Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Great Cheesecake Battle - Margaret Ullrich

It's winter. We were in the middle of a blizzard. Time for a dessert. Something good and solid to finish off a rib sticking meal. I flipped through Entertaining with The Sopranos. Ah, Carmela's New Jersey Cheesecake. What could be simpler? It even looked like what I usually baked.


Okay. Growing up in College Point, Queens, NEW YORK, I had been taught that there was something different about the folks in New Jersey. Up to now I thought New Yorkers were just referring to the Jersey folks' love of big hair, tube tops, tight capri pants and Bruce Springstein.

But this was just too much. I mean what kind of people would do that to cheesecake?

A basic New York baked cheesecake recipe is a two-part deal.
First you mix the cream cheese, sugar, salt, vanilla and eggs together. Then you pour the glop into a graham cracker crust and bake.
Then you mix the sour cream, sugar and vanilla, smear that over the baked cheesecake and bake for another 10 minutes.

Carmela's ingredients were almost the same. But what they do in Jersey... I mean, does anybody else mix the sour cream with the cream cheese? And what's with the lemon juice?

Now I confess that when it's August in Winnipeg, I make a quickie sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice "cheesecake". It doesn't need baking, just a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Paul knows it's hot, so he cuts me some slack. But It's January and Paul expects a cheesecake to be a cheesecake. Like he says, he doesn't ask for much, for cryin' out loud.

I stuck to my old recipe. I mean, some things you just don't mess with.

I've heard about a cheesecake Winnipeggers made. The recipe used to be on a milk carton. It was the Co-op Refrigerator Cheesecake. A friend gave me an empty milk carton. I tried to fit in, be a real Winnipegger, but really. I couldn't believe it. Knox Gelatin? Heavy Cream? Separated eggs? CRUSHED PINEAPPLE? I think not.

Some things you just have to respect.

Another recipe down. Eighty-one more to go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Do You Want to Know a Secret (part 5 - by Margaret Ullrich)

After the Second World War, Aunt Demi followed her brothers Des, Spiro and Tony to America. She had sent letters to Pop and their sisters, Carmela and Helen, telling them to come, too. It was Aunt Demi’s fault that we were now one big happy family. Aunt Demi had opinions on everything. I decided to remind Nadia of one of Demi’s opinions.

“Your Dad didn’t check with Aunt Demi when he got married here. Aunt Demi still calls your Mom a Wop.” I was sorry as soon as I said it. Aunt Betty was my favorite Aunt. It was a low blow. Nadia muttered, “Ah, she don’t mean it. My Mom says family should stick together.”

“My Ma says we don’t have to live on top of each other.”

Sticking together didn’t mean the same thing to our mothers. Aunt Betty had lived the American dream. She had her privacy in a cozy four room home for her own little family. I had been born on Pop’s parents’ farm in Malta on the same day our single Aunt Helen and Aunt Carmela, along with her husband and daughter, had left for America. My parents were also supposed to leave with them, but Ma wasn’t interested in giving birth on the high seas. Then, when I was three months old, Pop, Ma and I followed them to America.

Our first American home was a two bedroom apartment we shared with Pop’s brother, Uncle Tony, Aunt Kate and their two daughters. Pop worked in Des’ deli with his brothers. For two years I shared my cousin Linda’s crib. Aunt Kate wasn’t thrilled with sharing her home with in-laws she had never met. Ma wasn’t happy being there, either. A year after we arrived, Uncle Charlie, Ma’s younger brother, joined us. A year later, Aunt Kate gave birth to cousin Stevie. It was getting a little crowded. The crowding, along with receiving a quarter of the deli’s weekly net income and unsold cold cuts, inspired Pop to move to College Point.

Pop bought a duplex with a storefront. He thought he could run a business at night and work at a factory in the daytime. Pop, Ma and Uncle Charlie went to work at Lily Tulip, a paper cup manufacturer. I was left in the care of our German tenant, Mrs. Kekelia. After we left for College Point, Aunt Rita was furious when she saw Aunt Kate wearing a fur coat. Uncle Spiro accused Uncle Tony of taking more than his fair share of the profits. At the time, Uncle Tony was the only uncle who knew how to drive a car. He started a small taxi business and moved his family upstate. He and his family were only mentioned in whispers.

