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As I type, Brian is heading north to the Twin Cities for the Minnesota State Fair. While his primary responsibility is to execute the assignment Department Zero and Toyota sent him up there to do, his–and his traveling companion, Kyle’s–primary off-duty objective is to sample every one of the 59–yes, that’s right, 59–fair food offerings on a stick, supposedly the largest food-on-a-stick menu at any state fair in this great nation. Cue the anthem.

For the next seven to ten days, these two brave souls will selflessly sacrifice their waistlines and arteries to bring us the details of such novel offerings as spaghetti-on-a-stick, fried-alligator-on-a-stick, hotdish-on-a-stick, deep-fried-candy-bars-on-a-stick, and Pig Lickers (chocolate-covered-bacon-on-a-stick), along with the more traditional corn dogs,  cotton candy, and frozen confections that, as it happens, also come on a stick. I’m so proud. My job is to chronicle the entire gastric extravaganza for you in all its crunchy, gooey, burbly, acidic detail (Brian has promised pictures).

So, if you have the stomach, please join us for the fun. Tom, who never fails to put his snappy-ass spin on any new adventure, got into the spirit of the thing by serving Brian an egg sandwich on a stick this morning before his o’dark thirty departure.

Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Grab your Tums. It promises to be quite the ride.

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This past weekend, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a luau-themed open house. It was a terrific party. Friends and family came from all over the country to help her celebrate and to raise their glasses in toast to her.

Weeks before the party, one of my sisters-in-law  suggested the luau theme as a nod to my mother-in-law getting to go on her dream vacation to Hawaii this coming October, a start-the-celebration-early-whet-the-appetite type event. Brilliant. With the theme agreed upon, a couple of my other sisters-in-law and I sat down to plan out how we were going to turn a Midwestern suburban backyard into a Hawaiian island. Ideas flew fast and furious, and in the middle of the melee, I jokingly said, “I’ve seen Sandra Lee make a volcano cake that really smokes…I could do that.” Snort.

Apparently I didn’t snort loudly enough because the gals gathered around the table immediately jumped on the idea. “Wow, that’d be great! Can you do that?”

Wait…wait…I didn’t mean…huh?

For those of you who do not know who Sandra Lee is, she’s a tall, gorgeous, incredibly freakish, blond woman who has several cooking shows on Food Network. In a nutshell, Sandra’s a fruit loop. An entertaining fruit loop in an good-grief-I-can’t-believe-she-just-did-that kind of way, but a fruit loop, nonetheless, who dresses to match the curtains over her kitchen window and the color of the standing mixer on the counter behind her. A fruit loop who closes every show by sipping a cocktail as she goes through a long-winded explanation of the “inexpensive tablescape” she’s created that just happens to match her clothes, the kitchen curtains, and the standing mixer. The same tablescape that is taller than your average sixth-grader and easily more expensive than my first house. I can go on, but I won’t. If you don’t believe me, read what Anthony Bourdain wrote about her recently on his blog in a post called A Drive By Shooting. Anyway, Sandra’s schtick is “semi-homemade cooking” which means that most of what she “cooks” on the show comes out of a box or a package. She uses an expensive-looking chef’s knife to hack the boxes and packages open–which, I suppose, makes her feel justified in using the word “Cooking” in the title of her show–but the knife gets very little use otherwise.

Anyway, the aforementioned volcano cake is no exception to Sandra’s “semi-homemade” repertoire. Made from boxed cake mixes, canned frosting, and those aerosol cans of decorator icing, it truly is a pastry chef’s worst nightmare. It is, however, a five-year-old’s dream. It smokes. It’s covered in frosting. Lots and lots of frosting. And it smokes. Did I mention that? Tom wanted to know if I’d make one for his last birthday…but I digress.

The freakishness of its original creator aside, however, I have to admit the idea of a volcano cake as a conversation piece for a luau-themed party isn’t bad one, especially–I reasoned–if I made the cake and the frosting from scratch. All righty then.

