Glabellars?? Let's eat cake!

Been a while...and lots of water under the bridge. High tide, I mean high time for another post.

So, I switch on the laptop and, while waiting for things to load, catch my reflection in the monitor. Yep, those "highlights" are gray hairs. Wow. Not necessarily a bad "wow" either. And I can faintly see the color line as I allow my hair, colored for years, to return to its natural colors. My eyes scan a bit lower and notice the glabellar lines, like soft close and open parentheses between my eyebrows. The nasolabial folds, like two half-arches....from lots of laughter, I smile quietly.

Funny, years ago I would've reminded myself to relax my brow and soften my jaw. I certainly didn't want to age, but if I was going to ever be old, I wanted to look incredible and draw (unsolicited) comments like, "Fifty?? I can't believe it. I thought maybe 30!!" And at one point, even 30 sounded old!

So, here we are twenty years later, and I'm thinking that 50's the new 30. It's really pretty great...even with all its "unexpecteds." Transformation? Don't really know, but I'm much more accepting of the little crows feet than I thought I would be. Maybe it's because the alternative to aging looks a lot less inviting.

And the other changes are okay by me, too. A few mornings ago when I looked at my body in the mirror, I asked J if it now looked deformed. "You're healthy again and you're home; that's all that matters," he said as he gave me a little kiss. We both looked at my breast*, smiled, and went about the day.

But, yeah, I really wanted to add that to my list of things to celebrate, right behind the fact that I'd just washed my hair and bathed -- all by myself for the first time in weeks!! So we celebrated and toasted those accomplishments, and good health among other things, that evening with a glass of champagne. Well, peach sparkling wine, anyway. Delicious bubbly tingles that breathed of spring and new beginnings.

My dad used to tell me, "if you've got your health, you've got everything"....corny at 15, gospel truth at 50. How life changes.

And changes. As a youngster I thought of ooey, gooey chocolate anything as the ultimate dessert. As I've gotten older, I still enjoy a delicious, organic dark chocolate, preferably plain, to be slowly savored like fine cognac. And I still love the comfort that only sweet dessert can deliver. But my dessert taste buds have shifted from the ooey gooey to fruity. One of my favorite treats is a cup of steaming hot tea with a slice, or two, of plain butter cake with fruit in it.

As my appetite has returned post-hospital, I've been buying the frozen gluten free cookies at Whole Foods. Love their molasses ginger cookies! But I was really craving something homemade, so today my first baking attempt in weeks was to make my standard butter cake. I'd bought some quinces a while back at H MART off of the Bush Tollway and made morabba-ye beh, an Iranian quince preserve, with sugar, fesh lemon juice, crushed cardamom, and a drop of golab, rosewater. Mm, butter cake with quinces sounded like just what I needed to keep me going through the weekend. You know, a slice here, a slice there, till it's all gone....yeah.

So, that's what I made -- all by myself. But the cake can be made with any soft fruit: plums, apricots, cherries. I've also made it with pineapple curd (recipe at another time) and lemon curd. And, yes, I've made it with chocolate. And Nutella. And had it with a glass of bubbly.

Give it a try. Life is short and meant to be the buttery, or bubbly, mouthful.

I wish you a New Year filled with love, happiness, and health -- all that really matters.

*On December 15th, I had a mastectomy. I'd been diagnosed several weeks earlier with an invasive cancer that had spread to all quadrants.

Small Buttercake with or without Fruit

4 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter
2 tablespoons virgin, organic coconut oil**
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup GF flour (your favorite mix, Bob's Red Mill, or AP if you're not gluten free)
1 teaspoon baking powder
dash salt
1/4 cup milk (soy, rice, dairy, or whatever)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
If desired, fruit topping of choice or curd

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a small cake pan (I used a fluted 7" pan), and line with buttered parchment.
2. Cream butter and coconut oil; add sugar, and beat till fluffy.
3. Add eggs, one at a time.
4. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and add to the mixture.
5. Lastly, stir in milk, vanilla extract, and lemon zest.
6. Spoon batter into prepared pan and top with fruit or curd. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired, and bake about 40 minutes, or until tester comes out clean. Cool (or not) and serve plain, with more fruit, whipped cream, ice cream....

** I like to use a mixture of unsalted butter and coconut oil because I love the subtle richness coconut oil adds. And, for the taste, our health, and the record, I use organic, whole foods wherever possible.

