I grew up in one of those neighborhoods that now must seem alien to many. We had a lot of kids in the neighborhood, quite a few my own age and we all pretty much ran free with little or no oversight. In the summertime, for instance, it was not strange to leave home after breakfast only to return in time for dinner without ever checking in during the day. Sure, you might run home for lunch but given all the kids and all the houses, it was easy to snag lunch somewhere.
As for dinner, our family ate late. Dinner was never earlier than 7:30 PM and was often later, given my dad worked long hours. Also, no matter what time Dad came home, he and Mom had a cocktail before dinner. This was one of two special times Mom and Dad took each day to be alone and enjoy one another. It was their time to connect, something I’ve always appreciated about them as a couple. (The other time was having coffee together early in the morning.) Personally, I didn’t mind a late dinner. A food fanatic even then, I realized the benefit of eating late. I could snag an invite to dinner at a friend’s house at a more regular hour, then head on home for dinner #2.
Sometimes life is good.
Around the time I was 10, a new family moved to the neighborhood, The Tuckers. There were two children, Marcus and Robin. (Robin was great, too! But, you know, we were ten, she was a few years younger, and a girl.) Marcus was my age and a great guy. He immediately was a big part of the gang running around the neighborhood. We all learned quickly that the Tuckers ate dinner at 6 PM religiously every night. Unlike some of us, in the Tucker household it was a rule that the family sat down together every night, no matter what. Even if we kids were in the middle of, say, a very important game of baseball or hide and seek, Marcus would run home exactly at 6, eat dinner, then soon after run back out to continue to play in the twilight of the evening.
I snagged a lot of 6 PM meals at the Tuckers. Marcus’ mom was a wonderful woman with a beautiful smile and an incredibly infectious laugh. She was also a terrific cook. While I had many a great dinner at their house, the first one remains vivid in my memory for a very specific reason.
A step back: as I’ve mentioned before, my mom was a marvelous cook. Like most cooks, myself included, she generally cooked what she liked to eat. Thankfully, she loved good food, which meant we consistently had amazing meals. Mom was not a fan of sweets, however. So we rarely, if ever, had dessert. Only on special occasions, like a birthday, would she make a dessert. At the age of ten, as far as I knew, this was the norm.
The first night I dined at The Tuckers for 6 PM dinner, Mrs. Tucker served a terrific meal of salad, pot roast, potatoes with gravy and vegetables. Yum. I was in heaven. As the plates were cleared, I started to stand up, ready to run outside to play some more before heading home for dinner #2. I was halted, however, when she brought to the table Grasshopper Pie.
If you’ve never had a grasshopper pie, you are missing out. It’s a luscious, creamy uber sweet pie colored a gorgeous green as it is made with Creme De Menthe. Usually made with a chocolate cookie crust, it also can be topped with crumbled oreos and whipped cream.
When Mrs. Tucker approached with the pie, I thought to myself, Wow, did I luck out! Asked to dinner on a special night! But she sat the pie down with little fanfare and picked up a knife.
Confused, I asked, “Whose birthday is it??”
Mrs. Tucker looked up at me as she started to cut the pie. “Birthday? No one’s birthday.”
“Oh!… Um, then what’s the special occasion?”
“Special occasion? There’s no special occasion.”
More confusion. “Then why are you having dessert?”
The entire family looked at me like I was a space alien.
Finally, Marcus said, ‘”We have dessert every night.”
Long pregnant theatrical pause. Then, sotto voce:
“We have dessert. Every night?”
Dr. Tucker chimed in. “We have dessert -“
I was standing at this point.
It was when Mrs. Tucker asked, “Doesn’t your family have dessert every night?” that I flew from the table, without even one bite of my favorite pie. While I lived only a couple of blocks from the Tuckers, it’s safe to say I pretty much teleported home, I went so fast.
During the teleportation, over and over I kept hearing “Doesn’t your family have dessert every night?” It was clear from her intonation that ‘dessert every night’ was the general social norm. I was truly the alien species here. Clearly I’d been duped for a long time and it was time to make things right.
Flying in the back door, I arrived in the kitchen, breathless, where Mom was busying making dinner #2.
“Why don’t we eat dessert every night??”
Perhaps only devout Calvin and Hobbes fans can truly understand the intense level of self-righteous indignation.
Few things were as galling to me as a child as a perceived injustice. This ranked very high.
“The Tuckers have dessert every night! Everyone has dessert every night! We’re supposed to have dessert, every night!… What’s the hell’s going on??”