The Friday before the party, I began baking the cake layers. Five in all: two 10″ round layers, two 9″ round layers, and a bundt cake. And here, I’m going to admit–after extensive searches through my recipes and a number of online recipes–I did make the cakes from a box. Or, more specifically, boxes. I’ve never been much of a cake baker, but of the cakes I used to make before going gluten-free, none seemed dense enough to withstand the weight of the other layers once they were all stacked atop one another in volcano formation. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t have a lack-of-density problem with boxed cake mixes. All those artificial ingredients I can’t pronounce have to have some purpose, I suppose.

I did, however, make the frosting from scratch. I’m not a big fan of sweet frosting–plus, I really wanted to do something special for the big event–so I decided to do a cream cheese frosting instead of the typical butter cream frosting. Saturday night, I made nine cups of chocolate cream cheese frosting and six cups of white chocolate cream cheese frosting. The white chocolate frosting got divided up and colored red, orange, yellow, and green. Each color went into a pastry bag, and the whole lot went into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would take it to my in-laws where I planned to assemble the cake.

Before falling asleep that night, I began to worry that the masses wouldn’t like the cream cheese frosting. I fell  into a fitful sleep and woke the next morning at 5:30 to resume worrying. By 5:45, I was out in the kitchen trying to decide if it was worth the gluten-intolerant side effects I would experience if I taste tested the cake with the cream cheese icing on it. Luckily, Tom wandered into the kitchen about that time, offering to sacrifice himself for the cause, so I smeared a blob of the icing on one of the mutant 10″ layers I wasn’t using and asked for his thoughts. “It’s not what I was expecting,” he said sheepishly as he tried to lick the icing from the corner of his mouth.

Well, that’s all it took. If it wasn’t what he was expecting, then it wouldn’t be what my mother-in-law or any of her guests were expecting either. Within seconds, Tom was off to the grocery store for more butter and powdered sugar, and I was warming up my KitchenAid. By 9 am, I was showered, my car was loaded with the frozen cake layers and buckets of butter cream icing in all the required colors, and I was on my way to my in-laws.

I’m happy to say–after all the hoopla of getting the components of the cake assembled–the cake itself came together without much fuss. Most importantly, it was warmly received by the crowd for both its novelty (we did actually get it

The volcano cake (aka The Giant Chocolate Boob)

The Giant Chocolate Boob (aka The Volcano Cake)

to smoke) and its taste, and my mother-on-law seemed genuinely pleased. So, what’s the problem? Well, there was no problem until after the party when I saw the pictures of the thing. Viewed in person, it was a pretty respectable replica of a volcano. At least, I thought it was. In the pictures, it looks like a giant chocolate boob coughing up party streamers! Seriously. Take a look. Once again, just as I’m feeling pretty cocky about myself and my abilities, my ego gets side-swiped a la raisin on the white capris. I fear I will go down in family lore as the creator of the giant chocolate boob, particularly by anyone who didn’t see it in person. I can just hear future generations talking about the demented aunt who made the obscene birthday cake for her dear, sweet mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. What a freak.

“Hi, I’m calling to enroll in the Basic Cooking Skills classes—all four of them. I’d like to enroll my husband, too.”

“Great! Have either of you taken classes here before?”

“Well, my husband hasn’t, but I took a cookie baking class about a year ago.”

“So neither of you has taken the Basic Knife Skills class?”

I was afraid she was going to ask me this, “Ummm, No.”

“Well, we do recommend that you take the Basic Knife Skills class before starting the Basic Cooking Skills series.”

Nuts. I’d read this in the course catalog, but I really didn’t want to pay $120 for the two of us to take a class on how to use a knife. I mean, come on. A knife? Maybe a food processor, but a knife? So I opted to play dumb. “Really? Do we have to take the Basic Knife Skills class before we can enroll in the others?”

She wasn’t going to give me a break. “Truthfully, you don’t have to, but we strongly recommend it,” she said patiently and with great emphasis on the words “have to” and “strongly.”

Rats. Time to come clean. “Yes, I read that in the catalog, but I was hoping to just jump right into the cooking courses. You see, we’re both well over 40 and have been using knives for years. It seems a bit unnecessary.”

“Yes, ma’am. Most people feel that way. But I promise you won’t be sorry if you take the class.”

Big sigh. Not wanting to have a black mark next to my name before ever even starting the classes, I enrolled us in the stupid Basic Knife Skills class.

