Saturday, January 23, 2010

Evening at The Creek, with some comfort food

Our land slopes gently away to the back and touches the tiny narrowing finger of Stokes Creek, connecting it to the Tolomato River, and connecting us to Guana Reserve. You'd hardly believe it, but when the tide is right, someone who knows the curves and unseen shallows can navigate right out to the river and, in theory at least, follow the Intracoastal Waterway as far north or south as they care to go along the eastern seaboard. Here is how it looks this evening, as the light changes. I know many dear friends are gathered at Gatorbone, celebrating years of creative work culminating in the release of a new CD by the talented Doug Spears, and we're sorry not to be with them.

The best laid plans, though, are often derailed by kids or weather or, in our case, dogs. Since we began our affiliation with the Boxer Aid and Rescue Coalition, we've been foster parents to some amazing dogs. We're proud to say we've helped to permanent, loving homes several Boxers who might otherwise have come to sad ends. It's an organization of dedicated volunteers, and every dog is touched by the work of many people. I'll tell you the story of this group and its work later, my dears, because there are some seriously happy endings to be had. But for today, we were engaged in helping the organization accept an owner-surrendered dog, and it took a bit more time and effort than we expected. We relaxed with a glass of wine by the creek and I thought you'd like the pictures.

And because I haven't included a recipe lately, here's one I've been thinking about. This is one of those things you're a little embarrassed to publish on a menu because you know it's not original, you know everyone cooks it, and you know it's not to be found in any of Julia's cookbooks. But it's such a comforting dessert, so homey and plain, that you know Julia would have put a dab of it on her plate if she'd come to your house at Thanksgiving. There are many variations (including an appalling version with sugar- and fat-free ingredients and worst of all, fake whipped cream). You can make it into a simple food wonder with some additional preparation, so here's an Eat Here staple: Banana Pudding.

You'll need to make a quart or so of vanilla pudding. My grandmother Dade made puddings so routinely that they required no concentration at all, and certainly no recipe. Come to think of it, I have no memory of her even owning cookbooks; she cooked beautifully and effortlessly. It was the work of a moment for her to whip up pies for my cousin Susan and I when we stayed with her in childhood summers. Susan liked butterscotch and I liked chocolate, and if we made the slightest sound indicating that we might enjoy a slice of pie, before we knew it, she'd have two pies made, from crust to pudding to perfectly gilded meringue (which Susan did not like and would surreptitiously slip onto my plate). No shortcuts. So it IS possible, and you should make vanilla pudding from scratch if you can. It's better for you, of course, and it avoids that vague taste of chemicals you get from the box. One of my culinary heroines is Susan Purdy, author of my beloved "A Piece of Cake". Since she taught me that it's really not that much more work to bake from scratch, I've abandoned cake and pudding mixes almost completely, with a few delightful exceptions (another Eat Here recipe, my dears). But whatever works best for you; boxed or homemade, you'll need about a quart.

Vanilla wafers are another one of those things you can make homemade more easily than you think, and with dramatic results. I know, I know. I buy them, too. But if it's holiday time, and you're baking cookies anyway, look at the Fannie Farmer cookbook or whichever you prefer and make them from scratch. They're more delicate and full-flavored than the storebought ones. If your palate is accustomed to things from boxes, you'll think these are another food category altogether. But they're plain and simple, and you can actually taste subtleties you didn't know vanilla had. Again, whatever is best for you.

Here's the easy part. Line a 13 x 9 inch baking dish with the cookies, whichever you use. Cover with pudding (warm pudding is easier to work with) and add a solid layer of fresh sliced bananas. (Here's another opportunity: vary the fruit. Use whatever you like, as long as it doesn't change the equation too drastically by having too much moisture. Berries, cleaned and dried, elevate this recipe from the homely to the spectacular.) Layer away until you've run out of the key ingredients of cookies, pudding and fruit. Cover and chill. If you have cookies leftover, you can crush them and garnish the top. And of course you can always add whipped cream, but you sure don't need it.Every now and then, take a bowl of this ambrosia and sit under the setting sun with your sweetheart or friends, or even just yourself. I hope your view is perfect, your company impeccable and your pudding a small taste of home.

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