Nadia didn’t say anything further about our living arrangements. My curls and temper were cooling. Wanting to make peace, I lay my head on the ironing board, like a dog assuming an inferior position, and asked, “Can you iron some more?”
Nadia smiled. “Sure. Ya wanna look right when ya meet George. Ya know, ya really need stuff.” She ironed in silence a few minutes, then said, “I’d justa soon not leave Corona. I’d justa soon stay with what I know. Ya know? Everybody in Corona’s Italian.”
“Everybody except half our relatives . . . and you. We don’t belong here, either.” Nadia kept ironing, but she was quiet. The silence got to me. “Can we stop? My neck’s sore again.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Carmela Soprano's Chicken, Anna Sultana's Spaghetti Pie

The lasagne was a success. Paul liked my new hobby.

Last week Sobey's had a 2-for-1 deal on chicken breasts, so I went back to my new cookbook Entertaining with The Sopranos and looked for a chicken recipe. Carmela's Crunchy Baked Chicken looked simple and extremely familiar.

Carmela had the same basic ingredients as Ma's Crunchy Fried Chicken: mix some dry bread crumbs with grated cheese. Throw in a few Italian spices. Dip the chicken pieces in a beaten egg, roll the chicken in the crumb mixture and bake.


Eureka!!! I had found something better than Ma's recipe. I loved my Ma's fried chicken. To eat, not to make. When I made it, grease flew all over me and the kitchen. And when I served it, well, some parts were burned and some parts were raw. Ma's fried chicken was a fond memory never to be recreated by me. But, baking? No problem. No muss. No fuss.

Baking the chicken wasn't enough of a challenge. I flipped through the book and found another old favorite, Spaghetti Pie. With that recipe in mind, I cooked enough spaghetti to serve with the chicken and to use for the pie.

Paul raved about the chicken. He thought I'd made my Ma's recipe. Okay. What he doesn't know won't hurt him. We've been married almost 38 years. A little lie once in a while is par for the course. We're talking cooking, not sex.

A couple of nights after the chicken success, I decided to make the Spaghetti Pie recipe.

Hmmm. Carmela is married to a well to do fellow. She has nails out to there. And her Spaghetti Pie recipe showed that the Sopranos were eating high off the hog. It had a few extra ingredients: 2 ounces each of both Genoa salami or soppressata and prosciutto or boiled ham, plus 4 ounces of provolone and a 1/2 cup of Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Carmela also said, "You will not need salt, because the meats and cheeses are salty." Hello? Has Tony checked his blood pressure lately?

When Ma made Spaghetti Pie we knew it was either Friday or time to pay the house's heating oil bill.

Ma's Spaghetti Pie was simpler than Carmela's. Cheaper, too. No meat. Some milk stretched the eggs. Parsley, garlic and pre-grated, store-brand Parmesan cheese boosted the flavor. Comparing the 2 recipes, I'd say Ma's was safer for folks watching their cholesterol intake and blood pressure. Folks like Paul and me.

When it came to the Spaghetti Pie, I decided to stick to Ma's recipe. Like I said last week, I'm not Julie Powell slavishly trying to recreate Julia Child's classic recipes. Going back to my food roots was the goal. There's more to life than fancy cold cuts and cheese. What I saved on the soppressata, prosciutto and provolone, I blew on some wine.

The Spaghetti Pie was a success. The wine was good, too.

Four recipes down. Eighty-two more to go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Do You Want to Know a Secret (part 4 - by Margaret Ullrich)

Nadia’s teachers had no such illusions nor any such children. In Corona the motto was “Sicily Rules”. Corona had been settled by Italians. My parents had enough trouble learning enough English to make their way in America. They didn’t want to have to learn Italian, too. They decided Corona was too much trouble and moved further east. The only North American cultural icon Nadia and I shared was Ed Sullivan. Nadia removed the shamrock pin and placed it on her dresser. “So, ya had a party. Did Zia Netta hafta make somethin’?”

I didn’t want to talk about school. The St. Patrick party had followed the same routine as always. The Irish girls had worn short green jumpers and taken turns impressing the rest of us with their folk dances. They would stand ramrod stiff, with their arms straight down, and jump and kick. I had seen it for ten years. The thrill was gone. I was sorry I had brought the pin. “No. We bought tickets.”
Nadia liked learning exotic recipes. She hoped the Sisters had been giving us cooking lessons. “Whadya have?”
“Corned beef and soda bread.”
“Whaa? Coca Cola?”
“No. Baking soda.” My friend, Maureen Shuart, had explained the mystery of soda bread when we were in kindergarten. Compared to Nadia, I had been exposed to a very cosmopolitan diet.
“How was it?”
I shrugged. “Okay. This time it had raisins.” Nadia was impressed at my knowledge of foreign cuisine. “So, talk ta me. What’s it like there? I gotta tell ya, they got some St. Patrick’s parade in Manhattan. So, what’re they like?”
I didn’t know what to say. When it was time for St. Patrick’s there were shamrocks and little green men in all the stores and ads. There was a huge parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. We even got a school holiday. I only saw pictures of St. Joseph surrounded by starving Sicilians in Corona. My teachers and classmates were different from what Nadia had, all right. Finally, I said, “They’re . . . they’re . . . Americans.”

