Home Away From Home (with Pilfered Packets)

Welcome to Rome

             Welcome to Rome

We arrived in Rome on the 30th of December and unloaded our 4 giant suitcases and 6 carry-ons at the hotel Domus Sessoriana– a convent-style accommodation which was historically for those on religious pilgrimmage to the Basilica next door, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where relics such as a piece of THE cross, and other amazing artifacts can be seen. They are housed in a glass vitrine and each one is set into an elegant silver piece decorated with amazing metalwork- details as fine as jewelry. There is a piece of worn, splintery wood from the cross that Jesus was nailed onto encased in silver; as well as a nail, a thorn from the crown… and a large section of bone from the doubtful St. Thomas’ finger. It’s all very gruesome- and fascinating.

Enormous paintings grace the hotel’s lobby and stairwells. Beneath the hotel rooms, down a long, long, long corridor with arched ceilings, is the dining room where we, and the mostly European, cost-conscious travelers ate breakfast. Each morning a buffet of run-of-the-mill pastries, bread, ho-hum cheeses, and such was set out for hotel guests.  Our son Theo invited many giggles and adoring looks as he walked from the buffet to our table, sloshing pineapple juice onto its saucer (and the floor) and returning repeatedly for cornetti and slices of provolone cheese (which he declared the Best Cheese in the World).

As we were to be camping out in our room for several days until our apartment was ready for us, I felt justified in taking bits and pieces of food to hoard for later. Our evenings were spent in the room, where we would spread the pressed white linen hand-towels over an ottoman and eat our dinner picnic-style.

Having been a mother of two for about ten years, and a seasoned camper and traveler before that, I’ve always got my eye on pilferable packages of portable goodies. The best score from our breakfast buffets in Rome turned out to be little discs of Bel Paese cheese, which Theo loved. Basically a cheap, cream-cheese like spread, it was the perfect foil for the smoked salmon I’d bought for New Year’s Eve (and was storing outside on our stone windowsill -the temperature was well below 40 at night, and kept our food preserved adequately). The window was about 8 feet tall and looked out over a small, enclosed garden with some dormant fruit trees. One evening when I opened up the window to bring our picnic supplies inside, I noticed a large grease spot on the stone (so sorry!) and saw that the sun had reached the sill during the day and melted our butter, which had oozed out of its romantic Italian packaging and coated the package of salmon, as well as some soppresata and some cheese. No matter-  when the sun went down, the butter congealed again, and I learned to keep the packaged fish and meat upside down, the silver cardboard reflecting the sun’s rays away.

But I digress. When, after 4 or 5 days, we were able to move our whole operation into our very own apartment in Trastevere, some little packages of Bel Paese came with us- a house-warming gift of sorts. Our new home had a tiny kitchen equipped with some flimsy non-stick pans. We began filling the refrigerator gradually with food, but for the first few days we couldn’t find a decent market and bought only the most basic supplies at a mini-market.

On Theo’s first school morning in Rome, I was shuffling around in the semi-dark when he asked if I could make scrambled eggs. We had eggs, yes. Could I make them extra-cheesy, as we used to do at home in Brooklyn? Nope- I did not have cheddar, or any other melting cheese. All I had was a bit of pecorino Romano, salty and dryish, for grating on pasta. But, sleepy as I was, I still had my wits about me. So I just said yes to my son: Sure! I can make them extra cheesy.

I quickly whisked eggs with a fork in a coffee cup (no bowls in our kitchen!), melted butter in a small pan and began scrambling. I seasoned with tiny airplane packets of salt and pepper. I grabbed a Bel Paese packet from the fridge and ripped it open- when I stirred lumps of the creamy spread into the eggs and they melted before my eyes, I knew I was onto something good. A little bit of grated pecorino added a whiff of real cheese flavor, and another dot of butter lent the final touch; extra creaminess. Et voila! é qui!

The eggs on his plate, my six-year old approved: these aren’t extra-cheesy; they’re MEGA cheesy! Off to scuola.






Monday Sunday Blues

Summer of Solace

Just as Sunday is the end of the weekend, so Labor Day is the Sunday of the summer- the day before it all begins again.  In the morning I remembered what a Sunday used to feel like: it felt like a luxury, borrowed and treasured. It felt like there was all the time in the world for whatever we wanted: bacon, french toast, waffles or pancakes.  Sunday mornings were elastic and we let things unfold until the children needed to be released to the outdoors- shepherded, as city life necessitated, to the parks and playgrounds.  But that was before.

Beautiful Vermont!  We have, of course, fallen in love with you. I knew this could happen. But what I didn’t know was that a whole summer of seeing your cool green, hearing your frogs and crickets and just being, could not heal me.  A salve is all I can hope for. “Healing?! Whatever that means” another mother of a boy killed by a car last year, said to me.  She’s right I’m sure: there is no such thing as healing now.  For me what’s helped has been space to breathe, with the knowledge that I’m always held close by friends and family. Retreating from too much noise and activity has made me calm. I’ve worked to treat myself well.  This was to have been our summer of solace. But loveliness was crowded out by sadness, and this has been the summer of watching my surviving son learn to be an only child.  He has also been learning to swim, daring himself to go a little bit deeper and a little bit longer every day.  And he’s reading pretty well now, dipping into favorite books again and again- some of these books were inscribed a long time ago with his brother’s name. He’s working hard all the time, and he’s doing all this without his big brother to cheer him on with his sweet smile and words.