After a rather sharp ‘You better watch your tone, mister” came the explanation from Mom that she didn’t much like sweets. “If I have a wonderful dinner,” she explained, “I’d much rather go to sleep with the taste and memory of the actual meal rather than mess that up with the taste of some dessert.”
Some dessert. SOME DESSERT?
I’m sure by this point you can imagine the severity of my rejoinder and the equally severe punishment that quickly followed.
I sulked about this one for a long time. Why I had to suffer because of her bizarre predilection was beyond me.
Ironically, I’ve turned out much the same way as Mom. I will always choose savory over sweet. Put the most amazing dessert every created next to a bowl of chips and pico de gallo, and salt will still win over sweet 95% of the time.
That said, there are great occasions for dessert, whether for special occasion or for regular week night eating, so I am including two favorites here.
CHOCOLATE POTS DE CREME
Click below to get the recipes and more:
This is adapted from my friend Tiffiny’s recipe. Tiffiny is an amazing cook with whom I do Cookbook Night. (We have many other culinary adventures as well.) A funny story about these pots de creme. Tiffiny makes AMAZING desserts. One year for Easter, at a big dinner, I asked her to bring something really special. Expecting something big and beautiful and ostentatious, like one of her amazing cakes, I was a bit non-plussed when she showed up with something that looked so plain. I even grumped about it a little. Until we all sat down and tasted her dessert.
This is a pretty easy dessert, even if, like me, you are not a baker. The pay off is incredible. Serve it with the whipped cream I’ve included here and you will be the favorite cook among any and all of your friends.
Chocolate Pots De Creme
2 cups whipping cream
6 oz. chocolate, cut into bits (I like unsweetened here, to make it really intense and rich but feel free to use semi-sweet if that seems too strong. Scharfenberger is the best but get what you can.)
1/3 cup of sugar (C&H Baker’s Sugar works great)
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract ( or use vanilla bean paste)
– In a heavy saucepan or double boiler, combine the cream and chocolate and cook over medium heat. Stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat.
– Whisk in the sugar. Whisk in the yolks one at a time. Finally, the vanilla.
– Strain the custard and pour into 6 1/2-cup ramekins. (I often do not strain the custard. It’s a pain in the ass. It will be slightly less creamy … you decide.)
– Place the ramekins in a large baking dish, a 9×13 works great. Pour water into the baking dish so that the water level is about 1/2 up the sides of the ramekins.
– Bake the custards at 350˚ about 30 minutes. Remove the custards and cool. When cool, chill the custards at least 2 hours before serving.
You can use all different sizes of ramekins, such as the demitasse cups pictured above. the smaller the ramekin, though, the shorter the cooking time. If they cook too long, they turn into cake. They still taste good but are nowhere near as decadent. You want to pull them out when they still wiggle a little bit when you gently shake the baking dish.
I like to add a little espresso to the mixture, to add a slight coffee taste. A touch of red chili can be fun, too, if you like that sort of thing.
BEST WHIPPED CREAM EVER
This is seriously the best whipping cream ever. Most people make whipped cream way too sweet. Or use Cool Whip… no no no no no. This is tangy and has a wonderful bite. It is so good at one Thanksgiving, surrounded by incredible desserts, my friend Chad ate only a bowl of the whipping cream. Then went back for seconds on the whipping cream. It’s that good.
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 T brown sugar
2 t. lemon juice
1/2 t. vanilla
Whip it all together. A food processor makes the best whipped cream imaginable. Try it once and you will never go back.
BEST BLUEBERRY COBBLER EVER
This recipe has been bouncing around for years and it is wonderful. And so easy. You throw everything in a cast iron skillet and voila! Best cobbler ever. Serve it with vanilla ice cream or the best whipped cream ever above. I sometimes make these in individual dishes as well.
1 stick butter (8 T)
4 cups blueberries
3/4 cup plus 2 T sugar
1 cup self rising flour (see note)
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
Preheat the over to 400 degrees.
Melt the butter in a 10-12 inch cast iron skillet. Add blueberries and 2 T of the sugar.
Stir gently and cook until just the berries begin to soften. Add a little water if it seems dry.
Meanwhile mix flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Add the milk and stir to make a batter. Spoon the batter onto the fruit. Drag a spatula through the mixture to make streaks. Don’t mix thoroughly.
Bake about 20 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and a knife inserted into the cobbler comes out clean.