Crazy, but true, it’s one of the smartest things I ever did.

For years, my mother had been giving me the business about my dull knives. She lived on the other side of the continent by then and wasn’t in my kitchen often, but when she was, she’d mention the inadequacy of my knives every time she cooked with me. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. I managed to put meals—facile meals, but meals—on the table with those knives every single day of the year for twenty-some years. Why couldn’t she just suck it up and use them without giving me such a hard time?

Why, indeed. Once I took the Basic Knife Skills class, I understood why, and I marveled that Mom hadn’t been more militant about the whole thing than she was. Ye gods, she showed restraint!

The course description of the Basic Knife Skills class read, “Any chef or serious cook will tell you there is no substitute for proper knife skills as the foundation for all other cooking skills.” In hindsight, all I can say is, “Amen.” And after taking the class, I would go one step further and add, more specifically, there is no substitute for the right sharp knife, either. For me that knife is a Wüsthof 6½ inch Santuko knife, a knife I learned about in class that night. I seriously can’t cook without it or, at least, without something comparable.

Need an onion diced up? No sweat (and usually only a few tears). With my beloved Santuko and the techniques I learned in the class, I can dice up an onion—or any other veggie or piece of fruit, for that matter—without any drama whatsoever. That was not true BTC (before the class). BTC, it routinely took me way too much time to prepare the ingredients for something as simple as a stew or a salad. Not surprisingly, I often went to great lengths to avoid preparing certain dishes all together just because I didn’t want to go to the hassle of cutting up all the ingredients. Even worse, when I was truly desperate, I would resort to the more expensive and way-less-nutritious option of buying the already-cut-up-and-frozen versions of the ingredients. How silly.

Today, I can mince garlic, dice red peppers and tomatoes, chop carrots and fennel, slice avocados and mushrooms, and chiffonade basil without thinking very hard or spending much time doing it. I have found I truly enjoy the time I spend standing at my cutting board, mincing, dicing, chopping, and slicing. Even though I have since purchased a number of other kitchen gadgets designed to help me cut up ingredients, I still, more often than not, reach for my Santuko.

And I love using words like “chiffonade” and “Santuko.” Tossing the word “chiffonade” into a sentence makes me sound like I know what I doing in the kitchen, even when I don’t (which is often). It impresses my non-foodie friends and gives me the confidence to try new things with food that I would never have attempted BTC.

Today, I live in my kitchen and love experimenting with new recipes and new foods. I’m mortified to think I might not ever have expanded my vocabulary nor my culinary horizons had I insisted on skipping that one class or had I failed to treat myself to the one kitchen gadget I now know is essential to any serious cook.

The woman on the other end of the phone that day was right. The Basic Knife Skills class was a game changer for me. I will be forever grateful. But you must excuse me now. My roasted vegetable ragù is ready to come out of the oven.

Years ago, shortly after advanced age forced Tom’s grandmother from her beloved farm and into town, the women in the family descended upon Grandma’s three-story brick farmhouse to pack her belongings and deep-clean every inch of the house from baseboard to ceiling. I was assigned to the kitchen, starting with the cabinet under the kitchen sink.

Clearing that particular space was an all-together unremarkable task until I got to the back of the cabinet. There, hidden behind the bottles of Fantastik®, Windex®, and Drano®, obscured by the boxes of mouse traps, mothballs, and Brillo® pads, and wedged behind the water and drain pipes, I found a saw. Not a dinky saw. Not a small hand-held hacksaw one might possibly use to cut through chicken bones, but a three-foot long rusted rip saw with half inch teeth from its nose to its handle. A manly saw for manly tasks like building barns or cutting huge branches out of 100-year-old oak trees. What on earth was it doing in Grandma’s kitchen? I couldn’t imagine. I certainly couldn’t imagine tiny, petite, little Grandma ever using the sinister looking implement. It was nearly as tall as she was. I carefully extracted the brute from behind the pipes and stood with it in my hands, staring at it, my mouth open. Then I heard a snicker.

