I wasn’t planning on serving an appetizer Thanksgiving Day. The family dinner was at our house this year. Everyone was in town and coming late in the day. I couldn’t wait to have all my people gathered together again. The house was ready, the dining room table glittered. I wasn’t going to have a starter course because there was going to be so much food… for crying out loud, it’s Thanksgiving! But then I thought it would be more fun to have a little something to nibble on with champagne and drinks before dinner. Not wanting to break the bank OR break my back I decided a holiday stuffed bread was in order. And because my motto is “more is better” I made two. My husband, Jimmy, looked at me as though I had two heads. “I know, I know. It’s a lot of food but if no one eats it, well, we just wrap them up and have them tomorrow.” He knows not to argue when it comes to food, bless his heart. Let me just cut to the chase. When the two loaves had been plated and my nieces began to make their way through the house serving, you have never seen so many faces light up. My family pounced on them as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grownups were licking their fingers. My brother followed the girls with their trays around the house tearing off chunks of warm, cheesy bread and making happy boy sounds. My son, James,
was not happy when he saw me tucking fresh cranberries into the cheese but after his first bite was in complete agreement that the berries were the perfect clean foil against the gooey, richness of the cheese, olive oil and garlic. Both loaves were gone in minutes. Minutes! This recipe is extremely adaptable in that you can substitute the brie for Gruyère, cheddar, mozzarella or the gooey cheese of your choice. You can tuck in gorgonzola crumbles or shredded parmesan. Red pepper flakes are wonderful for a little heat. Not a fan of cranberries? Try blackberries or raspberries. I used whole grain boules but white bread would be fine. Good looking on a table or passed by hand, this starter is perfect for the holidays. It can be assembled hours ahead, only make certain to wrap it tightly so the bread doesn’t get stale. Make certain you have plenty of napkins and enjoy!
1 1-pound boule or round loaf of bread, 6″-7″ diameter works well
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, grated
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste, a healthy pinch of each will do
1/4 pound brie cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup shredded Italian 5 cheese, I believe I used Kraft but any brand is fine, store brand or whatever’s on sale
1/2 cup or more fresh cranberries or berry of choice
thyme sprigs for garnish, optional
Pre-heat oven to 375°.
Making certain not to cut all the way through to the bottom, slice the bread in roughly half-inch slices. Turn the bread 90° and make 1/2″ slices, again not cutting all the way through. I find if I hold the bread firmly it keeps it from shredding or tearing too much. Set aside.
In a small bowl combine olive oil, garlic, thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Gently stuff the brie vertically in the bread slices.
Pour half of the olive oil mixture as evenly as you can into the open bread spaces. Set aside remaining oil.
Toss the thyme leaves with the Italian cheese blend.
Gently stuff the Italian cheese horizontally down into the bread.
Pour the remaining olive oil mixture evenly on the bread.
Tuck the fresh cranberries onto the top of the nooks and crannies of the stuffed bread.
Spray a piece of tin foil with non-stick cooking spray and wrap the bread tightly with the foil.
Place on a baking sheet and bake covered for 25-30 minutes.
Carefully unwrap the bread and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and bubbly.
Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs and serve immediately.
There’s not much better on a Friday evening than mouth-watering, delectable dinner that’s put together with ingredients you happen to have on hand. Having discovered some time ago goat brie at Trader Joe’s, I thought maybe I would incorporate it into some sort of puff pastry tart for dinner. Looks like any brie but this one has a strong, goaty flavor that’s positively sublime, and, yes, now I am an addict. If you’re not able to locate it, the combination of a small wheel of brie chopped and mixed a small amount of chevre, goat cheese, will also work quite well. I wanted a creamy backdrop to support the brie and one small container of ricotta was the perfect foil, rich and spreadable but not as gooey as mozzarella. An egg to bind, some fresh basil, zucchini ribbons, a quick drizzle of a fragrant, green olive oil and I had one gorgeous, undemanding dinner. The only fly in the ointment was neither of my boys had gotten home yet. Jimmy was speaking at some conference and James catching up with a co-worker he had worked with on a gubernatorial campaign. All fine and well but, hey, dinner’s ready! I chased away the feeling of discouragement by serving myself the prettiest part of the tart. Cut into quarters, my portion had the most browned, runny, chewy bits of cheese. Not exactly first prize but I’ll take second prize any day. I had prepared a splendid salad of leaf lettuce dressed lightly with creme fraiche; the requisite glass of Malbec had been poured. Each bite was a song of flavors. The buttery puff pastry gave a satisfying crunch as did the barely cooked zucchini. But the goat cheese was the star of that musical. Not too sharp and creamy-dreamy, the brie made its presence known in every bite. Happy Friday night to me!