Nocciola...Gelato to Brownies via Maroni e Panna Montata

“I’m so tired of coffee and chai. Let’s meet for gelato,” said one of my friends, as we tried to decide where we wanted to do a quick meet-up before another December (and, indeed, another year!!) left us in its wake.

Gelato. O.M.G. I loved gelato. Loved?? Well, I loved gelato when I lived in Italy. But I don’t love the stuff they call “gelato” here in the States. It’s just not the same; something is “off” in the taste, texture, something. There are some cool flavors, though: pineapple basil, mint & rose, caramel tangerine. Don’t those sound yummily tempting? Hm, I may just have to give this gelato thing another shot; just go for the flavors, tell myself it’s ice cream, and enjoy it for what it is.

My all-time favorite flavor, though, was nocciola, hazelnut. Sure, every once in a while I'd veer off the beaten filbert path and get a toroncino (a kind of nut nougat), stracciatella (vanilla & chocolate) or gianduia (hazelnut & chocolate). Occasionally I’d even go fruity with a delicious, refreshing limone (lemon), lampone (raspberry) or fragola (strawberry). But I always came home to the creamy, seductively fragrant nocciola -- except for in wintertime.

Back in the 70’s, you were hard-pressed to find ice cream in winter in northern Italy. “It’s freezing cold outside. Why would you want something freezing cold inside you?” That’s when the season went from offering frozen gelato concoctions to huge drums roasting maroni (chestnuts). Walk down any street in town, and the maroni vendors and shoppers would be huddled around the steaming drums, inhaling the aromas, trying to keep warm, and discussing how bad the last sciopero (strike) was. And then you’d get your own little newspaper sacchetto filled with the x-scored nuts that would absolutely burn your fingers as you tried to peel them. But peel, and quickly peel, you must to get to the cream-coloured, floury, flowery treasure. How often did my tongue literally sizzle when the hot chestnut touched it? Pretty often, but it was worth it.

Besides the maroni, there was also the gustatory optical illusion: panna montata (whipped cream in an ice cream cone). It looked like ice cream, but wasn’t. Eh, I usually opted for the chestnuts.

Then you had the shops that totally changed their inventories with the flip-flopped season: In summer they were the ice cream shop; in winter they might sell furs. One of those switcheroo shops had (in my 70’s teenager mind) the most ingenious, “out there” ice cream dish of all: “spaghetti” ice cream. Vanilla ice cream was pressed through some contraption so that it came out in spaghetti-like strands, topped with strawberry “marinara” sauce, and grated coconut “cheese.” I loved it. Why hadn’t I thought of the century’s most brilliant dessert?? Maybe if I could’ve devised a nocciola-based brown “spaghetti”….Hm, nocciola ice cream “soba” with banana “tempura” and rum caramel “miso sauce”? Think I might be on to something...

So, fall has definitely turned wintry in North Texas: Gusting winds are encouraging the temperatures tonight to drop into the 30’s, with highs tomorrow in the 40’s plummeting into the 20’s overnight. It’s maroni and panna montata weather. Lacking the big roasting drums, and not craving the whipped cream optical illusion, I’ve got nocciola something or other on my mind. Lacking access to great gelato, I’m going for brownies….nocciola brownies.

These are really quick and really good. I use Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix; not sure how they would be with a different baking mix. If you try another pre-packaged, or even your own, baking mix, I'd love to know how your brownies turn out.

Hey, C, if you're reading this, come on over. I've got some great nocciola brownies to celebrate the passing of another whirlwind year. And, of course, some bubbly to wash them down.

Buon appetito!

Quick Nocciola Brownies

¼ cup softened butter
¼ cup coconut oil, liquid or soft state
½ cup sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup Nutella
1 ½ cup Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix*
½ to 1 cup dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
good ½ cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
additional Nutella for topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 13” x 9” baking pan.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar about 2 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla, and salt. Stir in the Nutella until well-combined. Now add the baking mix, chocolate, and nuts until just combined.

Spread batter in baking sheet, spoon on additional Nutella (sometimes I drizzle it and sometimes I just “glop” it on) -- and make sure to lick all the Nutella off the spoon before putting it in the dishwasher!

Bake about 20-25 minutes. I like them on the “done” side and go for the 25 minutes.