I looked up to see Tom’s cousin, a farm girl, watching me, a smile curling her lips. She waited. My mind raced. What could you possibly use this huge saw for in the kitchen? I have to admit, several of the possibilities—including the ones involving human limbs and deep wells—that danced through my cranium curled my toes. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted, “What in the world is this saw doing here?” By then, others in the kitchen were watching events unfold, and my outburst triggered gales of laughter. Unfortunately for me—however, not unusually when it comes to anything having to do with the farm—I was the only clueless one in the crowd. Luckily, Tom’s cousin was happy to educate me. Too bad she couldn’t stop laughing.

Seems it’s not at all unusual for a farm wife to have just such a saw under her sink. Apparently, she might need it to saw through hog and cow bones when she’s fixing dinner. WHAT?! More laughter. Hey, short of having “City Slicker” tattooed on my forehead, every inch of me screams City Girl. I don’t deny it. And where I come from, meat comes on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane. It had never occurred to me that anyone ever got that close to the actual animal. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Which brings me to cheese. Last summer for my birthday, a dear friend, who had listened to me rave on and on multiple times about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in particular the chapter on cheese-making, very thoughtfully gave me one of the cheese-making kits from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company that Kingsolver talks about in her book. Yes, I freely admit. I did tell this friend (repeatedly) I thought it would be fun to make cheese. Yes, I suppose I did lead her to believe I intended to tackle making a batch of cheese. Was I overstating my intentions? Did I really mean it? Well…

Both Kingsolver and Ricki Carroll, the owner of the Cheesemaking Supply Company, swear making cheese—particularly mozzarella cheese—is child’s play. According to them, you can make up a batch of mozzarella in the afternoon to serve at dinner that night. Uh-huh. I refer you to the paragraph before the last one and the sentence starting, “Where I come from…” only substitute the word “cheese” for “meat” and eliminate the Styrofoam tray. In my world, cheese comes in plastic wrappers. With labels. And nutrition information. Maybe a re-sealable closure. It’s made up in Wisconsin by some fifth-generation Northern European dairy farmer (artisanal) or in a factory (Kraft). In my world, cheese does not come from a pot of hot milk. Jeez. Me and my big mouth. What had I been thinking?

Months passed. Periodically, I’d get the kit out, spread the contents on the counter, read the directions, and then, overwhelmed, shove it all back into the box. From that vantage point, nothing about cheese-making seemed easy. Clearly, Kingsolver and Carroll had been noodling around in the medicine cabinet. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

Then one day early this year, I was having lunch with some other friends, and we got to talking about Kingsolver’s book. The subject of cheese-making came up—much to my chagrin—and I sheepishly admitted to having been given the kit but never having the cojones to try making the cheese. Being the good friends they are, and always open to being bribed with wine, they offered to come over and help me. So, a few weeks later on a cold winter night, with a big metal pot, metal spoons, strainer, cheesecloth, rennet tablets, enzymes, milk thermometer, rubber gloves, a gallon of whole milk, full wine glasses, and the directions before us, we began.

I’ll not go into the step-by-step cheese-making process here, but suffice it to say—with help from my friends—making cheese really was easy. Admittedly, we had one point where we debated whether or not to continue because—based on the dubious looking contents of the pot—we were certain we had screwed up royally, but the wine gave us courage and we decided to plow ahead anyway. I’m certainly glad we did because less than 20 minutes later we had a real honest-to-goodness blob of mozzarella cheese to show for our efforts. Really. Real mozzarella cheese. We even ate it.

Brief pause for a free cheese-making tip: curds and whey do NOT look appetizing; do not be put off by what appear to be little white lumps floating around in dirty water; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, you’ve screwed up; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, more wine is required—for you, not the cheese.

I’ve since made five more batches of mozzarella. Two of them by myself. It’s made me cocky. I’ve started telling everyone I want to try making cheddar next. I don’t learn.

And now my aunt in Australia (my culinary muse) tells me that in an effort at one-upmanship, she and a friend have enrolled in a class to learn to make Camembert. Damn. I guess I’m going to have to put up or shut up about the cheddar. Time to restock the wine rack and call my friends.

Just know, I may make my own cheese—at least mozzarella—but you’ll NEVER find a rip saw under my sink.