Puff Pastry Tart with Goat Brie, Ricotta, Basil and Zucchini
This tart may be made with fresh baby spinach or fresh basil leaves. If you have a handful of some strong, flavorful cheese and you want to get rid of it, it’s most welcome in this dish. I’ve used the odd bits of Gruyere and even used the last quarter cup of bagged, shredded Publix brand 4-cheese Italian . One cup of marinated artichoke hearts roughly chopped is lovely, too.
1 puff pastry sheet, I use Pepperidge Farm, keep chilled until assembling tart
1 wheel goat brie 4.4 ounces, or cow’s brie with 3 or 4 ounces of chevre added
1 15-ounce ricotta, fat-free is great…that’s all I use in this tart
1 large egg, lightly beaten
12-15 zucchini ribbons made with a vegetable peeler or mandolin
fresh spinach, washed and dried, as much as you like to scatter on top, optional
fresh basil, cut into strips, optional
1 cup marinated artichokes, drained well and roughly chopped, optional
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to drizzle when serving
Preheat oven to 425°.
In a medium size bowl place a paper towel. Gently dump the ricotta cheese on the paper towel, bring the corners of the towel around the cheese and softly press all excess liquid away. Turn cheese back into the bowl and discard towel.
Roughly cut the brie into 1/2 chunks and add to ricotta.
Add the egg to the cheeses.
If using spinach, basil or artichokes add to cheese/egg mixture and mix well.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cover baking sheet with tin foil.
Open puff pastry on floured surface.
With a rolling-pin, use a cold wine bottle if you don’t have a rolling-pin, quickly roll puff pastry out to a 12″X15″ rectangle. Don’t fret. It doesn’t have to be perfect but you do want to keep the dough cold so move fast.
Using your finger or a small brush and a little water paint a 1/4″ rim around the entire rectangle.
Fold 1/4″ of dough from the edge each of the four sides of the rectangle onto the wet area to make a collar or dam, if you will, to keep in the cheese mixture. Press the dough firmly to adhere to the water painted dough.
Cover the puff pastry evenly with the cheese mixture just up to the folded edge and smooth the top.
Arrange the zucchini on top of the cheese, flat and on its side to resemble a lovely jumble of green ribbon.
Bake 45-60 minutes until corners are browned and top is slightly browned.
I just returned from an idyllic week in Puerto Rico where I met my older sister, Cynthia, for a much-needed visit with our two elderly aunts. Our aunts, one 93 years old and the other maybe 85, welcomed us with soft and gentle open arms, sweet kisses and many, MANY blessings. The younger of the two worked for many years in the Chemistry Department of the University of Puerto Rico, her husband was the head of the department and together had done cancer research at Fordham University back in the ’50’s. We affectionately named her “Maita” years ago, an informal name for godmother. An analytical academician, her intellectual brilliance is surpassed by her goodness, her tender-heartedness and charity. I’ve always said, “Maita, when I die I’m going to grab onto your ankles and sneak into heaven right behind you!” As she has always had this saint-like, beatific stature I, on the other hand, started to gain the reputation of a some what naughty little girl from a young age.
