Turn oven off and let macaroons sit until lightly brown about 10 minutes longer.  Remove from oven and cool.  Makes about 12 large macaroons.

Bon appétit and happy Pesach.

counter to 

Hatching a Baby Lemon Square

baby Annie with (skinny) lemon loving dad, circa 1975
Those three daily doses (or more) of chocolate throughout my pregnancy were as necessary as prenatal vitamins.  Or so I suggested to my doctor.  My impossibly curly hair frizzed at just the whisper of the word humidity and  I couldn’t stand the sight of lemons (or fish) for those nine months.  The extended in-law family of lemon lovers were kind enough to accommodate me, but barely. 
The first clue that DNA has a sense of humor was when the child was born 4 weeks late with a full head of stick straight dark hair and needed her bangs cut so we could see the color of her eyes (brown).
But that crazy genetic lottery surely had the last laugh.   The chocolate addicted, frizzy-haired 19-year-old new mom gave birth to a child who  loved lemon as much, or more than her grandparents and father.   Sure, the child still enjoys chocolate and will swill it alongside her mother with gusto.  But, through the DNA roulette, we had apparently hatched an 8 pound lemon loving baby.  She arrived into this world craving all things lemon.
Little Annie would sit in her high chair, impatient for dinner to arrive.  We peppered her with appetizers, cheerios or tiny pieces of fruit and veggies.   The child threw all those unfortunate morsels on the floor.  Minus a dog to clean it up, that certainly got old.  One day, at the lemon loving in-laws there was a bowl of (oh, do guess) lemons on the table in front of the child.  The baby pointed and grunted until some obliging adult who would not be me, gave her a lemon.  A whole lemon.
It was difficult for me to look both amused and scowl at the same time.  I couldn’t believe they gave her a lemon and thought it was cute.  She rolled it around for a bit and then with that special look in her eye that only a mother knows, and before I could grab it from her hands, she shoved the whole thing into her mouth and bit down.  I expected a cacophony of unhappy screaming to ensue, but before I could reach her highchair, she was grinning, giggling and biting the thing again.  The other adults clapped with unrestrained glee for the tiny heir apparent.  I stood there stunned.  How in the world could a 6-month-old like the taste of lemon?  She continued to bite down with the few teeth she possessed until a hole was drilled in the lemon and juice started squirting out. Everywhere.
My mother in law cut the beleaguered lemon into fistful sized wedges and the heir apparent grandbaby grabbed as many as she could in her tiny fat fists.  She gummed those wedges until her lips were puckered, cooing and giggling the entire time.  Her clothes were bleached where the juice dripped, and she was totally pickled by the time I removed her from the highchair. 
The stuffy professor family was all too dignified to high five one another.  Instead they did that head nodding thing at one another with a look that said – we’re so proud!  She’s got the right genes after all!  Smiling at the chocolate loving daughter-in-law, I knew they were calculating the odds of whether the next dessert at our house would be lemon or chocolate.  The smile, of course, was because they figured lemon to be the odds on winner.
That same fateful evening, my mother-in-law whipped up lemon squares.  I never used to enjoy those lemon squares because I swear she always left out the sugar.   She, on the other hand, swears that there is sugar in them.   Does a teaspoon count?
I drew a line at other lemon surprises though, and the family was considerate enough, most of the time, to not cross it.  I got used to lemon bits in the strangest places, like yellow cake, on top of fresh berries and in every single frozen dessert.   Apparently farm fresh strawberries were too sweet for my mother-in-law?
Those first few years I worked hard to impress my in-laws by bringing them lemon pie once in a while.   But as time flew by, and we all got a little older, some of us (read: me) got a little more acquainted with lemons and branched out from lemon pie.   I discovered a lemon square recipe that is actually tart enough to suit my mother- in-law’s palate yet sweet enough for me if I use Meyer lemons.
Since I know that the first thing Grandpa asks for is lemon pie when he arrives, I will happily make him some Meyer Lemon Squares next time they visit.
The child eventually moved on from cooing to talking.  Backle was Annie’s first word.  Which I am sure when translated from baby-speak, meant apple.  However, some people in the family still insist it means lemon. 
Sadly, the adult version of the child breaks out with hives after eating lemon wedges.   No need to be disappointed.  I hear they hide the bowls of lime wedges at the bars she frequents in the French Quarter.  Apparently, limes wedges are the new lemon.
However, please don’t tell her grandmother.
These lemon squares are a gluten free adaptation of an Emeril Lagasse recipe.  They are made with a lot of butter.  Rich and delicious, perhaps they should be called butter lemon squares?  But whatever you call them, they are fantastically perfect for the lemon loving in-laws.
Gluten Free Meyer Lemon Squares
(Adapted from Emeril Lagasse, 2004)
  • 1.5 sticks of unsalted butter cut into small chunks
  • 1.5 cups gluten free flour without any cornstarch (or regular flour) plus 2 tablespoons
  • ¼ teaspoon each xanthan & guar gum  (if using gluten free flour)
  • ½ cup confectioners’ sugar (sifted so all the lumps are gone)
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • Pinch salt
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 and ¼ cups white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Meyer lemon zest
  • Generous 2/3 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon or other liqueur (I used orange and cherry)
In a food processor mix up the flour, gums, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt.  Pulse to mix well.  Add the butter pieces and pulse until it looks like coarse cornmeal.
Prepare a 9x13 square baking pan by buttering the bottom and lining it with parchment paper which hangs over the sides (you will use that as a handle later to remove it from the pan.  Butter the parchment paper, too.  Drop in the coarse crumbs and press into the pan until it is solid.  It will seem fragile, but don’t worry about it.  Refrigerate it for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while it is chilling.   Bake for about 20 minutes until it is slightly brown. 
While the crust is in the oven, in a separate bowl, mix the sugar and lemon zest with your fingers until it is fully incorporated.  Let it sit for about 15 minutes to flavor the sugar.  To that mixture, add the eggs, 2 tablespoons of flour and mix well.  Add the lemon juice, cream and flavorings and mix well again.
When the crust is lightly brown, remove from the oven and mix the topping one more time. 
Straining the filling through a mesh strainer, pour it gently over the crust and put it back in the oven.  Bake at a reduced temperature, 325 degrees for about 20-25 minutes or just until the filling is set.  Cool completely and take a knife to loosen the edges.  Using the parchment paper, lift it out onto a cutting board carefully.  Cut into squares.  Top with additional, sifted powdered sugar when ready to serve.  While there are usually none, do refrigerate any stray leftovers.
grown-up Annie with lemon loving dad, circa now