At the request of several friends and a recent reader, I’m posting the recipe I’ve been using to make Sticky Date Pudding. I hope you enjoy it (and the moaning from your guests) as much as I do!

 Sticky Date Pudding

Pudding (serves eight):

250g (1 cup) pitted dates, chopped
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1½ cups boiling water
125g (½ cup) butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1¾ cups White Wings Self-Raising Flour, sifted

 

Caramel Sauce:

 

1 cup brown sugar
300ml (1 1/3 cup) thickened cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
60g (¼ cup) butter   

 

Method:

Preheat oven to 180° C/350°  F. Grease and line the base of a 7cm deep, 22cm (base) cake pan.
Place dates and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Pour in boiling water. Allow to stand for 20 minutes.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla until pale and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Using a large metal spoon, fold through date mixture and flour until well combined.

Spoon mixture into prepared cake pan. Back for 35 to 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Turn onto a plate.

Make sauce. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until sauce comes to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 2 minutes.

Pierce pudding all over with a skewer. Pour ½ cup of warm sauce over warm pudding. Stand for 10 minutes. Cut into wedges. Serve with remaining sauce and double cream.

Two weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a nasty headache. Getting up in the middle of the night has become something of a routine in the last year or so–not because of headaches, but because of my middle-age hormones–all exacerbated in recent weeks by the jet lag from an overseas trip. The headache added a new twist to the whole business, but I have developed a routine for such occasions. Instead of flopping around in bed, becoming evermore agitated at my inability to fall back asleep, I’ve learned to just get up and do other things–read, surf the net, attempt to watch TV (although TV at that time of night is worse than awful), or noodle around in the kitchen. Seriously, several nights ago I was so wide awake, I made cookies. Anyway, after taking a couple of Excedrin that particular night, I carefully tip-toed out of the bedroom, being careful to avoid the squeaky spots in the floor so I didn’t wake Tom, and headed out to the living room and the pile of books and magazines stacked next to my chair.

While thumbing through one of the cooking magazines, I came across an interview with Elisabeth Hasselbeck in which she talked about being gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerant. Hmmmm. Interesting. Just a few weeks before when I was visiting my aunt, I learned that one of her sons (my cousin) is gluten intolerant. I’ve only known one other person my entire life (that I’m aware of anyway) who is gluten intolerant and that was when I was in grade school. I must admit, it’s not a topic I’ve given much thought to. The extent of my knowledge about gluten intolerance was that anyone who has it must avoid wheat products. That’s it. I knew nothing more. Having plenty of time on my hands and no inclination to go back to sleep, I headed into the office to do a little research on the subject.

I started at MayoClinic.com. Let’s see…not a food allergy, hmmm…abdominal pain and diarrhea, interesting…genetic, really?…linked to auto-immune disorders, what!?…to say I was shocked by what I read would be a gross understatement. The list of symptoms of gluten intolerance reads like a checklist of my medical records and my maternal family’s health history. Not that any one of us has all the symptoms, but among the entire group of us, we’ve covered a scary percentage of them. If you–like me–are unfamiliar with gluten intolerance, here’s a quick overview from the site: “If you have Celiac disease and eat foods containing gluten [found in products containing wheat, barley, and rye], an immune reaction occurs in your small intestine, causing damage to the surface of your small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients.” Besides disrupting a person’s digestive system, gluten intolerance is linked to a number of conditions–particularly auto-immune conditions (my family’s specialty)–including, but not limited to, thyroid disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, alopecia (hair loss), rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, skin rash (particularly on the elbows, knees, and buttocks), mouth sores, dental disorders, neuropathy, general weakness and fatigue, infertility, and liver disease. Holy cow! Until learning recently about my cousin’s diagnosis, I’ve never heard anyone in my family mention the possibility of gluten intolerance.

About then, Tom woke up and wandered into the office in a sleepy fog, blinking and scratching, “What are you doing?”