I was constantly being compared to Cynthia and one my better-behaved cousins in Puerto Rico who is close to my age. I’ll just refer to her as “M”. The three of us, Cynthia, “M” and I played constantly. Fairies, dollies, coloring, tea parties or in her playhouse, the envy of my childhood. But as we grew older our tastes changed and we moved away from dollies and tea sets and were more intrigued with tween fashion and, of course, boys…but only from afar. Decades before even portable phones, this was a time of letter writing. Long distance was hideously expensive so those calls were arranged for twice a month at best. Cynthia, naturally, was an excellent, well-disciplined writer. I was lazy, had messy, illegible penmanship and would do anything to get out of writing…including lie. My mother insisted that each and every letter we received be answer immediately and well-written. None of this 3-line nonsense. Oh, no, ma’am. Not my mama. She proof read every letter we wrote until we came of a certain age, maybe pre-teen. And that’s when the trouble started. She felt we were old enough to write informative, loving letters, all grammatically and punctually correct. We had eight aunts and uncles, their children plus a complete set of grandparents in Puerto Rico all more than happy to write to the one family which was stateside, namely us. Regrettably, by the time I reached 11 or 12 years old I could not sit make the effort to do homework, practice my music lessons, clean my room or return letters. I loved receiving them, especially when a pale blue check came fluttering out, but I did not have the thoughtfulness or moral fibre to sit down and pen not even a “thank you”. It all came to a head one summer when I had received numerous letters from cousin “M”, the final one imploring me to please, please write back. I loved her, I did! But did I write her back? No. No, I did not. I probably shoved that letter under my bed where I threw everything including dirty cups and sandwich plates, napkins and trash. At length my grandmother called and though she only spoke with my mother I knew I was in trouble when I saw the fire coming out of Mama’s eyes. She was incensed, “Oh, yes!”, she castigated me, “You can go swim and play at “M’s” country club, play tennis and go out to dinner but you can’t write her a simple letter? Hmmm???” She was boiling; I had embarrassed and shamed her, she was disappointed in me. I remember Mama taking me by the arm, unceremoniously sitting me down at the dinner table set with paper and pen and informing me in no uncertain terms, “You are NOT to get up from this table until you write your cousin! Is that understood?” Well! If she was fuming, I was enraged. How dare my cousin rat on me? How dare she? You want a letter? I’ll give you a letter! All afternoon I wrote, every few minutes Mama would glance at me pleased that I was responding, putting out the fire of family scandal and enriching our cousinhood. I sealed the letter, addressed it and tossed it on the dining room table to be stamped and mailed while I snapped at my mother, “There! There’s your letter. Hope your happy!” and off I went, free as a bird, never giving it another thought. Weeks, maybe months, went by and off we went on summer vacation. We spent two or three weeks in Jamaica as a family then split up as Dad had to return home to work and we flew on to Puerto Rico to spend the rest of summer. I was excited and looked forward to the time at our grandparent’s house. We were positively smothered with love, sugary treats, outings and adventures and oodles of quarters pulled out from the bottom of our uncles pockets then singles as we grew older. We counted our loot often. “I have $12.00! How much do you have?” “Aww. I only have $9.75”. Well, one of those hot mornings, nothing different about it, Mama came to me and said, “How would you like to walk to Maita’s house? Just you and me.”, I was incredulous. “Nobody else?”, I asked, “I don’t have to share you?”. “No, cielo, change your clothes, brush your hair and we’ll go.” And so we did. I was too old and sophisticated to skip but my heart was bursting with happiness that I had my mother’s undivided time and attentions. It was a short walk to my aunt’s condominium plus a great ride in the elevator as it was an incredibly tall building. The doors to the elevator opened, we walked down the hall and knocked on her door. I thought of the hard, spicy sausage she often served with thick, crunchy Goya crackers and hoped I would be seeing them brought out that day. The door swung open and my aunt swept me up with hugs and kisses. There was a flurry of greetings between her and my mother when suddenly I found myself in her living room alone. I turned and there, legs crossed and sitting in an enormous, dark-wood monster of a club chair sat my uncle…the father of “M”. Terror set in. It gripped my 11-year old heart. I knew what was coming; I knew what I had done and now so did he. I had been summoned, tricked, fooled and now I was going to get it. It would seem that the letter I had written my cousin, “M”, had hurt her deeply. It had evoked a flood of tears, especially the part where I called her an “ass”, so he said. I hastily back pedaled and reassured him, “I didn’t call her an “ass”. I said ‘Don’t BE an ass.’ I didn’t call her an “ass”!” Let me remind you, Gentle Reader, this was over 45 years ago. A true lady would never, EVER use that kind of language. And he was heartbroken, crestfallen…desolate. This darling, generous, loving man who gave me, and my brother and sisters, everything. Treats, adventures, nickles and quarters. I felt horrible. I felt cheap and horrible. He forgave me; of course he forgave me. I was a still child. But it caused a huge divide between my cousin and me. It was never the same between the two of us…even to this day. Maybe I called her a dirty word but she did worse. She told on me. Tattletale. She knew what she was doing when she ran to her father, our grandmother and our aunts. She knew full well that the entire family on the island would learn what I had done and that I would be judged accordingly. I had sullied our name. At all of 11 years old. Oh, the shame of it all! So foolish and wasteful is the loss of a tender friendship. We adored “M’s” father as one of our favorite uncles.