After my little boy awoke on this Sunday, he ran down the lane to play with his friends. His dad had gone fishing early, so I had the house to myself, space to stretch out- and time to bring my tea to bed. I finished the Laurie Colwin novel I’ve been reading, in which the sudden death of a young woman’s husband teaches her to see her own depths. Looking out the window over green rolling fields to Mt. Ascutney I felt the ripples of the moment wash over me.

I needed this quiet morning to myself. After I finished the novel I thought about breakfast. I could skip cooking completely if I wanted to. What would make me feel most free?  I tried to imagine eating a simple boiled egg, outside on the grass by the pond. Or toast with a slice of gorgeous, ripe tomato, and salt. Hmm, cereal? No cooking involved there. Give yourself time to do something else, I told myself- get out of the kitchen!

But I knew what I wanted to eat: a Sunday breakfast. Earthy buckwheat pancakes, big as a plate; deep blue, local berries and maple syrup. The sun shone through the glass bottle of syrup, refracting amber onto the kitchen table as I stirred batter in a bowl. I fed myself today, and made enough for us all to eat tomorrow.

Buckwheat Pancakes and Syrup

Delicate Buckwheat Pancakes

This is an adaptation.  There is a copy of The Joy of Cooking in this kitchen which has been used so often it’s lost its cover and its spine; therefore I can’t say which edition it is – but my research leads me to guess 1964.  The recipe for Buckwheat Cakes on page 215 calls for buttermilk. In the absence of buttermilk, I used a combination of yogurt, milk and water. The recipe produces a batter which can be spread almost as thin as crepes in the pan; it makes light, slightly crisp pancakes. But what really drew me to the recipe is that, according to The Joy of Cooking, the batter stands up very well to “several” days in the refrigerator.   I like to make these individually in a small skillet so I can really swirl the loose batter into a crepe-like griddle cake.

Sift before measuring:  1/2 cup all purpose flour

Resift flour with:

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

Whisk in: 1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour

Pour into a large bowl: 3 1/4 cups buttermilk (or substitute 1 cup whole milk, 2 3/4 cup plain, whole milk yogurt and 1/2 cup water)

2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for skillet

Add dry ingredients into liquid ingredients, and stir just enough to combine. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate.

To cook, pour a large spoonful of batter (about 2 tablespoons) into a medium-hot skillet of sizzling, melted butter. Reduce heat to medium and swirl pan to spread batter into a thin pancake.  When pancake is filled with bubbles, flip; if it won’t flip easily, wait a few more seconds until the bottom has crisped slightly, and try again. Cook just until set on second side, and transfer to a plate or a a warming tray; raise heat to medium-high and repeat. Serve with blueberries and Vermont maple syrup, of course.






Get your Early Glow(s) on


   Early Glow Strawberry Oven Preserves with Yogurt

Early Glow Strawberry Oven-Preserves with Yogurt

This is it: the moment when our late Spring fantasies finally come to fruition  We’ve been seeing those big, sour Driscoll strawberries in the grocery stores for months, and pretending Spring is strawberry season. But this ain’t California, and I’ve learned to be patient. And finally: real, red, pretty, strawberries are in the local farmers’ markets. I fell victim to their charms last week. I saw, I tasted, and I bought one 6 dollar quart of them without even batting an eye.  Then I walked around the corner of the market and spotted a table of even redder, riper, sweeter (I tasted again) strawberries. Oh, I bought those too. Early Glows, I was told- a super sweet and juicy variety. Get them while you can.  Based on my rudimentary research, only Sycamore Farms from Middletown, NY is selling these super-sweet berries at the Union Square greenmarket right now.

For three mornings I rinsed a few lovelies and served them up, judiciously selecting only the amount I thought we’d eat, so none would be waterlogged and go to waste. But my children are odd and even though the first words out of my 9 year old son’s mouth were: “Those are some Sweeeeet strawberries!”, neither he nor his little brother ate more than two. I did my part, but come Sunday, I still had more than a quart of strawberries, now somewhat over-ripe, sitting around.

Wanting to bake a treat I knew would get eaten, I made this:


                                         Strawberry-Pistachio Crumb Cake

This lovely, tender cake is a simple thing to make and you do NOT need a mixer.

Pistachio Crumb Topping: Stir together 3/4 cup four, 1/2 cup sugar ( I used some brown and some white), 11/4 cup coarsely chopped toasted pistachios, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (if you have it), 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted.

Cake: Preheat oven to 350 with rack in the center. Butter and flour a 9-inch square baking pan, tapping out excess flour.

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl: 1 1/2 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Cream together: 1 stick room temperature unsalted butter and 2/3 cup sugar until light and fluffy- give it some elbow grease. Add 2 large eggs, beating well after each addition. Stir in 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract.

Mix in, alternating: the flour mixture and 1/4 cup buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Spread into prepared pan and smooth top so it’s even. Dot with halved or quartered strawberries, to lightly cover the surface (about 2 cups). Sprinkle pistachio crumb topping over strawberries, and bake until cake is golden and a skewer or thin knife comes out clean when inserted in center, 55-60 minutes.  Cook on a rack for 10 minutes, and then invert quickly onto a tray- place rack on bottom and invert again, so crumb is on top. Let cool before cutting.


Ever the home economist, I decided to save gas and cook off the remaining over-ripe strawberries while the oven was on, so I made this: Early Glow Strawberry Oven-Preserves for spooning onto yogurt, ice cream, anything.

Toss: 2 cups halved or quartered strawberries with about 2 tablespoons sugar and 1/4 cup water in a deep-sided baking dish. Bake at 350 until tender and lightly syrupy, abut 1 hour. Let cool, transfer to a jar, and store in the refrigerator at least 2 weeks- if they last that long.


no strawberry shall
      go unused