When I explained about my research and what I’d learned, the first words out of his mouth were, “Maybe that explains why you felt so good when you did Atkins.” Out of the mouths of the comatose.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. I love to eat it, but hate how it makes me feel and look. And for most of my adult life, my digestive system has been wacky, something I chalked it up to my latest diet du jour and/or stress. And there were plenty of diet du jours–and stress (but then, who isn’t stressed?). Over the years, I’ve tried just about every diet out there. Some worked, some didn’t, and with the exception of Atkins, they’d all made me feel lousy–or at minimum–no better than my normal diet (of mostly processed foods) made me feel. Atkins was different. I felt great on Atkins. My energy level soared. My digestive troubles went away as did my rashes and indigestion. I remember telling people I felt like I was twenty again. But Atkins was also a diet that made others nervous. “You shouldn’t eat like that!’ my friends would say, and truthfully, based on my knowledge of nutrition at the time, it made me nervous, too. So after six or seven months, I gave it up and went back watching the numbers on my bathroom scales yo-yo up and down.

Then a couple of years ago, my attitude about food and cooking changed–dramatically. Up to that point, cooking was something I did to feed my family. Providing sustenance. Just one more chore. One that I tried to do as quickly and easily as possible. Although my family didn’t eat a lot of take-out, fast food, I did prepare a lot of meals using pre-packaged, highly processed ingredients. Food itself fell into two basic categories: healthy and time-consuming-to-prepare or yummy, quick, easy, and fattening. What a choice, and what an incredible amount of time I wasted wringing my hands over the whole mess. But then, as I said, things changed.

Over the last two years–because of events I won’t go into now–I have fallen in love with cooking. Along the way have learned a great deal about food and nutrition. Not the misguided, pyramid-shaped gospel of nutrition preached by the government, but the common sense version practiced by our ancestors until the middle of the last century when food became industrialized. No more fake, manufactured foods, no more packaged foods with lists of ingredients I don’t recognize or can’t spell or pronounce, just whole real food. Again, this is a topic I can write hundreds of posts on, so I’ll move on and get to my point. Finally.

I no longer eat the things that I had previously blamed my digestive problems on, and for the last several months have had virtually no stress in my life. In many ways, I feel much better, but my digestive system is still buggered up. Which brings me back to gluten intolerance. If improving my diet and reducing stress hasn’t clear up the problem, could I possibly be gluten intolerant? And if I am, could changing my diet now save me from some of the nastier auto-immune issues others in my family have faced? Under the circumstances, it seemed perfectly reasonable to find out, so I made an appointment with my doctor and had the blood test a few days later. I learned earlier this week that the test came back negative, meaning I’m not gluten intolerant. However, the very next day, I shared the story with a friend who just laughed and told me her sister had the same experience. Eventually, the sister was diagnosed with Celiac disease and felt better within a week or two of starting a gluten-free diet. Last night, I met another woman who relayed a similar story, so I’ve decided to go gluten free just to see what happens. I know for sure I felt better when I wasn’t eating bread, cookies, pizza, etc. on Atkins, and my gut instinct tells me it’s a good plan.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because the more people I talk to and the more I learn about Celiac disease and its symptoms, the more I’m convinced that there are others out there like me who are totally unaware of the problems gluten may be causing. If not with you, maybe someone you love. Not that I want anyone to be gluten intolerant, but if someone is, it seems much easier to make a few changes in diet now rather than to have to deal with the damage later. Moreover, I’m learning there are lots of people in the world who eat gluten free just because it makes them feel good. I’m also discovering yummy, healthy ingredients like arrowroot, quinoa, and millet that I’ve never considered using before. At this point, I feel overwhelmed by it all, but grateful to finally feel like I might be on to something that will change my health for the better. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m pleased to report that the Sticky Date Pudding I served to my book club Thursday night once again elicited moans. I have to be honest, not as many as the last few times I’ve served it, but moans nonetheless. It was a tough crowd. Six of my friends were gathered around the table, juggling at least three conversations, their heads swiveling in an attempt hear every word and morsel of gossip. Under the circumstances, the Sticky Date Pudding was a distraction, albeit a notable distraction; still, The Pudding was not the center of attention as it has been on previous occasions. That’s okay. I had fun making it…and eating it. The next time I make it, I may experiment with a variation of the recipe that I found on the Internet–a titillating version that calls for adding rum to the caramel sauce. That can’t be bad!