Nadia took offence. “Whadaya mean? My Mom’s parents was born here. My Mom was born here. I was born here.”
“Yeah, but you’re . . . you know . . . uh, some people are more American than others.”
Nadia was hotter than the iron. “Wheredaya get off? Tellin’ me how ta be American. Of all the nerve! Ya just fell off a boat!”
Well, I was used to being told that, so I just put on my stupid immigrant smile and said, “That’s why I have to learn to act like them.”

I should have stopped with the sappy smile. Admitting I was learning how to behave like a non-Sicilian American had opened another can of worms. Pop’s moving us out of Corona had really upset the relatives we had in Corona. Nadia quoted her Dad. “Here ya’d fit in. Ya know, yer not Irish.”
Okay. I knew what my Pop had said. “And, you know, I’m not Sicilian.”
“Still, yer more like us’n them. Ya know, Zia Demi’s always sayin’ that Zio Peter shoulda stayed in Corona.”
“So what?”
“She’s our Dads’ oldest sister. What she says is law.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Carmela Soprano, meet Anna Sultana by Margaret Ullrich

Okay... I'm out of excuses. We'd finished the turkey leftovers. It was time to tackle my new cookbook Entertaining with The Sopranos.

Where to start?

I hadn't made a lasagne in quite a while. Lasagne was a basic part of every big dinner at Ma's house. Ma's dinners came in courses - soup, salad, pasta, main course, dessert, fruit, nuts. There were a lot of people at Ma's table. When we ate, we ate. There was enough for everybody.

Lasagne is a nice filling casserole for two. Just the thing for a Winnipeg winter dinner.

Carmela's Lasagne, for the most part, was what I grew up with, except for Carmela's use of basil leaves. Her recipe called for a large bunch of fresh basil. Now, my Ma, Anna Sultana, might've made lasagne with lots of fresh basil when she lived in Malta. But, when I was growing up, we lived in College Point, a German Irish town. It was the 50s. Ma was stuck shopping at the local A & P - a small supermarket - after working a full week at Lily Tulip and raising 3 kids. Ma was a little busy. She made lasagne with what she found at the A & P - she used dried oregano and parsley.

Carmela's Meat Sauce also is a little more upscale than what Ma made. Ground beef sirloin? Hamburger was more Ma's style. My parents weren't both working full time for their health.

Time for a reality check.

I wanted to make a lasagne. Lasagne is basically macaroni and cheese with a meat sauce. My family liked Ma's recipe. I liked Ma's recipe. My husband Paul liked Ma's recipe for lasagne. I don't even know If we'd like all that basil. I'm not on a quest like Julie Powell was to recreate Julia Child's classic recipes. I just want to get back to my food roots, so to speak.

Okay... I'll use the Soprano book as a reminder of favorite recipes and as an introduction to a few new ones. When I have a perfectly good recipe - or can't be bothered hunting down obscure ingredients - I'll stick to what I know.

I made Ma's recipe for lasagne. Paul and I enjoyed it. It was a success.

Since lasagne required a meat sauce it was a two-for-one deal.

Two recipes down. Eighty-four more to go.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Do You Want to Know a Secret (part 3 - by Margaret Ullrich)

Nadia stopped ironing. I raised my head and stiffly gave it a shake. Nadia was proud of her work. “Oh, lookit ya!”
I was disappointed. This was our second ironing session and I was still stuck with a mass of black curls. “Look at what? It’s still curly. It won’t swing. It won’t even lay flat. All I want is straight hair like Diana Ross.”
Diana Ross, like all other Motown negro girl singers, had a certain look. They were perfectly groomed and had hair that was as smooth and solid as a helmet. No kidding. Their hair could repel bullets. Nadia reminded me she was working with a handicap. “Negroes use stuff.”

I knew that. My friend, Ivy Ann MacIntosh, had offered to pick up a box of the stuff she had used. It was amazing. On Friday she had gone home with kinky hair. Then on Monday her hair was stick straight. That stuff she used was wonderful. And expensive. When I asked Ma for money to buy stuff to straighten my hair, she shot me The Look and said I was crazy.

