How Many Birthday Cakes?

How many birthday cakes does a 9 year old boy need?


One for the football party, 22 boys in the park in the snow playing the game.


One for Jasper’s class party at school to celebrate his birthday.


One for the family birthday at home with his aunts and nonna and because Almond Cake is his favorite.


And lastly, one because he is a Valentine, born February 14, 2004.

So the answer: four cakes for three parties.  His sister, Ana Livia Svenvold McPhee, loves to bake and design cakes and she made them all.  The last cake was actually donated to her class at school because, really, three cakes were enough.

I Just Received Jerusalem


My sisters have been discussing this.  One of the dishes Laura made for Thanksgiving was Roasted Cauliflower and Hazelnut Salad.  (It’s pictured in this rave NYTimes blog post.)  Sarah has called me four times since a dinner party she had on December 29 to tell me how divine the Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak is.  I’m looking forward to all the meatballs (there are six recipes for them) and to stuffing eggplant with lamb and pine nuts and to traveling to Jerusalem through Ottolenghi’s food and stories.  I feel a dinner party of my own coming on …

Keep Civil War Recipes — Keep

In my grandmother’s emphatic scrawl she instructs that these recipes, part of some sort of public relations campaign for the Potomac Edison Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, be kept, saved.  My grandmother added this to her collection over fifty years ago and, forward thinking, left a message — like one in a bottle — to those of us downstream.  The pamphlet of recipes is on my desk now, downstream.  She’s been dead seventeen years and her box of jumbled recipes, never ordered by her (or yet by me) also sits on my desk.  And from time to time I reach into it and pluck randomly to see what I will find and where I will be taken.  Her box is an archive of time, an archeological dig on a miniature scale, perched right here, holding the dreams and education and reality, not to mention culinary habits, of a 20th century woman’s life.  This little pamphlet was folded into her collection 100 years after the Civil War and she wants those whose hands it will fall into later to keep it.  “Keep” she instructs twice, almost desperately.  Keep.  She doesn’t want history to be swallowed whole and forgotten.  Who knows if Rivel Soup and Sally Lunn and Molasses Ginger Cake (which, the pamphlet tells us, was a favorite because it kept well and could be mailed to the troops in the field and still remain fresh) were actually favorites.  But does it matter?  The message in this pamphlet is that “good food, good living and good workers go hand in hand” and it promises the “industrial advantages of the ‘Valleys of History.'”  My grandmother rises from this box of hers on my desk with her offering: recipes, wars, my life, your life, our lives, history — don’t forget.  Keep.

Nonna Tata — If You’re In Fort Worth


(from More Magazine — November 2007)

On a corner in Fort Worth’s Southside, my friend Donatella Trotti (known as Dodi) has opened a tiny trattoria.  It is called Nonna Tata, after her grandmother, and is in a 500-square-foot cinderblock building on a seemingly lonely street.  The cozy interior is completely designed by Dodi, the walls sponged a pale yellow, tables and stools laminated with flowers and photographs and old Italian adages: LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BAD WINE.  AT THE TABLE YOU FORGIVE EVERYONE, EVEN YOUR RELATIVES.  Now widely popular, Nonna Tata took nine months to open.  “Like a baby,” she says to me in her strong, exacting Italian accent.  Of course, I had to visit.  Dodi is one of my oldest and closest friends.  I am who I am because of her.  She is who she is because of me.  We met, as I like to say, when I was 16 and she was 17.  “Yes, I am a year older,” she admits with a roll of her eyes when I tell our story.  A Rotary Club exchange put us together.

Read More — In Good Company

Yucatecan Cuisine: Making Panuchos In New York City

I have always found my portal into another culture to be through its food.  In March I went to the jungle outside of Merida and stayed in a colonial hacienda that had been transformed into a private home, soaring ceilings and rioting vegetation just outside the screened doors, the constant song of doves.  At this extraordinary place, where every desire was anticipated before we had a chance to think of it ourselves, all meals were prepared for us — a showcase of Yucatecan cuisine: caldillo poblano con ensalada de camerone; sopa de tortilla y poc-chuc; frijol de puerco; arroz a la Mexicana y frjitas; and on and on.  Our favorite, caldo Tlapeno y panuchos, was described to us as Yucatecan “fast-food” because the panuchos are eaten fast since they are so good.  They are also considered a form of street food.  But actually, they take quite a long time to make.  We loved them so much that when we returned home we had a little dinner party to remember the trip and spent the afternoon making the panuchos.  Panuchos are homemade tortillas stuffed with refried beans, topped with lime-rinsed shredded cabbage, achiote-rubbed grilled and shredded chicken, pickled red onion, a slice of avocado.  They are simply delicious, all the flavors coming together in a burst of texture and spice and lime.