My uncle would, time and again, bring us sweet indulgences, one of them being Pan de Mallorca; a smooth, ambrosial yeast bread heavily dusted with an abundant and generous dusting of confectioner’s sugar.
To gild the lily, take it over the top, it can be split and stuffed with thin slices of sweet ham and extra sharp cheddar cheese.
The bread is then buttered on the outside and grilled with a weight on top. When the cheese has melted and is hot and gooey the sandwich is again dusted with confectioner’s sugar, sliced and served.
Sweet and salty has never been better! Just like life.
This bread is truly special. Soft and fluffy due to slow risings, Pan de Mallorca begs for time and patience. This isn’t the recipe you want to start at 3:00 in the afternoon. But if you wake up early one dark morning in the mood to rattle around in the kitchen all the day then this is the bread for you. You just can’t rush the risings. It keeps well for a little less than a week, well wrapped in the refrigerator as do the sandwiches. It’s the best with a hot cup of cafe con leche.
It is STILL summer. In spite of Target’s back-to-school onslaught, New York city’s fall fashion blitz and the legions of Facebook women dreaming of their first sip of Autumn’s pumpkin spice coffee. It’s 93° outside right now, with a “real feel” of 109°. It’s hot. Lord, it’s hot. I don’t care how low the AC is set in the car I cannot cool off. Water trickles down my back into my panties. My hair hangs flat and listless no matter how much volume product I put on my roots. But I can still power-walk outside under the gorgeous columns of palms and Florida oaks. I can lazily float in the pool. And I can sip rum drinks on that said float. I can always cool off. Not so for the cold. But even when the asphalt is screaming hot, come August we start thinking of the cooler days ahead. This salad is ideal with the combination of lightness in the kale and the dressing and the more substantial feel of the frico, sour cherries and toasted pecans. It’s an easy segue to a more filling meal. Frico is merely baked parmesan and let me tell you it’s a staple in MY kitchen. Company drops by unannounced? Throw a tray of shredded or grated parm in the oven and minutes later you have a bangin’ hors d’oeuvre perfect to serve with cocktails. It’s salty and savory, completely unexpected, highly distinctive. After letting the sheet of frico cool a few minutes it can be broken into cracker sized pieces and served. How easy is that? Oh, you want more? Okay. Spread the parmesan cheese in long ovals on your parchment paper. After baking and completely cooled carefully peel the parchment paper off the oval strips. Use them as a crouton or bread stick jutting stylishly out of your salad or soup. Toss a bit of allspice or freshly cracked black pepper into the unbaked cheese and then bake for an even more complex flavor. Crush the frico into crumbs and scatter atop a lobster mac ‘n cheese or really any casserole.
Frico.Is.Great.Stuff. Wait, wait! Guess what? It lasts weeks. The longest it’s stayed in this house is a week and a half. Little mystery hands keep nibbling at it. And if you store it in an air-tight container it remains as crisp as the day you pulled it out of the oven. There are only two rules you have to keep in mind. The unbaked cheese has to be scattered over parchment paper and the frico has to cool completely before storing in order to maintain its crispness. But other that, easy-peasy. Now on to this dressing. I know some people are downright scared of buttermilk but don’t be. Look what it does to biscuit and fried chicken. This particular buttermilk dressing is lemony, tangy and oh so light. I use non-fat Greek yoghurt, Duke’s Light mayonnaise and reduced fat buttermilk and it still finishes silky, cool and inviting. It’s my new favorite salad dressing. I make it in a mini-food processor but it can be prepared in a blender or with a stick or immersion blender. I’ve mentioned in other posts that when making a salad with kale it pays to “massage” it with a few drops of olive oil. After discarding the tough stems and chopping the greens into small pieces squeeze the kale as if you are kneading dough or squishing mud between your fingers. This breaks down the leaves a bit making the salad more tender. Use both hands and rough it up for a few minutes. When you finish you’ll see the size of salad greens has been reduced. If you wish to use less kale you can also chop some romaine lettuce but mix it in AFTER you massage the kale.
I haven’t given amounts for the salad part because everyone has their own preference. There is no right or wrong way to assemble it. If you don’t like pecans use walnuts or almonds. Just make sure you roast them in the oven for a few minutes to bring out their sweet flavor. If you don’t care for nuts, leave them out. Same with the dried cherries, although they are truly outstanding in this salad. Go ahead and substitute them with dried cranberries or blueberries. I typically get my dried berries in big bags at Costco. Homemade spicy croutons are fabulous tossed into this dish and if you have dinner guests they’ll certainly give you thanks for that special touch. So let’s get to it!