Trying to postpone another ironing session, I went to my tote bag, rummaged around, found a shamrock pin and handed it to Nadia. “We had a St. Patrick’s party at school. I got an extra pin. It’s a shamrock.”

Nadia had received stranger things. She had been brought up to be grateful for anything, at least while the giver was still with her. She turned the plastic green leaf over a few times to show she was thrilled to receive it. Then Nadia pinned the shamrock to her blouse, glanced at the mirror and shrugged. “Yeah. I seen them in the paper. Thanks.” After a few minutes, she went to her tote bag. “Uh... We had festa di San Giuseppe at my school. Hey! I got somethin’ for you.” She tossed out some books and candy wrappers, found a fava bean, rubbed it on her skirt and handed it to me. “Here.”
I had also been raised to be grateful, but I was more curious than Nadia. “What does St. Joseph have to do with fava beans?”

Nadia rolled her eyes. “Don’tcha remember? San Giuseppe saved Sicily. So, we make an altar an’ give food ta the poor. Mom made minestrone.” Seeing the confused look on my face, Nadia remembered that I lived in College Point, a town further east on the IRT track, beyond Flushing. College Point had been settled by Germans. It was a town where people just weren’t as interested in Sicily’s history. “Wha-aat? Don’tcha do that at yer school?”
“No... But, thanks.”

As far as our schools were concerned we lived in two different worlds. We were both being taught by the good Sisters of St. Dominic. But the Sisters in College Point were Irish and used to being among fair-haired German and Irish students. That’s the way it had been in College Point for generations. Some Sisters had dreamed of going to far away missions and converting exotic heathens. After the wave of immigration following the second World War they got their wish. St. Fidelis was packed with quite an assortment of children. The Sisters threw all their energy into Americanizing us immigrants.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

If a Dog was the Teacher...

My friend Sue forwarded another dog item. I keep telling her she should have her own blog. Well, they're good things for folks to learn, too.

If a dog was the teacher you would learn stuff like:

When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.

Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.

Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.

When it's in your best interest, practice obedience.

Let others know when they've invaded your territory.

Take naps.

Stretch before rising.

Run, romp and play daily.

Thrive on attention and let people touch you.

Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.

On warm days stop to lie on your back in the grass.

On hot days drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.

When you're happy, dance around and wag your entire body.

No matter how often you're scolded, don't buy into the guilt thing and pout. Run right back and make friends.

Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.

Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. Stop when you have had enough.

Be loyal.

Be honest. Never pretend to be something you're not.

If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.

When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Orthodox Christmas Thoughts by Margaret Ullrich

Can't believe we're already a week into the new year. The day after Christmas has always been a sad day for me. I get so used to all the Christmas-themed shows and music. Then, on December 26, they're all gone. Can't they continue for another couple of weeks, at least for the sake of the Orthodox Christians? I'd like a gentler weaning off the holiday season.

BoBo's passing affected our holidays. We've had at least one dog for so many years that we just got into the habit of doing things in a certain way. Each of our dogs had his or her own Christmas stocking. This year we didn't hang up our stockings. Seeing just 2 stockings was too much of a reminder.

We have a comfortable chair near the table in the kitchen. Our dogs would get on the chair and stretch as far as possible to sniff at the turkey as it cooled on the table. Everyone enjoyed the Christmas turkey, but I missed BoBo's excitement as he waited to get "his share". It was so quiet when we returned from evening services and visiting, and when friends came.

We have always set up our manger scene on a table so that our dogs wouldn't be tempted to use Baby Jesus as a chew toy. Even though this year we could place the shed and characters under the tree, we decided to continue placing them on a table. It just didn't look right under the tree.

We've been enjoying our walks. There was a pair of wild geese hanging around the pond near Garden Grove School on Burrows. The Canadian geese avoided them, so the wild geese stayed near the ducks and seagulls. A German couple, who live near the pond, puts out food for the birds throughout the year. During a good part of the year, the ducks just calmly walk across the road, while everyone has to stop and let them pass. Same goes for the geese.

We've also been enjoying getting together with friends on the spur of the moment. When we had dogs we had to schedule in two daily 1 hour walks with our dogs and plan everything else around that. When we visited neighbors who have a cat, BoBo would station himself by the window and stare at our neighbors' house until we returned. He was really good at looking forlorn. Even our neighbors felt guilty.

We just have to remember what Aunt Betty said - "Enjoy life."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Do You Want to Know a Secret (part 2 - by Margaret Ullrich)

The week before Easter, we were in Nadia’s bedroom. That room was a shrine to all things holy. The walls were plastered with pictures of John, Paul, George, Ringo, angels, saints, Mary and Jesus. If we'd had incense and candles we could have registered it as a church. While we listened to the Beatles, Nadia ironed my hair and chattered. “This is so-o-o-o cool! They’re comin’ ta Queens! If they was goin’ ta Madison Square Garden, I’d never get ta see Paul.”

