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Nana’s Blog

25 Sep

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I feel like when there’s been a long hiatus of blog posts I have to provide some sort of explanation.  Not that I have millions of followers that are emailing me asking for reasons (although I would love that!), but as my conviction of a writer I feel I have to answer the questions “why?” and “how?”.

I teach my students those exact things – the why and the how and the importance behind the explanation.  It shows understanding.  It shows thoughtfulness.  It shows caring.

So, to be perfectly candid, and now that we’ve entered a new season, I’ll share what happened over my summer.  I simply needed a break.  Not really from writing (because writing really is incredibly therapeutic), but really just from everything.

For years, teaching in Florida had been less than ideal, and after a much needed switch to a better school in a safer area, I ended the last school year coming off of a 2-year span of extreme stress (and a classroom/portable that I’m convinced was infested – at least – with mold).  I simply didn’t realize how much of a toll it had taken on my body and spirit.  Starting in January, a nice white light of professional freedom slowly started to soften those wounds, and by June, I needed to just sit and recoup.

Also, Rob deployed again, which is always stressful in its own right.

Sig needed surgery, and then had a horrible reaction to it.  I don’t have kids, but this little pup is the closest thing to it, and watching him convulsing in pain and not being able to help him was beyond heartbreaking.

And, my Nana died.

It wasn’t unexpected; in fact, it was very expected and I think myself and many family members felt a bit of peace knowing she was in a better place.

I was lucky, I got to say goodbye to her.  Unlike the suddenness of my grandfather’s passing, Nana and I got to spend some quiet moments together only weeks before she passed.  Many of us were honored with those moments of just sitting with her.  Quietly, comfortably.  I held her soft, boney, freshly manicured hand and she held my calloused, rough cooker/teacher hand.  Mind you, this was after many finicky moments of trying to figure out why her oxygen lines weren’t staying in her nose – I had been stepping on them.  Luckily she found as much humor in that as I did embarrassment.

She asked me what would happen next, and I chickened out and gave a blanket answer of “You’ll be ok, Nana,” instead of telling her the best was yet to come.  We said goodbye, knowing it was truly a goodbye, and Nana passed an hour after her 89th birthday ended.  In true fashion, Nana stuck around for one last party.

My mom and I missed the last teacher workday of the school year and my dad drove us up the endlessly long I-95 corridor, Georgia-induced flat tires and all.  Word to the wise: if you are going to get stranded in Nowheresville, Georgia, don’t do it on a Sunday morning when that Southern Bible Belt charm doesn’t kick in until after the 11am Baptist Eucharist (and then there’s Potluck at Noon.  Oh, and I could go on to describe how weeks later Rob and I got stranded in BumbleYouKnowWhat, SC whose Eucharist doesn’t ever seem to kick in as we were told we would’ve received car help if we were “locals.”  Southern hospitality???).

However – enter silver lining – the Georgia delay inevitably helped us, as the George Washington Bridge had a beautiful midnight view of New York City, without the usual vehicle gridlock.

We spent the first week of summer vacation doing what happens at funerals: crying, laughing, reminiscing, crying, eating, drinking, staying up too late, and then falling into deep, deep sleep.  It’s always so wonderful spending time with family we don’t get to see every day, even despite the circumstances.  Nana had an open casket, and looked lovely wearing the same dress she wore to my wedding, the sparkly mint green one my mom helped her pick out.  We talked to her, about her, and collectively prayed the Hail Mary, Glory Be, and Our Father.

My mom was so strong.  She’s the middle child, the only girl, and Nana was proud of her.  Still is.

My uncle, who is also my Godfather, is the baby of the family and jokes flew about little Tommy being a “publican” (someone relinquished to the doldrums of public school as opposed to the standard Long Island private institutions).  Followed by stories around vats of Hellman’s mayo he could have invested in to build himself his own fortune.  Poor Uncle Tom!

In a whirlwind of time and bags and boxes and dust and beautiful weather, my mom, dad, Uncle Tom, Uncle Bob and I cleaned out Nana’s house.  It was sad, funny, silly, tiring for sure, and we got it done.   But what we really did during that time was keep the Long Island delis in business.

My dad always got a ham and cheese, simple and easy.  My mom, her brothers and I always got the rare roast beef and swiss with extra mayo, expect for that one time Uncle Tom got liverwurst with extra mustard.  All were always on a Kaiser roll, and always with a pickle on the side.  Mom introduced Uncle Tom to putting pickles ON the sandwich, a new revelation of a pickle-mayo condiment combo that rocked his world.  We tried maco salad, potato salad, and coleslaw from each deli because, after all, each place makes them differently.  Personally, I think the Million Dollar Deli’s maco salad is the best, but Uncle Tom would disagree.  He likes the maco from Setauket.