Line a standard jelly roll pan with 2 sheets of parchment paper, one on top of the other. It is imperative that you use parchment paper or you won’t be able to get the frico out of the pan. Parchment also gives you prettier more evenly baked cookies and cakes so you will be using this paper often if you don’t already. Makes clean up easy. It is your friend.
Scatter the cheese over the parchment paper in an even layer. It’s fine if small spots of paper show through. It’ll kind of look like lace.
Bake 6 minutes or until golden. The darker it becomes the crisper it becomes.
Hold both layers of parchment and place frico, still on the paper, on a cooling rack.
Allow to cool until easy to handle before breaking into pieces. The frico will peel right off of the parchment.
Store in a tightly covered container when completely cooled.
Saturday was boiling hot. The “Real Feel” temperature when I left to work out was 108°. It was not a day for baking or watching over bubbling pots on the stove. No, something cool and pretty for dinner was in order and while dinner was being assembled one hand needed to be occupied with a cold summer cocktail. I didn’t want anything processed…y’all know that ain’t me, babe. I wanted something cool and easy but substantial and rich in flavor. I had almost all the ingredients on hand and most were already prepared. Lemons, shelled pistachios, fresh thyme, garlic and whole grain bread are always to be found in my kitchen. There’s about a 95% chance you’ll almost always find fig preserves in my refrigerator. The only thing I had to prepare was the ricotta. For lasagne I’ll buy store-bought but for a dish more delicate I make my own. I want the ricotta to sing with freshness AND it’s easier than getting in the car and driving to and from the store. Here’s my summer secret. It’s made in the microwave. Isn’t that great? No hot kitchen. I’m going to post the recipe for homemade ricotta below but before I do let me tell you how I served it. Lightly toast your bread and let it cool to room temperature. Run a peeled clove of fresh garlic over the top side of each piece. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over each, slather each slice with a thick coating of ricotta and cut into serving sized hunks. This is where they became different. On some I lightly pressed in shelled, salted, roughly chopped pistachios. Over that I sprinkled fresh thyme leaves and a bit of fresh lemon zest. Oh, man. They were divine. On the others, over the ricotta, I spread a layer of caramelized onions, (I try to always have a jar in the refrigerator), a generous dollop of store-bought fig preserves and a light scattering of lemon zest. These were served on a large tray with juicy slices of peaches each wrapped with a pretty ribbon of domestic prosciutto. Oh my gosh, the sweet and salty of it all. It doesn’t get much easier. It’s a meal that’s light but satisfying and pleasing to the eye. If you make your ricotta on Thursday or Friday you’re really ahead of the game. So go ahead, pour that second drink and get back in the pool. It’s hot!
It seems like yesterday that James was graduating from Pre-K and going to the “Big School” across the street. He and his classmates were to have lunch in the cafeteria of the big school in order to familiarize and acclimate them to higher education. As you can well imagine, there was great excitement in the Rainbow and Explorer classrooms. All of the children made the transition to the “Big School” and now, this weekend, that class will be graduating from college. COLLEGE. And here’s the recipe to help you celebrate. Southern style. Deep Fried Pimento Cheese Balls. They are truly to die for. Please enjoy the photographs of our future leaders. I know I do!
This appetizer is a bit time consuming but well, well worth it! There are some guidelines that I strongly suggest you follow so the cheese balls don’t fall apart mid-fry. Prepare this in a food processor. Sure, you can mince the onion by hand and then grate all the cheese by hand but this dish takes a little time already so why add more work? I buy the small jar of chopped pimentos. It’s about 1/4 cup and again, it’s saving time, not to mention energy. I don’t substitute sweet milk for buttermilk. Buttermilk adds a welcome tang before the onslaught of drippy, spicy, gooey cheese. This is really important. DON’T use panko!! Plain ol’ regular unflavored bread crumbs are the best. I started this recipe with panko thinking I would try them out. I’ve always used plain breadcrumbs. Thank goodness I ran out and finished the recipe using the plain. You see, once you start you can’t undo your mistakes. The balls are always double dipped but, in spite of that, one minute into frying the panko balls began to spring leaks, cheese flowed into the hot oil causing a messy, sputtering mess. You HAVE to get them out of the oil ASAP or the oil will begin to pop so violently that you will most certainly get burned. And you will be left with greasy, empty bread crumb shells and a pot of cheese oil. Your cheese balls will be ruined AND that throbbing burn you just got under your eyebrow looks like it’s going to blister. Okay? Other than that you’re good to go. Oh! I use Braswell’s Red Pepper Jelly. Damn good stuff.