Friday night, Tom and I went to Cascone’s, one of our favorite Italian restaurants here in Kansas City–favorite because of the food and because of the memories we’ve made there. Unfortunately, it’s on the other side of the metro area. Every time we go, we say we need to go more often, but then, of course, we rarely do because of the drive. Our loss. Their tiramisu may be the best in the city. I say “may” only because I have yet to try all the other contenders in these parts. I can’t imagine that anyone else’s version of tiramisu is any better–maybe as good or nearly as good–but certainly not any better. I’ll continue my research and let you know. While I’m at it, I’ll sample the lasagnas and cheese raviolis along the way. I know. I’m a giver.

Anyway, Cascone’s is where my parents took the two of us and my future in-laws to celebrate shortly after Tom and I got engaged. Tom and I had only dated a couple of weeks before we got engaged, so our parents hadn’t had an opportunity to meet. Shoot, Tom and I barely had an opportunity to meet. From my vantage point today–28 years later–I can see that the evening was ripe for all manner of disaster, but then I was young, dopey, and head-over-heels in love, and that night, all was right in my world. If any of our parents felt differently, we never knew it. From the beginning, the evening was lovely. Frank Sinatra music played in the background, wine was poured, glasses were raised, and the conversation flowed until the waiter started placing food on the table. We fell silent only long enough to savor the pasta and meatballs and sauces and bread and…Everyone smiled and laughed and got along beautifully. No one pointed out the incredible ludicrousness of our pending nuptials. No one suggested Tom and I might want to slow down before jumping into marriage. No one asked us how we were possibly going to survive on our laughable salaries. No one.

It was the Italian food. Seriously, how can anyone not see the world through rosy, marinara-tinted glasses while enjoying the tang of ricotta and the velvety smoothness of melty Parmesan stuffed between ruffly layers of al dente noodles? You can’t. You simply cannot. The combination of tomatoes, basil, garlic, and cheese is magic, so it was a no-brainer deciding where we would take everyone to celebrate our 25th anniversary a couple of years ago. We were not disappointed then, nor were we disappointed Friday night. Cascone’s is guaranteed memorable evening every time.

And, just in case you’re wondering, I’m still dopey, head-over-heels in love which, I suppose, also makes me very lucky.  Even so, I’m grateful my daughter and son-in-law had the good sense to date for a couple of years before getting married. I hope my son will be as level-headed. If he isn’t…if he comes home and tells us he’s marrying a girl he’s only known a few weeks, I’ll…I’ll..I’ll have to head to Cascone’s.

As the self-anointed Sticky Date Pudding ambassador in this part of the world, I have made a solemn vow to spread the Sticky Date Pudding love whenever and wherever I can. To that end, I’m serving it tonight at my Book Club. I can’t wait!

For the uninitiated, Sticky Date Pudding–at least the version I’ve grown to love–is a fabulously moist hunk of sweet, flavorful cake swimming in hot, homemade caramel sauce and topped with a generous dollop of double thick cream. No calories, of course. I, myself, was totally oblivious to the wonders of SDP until a recent trip through Tasmania with my aunt (who lives there). According to my research, the origin of SDP is debatable–although most sources agree it was somewhere in England–and the variations are limitless. Good. More recipes to test! But why haven’t we known about SDP here in the Midwest, and why did it take my aunt so long to clue me in. I’d been to Tasmania to visit her twice before, but did she ever suggest sampling the SDP (it’s offered at nearly every pub and restaurant in Australia)? No! Did she ever offer to make it for me, fabulous cook that she is? Again, no! Clearly, I have pissed her off at some point. But thankfully, she saw fit to introduce me to SDP on this trip. I’ll be forever grateful.

I have now made it for at least three groups of family and friends since my return a few weeks ago. Beyond the joy of eating it myself on these occasions, I’ve been treated to the audible sounds of pleasure as my loved ones experience SDP for the first time. Truly, they moan. I’m not a bad cook. I often make meals my family and friends enjoy, but rarely–if ever–do I make the folks around my table moan. It’s the coolest thing! I’ll let  you know how it goes tonight.

I’ll also be happy to share my recipe–that is if I can ever figure out how to post an attachment.

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