Nana would have loved the fact that her countertops turned the color of deli parchment, and the smell of beef and pickle brine scented the air.  And it’s clear from our toppings and accompaniments that our family loves mayo.

It’s serious, people.  Like, use-a-spoon-to-slather-it-on-a-ripe-tomato-end-of-story serious.

In fact, at a celebration of Nana’s life, my Aunt Regina’s mom recalled how at her bridal shower my Nana brought a huuuuuuge tub of Hellman’s Mayo (despite the standard Waterford crystal and linens being gifted).  Handing it over, Nana simply informed Aunt Regina, “My son loves mayo.  You’ll need this.”

So much so, that my mom says when Uncle Tom dies, she is going to put all those little squeezy packets of mayo in his casket (with a pair of small scissors because those things are hard as hell to open).

We are a mayonnaise-loving family.

There’s mayo, and then there’s mayo.  Sorry Midwesterners, despite my love for the Green Bay Packers, I’d have to vehemently pass on the Miracle Whip.  That stuff isn’t a miracle at all.  Also, living in the South has made me drop a “y’all” or two, but I will never, EVER succumb to the Duke’s Mayo world.  It’s simply not the best.

Hellman’s is (that’s why west of the Rockies it’s called “Best Foods”).

So to keep true to a classic that my whole family loves – and of which Nana would greatly approve – here’s an oldie and a goodie for you.  The Classic Deviled Egg Salad.

Only 5 ingredients, this stuff is perfection in mayo simplicity.  And maybe, if I put it on the internet, one of those delis will start selling it and give me the royalties – eh?  One can dream.

This recipe is perfect for a cookout, picnic, easy lunch, or an easy go-to breakfast.  As a family classic, I debated whether or not to reveal it, but being so easy and tasty, it would be silly not to.  Plus, Nana would have wanted me to.

So here it is:

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Classic Deviled Egg Salad
(serves as many as you are willing to make)

  • Hard boiled eggs *Everyone has a trick or tip for “perfect” hard boiled eggs. Mine simply is to start with any number of eggs in cold water.  Bring the pot to a boil.  Boil for 5 minutes.  Turn off stove.  Let sit in hot water until water has become manageable to the touch.  Submerge eggs into ice water. 
  • Hellman’s Mayonnaise
  • Celery
  • Fresh dill (adding the dill is my adaptation to the family fave, not everyone is on board)
  • Spicy paprika
  • s&p (yes, this technically makes it 7 ingredients, but s&p has to be a gimme because even the corner store next to the gas station has s&p to put on their sandwiches, so y’all must have it, too.)

This Deviled Egg salad can be made in small batches or in large.  Here’s the ratio:

2 eggs:1 tsp mayo:2 stems celery:¼ tsp fresh dill, paprika and s&p to taste. 

After slicing the celery and mincing the dill, put everything into a mixing bowl.  Like my Nana, and my mom after her, I follow suit by mashing the eggs and mixing everything together with a fork.

Spoon on top of some whole grain toast, or mix with some greens, or eat just as is. 

Enjoy!

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Now THIS is a Pie

9 Jul

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It could be a club, or organization, of sorts. The I-hate-it-when-I-make-HUGE-mistakes-at-something-I’m-good-at club. Can anyone else join? Or at least stick their head in to see what all the fuss is about?

With humbled conviction, I can say there are four things in life that I’m really good at: cooking, teaching, writing, and yoga. I guess we could bump it up to five things if eating is an area in which to excel. Or maybe even six if driving too fast is considered, but for arguments sake, let’s keep it at four. So when I completely, utterly, remarkably destroyed a pie on the 4th of July, I went down the list of excuses.

“I’m not a baker.”
“This was just plain silly to try.”
“It probably wasn’t going to be good anyway.”

North Florida backwoods fireworks boomed with each doleful attempt at an excuse. Then, right as Rob came over to give me a supportive hug, inevitable frustration took over.

“What the hell! What the hell was I thinking?!” I hissed at him (because he was near).

Rob’s arms quickly – and understandably – released as mine over-exaggeratedly flew around, and my mom graciously admitted that she wasn’t that hungry anyway, and my dad echoed the sentiment. Our progressive summer holiday dinner, where our house was the dessert stop, literally stopped.

Sigh.