Deep Fried Pimento Cheese Balls
yield: approximately 75 a bit smaller than walnut size
1 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 pound pepperjack cheese, grated
1/4 pound cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 small onion, liquefied
1/4 cup mayonaise
1 small jar chopped pimentos, drained
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, optional
2 tablespoon seasoning salt, I use Tony Chacere’s
2 cups flour, more if needed
2 cups buttermilk, more if needed
4 cups plain bread crumbs, more if needed
2 quarts peanut oil
red pepper jelly for serving
Combine cheddar and jack cheeses in a large bowl.
In food processor blitz cream cheese, pimentos, 1 tablespoon seasoning salt, and mayonaise until smooth.
Pour food processor mixture into the large bowl with cheeses and combine all well with a rubber spatula.
Taste for seasoning, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours until mixture is stiff.
Using a melon ball scoop roll pimento cheese mixture into balls a little smaller than a walnut and place on parchment paper lined cookie sheets. Make sure the pans fit in your freezer.
Mix second tablespoon of seasoned salt in flour.
In three separate shallow dishes place flour, buttermilk and breadcrumbs. This will be your breading station.
Dip each cheese ball in the flour, then buttermilk followed by the breadcrumbs. Make certain each ball is completely covered with each of these three ingredients.
Again, roll the ball in flour, buttermilk then breadcrumbs.
Place trays in freezer and freeze until solid – overnight is fine.
In a large pot, like a Le Creuset dutch oven, heat oil to 350°.
This goes fast so pay attention. Fry 6-8 balls 2-3 minutes until golden.
Remove from oil with a spider or slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Remember that delicious feeling of wonderment when you went waaaay under water in a swimming pool as a child? I think it starts at 4 or 5 years old and it’s pure magic. The water would always be crystal clear, reflecting the sunlight on the sides and bottom of the pool in dancing, shimmering fragments. It was the color of a perfect aquamarine, almost completely silent, all sounds muted and softened by the silky mantle of water. And it was so pretty, all blue and white. I believe I was five and Cynthia seven the first time our parents took us to the Bahamas. I don’t recall anything about the flight but I remember that hotel as if it was yesterday. It was the height of beauty and elegance. The epitome of luxury for the two little girls! There was an exhibit all through the hotel of the crown jewels, Grand Bahama and the rest of the islands in the Bahamian chain being part of Great Britain’s territories. I remember standing in front of case after case thinking, “I want that.” And, “I want THAT.” 5-year-old girls will kill for large jewels, or at least that one would. Upon our arrival, I had found while exploring the vast domain of our room, a white, plastic pen with a wide gold band around the middle and a huge, white feather on the end that would sway back and forth when you wrote. I immediately claimed it for my own. I don’t know what Cynthia got, maybe stationary, but that pen was MINE. And I carried it everywhere, knowing that everyone who saw me with it was able to discern, “Why, she’s not a mere 5-year-old. She’s a glamorous, mysterious woman.” The hotel had open, breezy walkways with huge potted palms and exotic flower arrangements everywhere. And the pool. Oh, my goodness! It was one of those free-form configurations that curved and meandered around palms, hibiscus and alamandas. Every corner of the property had immense bursts of hot pink, fire-engine red and sunset purple Bougainvillea. The pool was something from a tropical fairytale for us. And right smack dab in the middle of that pool was a bar. A BAR. For 1960 that was pretty crazy stuff. You could swim right up to it and get a drink. Grownups would get their cocktails and lucky children would get Coca-Cola. The two little girls didn’t get anything because we were allowed nothing other than water or milk. I spent all my days there in that pool, swimming around the bar like a bee over honey. Early on, I had spied that section of the bar that housed the olives, lemon, lime and orange sections, cocktail onions, and nirvana…maraschino cherries. My grandmother in Puerto Rico would, every blue moon, make us cherry milkshakes with vanilla ice cream and syrup from the maraschino cherries. With a real milkshake machine. Anyway, round and round that bar I swam until finally the bartender asked, “Hi! Would you like a cherry?” Would I? Yes, please! Shyness cast aside, I asked for more until the bartender said, “Listen, just take what you want. Help yourself.” Clearly, he had no children. Well, I helped myself. And when the garnish container was empty, he’d just fill it right back up with the gallon jug of cherries stashed under the bar. I ate those cherries