Corona was a stop on the IRT train which ran from Flushing, Queens to Times Square in Manhattan. I had ridden it dozens of times when I went shopping in Manhattan with my Ma. So I told Nadia, “Manhattan’s not so far away. Next time you leave my house, just stay on the train to the end of the line and you’ll be there.”

Nadia sighed. Uncle Des and Aunt Betty had simple needs. Uncle Des owned a small deli in Corona. He worked long hours, six days a week and wanted to sleep whenever he could. Aunt Betty was happy to spend her days visiting with neighbours and relatives. Except for an occasional big event movie, Nadia’s entire world consisted of what she could see in Corona. “Yeah, well, Mom don't want me ta go outta Queens. So, ya got the money or what?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Oh fer cryin’ out loud. Just ask yer Pop!”

Nadia thought my Pop could be reasonable, like her Dad. Pop ran a tighter financial household than Uncle Des did. If it wasn’t up there with warm clothes, oil for the furnace, food and water, Pop didn’t want to hear about it. Pop thought the radio and the weekly Ed Sullivan show gave us all the musical exposure we needed. I tried to explain. “Pop thinks hearing the Beatles on the radio is enough.”

As soon as she heard the sacred name, Nadia was off again. “Madonna! I’m gonna see Paul! Live! In person! I gotta see him! And ya gotta see George! We’re gonna marry them!!”
I screamed. “Watch it! You burned my ear!”
“Sorry.” Nadia stopped to check if there was any permanent damage. When she saw I wasn’t actually on fire she pressed on, all the while trying to think of a way for me to get the money. Nadia liked History, at least the gory parts. By the time we’d heard one side of the album, she had a plan. “Hey! Yer still a British wha-cha-ma-call-it, right?”

As far as Uncle Sam was concerned, I had been a guest in America since I was three months old. Pop thought that filling out an alien registration card, which could be mailed postage-free every January, was a better bargain than paying ten dollars to make me an American citizen. I was a girl without a country. Since I didn’t have my papers in order, Pop could also threatened to send me back to Malta whenever I acted too American. Uncle Des thought Pop was being cheap. But, then again, what else was new.

“A British subject. Why?”
“Tell yer Pop the Queen said all British subjects hafta see the Beatles. An’ if ya don’t, she’ll chop yer head off.”
“My head . . . off.”
“Yeah. An’ put it on a stick. They do that, ya know.”
“Not anymore.”
“Ya sure?”
“Oh, yeah.” My neck was so sore, I wished the Queen would chop my head off. “Are you done yet?”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How Many Dogs to Change a Light Bulb

My friend Sue forwarded another dog item. Hey... I'm still in a holiday mood. Enjoy.

1. Golden Retriever: The sun is shining, the day is young, we've got our whole lives ahead of us, and you're inside worrying about a stupid burned-out bulb?

2. Border Collie: Just one. And then I'll replace any wiring that's not up to code.

3. Dachshund: You know I can't reach that stupid lamp!

4. Rottweiler: Make me.

5. Boxer: Who cares? I can still play with my squeaky toys in the dark.

6. Lab: Oh, me, me!!!!! Pleeeeeeeeeze let me change the light bulb! Can I? Can I? Huh? Huh? Huh? Can I? Pleeeeeeeeeze, please, please, please!

7. German Shepherd: I'll change it as soon as I've led these people from the dark, checked to make sure I haven't missed any, and made just one more perimeter patrol to see that no one has tried to take advantage of the situation.

8. Jack Russell Terrier: I'll just pop it in while I'm bouncing off the walls and furniture.

9. Old English Sheep Dog: Light bulb? I'm sorry, but I don't see a light bulb!

10. Cocker Spaniel: Why change it? I can still pee on the carpet in the dark.

11. Chihuahua: Yo quiero Taco Bulb. Or... We don't need no stinking light bulb.

12. Greyhound: It isn't moving. Who cares?

13. Australian Shepherd: First, I'll put all the light bulbs in a little circle...

14. Poodle: I'll just blow in the Border Collie's ear and he'll do it. By the time he finishes rewiring the house, my nails will be dry.

How many cats does it take to change a light bulb?
Cats do not change light bulbs. People change light bulbs. So, the real question is:
"How long will it be before I can expect some light, some dinner, and a massage?"