This has happened before. Where I mess something up in the kitchen, and have to swallow verbal shrapnel for fear others in the vicinity will call the nutty-farm to pick me up over a failed pork roast. Or from-scratch citrus butter. Or seared scallops. Or fig pizza. But the best thing about these mess ups, is that I get to try again having always learned something.

That did sound a little afterschool special-ish; however, it’s true. With the scallops, for instance, don’t put a hard-plastic handled pan on a grill. It may just break completely off sending scallops flying all over the porch (sorry, Mom). And with the citrus butter, adding too much citrus breaks the clotted cream. Add a bit of salt and sugar instead. With the figs, well, just don’t add them to a pizza, and never ever yell into the oven at a pork roast because it won’t cook fast enough. Lesson learned: the pork will ignore you, and you’ll look like a raging moron.

Well, this latest mistake was a dessert mistake. I’m not particularly a sweet-toothed person, most of which I attribute to the fact that my mom couldn’t let go of the chimichangas while pregnant with me. Though in the summertime, I love, love, love Smores. So what better perfect summertime pie than a Smores Pie?

I planned the layers of the pie perfectly: graham cracker crust, then milk chocolate custard (in true Smores Hershey style), melted marshmallow, and then a meringue topping torched to resemble the most perfect, campfire-toasted mallow. Here was the problem: the custard needed to be baked at a certain temperature (preferably in a water bath), and the meringue needed to be baked at a different certain temperature to ensure the egg whites get fully cooked, yet still set to a fluffy, airy, topping. Here’s what went wrong: I double baked the custard in order to cook the meringue, which completely separated both the melted marshmallow and the custard, resulting in a soupy, gloppy, broken, slimy, inedible mess. Really. Not edible. Not exaggerating.

After the flailing arms breakdown, the 4th of July came and went, and the 5th of July was upon us with friends coming for dinner and to watch the Women’s World Cup Championship. So rather than wallow in kitchen disaster pity (like I am honestly still doing with the pork roast – seriously folks, it hasn’t been attempted since), I decided to try the pie again.

The deep breaths in the kitchen were audible. I reviewed: graham crust? Fine. Custard? Creamy and light. Melted mallows? Genius. Problem: Bleeping meringue. Solution: make a thick whipped topping instead. To get the toasted campfire flavor, cook the graham crust just a bit longer locking in some carbon flavor. Result? Pie perfection.

Our guests loved the pie, Rob loved the pie, I loved the pie – it was smores-y, creamy, dreamy, and everything summertime sweets should taste like. But, mostly I loved it because I had tried again and succeeded after an epic, epic fail.

Lesson learned: try again. It should be a kitchen motto, really. Even with food that turns out fantastic. Try again. It will be great again, or maybe even better! So with that, I’m sending summertime love and a sweet, sweet, do-over Smores Pie!

Enjoy!

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Smores Pie

  • 6 full Hersheys milk chocolate bars, chopped
  • ½ bag large marshmallows
  • 2 full sleeves honey graham crackers
  • 6 tbsp + 2 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
  • 3 egg yolks
  • ½ tsp good quality sea salt (such as Maldon)
  • ¼ tsp Kosher salt
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 c + ½ c heavy whipping cream, divided
  • 1 tbsp confectioners sugar
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract, divided

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Using a food processor, crush up the graham crackers with 6 tbsp of butter, and ¼ tsp of Kosher salt. When finely ground, pour the grahams into a pie dish, reserving ¼ c of the grahams for topping at the end. Using hands or the bottom of a measuring cup, firmly press the grahams evenly across the pie pan, and up the sides. Bake for 7-10 minutes.

To make the chocolate custard, pour the chocolate into the top of a double boiler (or use a glass dish over a pot of boiling water. NOTE: do not let the water touch the bowl, or it will burn and separate the chocolate). Heat up the ½ c of heavy cream for 30 seconds in a microwave, or over the stove. Pour the heavy cream over the chocolate and stir.

While the chocolate is starting to warm, using a hand mixer, beat 3 egg yolks with 1 tbsp of sugar and 1 tsp of vanilla extract. Vigorously beat the egg yolks until they are fluffy, pale yellow, and form a smooth falling ribbon when falling off the beaters.

Once the chocolate has started to melt, mix it together quickly until smooth. Remove the top bowl from the heat, and place on the counter.