until I got that ookie feeling, you know what I’m talking about. Like there’s a red-hot runaway freight train about to fly out of your bottom. There were lots of frantic calls to Mama, so incredibly gorgeous in her black maillot. Of course, she took care of everything, in her loving, graceful way and never made mention of it again. Dinners were in the formal dining room and Cynthia and I were served macaroni and cheese, or macaroni pie as it was called in the islands, a new treat never before tasted by us. I don’t remember anything else of that vacation except the flight back to Fort Lauderdale. For all my parents eccentricities and unconventionality, they were rather formal. When Cynthia and I were in public we were seen and not heard, we were not the center of attention. We had flown often to Puerto Rico so were accustomed to flying. The two little girls sat side by side on the flight, nicely dressed and quiet. Until the older one started messing with the younger one. She just wouldn’t leave me alone. I recall hissing as quietly as possible, “Stop it. Stop it. Leave me alone.” But nooooo. I remember, in slow motion and with narrowed eyes, holding up my plumed pen, and with clenched teeth, striking Cynthia in the upper, fleshy part of her arm. I can still hear that faint “pop!” when the ball point punctured her flesh and the indentation the pen made before it entered. Yes. I had stabbed my sister. Well. You have never seen such drama, from both of us, as the realization sank in for her, that she could get me in major trouble and score big points with Mama and Daddy. I understood I had broken the rules of public behavior and chances were… well, things didn’t look too good for me. Mama and Daddy were shocked by the scandal we had caused and were none too happy. But they knew how to punish me. Oh, yes, they knew the way of correction and discipline all too well. They broke my heart, that’s what they did. I remember sobbing uncontrollably, I was heartbroken. Heartbroken. Daddy, gently but firmly, asked, “Where’s the pen? Give it to me, please.” And I never saw that exquisite pen again. NEVER. So, I guess the moral of the story is, if you need to stab your sister then use a pointy stick, a Bic pen, scissors, garden shears, anything but your newly found precious treasure!
This is an updated version of what Cynthia and I dined on for dinner during our vacation. I scattered Panko on top, unheard of, and used whole grain pasta, also inconceivable for those times. I like a deep, rich mac and cheese, strong with flavor and character. If there are no children involved I’m quite liberal with the cayenne. If you’re not a lover of heat, add the pepper slowly, tasting the sauce as you add and stir. You can always add more if you like but if you add too much your dish may be compromised. Thankfully, if it’s James or my nieces, I need not worry. They love it anyway I prepare it. I know some people are turned off by the addition of the tomatoes baked on top, but I say they add color, obviously flavor, and most importantly, the acid they bring cuts the richness of the cheese and bechamel ever so nicely. With or without, it’s a great dish!
1 stick of butter, divided, 6 tablespoons and 2 tablespoons
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dry mustard, I like Colman’s
1 lb. sharp or extra sharp cheddar, grated
1-6 oz. container shredded parmesan
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1- 1 1/2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
6 or 7 ripe, plum tomatoes
Preheat oven to 375°.
To a large pot of boiling water add the salt and then macaroni. Cook according to the instructions on the box and drain well. Return drained macaroni to pot and stir in the vegetable oil making sure to incorporate well.
In a pot or the microwave, heat the milk but not to boiling.
In a large pot, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and add the flour, stirring continuously with whisk. Continue whisking and slowly add hot milk and whisk until smooth and creamy.
Remove from heat and add all cheese, dry mustard, cayenne pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Whisk well, again, until smooth.
Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Add salt and pepper as needed.
Add cooked macaroni, stir and pour into a 3-quart baking dish. You probably don’t need to spray with nonstick spray, but I always do because I hate that ugly, baked on residue that can build up.
Slice tomatoes and arrange on top. Tomatoes shrink as they bake so feel free to overlap if you’re a tomato lover.
Melt the remaining butter and mix with the Panko breadcrumbs. Scatter Panko over tomatoes.
Bake for 35-40 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and breadcrumbs are golden on top.
Let cool for 15 minutes or so before serving otherwise it will run all over your guest’s plates. And it’s hot, hot as molten lava, so serve little ones and keep an eye out so they don’t get burned.