*Even if you’re not gluten-free, Pamela’s Mix is a great and versatile product. Give it a try!

Charivari Life - Discombobulated Craziness

Charivari - the word has as many definitions as the number of charms that can hang from a silver Charivari.

Growing up in northern Italy, with my maternal grandmother only a few hours' drive away in Bavaria, a Charivari was a heavy silver chain, laden with Anhaenger, or charms. All I knew about Charivaris was that my mom's Grossvater had one that was enviably heavy, each link dangling a memento associated with a personal milestone: coins minted during anniversary years, a piece of crystal, maybe a rabbit's foot or bird claws, and maybe even a Penisknochen. And, yes, Penis in German has the same meaning as it does in English. And, no, I don't why anyone would want to sport one of those. But that's just a small bit of those traditions I grew up with.

I've always loved the word Charivari and always wanted to have my own. Wonder whatever happened to Grossvater's?? Maybe that's where my charm bracelet obsession started. It's a visual and tangible reminder of joys of life. Some are purchased to mark occasions, some are gifts and reminder of occasions of their own.

For me Charivari has become a metaphor for the journey of life, that beautiful silver chain hefty with accumulated memories. Some poignant. Some funny. Some so personal that the mere memory leaves one trembling and speechless. Some lost in translation, like the Penisknochen. Ahh...

It's also a metaphor for thoughts and conversations. One minute it's all about What was the name of that great vino we had at that restaurant up on the Tollway? The next it's about watching the coyotes in the field down by the creek this morning, soaking up the rays of sun trying to stream through the cold fog. Or Would you do chemo? Or Kann man denn Strudelteig ohne Mehl machen??? (Translation: Can strudeldough even be made without flour??? And believe me, that one's like at the top of my list!! After all, what's winter without Apfelstrudel?? My mom's apple strudel would be my "last meal," bar none. Apple strudel? It's nothing like what most Americans think of as apple strudel. It's the Bavarian pastry of homemade dough stretched and pulled so thin you can read through it, then smeared with sour cream, topped with thinly sliced apples (the perfect combination of a few different varieties) that have been sprinkled with lemon juice, sugar and a bit of cinnamon, rum soaked raisins, all rolled up like a whirlpooled jelly-roll, gently laid to rest in a pool of melted sweet butter, and baked until the most incredible scent leads you by the nose to keep checking the oven and making sure it's done. Oh. My. Gosh. I have burnt my tongue and palate too many times to count. Apfelstrudel. The stuff of dreams. It will be a future blog, complete with pics and recipe. Once I figure out a gluten-free version of the dough, I'll add another charm to the bracelet. Gargantuan milestone.

And so, here's where Charivari kind of doglegs to another of its meanings. You see, it also means something like "discombobulated craziness." And Katzenmusik, or catmusik -- let your imagination run wild with that one :)

Discombobulated craziness = my life. Not in a bad way. Just in a crazy way, that makes me smile. Like when you examine the charms on a bracelet. Sometimes you smile really big, or just knowingly, or sweetly.

And before life gets too discombobulated, I have dessert. It makes what follows a tad easier to swallow. Tonight we had a berry dessert that my mom's been making for decades. Not sure where she got the recipe but she recently gluten-freed it and it's just as awesome. No pics, but that's because it's always gone before the steam settles enough to get a closeup. Try it, you'll like it:

Mama’s Blueberry Dessert

Preaheat oven to 350 degrees F.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup sugar, divided use
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup polenta
1/4 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup gluten-free AP flour mix* (like Bob's Red Mill)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1 cup milk (of your choice)
3 - 4 cups blueberries** (thawed, if frozen)

Directions: Put the stick of butter into a casserole and place in the oven to melt while assembling the rest of the dessert.

Mix together ¼ cup sugar and the lemon juice. Set aside.

In a medium sized bowl, mix together the remaining 1 cup sugar, polenta, and remaining dry ingredients. Stir in the milk, then the berries.

Once the butter is melted, remove the casserole from the oven and carefully pour the batter over the butter. Pour the sugar and lemon juice mixture over the batter, and bake about 45 minutes.

Serve as is, with cream, ice cream, crème fraiche, or whatever floats your boat.

An guaten….Bavarian for bon apetit!

* If you aren’t gluten-free, substitute ½ cup AP or whole wheat pastry flour
** I’ve used different combinations of berries: bluebs, cranberries, raspberries – all good