At this point, the eggs need to be tempered (if you immediately add room temperature eggs to the hot melted chocolate, you will curdle the eggs – yuck). While vigorously whisking the eggs with one hand, use the other hand to slowly ladle a stream of the melted chocolate into the eggs. Do this with 2-3 spoonfuls, or until the bowl with eggs feels warm (and may steam). Then, while continuing to whisk the chocolate, pour the egg mixture back into the bowl of melted chocolate, and completely combine. At this point, add the sea salt and the cayenne pepper to the chocolate, and mix thoroughly (it may sound strange, but the salt and hot pepper add a dimension to milk chocolate that is lacking on its own – it makes the flavor more rounded, while keeping the integrity of the milk chocolate smores taste). Pour the custard into the pie pan and place the pie pan on a sheet tray. Place the tray in the oven, and carefully pour the hot water left over from the double-boiler, onto the sheet tray making sure no water gets into the pie (this is called a bain marie and the hot water steams to help cook the custard evenly). Bake the custard for 35-40 minutes, until firm, yet still a little jiggly in the middle.

After the custard has baked, remove it from the bain marie and let it cool to room temperature.

Once cooled, start to make the gooey marshmallow layer by putting the marshmallows in a microwaveable bowl with the 2 remaining tbsp of butter. Heat the marshmallows in the microwave for about 20 seconds, or until the marshmallows just start to expand. Quickly remove the bowl from the microwave and stir the mixture until the butter and melted marshmallows combine to make one mixture. While still warm and pourable, evenly pour the marshmallows over the custard.

Put in the fridge to set for anywhere from 1 hour to overnight.

Just before serving, whip the 2 c of heavy whipping cream using a hand, or stand mixer. When just starting to get bubbly, add the vanilla extract and the confectioners sugar. Whip the cream until stiff peaks form.

Dollop the whipped cream on top of the pie, making a fluffy design, and sprinkle the remaining graham cracker crumbs on top.

Enjoy!

I’m So Tired

28 Aug

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Kindergarten is hard.  There are a lot of kids with a lot of germs who need to learn a lot of things.  Last week, my mom was in the classroom modeling everything she knows regarding 5-yr old behavior management.  Thank goodness, because it’s been a long time since I’ve worked with the little ones.  But after one day of repetitive, non-expressive, repetitive, non-expressive, repetitive, non-expressive… polite requests, they got the hang of it.  Now, we are fully in the swing of things, and school is on a quick upswing towards the rest of the year.

With the beginning of the school year inevitably comes the feeling of fall, football, pumpkin spice-scented candles, and one of my favorite things: comfort food.  I tend to try and create comfort food in a more healthy way, but there are some things that you can’t get away from, like, pasta.  Pasta is awesome.  Although I know pasta can be healthy when it’s eaten in appropriate 2000-calorie serving sizes, blah, blah, blah, but really, how often does that happen?

So that spurred on the Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Pasta.  Easier than you’d think, with all the vitamins of sweet potatoes, the fiber of whole wheat, and the comfort-deliciousness-chewy-goodness-of-everything-you-crave-after-a-long-day-of-Y-E-L-L-O-W-spells-‘yellow’ that is PASTA.

Like I said, I’m so tired.  There are many stories to share, but my throat is already starting to show signs of testing the beginning of the year immunity, and my bed is calling my name.  I’ll promise to do a better job than last year at cooking and posting during the school year, and I also promise to tell the story of Rob and me paddle boarding with alligators.  Until then, make and eat this pasta.  It’s.  Downright.  Good.  Enjoy and goodnight!

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Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Pasta
(makes 4 servings) 

  • 2 c whole wheat flour
  • –       plus more for dusting
  • 2 small-medium sweet potatoes, diced and boiled until very fork tender
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

After the sweet potatoes are cooked and cooled, put through a potato ricer, food mill, or shred with a heavy fork. 

Pour the flour onto a clean stone counter, or wood board.  Make a well in the middle, and add the sweet potato.  Making another well in the potatoes, add the eggs, and the olive oil. 

Using a circular motion with a heavy fork, slowly mix the eggs with the potato and flour mixture, adding the outside layers of flour into the middle of the mixture with your opposite hand.  When the mixture starts to come together, start using both hands to combine, and kneed the dough for about 10 minutes.  The dough should be soft, smooth, and elastic to the touch.  Set aside for 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, set up your pasta roller (NOTE: if you don’t have a pasta roller, this dough will make a great gnocchi.  Just roll into thin logs, and cut into 1-inch pieces).  Roll until a “4”, and cut through a linguini cutter, or thinly cut with a very sharp knife. 

Boil water with a handful of salt, and boil until the pasta reaches the surface, about 1-2 minutes (fresh pasta cooks much, much faster than dried). 

Toss with a flavorful, light sauce – I like brown butter with freshly grated nutmeg, rosemary, mint, spinach, and a touch of Riesling.  Add some rotisserie chicken for a protein packed meal. 

Enjoy! 

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