Ingredients and directions: achiote paste thinned with lime juice; pickled red onions (pickle them yourself by thinly slicing the red onion and soaking them in one part lime juice, one part orange — enough juice to submerge them, and, the longer they sit in the juice the better, at least a few hours; chicken breasts first poached and then rubbed with the achiote, then grilled, then shredded.  I did this with my fingers.  It was laborious, but I didn’t mind it as it brought me to contemplate the beauty of preparing delicious food, that it should take some time.  It also allowed me to appreciate the effort that went into preparing the Yucatecan food for us when we were at the hacienda.  There is something meditative about pulling chicken breasts apart — sort of like ironing.  Prepare the shredded the cabbage.  (I used a food processor, having had enough meditation.)  Once shredded, squeeze lime juice abundantly on the cabbage.  Cut avocado in thin wedges.  Have all the ingredients ready so that you can assemble the panuchos quickly.  Make the tortillas.  We did this by hand.  The flour packaging (masa harina) will have the recipe.  We didn’t have time to buy a tortilla press so we rolled them by hand.  They were not perfectly round, but it didn’t matter.  We rolled the dough between two layers of Saran Wrap and then fried them until they puffed.  Take them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and rest them on paper towel.  As soon as you can, slice into the tortilla to make a pocket, fill it with black refried beans (ours were from a can, make sure they are black).  Start assembling the panuchos: cabbage; chicken, onions, avocados.  Make a gorgeous platter of them and then serve immediately.  I promise you that this is worth all the effort.  Making them and eating made us feel we were back in the hot, fragrant jungle even though we heard sirens racing up Broadway.

We were so enthusiastic about recreating the experience of eating at Hacienda Petac that we set the table as they did for all meals.  Flower petals and napkins shaped to look like Mayan pyramids.  (At the hacienda at each meal the napkins would be shaped differently: a shirt one day, a flower, a little woman.  I believe there was a different shape for each meal: 3 meals per day times 7 — a lot of shapes.)  We drank margaritas and a cool Chablis and limonadas.  For dessert we made a Key Lime Pie and Flan.  After the meal, the kids whacked a pinata until it burst.  They’d made the pinata at Hacienda Petac during the lazy afternoons.  Here are some fun and essential links:

Achiote Paste

Masa Harina

Hacienda Petac

How To Make Panuchos

Tortilla Press

The Perfect Flan

Some pictures:

The achiote-rubbed chicken on a make-shift cast iron grill that sits on stove top burners.

Making the tortillas

Frying the tortillas

All the shredded chicken.  This was from about 3 full breasts.  Beyond the chicken, the assembling begins.

The panuchos

The glorious table.

The Flan

Followed by …

Recipe for Key Lime Pie:

3 egg yolks

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup of key lime juice.  Sercet: DO NOT use bottled key lime juice.  If you can’t find key limes, use regular limes.


1) Make a pie crust with 5 tables of melted butter and 1 package of nine graham crackers crushed.  Press it into and up the sides of a 9.5 Pyrex pie pan.

2)Preheat oven to 375

3) Combine egg yolks, milk, lime juice.  Mix well.  Pour into unbaked crust.

4) Bake for 15 minutes.  Allow to cool.  Refrigerate.  Top with thin lime slices and unsweetened whipped cream … if you desire.

Classic Spaghetti Carbonara

I first had Spaghetti Carbonara on the Greek island of Paros.  I was 18 and was there with my great Italian friend, Dodi, visiting some friends of hers from her town, Varese.  One of the friends was Giulio.  When I met him, he was standing on steps leading to a roof top apartment on one of those white-washed Greek structures trimmed in a vibrant blue.  He was negotiating with the landlady, struggling to communicate with her in his best ancient Greek which of course she didn’t understand. She was dressed all in black, and seemed quite old.  Dodi and I had just arrived.  He looked at down at me at the bottom of the stairs.  In Italian it is called un colpo d’amore, an attack of love.  In English: love at first site. That night he made a big group of us pasta carbonara, using bacon because he couldn’t find guanciale or pancetta in the food stores.  It was as simple and as delicious as the following recipe, and I have been making it ever since and every time I make it I am 18 again on a Greek island, filled with possibility.

Pasta Carbonara

3 eggs (use the best because they are only cooked by the heat of the spaghetti fresh from the boiling water.  I use eggs from my mother’s farm.)

1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of grated parmigiano

1 pound of bacon cut into 1/2 inch pieces and cooked until crisp (carbonara refers to the coal miners who invented the dish in mid-century Italy.  Take apart carbon – ara and you get carbon.  The bacon becomes the little bits of coal.)

1 pound of spaghetti (don’t use anything thinner — spaghettini or angel hair NO NO NO.  I absolutely love how Italians have put a lot of thought into which shape of pasta works with which type of sauce.  A thinner noodle would wilt under the weight of the bacon and egg, become mushy.)

FACT and HINT: A real carbonara should have NO cream.  Mistrust any recipe that involves cream.

Cook the bacon.  Boil the pasta.  Break the eggs into the serving dish.  Stir swiftly with a fork.  Then stir in the cheese. Just before the pasta is ready to strain, toss the bacon with the eggs.  Strain the pasta and while still wet and very hot pour on top of the egg/bacon mixture.  Let stand for about a minute, then toss, as you would a salad.  Serve with more parmigiano.

Warning: Heart Attack On A Plate, as my brother-in-law liked to describe Carbonara.

Or, as my daughter likes to say: Breakfast for dinner.


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